New Internationalist

The Racketeers Of Illusion

Issue 308

The racketeers of illusion
PIERS BENATAR / PANOS PICTURES

Jeremy Seabrook adds up the cultural cost of admission to the global marketplace.

With the creation of a single world market all societies yield in some measure to Western dominance. A superficially convergent culture emerges in which certain industries are crucial – entertainment, fashion and tourism, the visual media, sport, pop music and the cult of celebrities. For instance, few places in the world remained untouched by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, perhaps the first icon of globalization. The generation of mass grief for someone whom most had never met suggests a vast reservoir of exploitable emotion.

But each society mediates global market culture differently. We hear much about pluralism and diversity, not least from the enthusiasts of globalization. This is, perhaps, to convince the world that despite the rigid neo-liberal economic orthodoxy now established globally, a great variety of cultural forms remains.

Of course Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism are not going to be obliterated, any more than is Christianity, by its bastard offspring, consumerism. Cultural identities are not submerged by McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken, any more than linguistic diversity is extinguished by the universal lingua franca of money.

This is not the point. Cultural identities remain, but under the impact of the market economy they are modified and ‘commodified’ – and the change is always in the same direction. Just as in the West religious festivals like Christmas have become orgies of consumption, so a similar shift is happening in other societies. The significance of the celebration remains, yet it is subordinated to a higher purpose. Christmas is now the major marketing highlight of the year.

In the countries of the South, too, festivals that lend themselves to showy and expensive display become strengthened.

Divali, the great festival of light in India, has become both dangerous, through the sale of fireworks, and expensive, through an increasingly costly exchange of gifts. Similarly, in some Muslim countries the fasting month of Ramadan has been transformed by the consumerist ethos into something contrary to its purpose. The daily dawn-to-dusk fast, intended to check greed and develop self-restraint, turns into a self-indulgent feasting at the end of each day. In Malaysia, many hotels now offer extravagant buka-puasa (breaking of fast) buffets.

What is sometimes referred to as the ‘disneyfication of culture’ can be seen in its clearest form in Europe. Here, it means a market-driven heritage industry. Anyone travelling through Western Europe now will find virtually identical malls and gallerias, displaying the same logos and brand-names. The main distinguishing feature comes from the selling of the past: the medieval cathedral, the riverside, the royal palace and the city walls. The historical remains are embalmed, and sold in the form of T-shirts, embossed mugs and ash-trays. Quaint shops of the pedestrianized ‘Old Quarter’ will offer a local delicacy like paté or a speciality alcohol like Orvieto or Schnapps. Cultural variations have been enclosed and frozen in antique marketable clichés – French preoccupation with haute cuisine, Spanish celebration of the bullfight or Italian passion and grand opera.

Is this the fate of the great civilisations of the world? Are the real cultural differences that remain only signs of the degree of integration into the global market, which will eventually find their way into the sacrosanct museums of mass tourism?

It is perhaps too early to say. The market does not simply obliterate all earlier traditions. It is opportunistic. It will enhance and concentrate those features of a society which turn a profit or change them in such a way that they will make money. At the most basic level, everywhere in the world local homely things, familiar artefacts and goods, become archaic and shameful when set against the sophisticated results of mass production. Baskets of bamboo and grass give way to bright-red plastic buckets; plates and cups made of leaves are ousted by metal and glass; neem-twigs for teeth-cleaning are replaced by Colgate; soapberries yield to Lux and the fruits and nuts of the jungle are supplanted by Cadbury or Nestlé.

Palatable Veg-burger
But even superficial assaults on traditional customs do not always have their own way. The resistance to McDonald’s in India is by now an old story. The enormous investment in finding a palatable veg-burger has not replaced traditional Indian snacks or re-shaped Indian tastes. In 1995, the KFC outlet in Bangalore was destroyed by demonstrators who objected to such attempts.

Imported cultural activities associated with entertainment and enjoyment do have a deeper effect. Aimed specifically at the young, they soften up a new generation so that it will learn a new set of human purposes. A universal Western iconography of affluence and luxury eats into the consciousness of the peoples of the world; not altering identity, but opening up the psyche in such a way as to make acceptable, not only the sweets, but also the asperities of a capitalism become cosmos.

