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Is Culture Really Threatened by the Free Market?

Frédéric Jollien

Globalization is often accused of many evils. One of them, particularly put forward by conservatives, is that it weakens the specificity of cultures in favor of global standardization. The market is thus blamed for destroying values and regional cultures in favor of a superficial mass culture based on profit.

In his 1998 book False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, author Jeremy Tunstall argues that “authentic, traditional, and local culture in many parts of the world is being battered out of existence by the indiscriminate dumping of large quantities of slick commercial and media products, mainly from the United States.” Sadly, it's not only a claim from anti-capitalist writers but also an opinion shared by many people.

Local cultures are nothing but the product of many past exchanges.Sitting in his favorite Irish bar, the French citizen, dressed in his Chinese cotton clothes, sips his Spanish wine from a Polish wine glass while he complains about American pop music broadcast by Japanese loudspeakers. Because he is "tired of this cultural invader," he intends to vote for subsidies to “protect” local culture, meaning the government would force the media to disseminate local bands. But ask him what his favorite bands and singers are and he will look away.

Local cultures are nothing but the product of many past exchanges. "Indigenous" menus are garnished with fruits and vegetables that were not in Europe before the end of the 17th century. Language is generally a crossroads of the many exchanges made with other tribes. Local music is played on instruments that have been developed, invented, or made in other countries. Literature is written on paper invented in China and our numbers are Arabic. Defining "our" culture makes very little sense when we realize that culture is the fruit of thousands of historical crossings and a multiplicity of specificities.

In addition to his hypocrisy, the protectionist is mistaken in his judgment. The free market has not made culture into a homogenized mass. On the contrary, it has brought about a substantial improvement in local cultures.

Improving One Culture with Another

Inuit art in carved stone did not fully develop until the end of the 20th century, thanks to trade with Italy, Brazil, and the province of Québec, which allowed sculptors to access steatite, a stone that is easy to carve. Irish music was revived in the ‘60s with substantial changes like the introduction of the Greek bouzouki and the African or Jamaican wood for its famous flutes. The beauty of diatonic and dissonant chants of Bulgarian choirs were recognized by Hollywood where they were used in blockbusters such as Troy and Avatar. These examples are infinite and can be observed around us every day.

The problem is, therefore, not the supposed destruction of local specificities. Indeed, they have never been so widely diffused throughout the world, and have never been as improved as they are today because of the openness offered by the multiplicity of exchanges. The problem for these critics of the free market is the visibility of variety, the freedom of choice offered to all: Chinese and kebab restaurants flourish everywhere around the globe, Irish pubs resonate to the sound of traditional music sessions, and African and Latin dance classes are big successes in many countries. The free market has led to cosmopolitanism.

Cross-cultural engagement is a core foundation of cultural enrichment, and only freedom offers geniune incentives for this.With freedom of choice, everyone seeks out what fascinates him, that which corresponds to his values and tastes, and each creates his own identity. You can go to the local festivals, sing in the village choir, and dance the Brazilian salsa. No one is forced to make exclusive choices.

Parallel to this increase in heterogeneity, citizens seek a local specificity linked to their land and their community of life. This powerful dynamic of reinforcement of cultural particularity is especially evident in places where patriotism is really strong like Northern Ireland, Brittany, Bayern, etc. As economist Tyler Cowen says in his 2002 book Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures, creativity is not only found in an exacerbated cosmopolitanism but also occasionally in the affirmation of its specific differences. This affirmation isn’t in opposition with globalization or cosmopolitanism, it’s a part of it.

False accusations are made against the free market. The anti-liberal ideology reflects, above all, the desire of some to shape the tastes of others to their personal visions. They blame an economic system based on freedom of choice for creating a world different than their dreams.

Strangely, it is because of globalization that people have invested so much in their local culture and have greatly improved it. Do not aim to destroy the exchanges that have created specific cultures. Conservatives should glorify the free market, welcome the spread of their culture around the world, and continue to commit to improving it. Similarly, the "progressives" should stop blaming the conservatives for their patriotism; it is also an engine of creativity. Cross-cultural engagement is a core foundation of cultural enrichment, and only freedom offers genuine incentives for this.

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