Globalization Is Not Americanization
May 6, 2003 1:21 AM   Subscribe

Globalization Is Not Americanization: An Optimist's Lament or A Pessimist's Pipe Dream? Philippe Legrain, the chief economist of the Britain in Europe organization, sounds an upbeat, cultural, cosmopolitan note in a normally dreary economic debate. After all, Americans have arguably become more international in their daily habits and tastes than the rest of the world has become Americanized. Is there consequently room for optimism? Is globalization more like a giant menu of various calamari and cuttlefish sushi rather than one giant Yankee octopus? [Via Arts and Letters Daily.]
posted by MiguelCardoso (21 comments total)
Most conversations about Globalization are so hopelessly simplistic ("The American's are coming! The Americans are coming!") that it's hard to defend the fact that globalization does not equal Americanization. Legrain astutely focuses on the increase of personal freedoms that comes with this facet of modernity, and if you stick with him past his overlong introduction he finally gets around to defending America as somewhat of an "outlier" (though i think his argument is a little heavy on the "look, now we can all eat sushi!" reasoning).

Personally, i think the most utilitous discussion/definition on globalization of culture is Berger's "Four Faces of Global Culture": Davos Culture (popular business), Faculty Club (educated elite), McWorld (hegemony of familiar branding), and Religious and Social movements (primarily Protestantism). This succinct disassembly of a complex and oft-argued process makes it much easier to see how and where America truly has the most influence, and where it perhaps has no influence at all. I highly recommend the Berger article if you have any interest in this topic.

Legrain says that "Faith in science and technology is even more widespread," which is absolutely true, though it would be more accurate to say that technology is the primary carrier of globalization. First, and most obviously, technology occupies this role because it lays the groundwork for a country to take part in global communication, and also for the entrance of Davos-style business culture. Addtionally, the Faculty Club depends on some level of it to communicate, and McWorld needs it for their businesses to function. Without technology, globalization cannot truly be successful

It is this important role of technology that allows America to be viewed as dominant; our author says "globalization is not a one-way street," but a better example is that globalization is like a DSL connection -- and the USA has more downstream into the rest of the world than they have upstream to us. If/When this ever begins to balance out of the USA's favor, we will seem like much less of a culturally hegemonic monster.

An interesting read, MiguelCardoso.
posted by krisis at 5:09 AM on May 6, 2003

Legrain's enthusiastic support for a diverse marketplace begs the question of whether the underlying Western export -- a fiercely consumerist culture -- is a problem. I think Americans are conditioned to latch onto each new consumer trend, like yoga or fusion cuisine or Missoni couture, as if consumption were somehow the only way to experience another culture, and then we congratulate ourselves on our cosmopolitanism when, in many ways, all we've done is display our American talent for acquiring shiny new things. And Legrain now says that as long as you can consume things from around the world, this disposable-commodity consumerism not a American trait?
posted by occhiblu at 7:29 AM on May 6, 2003

Top directors are also often from outside America: Think of Ridley Scott or the late Stanley Kubrick.

Kubrick was an American, though some of his films certainly "read as British" and he lived in the UK for a good chunk of his life. Perhaps I'm being a pedant...
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 7:55 AM on May 6, 2003

Lets see ... Coke only represents slightly above 1% of ALL liquid intake (including water) of the human population of the planet. McDonalds are still not as many as ALL other restaurants. And Western-inspired pop is everywhere. What do all these products have in common? All are there for a reason: they have been aggressively pushed into the global market, for a profit. Did anybody forget that achieving maximum commercial efficiency through massive consumerism in detriment of choice is an 100% American concept? Because I did not - and that is what has taken over the world.

Globalization is to a big degree Americanization in detriment of local culture. To claim otherwise because the trendy people still favor Versace and can easily travel anywhere in the world is to choose to ignore that the vast majority of the planet does not know what Versace is and doesn't have the money to travel anywhere. Not to mention that in this day and age, customs and immigration officials everywhere pay special attention to race and economic status. The downstream/upstream flow looks more like a redundant T3 vs. a 300 baud modem connected to a faulty phone line in a country where the power supply is, at best, spotty.