The garden of delights purveyed by Disney, Mattel or Time-Warner to the people of the South is a carefully crafted myth, a US ideological artefact. It serves to demobilize the poor in the places where they live, where they suffer poverty and insecurity. Hope becomes increasingly concentrated in the distant and exotic. Delight is found, not in celebrating their own lives and achievements, but in admiration of the shadowy celebrities of film and pop videos. This undermines people’s faith in themselves, diminishes their own capacity to find significant cultural satisfactions in their own deeds and achievements. Everywhere in the world there is a loss of conviction that what is ancient and traditional is of value. This is the ‘cultural cost’ of admission to the market economy.

Children have been transformed into ‘kids’ by consumer culture: a single word denotes a profound mutation in the growth and development of the young. When they grow up they will be open to the further colonizing of their minds. For just as childhood is now occupied territory, where the entertainment conglomerates have built their empire, so the educational system is becoming penetrated by the dreams of an international business culture.

From Delhi to São Paulo there are millions of youthful aspirants to the possession of a Master’s in Business Administration or a diploma or certificate in Business Studies. The young people whose imagination has been seized by this version of Western culture are highly visible in the Third World. They carry textbooks written in an impenetrable English which suggests the study of hermeneutics rather than the practicalities of business. In their enthusiasm and eagerness, they believe that possession of a certificate will magically open doors to lifelong wealth and security: infinite possibilities, endless choices, prizes and free gifts.

Business culture has swept through South Asia with the power of an irrational cult. It is clear that the vast majority of these hopeful young people will find no place in the global culture to which they aspire. They are victims of the latest fad formulated in the West, the newest version of a colonialism designed to pacify yet another generation, to provide them with a hope of non-existent careers and a future of elusive wealth and absent leisure.

India and Bangladesh are full of unemployed graduates. A generation ago their counterparts would have been studying (Western) politics and sociology and before that liberation struggles and the threat of neo-colonialism. They would have been quoting Marx and Fanon, consumed with a shining-eyed conviction that they would inherit the earth.

It is the children and grandchildren of these people who now dream instead of business success, a fantasy fed by the imagery of Disney fairy-tales and Lorimar TV films. They’re wishing on a star because they’ve seen a world where poverty has been banished, where miracles of a strictly economic kind occur, where evil is thwarted by a happy-ever-after of hi-tech luxury, a mixture of lottery-winner materialism and cartoon, infantile omnipotence.

Sexual partners
The grafting of this business gospel onto kids’ consumer culture has been going on long enough now that many have already become bitterly disappointed by the promises implicit in their social and educational experience. The qualifications are there. But there are no jobs, no prizes, no rewards.

Two responses emerge to the disillusionment that follows the realization that yet another generation has been cheated. First is a desire to escape. A desperate urge to move out: to a job in the Gulf, any job. Driving, domestic service, factory labour, security guard. Anything that provides an income. They attach themselves to foreigners, offer themselves as cleaners, cooks, houseboys, sexual partners, anything that will take them to the West. The result is a generation disturbed in its sense of place and identity.

This leads many to the second response. Able young men are recruited by criminal gangs. A world of extortion, blackmail, protection money and drug-dealing exists in every slum from Dhaka to Recifé. Some gangs are connected to political parties, some are the fall-out from corruption of those in legitimate jobs – in the police, port authorities, customs, property speculation, real estate, film industries or prostitution. All offer rich pickings for criminal activities. A caricature of glamour and business is fused at last in the lengthening shadow cast by the global market.

The racketeers of illusion who’ve made their fortunes do not care about the fate of the young people betrayed, the swallowers of the fictions. For most of these have no choice but to make their way in the ruined and ravaged places in which business fortunes are indeed made, but by outsiders, those practised in the truly magic arts of filtering wealth from poor to rich. Pity the young inheritors of broken hopes and a future used up in advance.

Jeremy Seabrook is a journalist and author living in London and a frequent contributor to NI. His latest novel is Colonies of the Heart, GMP, London, 1998.

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