The fragmented global culture
It has become a cliché to say that international interdependence is great, has increased, and will continue to grow. Normally interdependence is intended to refer to trade, foreign investment, the flow of money and capital, and the migration of people. Rapid progress in transport and communications, in particular technological advances such as optic cables, computer microchips, fax machines and satellite transmissions, have shrunk the world. The international spread of cultural processes, however, is at least as important as that of economic processes. As members of the Commission meet in different cities and as they travel round the world, they have an opportunity to observe the young in the cities in which they meet: from Ladakh to Lisbon, from China to Peru, in the East, West, North and South, styles in dress, jeans, hair-dos, T-shirts, jogging, eating habits, musical tunes, attitudes to sexuality, divorce and abortion have become global. Even crimes such as those relating to drugs, the abuse and rape of women, embezzlement and corruption transcend frontiers and have become similar everywhere in the world.
Globalizing cultural processes are not entirely dominated by one country, the USA, or even by the "West" or the "North." Contributions to world literature, world music and world art are emerging from Bombay, Rio de Janeiro, Ouagadougou or Seoul, as they are from New York, London, Liverpool or Paris.
The world-wide pressures of popular culture -- in music, films, television, dresses, habits and attitudes -- to penetrate other cultures are powerful, and often accepted and even welcomed by people from different cultures with alacrity and enthusiasm. It is not just American television that has a worldwide following, but also English pop groups, Japanese cartoons, Venezuelan and Brazilian soap operas, Hong Kong kung fu films, and Indian films in the Arab world.
A possible danger of this spread of popular mass culture is that the size and scale of the media of communication dominate what is promulgated, and that tastes and interests of minorities get lost. These are not primarily élite tastes and interests; they may be those of certain groups of ordinary men and women. It is not so much that the mass media must cater to the lowest common denominator. If people share some interests, while other interests differentiate them, the minority interests will tend to be ignored or neglected in favour of those of the majority. Television and broadcasting have to rely on the economies of large scale. On the other hand, the large, global scale can permit catering for specialized interests. Since there is value in differentiation and diversity, we should attempt to provide the maximum opportunities for a wide range of voices to be heard in the global commons.
The impression of global uniformity is, however, deceptive. Just as trade, foreign investment and the flow of money have affected only a few regions of the world and left the rest untouched, so this globalization of culture is fragmented and only now beginning. It is evident in the towns and suburbs, and the more advanced countryside. The poor in the rural hinterlands, in spite of the increasing availability of transistors and television, have been largely bypassed. Globalization itself is an unequal and asymmetrical process. Nor does it diminish the uncertainty, insecurity and entropy of the world system. It is awareness of this that has led to reactions. There are the resurgent assertions of peoples and their leaders in the post-Cold War world, mainly in Central and Eastern Europe, but elsewhere also. There is the often uneasy acceptance of standardized information and consumption patterns. People turn to culture as a means of self-definition and mobilization and assert their local cultural values. For the poorest among them , their own values are often the only thing that they can assert. Traditional values, it is claimed, bring identity, continuity and meaning to their lives.
In many lands there has been a convulsive ingathering, a return to past traditions and a reaction towards tribalism. We are witnessing religious revivalism everywhere: Islamic in the Muslim world, evangelical Christian fundamentalism not only in the United States, but also in East Asia, Africa and Latin America. Hindu revivalism is evident in India and a Judaic one in Israel. It is partly a reaction against the alienating effects of large-scale, modern technology and the unequal distribution of the benefits from industrialization. The concern is that development has meant the loss of identity, sense of community and personal meaning.
Although many groups wish to return to or maintain their ancient traditions, sometimes in the form of a return to tribalism, most people wish to participate in "modernity" in terms of their own traditions. The very existence of a World Commission on Culture and Development is itself a reflection of this demand of peoples from every part of the planet. Some features of traditional societies are worth preserving in their own right; these and others may also be instrumental in advancing economic development; others will have to change, be adapted to the requirements of a changing and progressing world; yet others will have to be implanted from outside.
Japan and other East Asian countries seem to have succeeded in this better than others. Traditional consumption habits, community loyalties, patterns of co-operation and hierarchies have contributed to the extraordinary economic growth of the country. Neither tradition nor modernity are static: both are continually changing. Neither all tradition nor all modernity is to be welcomed. The repressive nature of some traditional values and practices and of some modern ones is evident. Tradition can spell stagnation, oppression, inertia, privilege and cruel practices; modernization can amount to alienation, anomy, exclusion and a loss of identity and of a sense of community.
In spite of four decades of development efforts, poverty remains high. Although the proportion of poor people has diminished significantly on all continents except Africa, absolute numbers have increased.
Over a billion poor people have been largely bypassed by the globalization of cultural processes. Involuntary poverty and exclusion are unmitigated evils. All development efforts aim at eradicating them and enabling all people to develop their full potential. Yet, all too often in the process of development, it is the poor who shoulder the heaviest burden. It is economic growth itself that interferes with human and cultural development. In the transition from subsistence-oriented agriculture to commercial agriculture, poor women and children are sometimes hit hardest. In the transition from a traditional society, in which the extended family takes care of its members who suffer misfortunes, to a market society, in which the community has not yet taken on responsibility for the victims of the competitive struggle, the fate of these victims can be cruel. In the transition from rural patron-client relationships to relations based on the cash nexus, the poor suffer by losing one type of support without gaining another. In the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society, the majority of rural people are neglected by the public authorities in favour of the urban population. In the transitions that we are now witnessing from centrally planned to market-oriented economies, and from autocracies to democracies, inflation, mass unemployment, growing poverty, alienation and new crimes have to be confronted.
This does not mean that modernization is bad and should be rejected: on the contrary. Some traditional societies practise their own cruelties and oppressions, from female genital mutilation to sexual subjugation, attacks on women with too small dowries, widow burning, child marriage, female infanticide, domestic battering, cannibalism, slavery and the exploitation of child labour. With rapidly growing populations as a result of the introduction of modern mortality rates into societies with traditional birth rates, development is not an option: it is a necessity.
As a result of accelerated change, of the impact of Western culture, mass communications, rapid population growth, urbanization, the break-up of the traditional village and of the extended family, traditional cultures (often orally transmitted) have been disrupted. Cultures are not monolithic and the élite culture, often geared to the global culture, tends to exclude the poor and powerless.