(No time to get into preemptive military interventions, much less Echelon, and their influence on the subject.)
posted by magullo at 8:03 AM on May 6, 2003

anglobalisation - is how professor Niall ferguson termed how britain and latterly the USA have shaped the modern world, globalisation is not that modern a phenomenon, the flow of ideas and practices pre-dates the establishment of the USA.
posted by johnnyboy at 8:03 AM on May 6, 2003

I don't understand how anybody can think that any kind of value can be "imposed" through globalization, when all globalization does is offer people with more choices, wherever they are. Even though McD's in France sells beer, for instance, a frenchman can still choose to eat only french food in french restaurants sipping french wine.

If more people drink coke, it is because it tastes good. Nothing is being "imposed".
posted by VeGiTo at 8:48 AM on May 6, 2003

As an American (standard white girl, raised in the midwest, fled to San Francisco) temporarily living and working in London, I've definitely felt like things are more cosmopolitan here -- your average person is more exposed to other cultures either through travel or by the fact that people from all over the world live here. I hung with a bunch of British Indian DJs this weekend (getting drunk on vodka and Coke over Indian takeaway...a prime example of this contradiction between whether it's globalization or honest cultural fusion, eh?) ;) and one told me that they love seeing the world through the eyes of travellers like me, that it's this exciting mutual cultural exchange that's always happening with the influx of immigrants and working holiday visa kids and all that. I've never really felt that in the states, it always seems more segregated to me.

I agree with occhiblu, our taste for other cultures seems to really be more about flavors of the moment -- Madonna wears bindis and Ricky Martin shakes his bon-bon, and it's all gone in a flash, replaced by the next big exotic thing. It's all about what's determined to be trendy -- we'll see what influences actually last and become so commonplace as to be simply part of the mainstream.
posted by fotzepolitic at 8:51 AM on May 6, 2003

VeGiTo Here is a blueprint for you: a global brand outspends the local competition in marketing, distribution and/or manufacturing in order to get a majority market share. A global brand can afford to not make money for years in a local market while building a large market share there (the money comes from captive markets elsewhere); which is something smaller local companies cannot typically do.

You can call the result of that very common tactic whatever you want, but it has little to do with the product "tasting better" - more like "it's available while the rest are not".
posted by magullo at 9:12 AM on May 6, 2003

Miguel, great article (great post as always!)

It seems like the globalization/anti globalization debate breaks down on the issue of choice: to what degree does limiting globalization (or rather, the diffusion of western products) limit, rather than enhance, choice.

I have come to believe, after my personal experiences travelling the developing world (through Africa and South Asia) as well as eastern Europe in the mid 1990s, that those Westerners/North Americans who argue against "globalization" are really extremely paternalistic. It seems like they want living museums to be able to vacation in, but in actuallity are arguing to deny vast segments of the world's population the same choices they are allowed to make every day.

That doesn't mean that there aren't strong arguments to be made in favor of some forms of controls on globalization, namely labor and environmental standards. But in my mind, arguing against the diffusion of products globally is wrongheaded.
posted by pjgulliver at 9:53 AM on May 6, 2003

magullo: That's a downside of capitalism rather than globalisation - the 'dumped' product might just as well be locally produced but unfairly leveraged in this way. The solution - raid the legal toolbox of the advanced capitalist countries - who have seen all this before and devised regulatory frameworks to keep it in check. Globalisation, in this case of law, is the solution rather than the problem.

My favourite example of globalisation is the Australian Gum Tree, we know it as the Eucalyptus. The British planted this aggressively because it was thought to ward off malaria. Now they're everywhere, just like the potato and syphilis. This is neither wholly good or bad, but is part of the worlds coming of age.

