National Cultures in the Age of Globalization: The Case of Canada

By Salutin, Rick | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

National Cultures in the Age of Globalization: The Case of Canada


Salutin, Rick, Queen's Quarterly


RICK SALUTIN is a freelance writer. He has written plays and novels and is media columnist for The Globe and Mail. This article is adapted from an address to the German Association for Canadian Studies.

Let me begin by explaining what I mean when I use the term "globalization" - and what I do not mean. I do not mean globalization in the sense of the communications revolution, the information highway, the Internet, and other breathless coinages. Every advance in communications technology over the past 200 years has been hailed as unprecedented, transformative, inaugurating a new version of human nature, extending democracy and so forth. During the French Revolution, the introduction of semaphore, for heaven's sake, was hailed in this way. It was going to make the nation state obsolete and lead to the integration of all humanity. Similar claims were made for the telegraph, film, radio, television - and of course the Internet.

THE sense in which I do mean to use globalization refers to the global economic reach and power of corporate capital in our time. In its case, I would also like to enter a routine demur against the claim that it truly counts as globalization in some general and unique sense. It is certainly not the only form of globalization, or even the only form of economic globalization, which could be imagined or achieved. It is capitalist and corporate, it subjugates all human values and social posibilities to economic calculation and the profit advantage of a few huge players - and they are growing ever fewer. In the time it has taken you to read the first few paragraphs of this article, the number of major corporate actors has probably decreased due to mergers and acquisitions. This is concentration of power on a level that makes feudal accumulations of power look shabby and decentralized. It is not globalization in a general sense but in a very limited and particular sense. At most, it is one cramped version of globalization. In this light, the central contradiction of our time is not between global and local realities, but between corporate capital as a centre of power and all other possible sources of power.

Globalization in this sense is a terribly serious threat to the cohesion of societies and the welfare of individuals, one which seems to me comparable to the situation in Europe before the First World War. A savage, destructive global conflict is having massive deleterious effects, and so far we have only seen their beginnings. What little progress was made is being rolled back - in the Third World, in the cities of the First, in the immense and shameful gap between rich and poor everywhere. Globalization in this sense is a global social calamity for the majority, for structures and institutions - from nations to communities - and for the assumptions around which they have often organized their sense of self.

ONE of the most striking phenomena of our times is the increased importance of national cultures in this era of globalization. Given the great disruptions that globalization has occasioned in people's lives everywhere, it is predictable that they should turn to traditional sources of stability and identification. Whatever provides such a resource will be valued, clung to and, if necessary, resuscitated. We see this with the renewed attachment to religion in our time - from Islamic fundamentalism to the born-again Christians of the United States and Latin America. In his series of novels about the end of British rule in India, The Raj Quartet, Paul Scott has a character speculate that the rise of Hindu and Muslim militancy in India during the later years of British rule was due to the "comfort and support" religion provided in the face of British imperialism. "Hit a man in the face long enough," writes Scott, "and he turns to his racial memory and his tribal gods." In other words, modern imperial politics revived religion. In much the same way, you might say that modern global economics has revived national culture and ethnicity, along with religion. …

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