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Globalization:  Exporting the American Way

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness


Exporting our exceptional values
We Americans don't just exercise our exceptional values at home, we're happy to share them with the world. America is remaking the planet in its image. Globalization = Westernization = Americanization, to put it simply.

Anthropologist and cultural psychologist Richard A. Shweder summarizes what this entails. From the University of Chicago Magazine, December 2000:

In its broadest form...globalization ceases to be merely an economic concept and comes to include linguistic, social, cultural, aesthetic, and intellectual adjustments as well. Fully expanded, the idea of globalization actually becomes an immodest (some would say arrogant) hypothesis about human nature and an imperial call for "enlightened" moral interventions into other ways of life in order to free them of their supposed barbarisms, superstitions, and irrationalities.

This unabashed "globalization hypothesis" makes three related claims: (1) that Western-like aspirations, tastes, and ideas about what is true, good, beautiful, and efficient are objectively the best in the world; (2) that Western-like aspirations, tastes, and ideas will be fired up or freed up by economic globalization; and (3) that the world will/already has and/or ought to become "Westernized." Western-like aspirations include the desire for liberal democracy, free enterprise, private property, autonomy, individualism, equality, and the protection of "natural" or universal rights (the contemporary human-rights movement is in many ways an extension of an expansive globalization movement). Western-like ideas include the particular conception of gender identity, sexuality, work, reproduction, and family life embraced by liberal men and women in the United States today. They include a heavy dose of the "Protestant Ethic," which suggests that more is better and that you are not really good if you are not really rich. Western-like tastes include a preference for CNN, Visa cards, Hard Rock Café T-shirts, the Internet, and, of course, English as the language of global capitalization.

As far as I know, the true connection between globalization narrowly conceived ("free trade") and globalization expansively conceived (Western values, culture, and institutions taking over the world) has yet to be firmly established. It is quite possible that other cultures and civilizations do not need to become just like the United States to materially benefit from participation in an emergent global economy.

Nevertheless, in its most expansive form the idea of "globalization" seems to have once again become an ideology for moral activists, both inside and outside the academy. These activists believe that "the West is best" and that other regions of the world must either Westernize or remain poor, wretched, and morally backward. The idea that the rich nations of North America and Northern Europe have an obligation to use their economic and military power to civilize and develop the world is no less popular today than it was 100 years ago when the empire was British rather than American.

What's true of the world as a whole is true within America, of course. From the start we tried to "civilize" the continent, sharing our moral "superiority" with its Native inhabitants. When they stubbornly refused to see things our way, we taught them a lesson by killing them.

Now assimilation is our policy. We don't kill anyone for not complying—not overtly, anyway—but we expect minority cultures to get on board. If they don't, it's their fault for remaining "poor, wretched, and morally backward."

The world becomes American
From The World Gets in Touch with Its Inner American by G. Pascal Zachary. In the January/February 1999 issue of Mother Jones:

"Americanization" is a more apt term than "globalization" for the increasing concentration of U.S.-based multinational companies operating worldwide. Pundits glibly assert that different societies in the world are becoming more alike as if all were influencing and being influenced in equal measure, creating a kind of global melting pot. I don't see it that way. In the 1990s, the world has Americanized at an unprecedented rate, reaching as far as Borneo (see "A Horatio Alger Tale").

Of course, Levi's, Nike, and Hollywood have long held international sway. But American influence goes deeper than pop culture. Technology—especially computers, software, and the Internet—is seen as quintessentially American. And the way we do business is now also admired worldwide. Once believed to be in permanent decline, the strongest U.S. companies again dominate global markets. Their stress on profits, efficiency, innovation, and "shareholder value" is the envy of capitalists from Tokyo to Buenos Aires.

The notion of "pay for performance," once rare outside of the U.S., is also catching on. Throughout the world, a growing number of companies are adopting the concept of merit, rewarding employees with a slice of the company's total earnings, given as bonuses rather than wages. Risk-taking and even failure, once cast as pure negatives in Asia and Europe, now are viewed increasingly as preludes to success. Office dress is more casual, corridor talk less formal. The old-boy networks, based on what schools people graduated from (Europe) or which family and personal connections they could draw from (Asia), are slowly breaking down.

"Within five to 10 years, these practices won't [just] be American anymore; they will be everywhere," says Roel Pieper, a senior executive at Philips, the Dutch electronics multinational.

