Globalization And Culture|
by John Tomlinson
From Plato to NATO
by David Gress,
Globalization & the Meaning of Canadian Life
by William Watson,
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|Barbarians Of The New World Order
by Robert Sibley
One of the more significant legacies of the Enlightenment is the belief that a universal community of humankind is a goal with great moral purpose. This vision shaped the emancipatory impulses of both liberalism and Marxism, each of which has been committed in their unique ways to delivering a universal cosmopolitan order. In recent decades, phenomena like the shattering of the Soviet empire, the spread of democratic practices and institutions, and the increasing economic interdependence of the world’s nations, have led some observers to proclaim that a universal community is taking shape—a process commonly known as “globalization”.
What links David Gress’ From Plato to NATO, John Tomlinson’s Globalization and Culture, and William Watson’s Globalization and the Meaning of Canadian Life is that each asks about the whys and wherefores of globalization. While the authors approach the subject from different perspectives—historical, cultural, and economic, respectively—and adopt a different stance on the consequences of globalization—warning, applauding or dismissive—they all acknowledge that ours is a birth-time. And they concur that, in this age of transition, many of the overarching organizing principles, institutions, and self-conceptions that have informed Western societies, including Canada, are being challenged.
One of these key institutions is the nation-state. For the last three centuries, the nation-state has been the fundamental political structure, the overarching “symbol” of order in which people have grounded their sense of identity and communal belonging. However, under the impact of globalization, it is losing pre-eminence—or so it has been argued.
Observers on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum applaud this diminishment of the nation-state. Those on the right see its decline as making room for the rule of the market-place and global technology. Those on the left favour the weakening of the nation-state because it allows the development of new global social movements based on environmentalism, multiculturalism, gender or some other minoritarianism that will lead to a more egalitarian world.
Such attitudes, however, are simplistic. Historically, times of transition have always meant violence and disorder. So it is in our time, too. When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989, what followed was not a sudden new world order, but world disorder: genocide in Central Europe, war in the old Soviet republics of Chechnya and Dagestan, African rivers polluted with the bodies of Hutus and Tutsis, a nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan, and, most recently, civil strife in East Timor.
It is with this disorder in mind that David Gress casts a skeptical eye on the new universalism, particularly if it is assumed that universalism means “Westernization”. He recognizes that, after the implosion of the Soviet Union, no one doubts any longer that the way to economic prosperity is some form of capitalism. And since people everywhere want material prosperity, there’s every likelihood that capitalism will spread until it becomes well-nigh universal.
But the spread of capitalism does not necessarily mean that liberal democracy will follow suit. Gress writes: “Universalism is not Westernization, and Westernization is not the dominant political and cultural trend of the 21st century.” And therein, according to Gress, lies the threat to the West and its traditions of freedom, reason, and prosperity.
Gress, a political historian at the Danish Institute of International Affairs, argues that Western traditions will not survive if the fundamental concepts on which they are based continue to be corroded by extreme egalitarianism, bureaucratic rationalism, and the anti-Western multiculturalism of contemporary neo-liberalism. To regain any substantive purpose, Western society must recover its true intellectual and moral heritage—what Gress calls “the third force of Western identity”.
Gress maintains that the West’s weakening moral position in the world can be traced to the fact that both those who defend and those who attack the West share an erroneous historical assumption—namely, that the rise of the West presents a “Grand Narrative” of progress, 2,500 years worth, from ancient Greece through to modern North American society, culminating in freedom, equality, and respect for individual rights.
During the Second World War and the early decades of the Cold War, this Grand Narrative provided a kind of intellectual backbone to the West’s confrontation with Nazism and Communism. However, because it is historically inaccurate, it has been unable to defend itself against more recent attacks by anti-Western intellectuals.
The West, Gress maintains, emerged not as the inevitable evolution of the idea of freedom but as a result of a series of practices and institutions—the church, the monarchy, the secular state—some of which were accidental and fortuitous, others tragic. Western identity is an amalgam of Greek philosophy, Roman law, Christian theology, and German tribal traditions that coalesced between the fifth and eighth centuries to create what Gress calls the “old West”.
The arrival of the Renaissance inaugurated “new West” ideas of liberty, science, and economics, even while retaining an attachment to the traditions of the “old West”. But then along came the Enlightenment with its ideology of progress, whose more radical proponents wanted nothing to do with the “old West” synthesis, particularly the Christian dimension.
In effect, the Grand Narrative gives short shrift to religious faith and institutions, while exalting the values of secularism and relativism. But the result, says Gress, is that the Grand Narrative has proven incapable of withstanding the assaults of radical historians and scholars who, since the 1960s, have promoted “anti-narratives” that condemn the West as imperialist, racist, sexist, and homophobic. This has left the West crippled by moral uncertainty and intellectual self-doubt.
