The Saturday Essay: Disneyfication that impoverishes us all

America's global culture is not so much hostile as indifferent to democracy. Its goal is a global consumer society.
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The Independent Culture
IS AMERICAN culture global? Internationalists often insist that it is, but it comes closer to the truth to say that global culture is American. While it is fashionable to try to tame the idea of the Americanising of global culture by referring to interactions that make America global even as the globe becomes American, to me this is either wishful thinking on the part of those subjected to the depredations of what I have called "McWorld", or diplomatic rationalisation by the corporate beneficiaries of globalisation who want to disguise their new, soft hegemony in a still softer ideological cloak.

This cloak deploys the metaphors of mutual assimilation, which suggest that dominant cultures are modified by the cultures they affect to modify. But this is a peculiar reciprocity - the reciprocity of the python who swallows the hare: "Oh look!" But after a week or two of active digestion, the hare is gone and only the python remains.

McWorld does take on the colours of the cultures it swallows up: thus the pop music accented with reggae and Latino rhythms in the Los Angeles barrio, Big Macs served with French wine in Paris or made from Bulgarian beef in Eastern Europe, Mickey speaking French at Euro Disney. But, in the end, MTV and McDonald's are US cultural icons, seemingly innocent Trojan-American horses nosing their way into other nations' cultures.

McWorld represents an American push into the future animated by onrushing economic, technological, and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity and that mesmerise people everywhere with fast music, fast computers, and fast food - MTV, Macintosh, and McDonald's - pressing nations into one homogeneous global culture, one McWorld tied together by communications, information, entertainment and commerce.

Even where McWorld is opposed by forces of tribalism and traditional religion, it trumps its opponents. Iranian zealots may keep one ear tuned to the mullahs urging holy war, but the other is cocked to Rupert Murdoch's Star Television, which beams in Dynasty reruns or The Simpsons from hovering satellites. The Russian Orthodox Church may remain a bastion of faith in Russia's privatising world, but has entered into a joint venture with a Californian businessman to bottle and sell natural waters from the Saint springs.

This new globalising culture is likely to displace its reactionary critics and its democratic rivals, who dream of genuinely internationalised civil society made up of free citizens from different cultures.

For America's global culture is not so much hostile as indifferent to democracy: Its goal is of a global consumer society composed not of tribesmen - too commercially challenged to shop; nor of citizens - too civically engaged - but of consumers. Consumers are a new breed of men and women who are equal (potential customers all) without being justly treated; and are peaceful (placid and reactive rather than active) without being democratic.

In Europe, Asia and the Americas, markets have already eroded national sovereignty and given birth to a new global culture of international banks, trade associations, transnational lobbies such as Opec, world news services such as CNN and the BBC, and multinational corporations - the new sovereigns of a world where nation states scarcely know how to regulate their own economies, let alone control runaway global markets.

While mills and factories sit on sovereign territory under the eye and potential regulation of nation states, currency markets and the Internet exist everywhere, but nowhere in particular. And although they produce neither common interests nor common law, common markets do demand, along with a common currency, a common language. That is English, which Japanese teenagers now prefer to use wherever possible and which is an official, if not the official, language of every international conference held today.

Moreover, common markets produce common behaviours of the kind bred by cosmopolitan city life everywhere. Commercial pilots, computer programmers, film directors, international bankers, media specialists, oil riggers, entertainment celebrities, ecology experts, movie producers, demographers, accountants, professors, lawyers and athletes comprise a new breed of men and women for whom religion, culture, and ethnic nationality are marginal elements in a working identity. It is shopping that has a common signature around the world today.

Shopping means consumption and consumption depends on the fabrication of needs as well as goods. The new global culture is a product of American popular culture driven by expansionist commerce. Its template is American; its form is style. Its goods are as much images as material, an aesthetic and a product line. It is about culture as commodity, where what you think is defined by what you wear and apparel becomes a species of ideology. Think about those Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Cadillac cars that have been hoisted from the roadways to the marquees of global-market icons such as the Harley-Davidson and the Hard Rock. They are not about transport any more. You no longer drive them; their iconographic messages drive you. They conjure up synthetic behaviour from old movies and new celebrities, whose personal appearances are the key to such popular international chains as Planet Hollywood.

The new churches of this global commercial civilisation are shopping malls, the privatised "public" squares and neighbourless "neighbourhoods" of suburbia. The new products are not so much goods as image exports that help create a common world taste around common logos, advertising slogans, celebrities, songs, brand names, jingles and trademarks. Hard power here yields to soft, while ideology is transmuted into what I have called a kind of videology that works through sound bites and film clips. Videology is fuzzier and less dogmatic than traditional political ideology; as a consequence it may be far more successful in instilling the novel values required for global markets to succeed.

