Demon by Siona Benjamin (detail)
Demon by Siona Benjamin (detail)
Demon by Siona Benjamin (detail)
  Globalisation and culture

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  Amartya Sen

  Günter Grass
  Joseph E. Stiglitz
  Meghnad Desai
  Jug Suraiya
  Sunil Khilnani
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Meghnad Desai

Woodcut, 19th century Bengal, by MADHAV DAS / Seagull

What we call globalisation has had many avatars. In the pre-Columbine world, the Roman Empire was one phase of globalisation which stretched across Europe and much of Central Asia and North Africa.1 The Islamic phase began as the Roman Empire decayed and shifted the geographic centre of the globalised order eastwards towards India and its borders stretched even to China. In the 14th century, Ibn Batuta’s travels from his native Morocco through the Maghreb via the Holy Lands to India and China suggested the Islamic global order, a vital part of which was Al-Hind, ‘the entire Indianised region from Sind and Makran to the Indonesian Archipelago and mainland Southeast Asia’. The history of this area is being traced by Andre Wink in his magnificent multi-volume project Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World, of which the first three volumes have already appeared. As Wink says in the introduction to his first volume:

“… The growth and development of a world economy in and around the Indian Ocean — with India at its centre and the Middle East and China as its two dynamic poles — was effected by continued economic, social and cultural integration into ever wider and more complex patterns under the aegis of Islam… Already long before the arrival of the Portuguese, the region from East Africa and Ethiopia to Arabia, the Yemen, Persia, India and the Indonesian Archipelago, increasingly acquired a unitary Islamic identity, a distinctive historical personality, which made it the largest cultural continuum of the world… It was not the Europeans — the Portuguese, Dutch or British — who made a world economy of the Indian Ocean in any sense. From the very beginning the integrative processes which occurred here under the banner of Islam have set it apart from the Mediterranean world.”

The Islamic global order survived onslaughts from the West by Christendom (the Crusades) and from the east by the Mongol armies. It absorbed the latter but the former proved intractable in the long run. Once the Columbine (or Da Gama) era began with the discovery of America and the sea route to India, both in the last decade of the 15th century, a new ‘world system’ was born. The geographical extension beyond Europe, Africa and Asia to the New World and the Antipodes made this new order truly global.

The many avatars of globalisation

The current phase of globalisation is several avatars down from the Iberian phase which was born in the late 15th century. That order went through a critical phase when in the 16th century, Luther split the Christian Church and a Protestant expansion was added to the original Iberian Catholic thrust. But soon after in the 18th century, the Enlightenment took the initiative away from the Church and a rational modern phase was inaugurated. It was during this phase that industrial capitalism had its origins in the remote northwest corner of Europe. In many ways, world history and indeed cultures have never been the same since.

The change from the Islamic phase of globalisation to the Iberian Catholic phase was not very dramatic. There were technological innovations — the fast sailing ship mounted with manoeuvrable guns being the crucial one — which gave an advantage to Iberian sailors [Cipolla]. But that could have been reversed and the Islamic order could have recovered. Indeed, it fought on as the Ottoman Empire for two hundred years more. What made the Western European tilt to globalisation hard to reverse was the clutch of industrial innovations which occurred in mid-18th century England2. Whatever we may say about its earlier forms, such as merchant capitalism etc, capitalism proper was inaugurated with the Industrial Revolution. It was technology which gave the West its superiority for the next 200 years.

Mercantile empires had long preceded the rise of industrial capitalism. The Iberian expansion had carried with it Papal blessings and a crusading spirit to the Americas. The later Protestant empires of Holland and England were interested more in the money of the people they traded with than their souls, yet they took the Church along with them. This was in my view superficial, but the beliefs of the Europeans who went across the world selling the new industrial exports of industrial capitalism were a muddle of Enlightenment and Christianity. Thus Western civilisation (so-called) came to the Iberian colonies in its pre-modern, anti-rational, Catholic variant and the Dutch and English colonies got a strong dose of trade and rationality with soft-pedalling of the Christian elements. What made the colonials swallow the dose and persist with the combination was the superior technology born out of the godless Enlightenment, and yet the Church in its several sectarian denominations arrogated to itself an air of superiority as a consequence.

Cultures and the challenge of modernity

What resulted from this, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, was the challenge of modernity in the form of imperialism — a double challenge to the cultures of the vanquished and to their economies, which were transformed through exchange and the introduction of new technology.

