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 About Globalization and cultures...

by Sophia MAPPA   

Director, Forum de Delphes
Paris XII University - Member of PlanetAgora

Jean Tardif's paper "From cultural exceptionalism to cultural world pluralism as a political project" raises problems that deserve a particular attention and requires elements of political answer. In the situation that is designated through the carryall word of "globalization", the fundamental question is effectively the one formulated at the very beginning of this text: "how to live together in the global space with irreductible but constantly reinvented differences"?

This problem is certainly not new. It arises with greater intensity nowadays for two fundamental reasons: on one hand, because of the increasing consciousness, at least in certain enlightened circles, of global interdependences; on the other hand, because of the hegemony of the West that was dictating planetarian course without significant contestation, except from the Soviet block. The multiplication of violent reactions, even blind, against this hegemony, the emergence of other power poles (notably China), intra-western differences, conveyed and amplified by the explosion of the communications, are key factors that shake (a little) the conviction of a planet being aligned on western values proclaimed universal by those with vested interests in doing so.

This consciousness of the planet's cultural plurality and of the need to invent new ways of living together requires, beforehand, to know what we mean when talking about cultures and cultural differences. To some shades of meaning, I would agree with Jean Tardif's definition of culture as a system of representation of the world and values, specific to a society or to a sociocultural area and rooted in its history. I would add a necessary clarification: culture is not a dimension apart or outside the economic, political, religious dimensions, etc. It informs the whole social field and establishes society. Culture socializes individuals with culture inherited from past and institutionalized, at least in the Western world. Cultures change, but however not as radically and quickly as we think they do. They guide individual and collective actions (economic, political, religious, familial,) and give meaning to them. This is to what was referring C. Castoriadis when he talked about "the imaginary institution of society" and of the plurality of establishing imaginaries (imaginaires instituants). In fact, cultures which are "condemned" "to live together" are so different that there is often no possible communication between them.

As example, capitalism would be inconceivable without western-invented values and imageries: freedom of the individual action and initiative, private appropriation deprived of wealth, projection in future, differentiation of economics from other social activities, even the primacy of economics, value attached to productivism and to accumulation, instrumental rationality, etc.. But these values are not universal and capitalism (as democracy too) have not prevailed everywhere in the world.

Economic systems in Africa, in the Balkans, in the Arabic world or in Latin America are directed by other values and other word visions : a quite different conception of freedom and individual initiative, value attached to day-to-day survival, indifference to production and all the more to productivism, preference for allowances and consumption, etc. Therefore, these systems differ from capitalism and, in spite of prevailing speech, they are not integrating an " international economic system ". They follow parallel path to a system organized and dominated by capitalism, which they undergo, without integrating its values, its logic and its rationality. Hence the difficulty of these societies' actors to act as stakeholders in the " international system ", to accept or question it with due knowledge. Hence also their difficulty to act in a perspective of change, would they see it convenient for them. This is an example of communications problems between societies, notably between hegemonic western world and other socio-historic, thus cultural areas.

These considerations lead me to raise a first reservation concerning "global issues" which, according to J. Tardif, are intrinsecally extra-national. If cultures are as different as he thinks they are (what I also think), who defines these "global questions", according to which criteria, which values and which world representations? Does water represent such a global question for local residents of the Ganges among which exist groups hostile to each other, while having in common certain world conception that makes them cast their sacred and profane corpses in the river ? The same can be said about Amazonian forest and Brazilians who have practices similar to those of the riverside residents of the Ganges. We have here another cultural difference between non western societies and the West that invented " the value and the concept of public good' or of "global issue".

The need to clarify the contents of these differences is evacuated in West. It is still more the case in the other societies of the world where refusal of the Other constitutes the groups's main cement. Several reasons leads to such a situation : the complexity of the problems raised by the need to clarify, universal difficulty to understand the Other (including in the West) and, still more, to accept Him. The western "civilizing" work is still operating in spite of speeches on planet's plurality, including through policies of "international cooperation for development " (Others' development of course) is a plain illustration of this difficulty. But there is another one, typically western : to be coherent with its own definitions and to agree to treat Others as equals.

Former Brazilian edcation Minister wisely notices that internationalization of Amazonia, proclaimed a planetary public common good in the West, should entail corollary internationalization of all the appropriate common goods exploited by Westerners: notably that of Louvre, petroleum, or even the headquarters of the United Nations and New York city which shelters and takes advantage of it. As long as these previous questions are not publicly discussed, it will be difficult for cultural pluralism to become a real political project.

Hence a second reservation about the concept of "Hyperglobalizing Culture" which, according to J. Tardif, would be built by global media and would depreciate local cultures, for essentially economic reasons. In fact, "global media" are western media. They dominate the planet, not only due to western economic power but for deep cultural reasons, among which stands production of wealth. Another deeper aspect is its capacity to appropriate and to alienate other societies from inside, that is to arouse their self contempt and their greed for the western model they see as inaccessible. In other words, "global media" 's domination is based on the subordination, willing and unconfessed, of "local" cultures to the dominant culture. Subordination which is far too complex to be reduced to the common argument that it arises from poverty. Subordination also suggest absence of desire of the subordinate to understand himself and to understand the dominant. Indeed Dynasty or Dallas which penetrated into African bush arouse desire to mime the dominant, not that to understand him in his otherness, to become aware of his own differences. A subordination's characteristic is unconscious alienation and unconfessed self rejection: hence the illusion of taking oneself for the Other while hating this Other at the same time.

In my opinion, risk of cultural Darwinism, if any, would lie, first of all, inside the concerned societies which are above all threatened by themselves. It is a total cultural fact to which remedy must come from inside. This being said, questioning of the "global media" and of their concentration proposed by J. Tardif is more than ever necessary. They threaten, first of all, western societies which engendered them and undergo quite hard the consequences of this fact. Among which the impoverishment of critical thought and consequent leveling of western culture is not the least.

My third reservation concerns politics. There is a real need to renew reflection and to open questioning to transnational and transcultural debates, but we should strongly underline the real difficulty of communication and try to cope with it. It is also necessary to accept that there are no breaks, neither in thought nor in social and political practices. There are too many "reflections" disconnected from reality. So, if it is true that State (of which Nation-state is a very specifically western form) has to compose with other social actors (what it already does for companies' benefit and notably multinational ones), it would be erroneous to recommend that State should be an undifferentiated actor among others, at least in West where it (still) has the role of social regulation. It would also be necessary not to confuse all state forms on the planet with western State and not to envisage, once again, universal solutions which would exclude three quarters of the planet.

(translated from french by J. Tardif)

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