These values are not imposed by coercive governments or authoritative schools, but bleed into the culture from such pseudo-cultural products as films and advertising, which feel neither coercive nor intrusive but are often linked to a world of material goods, fast food, fashion accessories, and entertainment. The Lion King and Jurassic Park are not just films; they are global merchandising machines that sell food, music, clothes, and toys. Titanic is a billion-dollar movie, which makes it much more than just a movie.

Many argue that consumer society - though it may debase taste - nevertheless enhances choice and thus entails a kind of democracy: the sovereignty of consumers. But however "sovereign" consumers feel, voting dollars, yen or euros is not the same as voting a common political will. Market relations are not a surrogate for social relations. The problem is not with capitalism per se, but with the notion that capitalism alone can respond to every human need and provide solutions to all of our problems.

The autonomy of consumers is an illusion - the market's most democratic illusion. But there is another illusion, more basic and antique, in the arguments of those who insist that markets are democratic: this is that the market in which consumers shop is any freer than the shoppers themselves. In this era of deregulation and government downsizing the competitive vitality of markets has never been in greater jeopardy. Particularly in the newly sovereign-market domain defined by information, entertainment and telecommunications - the infotainment telesector, as I have called it elsewhere - where conglomeration and monopoly are becoming the rule.

Take Disney, for example. Having domesticated The Lion King and having successfully annexed and tranquillised New York City's tenderloin district in Times Square, it also acquired Capital Cities/ABC for $19bn, and now owns the Anaheim Angels baseball team. Likewise, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp has bought the Los Angeles Dodgers in order to broadcast its games on its Fox television network and compete with Ted Turner's Atlanta Braves and Wayne Huizinga's (Blockbuster Video) winning World Series team, the Florida Marlins. "Content" is the key to the new technology, and there is no point in owning broadcast networks or cable systems if you have nothing to put on them.

The fashionable word for all this vertical corporate integration is "synergy", but synergy turns out to be just another word for monopoly. Like so many of the new conglomerates of McWorld, Disney owns not just film studios, theme parks, and sports teams, but trademark tie-ins, publishing houses, television stations, newspapers, and entire new towns. One manager gushed that, in taking over ABC, Disney had become not just a world-class but a "universe class" operation. Disney has simply followed the modern corporate imperative, which is to own deep and wide. Poised on the edge of the 21st century, Disney's and McWorld's other telecommunication conglomerates seem to yearn to return to the 19th-century world of monopoly in which there were no anti-trust laws. Michael Eisner is no John D. Rockerfeller, Bill Gates is no Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Steven Spielberg is no Andrew Carnegie. But that is only because Eisner, Gates, and Spielberg are far more powerful than these robber barons ever were. Are they really the harbingers of new realms of liberty, these titans who exercise an inadvertent sovereignty not over oil, steel, and railroads - the muscles of our post- industrial world's body - but over the pictures, information, and ideas that are the sinews of the post-modern soul?

McWorld thus does little for consumer autonomy, less for competition, and nothing for the kinds of liberty and pluralism essential to political freedom. Perhaps still more dangerous to liberty, McWorld has encroached upon and helped push aside public space. Its greatest victory - mightily assisted by the anti-governmental privatising ideology that has dominated politics in recent years --has been its contribution to the eradication of civic space.

Yet, once upon a time, between the oppositional poles of government and market, there was a vital middle choice. Though in eclipse today, the powerful imagery of civil society held the key to America's early democratic energy and civic activism - just as it helped Eastern Europeans break away from the Soviet empire. For it was the great virtue of civil society in days past that it shared with government a sense of things public and a regard for the general good; yet, unlike government, made no claims to exercise a monopoly over legitimate coercion. Rather, it was a voluntary "private" realm devoted to public goods.

Civil society is the domain that can potentially mediate between the state and the private sector, between the rabid identity of an exclusive tribe and the exhausting identity of the solitary consumer, between jihad and McWorld. Civil society offers people space for activity that is voluntary and public; a space that unites private sector virtues - liberty - with the virtue of the public sector - concern for the general good.

Civil society is thus a dwelling-place that is neither a tribal fireside nor a shopping mall; it asks us to vote neither our political opinions nor our consumer desires but only to interact with one another around common concerns. It shares with the private sector the blessing of liberty; it is voluntary and made up of freely associated individuals and groups. But unlike the private sector, it aims at common ground and co-operative action. Civil society is thus public without being coercive, voluntary without being private.

My model for a genuinely democratic global culture would be a global civil society, hooped together by bands of civic associations represented by non-government organisations, churches, foundations, citizen organisations, and other civic groups.

The task in theory, no less than in practice, is to reilluminate public space for a civil society in eclipse. Unless a third way can be found between private markets and coercive government, between McWorld's anarchistic individualism and jihad's dogmatic communitarianism, we may survive as consumers and clansmen, but we will cease to exist as democratic citizens.

The writer is director of the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy at Rutgers University and author of `Strong democracy, Jihad versus the World'

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