Yet there's part of me that regrets that when I travel through Europe my cellphone works flawlessly, I see no national costumes, no real borders with all the excitement and tension they involve. The continent seems homogenized and I can't help feeling that something has been lost.
posted by grahamwell at 10:04 AM on May 6, 2003

Pjgulliver Nice words - I hope you also favor lifting trade quotas in the U.S. and letting the Chinese flood the market with their cheaper products, most probably destroying the local garment industry. Otherwise, it is you who is in favor of keeping museums ... at home.

grahamwell The leverage capacity of a transnational is generally years ahead of that of the biggest local competitor in a third world country. I am all for people making choices, not choices being made for them, which is what rich-to-poor globalization flows amount to.
posted by magullo at 10:11 AM on May 6, 2003

Magullo, I am most certianly in favor of reducing trade barriers assuming that the developing countries in question reduce their barriers as well. I am not sure what fantasy world you live in, but throughout much of the developed world there are still very high barriers for foreign manufactured goods. The difference is that multinational companies, like Coke, estabilish local operating companies which manufacture the product in the country in question. So no, cheap western manufactured goods are not flooding the market.
posted by pjgulliver at 10:24 AM on May 6, 2003

On preview, what pj said. I want a nice museum to travel through (but with 95 octane unleaded and cash machines everywhere).

magullo: your point is taken but there are two sides to this story. Globalisation allows the third world producer access to techniques, technology capital and access to markets. If they have a good product this may well be a net benefit, allowing them to consider just those economies of scale and international markets enjoyed by their competitors. It's the free-trade argument and it's been hotly debated for 300 years - partly because it's counterintuitive. It works though, delivering cheaper, better products and a rising standard of living.
posted by grahamwell at 10:26 AM on May 6, 2003

The argument for free-trade is that there is no argument. Whether in mathematic models or in real-life, it is proven to generally raise the standard of living of all parties involve. It is not an opinion; it is a fact - there is no such thing as a "bad trade" because a trade does not occur unless the parties on both sides agree on it.

Anybody who think otherwise is delusional.

Any form of trade barrier tend to improve the well-being of some very limited special interest group (i.e. domestic producers) in the expense of the well-being of everyone else (i.e. all consumers, foreign producers).
posted by VeGiTo at 10:42 AM on May 6, 2003

There's a lot of deluded people around VeGiTo: America protects its steelworkers; Europe protects its farmers; Japan its rice growers. They all have superficially good reasons - they want to preserve something of their 'way of life' or help industries through a temporary setback. Free trade often involves immediate pain in pursuit of elusive longer term benefits - that's why the argument is far from over.
posted by grahamwell at 11:16 AM on May 6, 2003

I guess I didn't think there is argument because I would take long term benefits over short term gain anyday, if the long term benefits are great enough.

But you're right that there are a lot of short-sighted people everywhere, and that's probably why the argument is still going on.
posted by VeGiTo at 11:23 AM on May 6, 2003

VeGiTo, I'll be all for fair trade in money and objects when the world agrees on unrestricted travel for human beings. It's all well and good for the people with money when they can easily move their operations wherever it's cheapest, but real live breathing and feeling human beings get massively screwed over in the process when the bottom falls out of their local economy and they can't move across the border where the jobs are.
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:33 PM on May 6, 2003

Yeah, I wouldn't call those protected steel workers short sighted either. You can't really fault them for worrying about next weeks pay check more than the future trade layout of the world.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 1:26 PM on May 6, 2003

Todays Times letters page illustrates that the argument continues....

here in the West, globalisation, capitalism’s implacable successor, is knocking on our door. Primary production, shipping, fishing, farming, mining and manufacturing succumbed long ago to cheap Third World competition.

Today, work carried out via telephone and keyboard is also under threat. Much of it could be done in call centres in India, for example, for a fraction of the cost here.

Thousands of UK jobs have disappeared down that route already. Almost every administration post in every industry could be likewise exported, along with multiple layers of management and bureaucracy.

But where else is there for our economy to go? ...

Where indeed?
posted by grahamwell at 5:42 AM on May 7, 2003

American workers need to show companies a reason to keep their business here or it will go elsewhere. To say it should be otherwise is basically to be discriminatory. Why is the well-being of factory workers in America morally more important than the well-being of factory workers in Mexico?
posted by dagnyscott at 12:42 PM on May 7, 2003

Err ... because they're voters. (I know you used the word moral, but it's out of place here - this is economics we're talking about).
posted by grahamwell at 8:04 AM on May 8, 2003

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