American social and political ideas are also taking hold. At a time when Japan—hugely influential in the 1980s—is stagnant, the American willingness to improvise is trumping the virtues of traditionalism. Countries such as Japan and Germany, where the concept of nationality is rooted in the racially based idea of bloodlines, are starting to accept that a polyglot country such as the United States has fundamental advantages.

Scholars throughout Europe now vie to publish their articles in American journals. In Berlin, worried parents recently convinced educators to begin teaching English in the first grade rather than waiting until the third. And in Penang, Malaysia, primary schools stage storytelling competitions—in English.

For all its seductiveness, however, Americanization has a dark side, an underbelly that perhaps we know better than anyone else. And as Americans, who can blame us for asking whether the relentless spread of our values is worth the price?

It is a warm September evening in Washington, D.C., and I am sitting on an outdoor patio at a fashionable restaurant, the Tabard Inn. My companion is Andrea Durbin, director of international programs for Friends of the Earth. She is part of a broad movement that opposed NAFTA (unsuccessfully), helped kill fast-track (Clinton's effort to gain a free hand in negotiating trade pacts), and is now trying to bring the International Monetary Fund to heel. The IMF recently won an $18 billion commitment from Congress to replenish reserves exhausted by the fund's successive bailouts of Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia, and Russia. An unusual alliance of conservatives and radicals forced the fund, as a condition of this new cash infusion, to provide more information about its inner workings, which may make it easier for critics to track how the IMF protects U.S. investors and promotes an American capitalism.

The IMF generally opposes trade barriers, low interest rates, and deficit spending. These policies, Durbin points out, have led the IMF to mishandle the global capitalist crisis that began with a whimper in July 1997 when the Thai baht collapsed. Using a formula wholeheartedly endorsed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the IMF drove Thai interest rates sky-high in a bid to protect the baht, strangling liquidity in a banking system rife with cronyism. At the same time, the fund and the U.S. insisted on new bankruptcy laws-leading to a fire sale of sorts and freeing the way for foreign companies, including American ones, to snap up assets, such as Thai car companies, on the cheap.

The story is the same elsewhere in the world. The result is that world capitalism is in shambles. In Brazil and Mexico, living standards are falling and stock markets are in disarray even though governments have curtailed spending on social services and privatized essential public monopolies. In Indonesia, a quarter century of rising living standards was reversed during the Asian financial crisis, while an IMF "rescue" program succeeded only in helping to bankrupt the country. In Russia, after the IMF's "help," the ruble collapsed. The dollar is now king; it greases so much commerce that some argue that the greenback should be the official currency. (The dark side of the American global dream is particularly obvious in one former Soviet republic, Moldova. See "Potemkin Capitalism.") All over the world, meanwhile, the moneyed classes are converting local currencies into dollars and shipping them to the United States. According to the Federal Reserve Board, about two-thirds of all U.S. currency (the bills themselves) circulate abroad-an estimated $300 billion. The dollarization of the world economy is just one aspect of the Pyrrhic victory of the worldwide spread of American values. Durbin ticks off her own list of the worst aspects of Americanization:

Inequality The American economic model has led to increasing disparities of wealth and income. Both stock options and pay for performance are becoming popular in Europe, where, in a number of countries, inequality is rising even faster than in the U.S., according to the Luxembourg Income Study, the leading source on the subject. "The U.S. still has the most inequality based on income," says Timothy Smeeding, an economist at Syracuse University. But, incredibly, even Denmark and Sweden have seen income gaps widen more rapidly than in the U.S. That's partly because, as in most other countries, Scandinavians are paying much higher wages to skilled workers and squeezing labor costs at the bottom.

Consumerism U.S. per capita consumption is up to 20 times greater than in the developing world. "If even half the world's people achieve the American way of life," says Durbin, "we'll have an environmental disaster on our hands." This is a critical point: According to the World Resources Institute, the U.S. consumes a quarter of the world's oil, a third of its paper, and 40 percent of its beef and veal. If such patterns are replicated—say in China alone—the effect on world resources will be dramatic.

Cultural monotony When a second-tier NBA player like Kobe Bryant merits giant billboards in Paris, the mania for U.S. culture has gone too far. "Our culture is such a strong one it tends to dominate and erode other cultures," Durbin says. "They have a lot to contribute to the international dialogue, but we're losing them."

