Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Globalization?

by Patrick Schabe

31 March 2000


It’s getting to the point where you can’t enjoy a simple hamburger these days. Somehow, the hamburger has become the most guilt-ridden food available. So manythings come wrapped up in that paper wrapper as hidden condiments that it’s amazing we can’t even eat the things. Vegetarian invective; inhumane treatment of factory farmed beef; animal, vegetable, and industrial waste; environmental degradation due to paper wrappers, waxy cups, and moldy Beanie Babies — they all serve to make that fried and dried meat puck a bit hard to swallow. And now, thanks to growth hormones and a whole bevy of theoretical issues, McDonalds just might prevent our chances for world peace. Just ask Jose Bove.

On November 30, 1999, after the first day of riots and chaos that engulfed Seattle during the World Trade Organization summit, NPR’s All Things Considered ran a story in which Bove, a French farmer, was interviewed. Bove had been arrested in France and spent 10 days in jail for leading a protest in which an under-construction McDonalds was dismantled. He reappeared in Seattle on November 30 to lead another protest against a McDonalds during the summit. This time, masked protestors, who Bove claims were not a part of his group, attacked the store itself, smashing windows and destroying property. In the interview with NPR, Bove claimed that his primary motivation was trying to voice the concerns of farmers who are against hormone treated beef. The U.S.‘s unwillingness to back down from exporting such beef has caused a tariff war with France that has lasted for months. Bove’s grievances have less to do with tariffs and more to do with the perceived destruction of private agriculture by industrial agriculture. That, and the fact that McDonalds is seen as a “symbol of globalization and the standardization of food.”

If I follow Bove’s logic, he seems to be making the claim that globalization isthe root cause of industrial agriculture. Because of globalization, superchains like McDonalds extend the demand for their food across the globe. Industrial agriculture is implemented to supply the increased demand. This, in turn, kills off the family farm and the hormone treated beef favored by industrial farmers becomes the only available source of food. Since the WTO’s purpose has proven to be industrial globalization, let’s dismantle them too. There has to be a flaw in the logic, right? Well, the general fears about industrial agriculture overtaking all others and forcing the competition out of business have been borne out by business in the last decade. The parallel expansion of the culinary choice of America, fast food, has been equally as large.

This does seem to be a clear-cut example of the symbiotic relationship between business and industry. As with so much else, the glaring flaw is in the interpretation. In this case, it’s the interpretation of globalization, and the subsequent mislabeling of McDonalds, that causes all of the problems. It’s a similar misinterpretation to the one that seems to permeate much of cultural theory when it comes to the issue of globalization. At what point did the possibility of a global system of interaction (I’m trying to avoid using the word “government” here) become synonymous with the elimination of cultural diversity?

Perhaps its because cultural preservation became the natural extension of the multicultural movement. Not that I’m saying multiculturalism is flawed. On the contrary, I think a more complete immersion in multiculturalism will end fears of globalization. What better way to fight against a homogenized version of humanity than to reaffirm the cultural diversity that spreads across the globe? The point is that globalization does not automatically mean homogenization. All the issues that are tied up in globalization (economics, politics, religion, culture, etc.) are too much to discuss here, but this is one argument that can be made succinctly.

Culture is full of tangibles and intangibles. It is comprised of norms, mores, rituals, and forms of symbolic meaning. It is also the material form of our expressions such as books, television, movies, and music, and how these forms embody some of the abstract realities individual cultures exist within. Culture is not the sum of its products. Although I can see some obvious parallels, I for one do not like to think that all of American culture can be summed up in Happy Meals and whether or not we want it “supersized.”

The real fear here is that the United States, as the globe’s last remaining economic superpower, will be able to export its culture to every acre that people live on and that everyone will wind up trying to emulate Beverly Hills 90210 and planning their lives around Super Bowl Sunday. The fact that culture contains such abstract variables makes this a pretty unrealistic picture. Much of the standards that are taken for granted in one culture are alien, and often anathema, in others. It is misleading to view the U.S. as a cultural Big Brother whose tendrils are slowly closing over the Earth. Cultures are often incompatible, and when this occurs, distinct cultural objects are either rejected or reinterpreted. This last capacity is an indicator of the evolutionary nature of cultures. Culture adapts to that which challenges it. Check out a copy of The Gods Must Be Crazy from your local video store (soon to be a Blockbuster!).

Ultimately, the globalization of certain businesses, especially ones that provide both service and culture in the form of food, relies on the customer base. If the French are truly sick of escargot and want a cheeseburger, then the demand will warrant a McDonalds. If they want to be Francocentric and refuse to eat such Americanized dreck, then the business will not survive. EuroDisney is a great example of a global business that initially failed because the demand doesn’t exist When we talk about globalization of business, it is important to remember that supply chains are still the economic basis for feasibility. When we talk about the globalization of culture, then we have to remember the ideas of taste cultures as developed by Herbert Gans. Gans, in talking about popular culture, placed the onus on the taste of the consumer public. If the tastes of a certain group change, then traditional culture will have to adapt to those changes.

On a global scale, regional cultures will have to adapt to incorporate global ideas. If the majority rules for cultural hegemony, then they’ll get it, and the minority will have to alter their consumption habits to fit their now-radicalized perspective on personal choice. Globalization seems immanent at this point, with our communications technologies bringing us closer and closer together, and our economies becoming so intertwined that we are chained to each other’s ankles. And while the world wars of the twentieth century make the prospect a bit frightening, the advent of a global era also makes the hope for global humanitarianism and peace seem a bit closer to reality.

With a steady hand and an eye on the future, we can control the extent to which it works for us or against us. Not that the WTO is right. Not that I want to put private farmers out of business. Not that I particularly care for the flavor of hormone treated beef. But if it means one less war or one more opportunity to see this planet as a single resource with a single race of human beings, then I’m hopping in my car and driving to McDonalds right now. Eat a Big Mac for world peace!

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