Gress does not ignore the dark side of Western history. But those who rant about the West’s failings even as they enjoy its freedoms are guilty of both hypocrisy and historical ignorance. They fail to understand that the concept of freedom at the core of Western identity is, historically, an ambiguous force capable of inducing both the horror of the Jacobin Terror and the heroism of the battles against fascist and communist totalitarianism.
If the West is to recover its full moral and intellectual vigour, Gress concludes, it needs to reconsider the entire history of the West as something other than merely a history of progress toward a now defunct and debilitated liberalism. “A multicultural West is a contradiction in terms; the only West that can be accommodating to other cultures is a West that knows itself,” he concludes. “An empty vessel, a historically illiterate people, cannot give to others the respect it does not give to itself.”
John Tomlinson’s outlook is decidedly more, well, cosmopolitan. In Globalization and Culture, he applauds the universalist tendency of globalization, arguing that it raises the prospect that the world may be on its way to fulfilling the Enlightenment dream of a one-world community with a single society and cultural setting. Tomlinson, a research director at the Centre for Research in International Communication and Culture at Nottingham Trent University in England, defines globalization as a condition of “complex connectivity”, by which he refers to “the rapidly developing and ever-densening network of interconnections and interdependences that characterize modern life.” He does love his academic jargon.
According to Tomlinson, we are increasingly confronted with the reality that our fates as individuals are bound up with the fates of others in a single global frame. This is certainly clear in terms of the economic integrations of the global market or of global environmental risk. Such phenomena, Tomlinson writes, make “the utopia of a world society a little more real or at least more urgent.” Our local experiences have to be raised to the horizon of a “single world” if we are to comprehend the transformations happening around us. As well, the moral and ethical value of local practices and lifestyles increasingly need to be judged in terms of their global consequences. In other words, the idea of cosmopolitanism must become our new political and social ideal.
In Tomlinson’s view, this is all to the good. Sure globalization undercuts our sense of “place” and weakens our ties to the “local”, including the nation-state—a process he labels “deterritorialization”; but he figures it’s time to think beyond the nation-state and national identities. “[T]he continuing existence of national identities inhibits the emergence of a global, cosmopolitan identity, if only in the way they preoccupy people’s cultural imagination to the point of defining its horizons.”
From such a perspective, it’s obvious that Tomlinson is not too worried about the “decline” of the West. Indeed, if we, as Westerners, are feeling less self-confident nowadays, that too is because we’re being globalized. The forces of globalization have lifted—or, to use Tomlinson’s language, “disembedded”—the political and social traditions of the West, including the nation-state system, from their historically “local” context (read: Europe and North America) and shunted them to a more universal level. The West is becoming less “western” because those practices and institutions that once distinguished it from the East are less distinct.
While there is yet little global institutional support for cosmopolitanism, Tomlinson believes the age of the cosmopolitan, the world-citizen, is upon us. As he puts it in his cautious fashion: “[T]he penetration of our homes by media and communications technology, multiculturalism as increasingly the norm, increasing mobility and foreign travel, even the effects of ‘cosmopolitanizing’ of food culture—all these transformations hold the promise of vital aspects of the cosmopolitan disposition...”
It is tempting to think that Tomlinson had William Watson in mind when he wrote that sentence. Watson, an economist at McGill University, certainly demonstrates cosmopolitan inclinations in his book, Globalization and the Meaning of Canadian Life.
Watson acknowledges that globalization—in the form of such transnational institutions as the FTA, NAFTA, the IMF, and the World Trade Organization—will require Canadians to rely less on government than they have in the past. But he maintains that economic integration with the rest of the world, particularly the United States, is not a threat to Canada’s sovereignty or control over its domestic social policies. Canada will have to dismantle trade barriers against foreign traders and investors; but beyond this, it remains free to have whatever social or other policies its citizens are willing to pay for. In fact, globalization will probably help sustain Canada’s economic independence. Watson writes: “Even in a perfectly globalized world, both theory and evidence suggest, there is still substantial room for the distinctive exercise of national sovereignty.”
Watson says it’s time to stop worrying about the so-called American cultural imperialism that twists the Toronto-centric socialists into knots. He also pricks the pompous notion that Canadians are more compassionate than Americans. That old saw may find favour in Liberal throne speeches and campaign pamphlets, but it’s nothing more than a remnant of leftist sentimentality from the 1960s.
Essentially, Watson attacks the hoary notion that Canadian identity is defined by whatever is “not American”. This line of thinking has for too long been the fundamental premise of Canadian public life: Only our greater use of government keeps us “different” from the Americans. For Watson, such thinking is not only politically immature, but deeply harmful to Canada, both economically and politically.
In the first place, we aren’t much different from Americans in terms of political and economic outlooks. Both countries essentially follow the principles of laissez-faire liberalism and both are sustained, to a greater or lesser degree, by an entrepreneurial spirit. Historically, there have been times when we have used government less than the Americans, and if we now use government more, it has been to benefit those with a vested interest in big government, not ordinary taxpaying citizens.