Western culture is toxic
Is all the complaining by liberals, environmentalists, feminists, minorities, and people in developing countries just sour grapes? Are they upset because America's manly virtues—the Protestant ethic of hard work, achievement, and being No. 1—have come to dominate the world? Are they basically "sore losers" who want to tip over the board because their culture(s) didn't win the battle fairly?

Well, no. Researchers are beginning to prove the real harm of globalization based on the Western model. Consider the following from Adbusters Magazine:

Toxic Culture USA
by Kallie Lasn and Richard DeGrandpre

We've watched the "battle of the mind" intensify to the point where thousands of commercial messages per day are now discharged into the average North American brain. We've tracked the rise of addictions, anxieties and mood disorders as they have grown into what some public health officials now describe as an "epidemic" of despair. We've watched the media megacorps merge, consolidate and vertically integrate until a mere handful of them now control the bulk of all the news and entertainment flows around the planet. Throughout this journey, we've marvelled at human resiliency. Just how toxic would the mental environment have to become before some threshold of tolerance was exceeded, and people got pissed off and demanded a cleaner, less cluttered, more democratic mass media?

So far it hasn't happened....But now a number of provocative psychosocial studies have appeared that may rejuvenate this whole debate. These groundbreaking studies point to a growing toxicity in American culture. They suggest that cultural toxins have now reached dangerously high levels, helping to explain the high school shootings, the skyrocketing use of legal and illegal psychoactive drugs, our growing problems with obesity and psychosomatic illness, rage in public places, and the general sense of cynicism and hopelessness that is enveloping our culture.

Several studies and analyses have begun to show the effects of toxic culture worldwide. As a typical study (cited in the Adbusters bibliography) says:

The article describes how, in the wake of globalization, the human ecological conditions that cultivate strong mental health are being destroyed. The WHO estimates that depression will become one of the most common disabling disorders in the world by 2020, second only to heart disease. Kleinman and Cohen conclude: "Behind this rise in the prevalence of mental illness [in countries such as India and China] is an array of demographic and social factors. Rapid urbanization, chaotic modernization and economic restructuring have left many developing countries reeling."

Thanks but no thanks, the world's people seem to be saying to America. We don't want your exceptional values if it means joining your rat race, eating at your McDonald's, and watching your Mickey Mouse movies. We'd rather not screw up our countries the way you've screwed up yours.

Globalization vs. Indians
Of course, the surest victims of globalization are those least able to fight it: the world's indigenous people. What happened in 1492 has happened almost everywhere a self-aggrandizing Western culture has encountered a self-satisfied indigenous culture. It's happening today wherever oil companies go drilling in indigenous territory. Peter McKenna summarizes the problem in his review of The American Empire and the Fourth World by Anthony J. Hall:

America and the 'savages'

In terms of unfettered free trade, neo-liberal orthodoxy and the onset of globalized markets, Hall makes a similar linkage to the Indian legacy of dispossession, exploitation and cultural extirpation. He wants us to remember that what is happening today as a result of globalization is precisely what happened hundreds of years ago with the expansion of the Euro-American empires into Indian territory. He discusses the destruction of animal and plant species, the privatization of the commons, corporate expansion (through extinguishing of the rights and titles of aboriginal people) and the spread of a "commercialized monoculture" (displacing a First Nations way of life). And if history is any indication, and if Hall is correct, the world's distinct peoples are doomed to a similar extinction today.

More on what happened to the American Indian in the 19th century. From the Republic of East Vancouver, June 22-July 5, 2006:

Neo-conservative's roots were planted first by Rockefeller

By Dan Adleman

Rockefeller Sr, the founder of Standard Oil, used Christian missionaries in the American west to soften up and gather intelligence on the Native American communities that inhabited oil-rich land. In Thy Will Be Done: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil, authors Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett point out that the evangelization process insidiously mollified the natives, weakening their communal social structure and subverting their will to defend themselves against exploitation. In 1902, Rockefeller's right-hand man, Baptist preacher Fred Gates, wrote him a letter praising their exploits: "We are only in the very dawn of commerce, and we owe that dawn to the channels opened up by Christian missionaries. . . . The effect of the missionary enterprise of the English speaking peoples will be to bring them the peaceful conquest of the world." Little could Gates or Rockefeller have known just what a profound impact this symbiotic neo-conflation of seemingly disparate agendas would have on the trajectory of the American empire.

