Economic and Cultural Globalization

By Cantor, Paul A. | Independent Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Economic and Cultural Globalization


Cantor, Paul A., Independent Review


Cultures Merging (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006) is an excellent book--with an unfortunate subtitle, A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture, which might lead us to expect that Eric L. Jones will be discussing the economic basis of cultural achievements in areas such as music, painting, and literature. But he rather cavalierly dismisses the "confusing use of culture to mean the arts" (p. 48). His book is essentially about globalization as an economic and cultural phenomenon, and it offers a cogent and well-documented defense of the way the market economy is spreading its influence to every corner of the earth. Thus, Cultures Merging joins Tyler Cowen's Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002) as a powerful antidote to the antiglobalization tirades that bombard us from all sides today in both popular journalism and academic discourse.

Jones generously acknowledges Cowen's work, and it is not a criticism of his book to say that he cannot quite match the verve and intellectual excitement of Cowen's arguments. Nor does Jones equal Cowen in the complexity of his view of globalization. Jones is unwilling to discuss at length the negative effects of globalization, and, unlike Cowen, he does not look at the cultural tragedies that sometimes result when modernization overwhelms and annihilates traditional ways of life. But given the antiglobalization slant of so much commentary today, one can understand why he would want to accentuate the positive and minimize the negative aspects of globalization--if only to restore some balance to debate on the subject. Accordingly, his book makes a major contribution to that debate and supplies new ammunition for anyone who wants to battle fashionable arguments against the spread of a market-oriented way of life around the globe.

What Jones means by a "critique of culture" is a refutation of the idea that culture is a factor that must be taken into account in economic analysis and in particular of the insistence that cultural considerations can and should impede the spread of modernization and the market economy into areas where traditional ways of life prevail. In short, Jones sets out to counter the widespread view that the market economy is itself a cultural construct specific to the Western world and therefore wrongly applied in other cultures, particularly in the undeveloped world. As Jones himself concisely states the position against which he is arguing, "The extreme holders of this view stigmatize any attempt to extend market economics beyond the West as disrupting other cultures for profit.... All cultures embody the inalienable rights of those born into them and deserve protection for that reason. Trying to integrate other cultures with the international economy (globalization) is wrong" (p. 7).

Jones systematically exposes the limitations of this way of thinking, arguing that "[t]his syndrome amounts to cultural relativism in holding that every culture is unique, and desirably unique" (p. 7). He shows how wrong it is to conceive of even the most traditional cultures as homogeneous and unchanging. Opponents of globalization make it sound as if other cultures around the world would be able to preserve a sort of timeless purity without the spread of Western influences. Antiglobalization rhetoric rests on a romantic primitivism, rooted in a hatred of Western civilization as corrupt and a desire to find its pristine antithesis on some remote non-European shore. But Jones's title points to an alternative conception of culture that is closer to the historical truth. Cultures are not self-contained and, as it were, hermetically sealed off from one another. Rather, when carefully examined, they generally turn out to have a complex texture and more often than not are the product of a merging of one prior culture with another.

Let me as a professor of English offer the English language as an illustration of what Jones means.

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