If there is a threat to the Canadian nation-state, Watson argues, it lies with those politicians and intellectuals who continue to pump the old propaganda that there is a price to being Canadian. As Watson writes: “Our larger government imposes heavy economic costs, not because our trade is affected—our trade is at record levels—but because of the economically destructive effects of high taxation and the morally destructive effects of a society in which effort and reward are increasingly unrelated.” Such attitudes, he warns, may destroy the country: “[T]he costs imposed on us in the name of retaining a separate national identity may now be so great as to threaten both our prosperity and our continued existence as a country.”
What is one to make of these various arguments? Watson is being deliberately contrarian, cheerfully taking a provocative libertarian stance in order to skew the shibboleths of Liberal mythology. His arguments will undoubtedly—and rightly—tick off all those whose nationalism is tied to their grants and subsidies.
Tomlinson, despite all the academic hedging, is a not-so-latent Enlightenment utopian. In the end, though, his hopes are hardly credible. Is it really possible to regard the extension of what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls the “morality of proximity” to encompass the fate of the rest of human race as anything more than a nice sounding abstraction? The idea of global cosmopolitanism is too unrooted, too detached from the “local” world of power and pride, to mean much in everyday experience. Cosmopolitanism as an ethical commitment strains to extend our concrete realities to include some distant and generalized “others” who, we are told, are our global neighbours. The idea might give you the warm-and-fuzzies, but it’s nothing for which you’d be willing to go to war.
Gress is a scholarly critic in the tradition of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, and his work is the most wide-ranging and erudite of the three. To those who’ve read John Gray, Samuel Huntington or Francis Fukuyama, Gress’ argument will have distinct echoes. However, what sets Gress apart is his sheer comprehensiveness. If you want a full, well-argued, and unapologetic examination of what the West really is and how it has been shamefully misrepresented, then this is the book to read.
Despite their differences, however, the authors can all be criticized on one point. They all miss the most universalizing dimension of globalization: technology.
Certainly, they acknowledge the global influence of technology’s products: cellphones, faxes, satellites, e-mail, etc. But their analysis is restricted to the notion that these instruments are merely tools available for us to use as we will. They have a kind of conceptual blind spot that keeps them from perceiving more comprehensively the determining role of technology in propelling globalization to a universal horizon. (To his credit, Watson doffs his hat to Canadian philosopher George Grant’s critique of technology, albeit to reject it on economic, not philosophic, grounds, which is not exactly kosher.)
Much of the transformation the authors attribute to globalization reflects the logic of technology. Technology is not simply a matter of machines and tools, things that we use for our convenience. In its widest sense, technology reflects the way in which we perceive and respond to the world. It is, ultimately, the product of a mode of consciousness bent on mastering and transforming nature, including human nature. Computers, that is, are all about efficiency, about how fast you can send information from one place to another—i.e., they are about conquering space and time.
It is no exaggeration to say that technology is the basic organizing principle in our lives. Indeed, technology is our civilization’s primal value. Would we give such priority to human rights if technology did not provide the prosperity that made those rights affordable? Would feminism be possible without the technology of the Pill? Would we be debating abortion or euthanasia or cloning if we didn’t have the technology for such things?
Concerns about the troubling political ramifications of globalization cannot be blithely dismissed or minimized. The world is experiencing two contrary but simultaneous and interrelated phenomena. The political divisions that emerged from the end of the Cold War no longer flow from ideology, but from a tension between globalism and localism. The latter refers to the desire of people to base their sense of identity and community on some local “tribe” or ethnic grouping, while the former refers to the pressures of globalization resulting from economic and technological forces that require greater uniformity and integration.
For the past two or three centuries, the Western industrial nation-state has been the means by which globalization has been most efficiently directed. The last half-century saw the world’s nations effectively divided between two ideologically-oriented and technologically-driven empires competing for domination in the process of globalization. The strategic imperative of countries to belong to one of these camps kept many of the old ethnic antagonisms in check. But with the end of the Cold War, these long-suppressed hostilities have re-emerged with a vengeance. Thus, the technological and economic integration required by globalism exists in tension with the struggle of numerous tribes, or “nations”, to assert their own identities.
In this confrontation, the political goods that emerged in tandem with the development of the nation-state—individual liberty, the rule of law, and limited government, for instance—are put at risk. A nation-state system that is too weakened could see even more phenomena that would be less than hospitable to the peace-and-prosperity fantasies of the globe-talkers: neo-Nazis, religious and tribal fanaticism, racial vigilantes, and urban gangsters, to name a few of the new barbarians.
In other words, the Enlightenment dream of a one-world community could, in reality, produce the nightmare of a one-world tyranny: when order breaks down, you get demagogues, not democrats. Obviously, Gress, more than Tomlinson or Watson, demonstrates a better grasp of the dangers of the next millennium.
Robert Sibley, an editorial writer with The Ottawa Citizen, is currently working on a doctoral thesis in Political Science at Carleton University.