And what's still happening to the planet's Third World and indigenous people:

One of the primary spearheads of Nelson's campaign was the Agency for International Development (AID). Working in concert with the CIA, AID and groups like the so-called Alliance for Progress posed as humanitarian missions meant to elevate South American Third World countries out of squalor, while in fact, they were merely quick injection systems for neo-liberal capitalism. Groups like the Alliance for Progress were merely corrupt consortiums of American businessmen eager to peddle "schemes to give latrines to the poor" (as Che Guevera sneeringly referred to it) without really helping the impoverished people of South America. In fact, most of these schemes were designed to take advantage of South America's poverty by giving "aid" through private American banks.

These poor (and sometimes outright corrupt) governments would have to pledge not to nationalize or overtax the private oil, mineral, rubber, or fruit industries. And while private corporations and a few South American elites would accumulate the lion's share of the wealth, the poor would have little to show for it but unmanageable tax debt. This approach formed the core of what became the IMF's current modus operandi in the Third World, and it should come as no surprise that Chase Manhattan still leads the world in forking out the usurious loans that hobble Third World nations.

AID was also used to funnel CIA and corporate money into a little-known evangelical organization called the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). SIL was the sciency new name given to the Wycliffe Bible Translators, a shadowy organization whose official mandate was to bring the Word to the heathens. Its unofficial mandate, however, was directly inspired by Gates' work pacifying American Natives in the name of dominion, commerce, and the Lord. But SIL went far beyond just softening and collecting intelligence on the potentially rebellious, ostensibly proto-communist tribes that inhabited the oil and mineral-rich land around the Amazon basin; the group also played an active role in removing these people from their homes by whatever means necessary.

According to Victor Halterman of SIL, this was often accomplished by seducing tribesmen with trinkets like knives, axes, and mirrors, "the kind of things the Indians can't resist." And then the missionaries "explain that from now on if they want to possess them they must work for money." The missionaries would then move them to reservations (as in Ecuador, where many indigenous people died in the transition), or get them work on the giant new cattle farms (many of which were owned by Rockefeller's International Basic Economy Corporation) that had begun to supplant the rainforest. In the end, the natives wound up virtually indentured to American corporations, but "settle[d] down at it when they realize[d] there's no going back."

This strategy was successfully deployed throughout the Amazon Basin in countries such as Ecuador, Guatemala, Bolivia, and Peru. And the consequent devastation to the Amazon rainforest, "the lungs of the planet," and the people who inhabited it were incalculable. As a result, SIL was eventually denounced and kicked out of a number of countries, including Mexico and Brazil, and was banned from entry into Venezuela. At a Yucatan indigenous people's conference 1980, SIL was officially denounced for using a scientific name to conceal its religious agenda and capitalist worldview that was hostile to indigenous traditions. But by that point it was already too late to do anything more than denounce.

The system that the Rockefellers established formed the kernel of the neo-conservative approach to world government. According to this model, three voracious forces unite to form a partnership for planetary parasitism. The most important of these forces, the American military-industrial complex, takes on the role as organizing principle, wielding the other two—high capitalism and Judeo Christianity—in order to further all of their imperial goals. While the American military-industrial will-to-power seeks to preserve the Pax Americana, high capitalism and evangelical Christianity are driven to spread both the market's and Christ's tendrils into every nook and cranny of the globe. In this sense, the neo-conservative system is a highly-evolved three-headed monster, like the fire-breathing chimera of ancient Greek lore, meant to further the rapacious pursuits of its three heads, even if they should be realized at the expense of the rest of the world's well-being. Ominously, chimeras were also said to augur imminent storms.

In recent history, many (from both the right and the left) have begun to speculate that the pie-in-the-sky neo-conservative project has reached its logical conclusion and is now being torn apart by its many internal contradictions. Perhaps most prominent among these is the fact that while "free market" fundamentalists like Fukuyama preach the gospel of capitalism as the panacea to all that ails the Third World (inspired by David Rockefeller's doctrinaire and self-serving assertion that private enterprise is the basis of political freedom), capitalist institutions like the IMF have been exposed as mechanisms to keep the Third World poor and in debt to the US government and juggernauts like Chase, Bechtel, and Halliburton (which are beholden only to their shareholders). The Third World is, however, smartening up to this dynamic and some countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, are wriggling free of the IMF by rushing to pay off their debts as quickly as they can; other countries are simply refusing to be integrated into the IMF circuit. Moreover, the Iraq War has illustrated the extent to which the agendas of giant corporations can be absolutely antithetical to the economic well-being of their host nation, particularly its lower and middle classes.