Culture is a contested concept. While cultures have existed since time immemorial, the idea of culture as a category of study is a product of the Enlightenment. Indeed, the study of cultures and their articulation is no older than the late 19th century, when James Frazer published his classic work The Golden Bough. Since then, anthropologists have mapped out several cultures, their lifestyles, their kinship structures, their beliefs about this and other worlds. But culture as a concept has left academia and acquired a political force of its own as an ideology of nationalism.

Recently, with the revival of various religious fundamentalisms, it is fashionable in most progressive circles to adopt a ‘secular’ definition of culture, separating it from religion. While in the 20th century an agnostic or even atheistic form of culture grew up in the West and transmitted itself to the children of the Enlightenment (among whom I count myself) everywhere, it is important for my purposes to view this separation as a recently evolved phase of culture and not a structurally permanent aspect. Thus, I shall take cultures as loaded heavily with religion for much of known history. This helps sharpen the difficulties we face today on the issue of culture.

In a way, nationalism is a European idea universalised as no other. But as an idea transmitted from Europe to the periphery during the imperialist phase of history, it shared the muddle I described above. It combined rationality and religion in various proportions in different territories

Culture is often thought to be some timeless constant with deep roots and ancient histories transmitted across generations in an unchanging fashion. Those who champion this view seek ways of rooting culture in beliefs and objects which can claim to be changeless. Hence the emphasis on texts which are said to be divinely inspired or even divinely pronounced. But a culture is as much a product of social and economic forces as most other human practices. Texts of even divine provenance are found, on critical examination, to be full of disputed items or a result of multiple inputs over a period of time. The same text undergoes different interpretations despite claims that there can only be one reading of a text. Culture may change at a pace slower than more material objects. It may and indeed does exert a profound influence on social and economic life. But it is as much an endogenous product of human social practice as is the economy or technology, or even knowledge.

The inauguration of the late 18th century Enlightenment or modern phase of capitalism caused a crisis for all religions. Christianity was challenged at home by rationality and science. Newton and Faraday and Harvey and Darwin demolished the Genesis story and it now survives more as a parable than as literal truth. But Islam and Hinduism and every other religion also went through crises. For Islam, the crisis was delayed due to the existence of the Ottoman Empire which, in its own ramshackle way, held the flag aloft for the Islamic world order described by Andre Wink in the quote above. But this delay made the crisis all the more profound when it came.

From the mid-19th century onwards, there were stirrings within Islam to meet the dual challenge of Western imperialism — to the economy and to the religious/cultural ecology. The reactions, as always, took two alternate paths. One was the reassertion of orthodoxy, a call to return to the origins of Islam. The other path was to adapt and modernise to meet the challenge. [Hourani, 1991]

The real shock came with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. The dismemberment of the Empire and its fragmentation into various separate territories — each a proto-nation and yet eager to rejoin the old union — are still with us and causing ructions around the Middle East. It was then that the full impact of Western imperialisms was felt by the Arab world and beyond by Muslims everywhere. The struggle for modernity in Islam was engaged.

Islam was not unique in this. A similar challenge was posed to Hinduism and its reactions also began in the early 19th century. Here again, the twin paths of orthodox revivalism and modernist adaptation were taken. But the Hindus in India had no recent memory of a powerful world-conquering empire to seek solace in. The reactions were heavily loaded in favour of various modes of adaptation, some closer to Christianity, such as the Brahmo Samaj, and others somewhat closer to ideas of revival as in the Arya Samaj. This reformist tilt also owed to two other reasons specific to Hinduism. It has met two previous challenges during its long history; first from Buddhism, which battled with the ancient religion and receded abroad, and from Islam, whence Hindu society withdrew into its caste-based structure. But Hinduism is also a religion like no other. It has no single text, no single Church or priestly order and no single deity. This makes it a constantly changing, adaptable body of beliefs and practices unlike any other religion.

But along with this religious/cultural response came the other response to the challenge of modernity posed by the Enlightenment. This took the form of nationalism and in this, the habits of rational discourse were eagerly adopted by nationalists everywhere. If the challenge was modernity, the response was modernisation — nationalism, industrialisation, mechanisation. In a way, nationalism is a European idea universalised as no other. But as an idea transmitted from Europe to the periphery during the imperialist phase of history, it shared the muddle I described above. It combined rationality and religion in various proportions in different territories. Thus nationalism is an ideology sometimes fused with religion and at other times in conflict with it. Needless to say, Indian nationalism is a perfect example of this ambivalence.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3 notes

Lord Meghnad Desai is a Labour Party legislator of Britain’s House of Lords and a former professor at the
London School of Economics. He lives in London