When President Bush meets with the other leading industrial nations
at the G8 conference in Italy in July, weighty topics, including economic
development, trade and Third World debt, will be high on the agenda.
What's equally interesting, however, is the agenda of tens of
thousands of protesters from around the world who are expected to gather
in Genoa. They want to talk about the various ways global corporations
like Monsanto, AOL-Time Warner and McDonald's are undermining cultural
diversity and destroying the viability of local communities.
Protests are becoming a familiar part of world political and economic
forums. But, although the attention often goes to the relatively few
violent protesters, there is a bigger message worth listening to. The
fact is, we are witnessing the first stirrings of a cultural backlash to
globalization whose effects are likely to be significant and
Local cultures are reawakening everywhere in the world. In India,
consumers recently trashed McDonald's restaurants for violating Hindu
dietary laws. In Germany, there is a heated debate over what is German
culture in the era of globalization. In France, angry farmers uprooted
Monsanto's genetically engineered crops, claiming that they are a threat
to French cultural sovereignty over food production. In Canada, local
communities are fighting to keep out the giant Wal-Mart retail chain for
fear it will replace traditional small-town culture with suburban super
Globalization is changing the cultural landscape in other fundamental
ways. In Europe, native languages are giving way to English, the language
of globalization, and observers predict an English-speaking continent
from Calais to Moscow by the end of the present century.
The increasing disparity between the "haves" and the "have nots" is
forcing a great human migration from east to west and from south to
north, resulting in a clash of cultures as people wrestle with how to
preserve their cultural identities in an increasingly borderless
The official agenda being readied for the G8 summit makes little
mention of this emerging worldwide cultural activism, and herein lies the
core of the problem. The powers that be have long believed that the world
is divided into two spheres of influence: commerce and government. Now
organizations representing the cultural sphere--the environment, species
preservation, rural life, health, food and cuisine, religion, human
rights, the family, women's issues, ethnic heritage, the arts and other
quality-of-life issues--are pounding on the doors at world economic and
political forums and demanding a place at the table. They represent the
birth of a new "civil society politics" and an antidote to the forces
pushing for globalization.
In the weeks leading up to the G8 conference, we should take a sober
look at the differing ideological visions that lie at the heart of the
impasse between commerce and government on the one hand and the newly
emboldened civil society movement on the other.
The advocates of globalization would argue that free and open trade
and an expansion of commercial relationships and activities of all kinds
are the keys to a brighter future for all. The flaw in this premise lies
in the misguided assumption that commerce spurs culture when, in fact,
the exact opposite is more often the case.
The new cultural activists would argue that there is not an example in
history where people first create commercial relations and then establish
a culture. Commerce and government are secondary, not primary,
institutions. They are derivative of the culture, not the progenitors of
it. People first establish a common language, agreed-upon codes of
behavior and a shared sense of purpose--to wit, social capital. Only when
cultures are well developed is there enough social trust to support
commercial and governmental institutions.
If the G8 leaders are united in their support of global commerce and
trade, the civil society movement groups are just as committed to the
idea of preserving local identity and enriching both biological and
Unfortunately, today, the cultural sector exists in a kind of
neocolonial limbo between the market and government sectors. Only by
making local culture a coherent, self-aware political force will it be
possible to reestablish its critical role in the scheme of human society
once again. Indeed, it may be time to establish a World Cultural
Organization to represent diverse cultures around the globe, and give the
"WCO" an equal footing with the WTO (World Trade Organization) in
Some people worry that a resurgent interest in local cultures must
inevitably lead to xenophobia and ultra-nationalist sentiment. That
doesn't have to be so. If people everywhere come to think of their own
cultural resources not as possessions to defend but, rather, as gifts to
exchange with one another, then the great human migrations of the 21st
century could spawn a cultural renaissance and create the conditions for
a truly humane globalization of commerce and trade.
The ability of political leaders to identify with and promote both the
interests of the civil society and cultural diversity will be critical to
ensuring their relevance and viability in the coming century. This was
the lesson being taught by the protesters assembling on the streets of
Seattle 18 months ago. It's a lesson that is likely to repeat itself on
the streets of Genoa in July.
The question is, will the heads of state who assemble in Italy take
the time to listen carefully to the message coming from outside their
windows? If they don't, the escalating frustration is likely to play into
the hands of the growing number of violence-prone extremists, with untold
consequences for the world's future.
Jeremy Rifkin, author of "The Age of Access" (Tarcher/putnam, 2000), is president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C.
Copyright © 2001 Los Angeles Times