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The McDonaldization of the whole world?

By Elizabeth Schulte | June 28, 2002 | Page 7

IT SEEMS that American culture has spread is tentacles into every corner of the world. According to Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation, there are 17,000 McDonald's restaurants in more than 120 countries around the world--a six-fold increase from a decade ago.

Hollywood controls roughly 80 percent of the European film market. The entertainment that the U.S. exports--especially now, during the U.S. government's "war on terrorism"--often tries to feed people a line about "American values" of "democracy" and "freedom."

But the U.S. entertainment industry has plenty of other rotten ideas to offer--from the sexism and corporate self-centeredness of TV's Ally McBeal to the anti-Arab stereotypes of movies like The Mummy.

In his book Jihad vs. McWorld, journalist Benjamin Barber describes "McWorld" as "a busy portrait of onrushing economic, technological, and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity and that mesmerize peoples everywhere with fast music, fast computers and fast food--MTV, Macintosh, and McDonald's--pressing nations into one homogenous global theme park."

You could easily reach the conclusion from this argument that the process of globalization has meant that U.S. culture is destroying "weaker" national cultures--and has to be stopped. But there are problems with this view.

First, the idea that people in poor nations are "mesmerized" by a flashy, technologically advanced culture is condescending. Secondly, this attitude can lead to the conclusion that "weaker" national cultures are always "good"--while all of American culture is "bad."

Marxism provides a different way of looking at the question. Culture can be defined broadly as all of people's different social practices--what they do for a living, their religions, the way that women are viewed, languages.

There's also a narrow meaning of culture, which refers to art, music and literature. For Marxists, the two meanings are linked--because we believe that it's impossible to separate human beings' economic life from their cultural life.

As the Russian revolutionary Lenin put it, "There are two national cultures in every national culture. The elements of democratic and socialist culture are present, if only in rudimentary form, in every national culture…But every nation also possesses a bourgeois culture (and most nations a reactionary and clerical culture as well) in the form, not merely of 'elements,' but of the dominant culture. Therefore, the general 'national culture' is the culture of the landlords, the clergy and the bourgeoisie."

This "general national culture" artificially ties workers and rulers together--to the detriment of workers. This is obvious in the case of the American patriotism whipped up after September 11 to convince U.S. workers to "stand united" with their leaders.

But the same can be said about aspects of the "national culture" of the oppressed. Take the practice in some Muslim countries of forcing women to wear the veil--something that further subjugates women.

Socialists in this country have to defend the right of women to wear the veil against the racist hysteria whipped up against Muslims. But this is about opposing racism--not because we believe there's anything progressive about this oppressive aspect of culture.

Likewise, while socialists in this country share the justified hatred of U.S. cultural domination of other countries, we don't hate everything about American culture--or uncritically celebrate other national cultures. Ultimately, we're for what Lenin called an "international culture," taking the best of what human culture has to offer from around the world.

In important ways, globalization has advanced the possibility of creating this international culture. But as long as capitalists rule the world in the interests of profit, the potential can't be realized.

That's why socialists stand for a new society--without borders or ethnic and racial divisions, where we can control our own lives.

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