There are countless other contradictions causing the neo-conservative project to collapse in on itself; for example, there is heated debate within the Republican Party as a result of intractable opposition between high capitalism's religious faith in technophilic utopianism and evangelical Christianity's backward-looking refusal to believe in so many of the underpinnings thereof, not to mention capitalism's hostility to the supposedly sacred web of life that makes its existence possible.

Natives fight back
How Natives and the rest of us can begin to fight back:

Published on Wednesday, August 4, 2004 by CommonDreams.org
An Indigenous Perspective on Corporate Rule

by Dave Wheelock

A recent Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) conference in South Dakota provided ample evidence of the need to explore new directions to counter the environmental and cultural decline facing indigenous people.

The Protecting Mother Earth Gathering has been held annually at locations throughout North America since 1990. This year the four-day encampment, hosted by the Rosebud Lakota nation, convened on the edge of the sacred Black Hills. The meadow campground — once Lakota homeland — had to be rented before these local people could again feel their sacred earth beneath their feet.

I attended as a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin while interning with ReclaimDemocracy.org, a nonprofit organization working to restore citizen authority over corporations and revoke illegitimate corporate power. Plenary and breakout sessions addressed issues native communities continue to face: extraction of water, minerals, gas and other resources; pollution; and other environmental justice issues. A sense of urgency and personal pain prevailed as women and men from tribe after tribe related their communities' battles against destruction of their land and culture.

For native people, "the environment" is not an external luxury. We recognize the earth is a living being, and within her resides survival of culture and life itself. Those who believe these connections can be replaced with a culture of mass consumption are adrift from reality. Yet we cannot separate ourselves from this culture, for we are inexorably tied to "mainstream society" both physically and through our moral responsibilities as human beings native to this soil.

Several speakers used the term "colonization." They referred not merely to economic domination by non-tribal entities, but also to something more personal and equally damaging: the absorption of young minds into a corporate culture of consumption that lacks respect for the natural world. This use of the term reflects a vivid understanding of the insidious nature of corporate intrusion into all areas of life — in Indian Country and throughout the world.

During a plenary session on globalization and "free trade," I was struck with the perception that indigenous people of all lands have been fighting defensive battles since others came to our shores, prairies, and forests. For generations, tribes have faced threats whose immediacy has the effect of denying the space to devise long-term solutions.

The litany of outrages against Indian communities delivered by the speakers' panel underlined my realization that those of us who struggle against the unrelenting and destructive forces of corporatization have been drawn into a shortsighted strategy of reacting to localized transgressions that fester everywhere. In doing so, we divide our limited time and money and disperse our considerable talents and energies.

During open discussion, I tried to convey the opportunity to seize the offensive by reshaping the structure of corporate power and not merely defending against their depredations. Corporations are not people — they are creations of people that should not enjoy constitutional rights meant for citizens. I shared my belief that we can revoke the powers they so often abuse by educating ourselves on the history of corporations and then taking appropriate action at the local and state level, building momentum toward nationwide change.

I was encouraged by spontaneous applause for my remarks and the disappearance of all the ReclaimDemocracy.org brochures I'd left on an information table. Over the remainder of the conference several people took me aside to express their willingness to open this new front of engagement.

The most powerful tool in the hands of native people is our hard-won status in the United States and the worldwide community as sovereign nations. Meanwhile, environmental and progressive movements within "mainstream society" are subject to dismissal by the corporate-governmental establishment as "special interest groups."

There lies a source of great potential strength in alliances between tribes, native non-profits like the Indigenous Environmental Network, and non-native equivalents such as ReclaimDemocracy.org. While our non-indigenous allies can bring their technological expertise and funding sources to bear on our common goals, tribal groups can contribute our political legitimacy, a vast experience of resistance, and a deeper level of understanding to the campaign.

Our Oneida nation has survived and even flourished by mindfully observing the dominant U.S. culture, then proactively using the knowledge gained for the benefit of all creation. All Americans might benefit from adopting a similar formula for action that centers on understanding corporations at the structural level and developing the strategies necessary to regain control of them.

Globalization in the news
Given the Chance, the People Reject "Globalization":  French Say "Non" in Thunder!

More on globalization
Globalization according to Gilligan
Technology vs. Native values

Related links
Faith in free markets
America's exceptional values
America's culture wars (economic)

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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