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Glorious globalisation

Most defences of globalisation, as far as I have seen, have focussed on the essentially economic benefits of free trade, the free movement of goods, services and people. To date – and I may have missed something – there has not been much in the way of a cultural defence of globalisation. So I was delighted to come across this book a while back by noted culture and economics writer Tyler Cowen

He makes the important point that far from crushing local cultures and imposing a blanket of bland pap on us all, globalisation has often spawned a great deal of what we would think of as “traditional” culture. Using examples as varied as Navajo textiles to Caribbean music, Cowen nails the idea once and for all that globalisation means that the entire planet is going to turn into a MacDonalds fast-food joint.

What I particularly liked about this book was its positive, thoughtful tone. He spared us any tiresome ideological hominems about capitalism and the market. Instead, he shows how trade stirs up cultures worldwide, often producing marvellous and dazzling results.

A key theme also emerging from Cowen’s study is that globalisation has in some ways vastly increased, not reduced, the diversity of cultural forms on this planet. When anti-globalistas like John Gray, for example, berate it, what I suspect they want is for the status quo to be preserved in the ways they like. They are often not all that interested in diverse cultures, more in a form of nationalism. What Cowen does is show the enormous benefits of modern fast communications, technology and speed of human contact.

I recommend this book very highly.

7 comments to Glorious globalisation

  • I agree – this is a really excellent book. It’s very good at pointing out that while globalisation may lead to less diversity between country x and country y, it may simultaneously increase diversity (and, more importantly, choices) within country x and country y.

    Tyler Cowen has a website here where you can get the intro chapter to Tyler’s other book, In Praise of Commerical Culture.

  • The book has been on my wish list for a while, but I haven’t actually got around to buying it yet. I have long observed that the larger the density of international chain stores you find in a city, the more culturally interesting that city is, and in fact the greater the diversity of the retail sector of that city. (The two cities with the most international chain stores seem to be London and Tokyo. There seem to be at least a few instances of chains that have stores in Japan and London, or the United Kingdom and Tokyo, and nowhere else). On the other hand, cities with few or no international chains are often culturally barren places. At least, that is my experience.

  • From Commerical Culture: “If mass taste had controlled other genres as it has controlled television, they too would fare little or no better. A society with three major outlets for books, distributing common products for all who wish to read, would not have produced Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita or Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The virtues of cultural markets lie not in the quality of mass taste but rather in the ability of artists to find minority support for their own conceptions. “

  • T. Hartin

    It seems as if this phenomenon is the Barnes & Noble effect writ large. Invariably, whenever a Borders, Barnes & Noble, or other big chain bookstore announces that it will be opening a new location, the local stasists (that peculiar brand of liberal that opposes any change) invariably send up a cry that the eevvill corporate bookstore will drive all the local bookstores out of business and will lead to a reduction in the kind and variety of reading materials for sale in the area.

    This is utter bosh, of course. While a handful of independents may go out of business (although I haven’t really noticed it in my town), the big bookstores make an enormously wide range of reading materials available to the public, and make them more easily accessible than if they were scattered among a dozen small stores.

    I think the corporate bookstore illustrates the beneficial cultural effects of globalization nicely, at least from a consumer’s perspective. I would be ineterested to know if the corporate stores support or hinder “niche” writers with smaller audiences (I would suspect they support them, as their distribution and inventory can better support a zillion small sellers).

  • Michael Halbert

    I have not read the above mentioned book but
    it seems to me that multi-culturalism is a political
    construction and oxymoronic to boot.

    Culture uniquely identifies a group. If all cultures
    are to be looked on as being equal, culture itself
    disapears. The constraints placed on the individual
    by culture no longer exist.

    We in California are experiencing this imposed
    multi-culturalism and many people are becoming more and more rootless. ” Who give a damn?”

    Mike Halbert

  • David Crawford

    There’s an even better effect known as the “Starbucks Effect”. Basically, a lot of medium and smallish American cities had absolutely NO coffee shops. Starbucks moves in, people get used to coffee shop culture (paying $2.50 for a latte and sitting around bullshitting with your friends for two hours, etc.). Soon there are independently owned coffe shops springing up around town for those that believe they’ve moved past what Starbucks offers.

    This effect isn’t unique to Starbucks and coffee. The Borders and B&N’s probably bring in more than a few people who’ve never stepped into a bookstore before. When I lived in Seoul, Korea, there were a growing number of “pizza restaraunts”. A portion of Seoulites wanted to move beyond Domino’s and Pizza Hut (and their Korean look-alikes).

  • The two things go together, too. Every Barnes & Noble in the US seems to contain a Starbucks, and every Borders outside the US also contains a Starbucks. (And Borders shops inside the US contain Starbucks like coffee shops, but B&N seem to have the actual Starbucks in bookshops franchise).

    My “The cities with the most international chain stores are the most culturally diverse” theory could be restated as “The cities with the highest Starbucks densities are the most culturally diverse” and get similar results. Tokyo and London score very high by this test, too.