Demon by Siona Benjamin (detail)
Demon by Siona Benjamin (detail)
Demon by Siona Benjamin (detail)
  Globalisation and culture - 2

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  Vol V : issue 4& 5

  Amartya Sen

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

Woodcut, early 20th century, Calcutta / Seagull

Socialism, its challenge and its demise

As the challenge of modernity was faced by the various non-Western cultures and peoples in the 19th century, a new ingredient was added, very much from an endogenous reaction within Western capitalist societies. This was socialism as an ideology, as a movement and as a programme. Socialism was in its origin a secular ideology though religious versions — Christian Socialism, for example — are not unknown. The Marxian variant of socialism and its triumphant post-1917 version of Bolshevism were atheistic. It was taken up by many nationalist movements as a response to the challenge of modernity inasmuch as it was rational and technophiliac but anti-capitalist. Socialism became a sort of religion for millions in the 20th century.

Thus the cultural response to the challenge of modernity took the paths of revivalism or reform of religion. The nationalist response to the materialist challenge of the Enlightenment aligned with religion or with socialism in different measures. Rarely was there a nationalism which wedded itself to liberal capitalist ideology. If capitalism was to be welcome, it had to come as socialist modernisation.

The phase of globalisation which we are living through at present is in some ways just another  avatar of globalisations of the past, but in many ways it is unique. For our purposes, its uniqueness consists not so much in the speed of technological change that it has imposed, nor in the qualitative nature of such change, but in the ideological vacuum in which it has erupted. I date the latest phase of capitalism as starting after the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1971 and the quadrupling of oil prices in 1973. A series of changes in capitalism were unleashed then which we are coping with today.3 Within these thirty years that it has been around, it has already seen the collapse of socialism as a viable alternative ideology to liberal capitalism. One powerful support for non-Western nationalisms in their struggle with modernity has thus been devalued. Even China, which is seen to be formally committed to socialism, practises a pale version of the Old Truth when it comes to its economy. No other economy managed economic growth on par with capitalist rivals in Europe or elsewhere while relying on socialism.

Socialism was a double-edged sword. It could be deployed against Western capitalism. But it could also turn against religious obscurantism, or just against any form of religion. While there are religious variants of socialism, as I said above, none is robust. Socialism is an atheist ideology, and hence its modernist appeal. Its devalorisation in the late 20th century has left many in the so-called Third World bereft. Secularism in India derived some of its strength from a vague socialist ideology or at least a love of the USSR. The collapse of socialism came with the collapse of the USSR; a rival power to the United States of America suddenly vanished. Thus the anti-capitalist nationalism of the Third World has been doubly deprived. Their favourite ideology and the alternative model economy have both been demolished by capitalism in its latest phase of globalisation.

Diasporas and their impact

The second profound change rendered by late 20th century globalisation is its facility of movement of goods, especially capital, as well as people. Indeed, movement of people was a salient feature of an earlier 19th century avatar of globalisation. But the crisis of that phase after the First World War made movement difficult. In the post-1945 phase, the Western world went through a period of over full employment and began to absorb immigrants from all over the world. Primarily, however, the old imperial metropolises were the first stops for Third World workers. After 1973, this process speeded up, with workers moving to the oil-producing countries and also to the developed West. This trend accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s.

The result is a proliferation of diasporas. Every developed country has become multicultural and multiethnic. Western countries are no longer primarily Christian or even Judaeo-Christian. Their cities are polyglot, their cuisine is a rich rainbow of many ethnic cuisines, their schools educate children who speak strange languages and have parents whose practices and beliefs about child rearing are often at odds with norms of acceptable behaviour. The young adults of these diasporas are caught in a double bind of adapting to the local culture while assuring their elders that they remain faithful to old practices from distant lands. Access to the Internet and rapid, affordable air travel have reduced the distance between their new home and their ancestral abode, but that sharpens the intergenerational conflict.

Many leaders in the West reacted after the events of 9/11 by attempting to understand the nature of Islam. They read the Quran. Tony Blair talked of ‘the children of Abraham’ as a banner uniting Jews, Christians and Muslims. There has been a cascade of books on Islam. Yet, I think there has been a basic misunderstanding. The dual purpose that religion serves, as a private system of beliefs shared with co-religionists and as a public identifier in nationalist discourse, are being mixed up here

All of us have multiple identities.[4] Indeed, it is human to have multiple identities since even in the most primitive societies, a person has multiple relationships — as a son/daughter, a brother/sister, father/mother, wife/husband, cousin, nephew/ niece etc. With the arrival of capitalism and modernity, the number of identities multiply. There are occupations open to women, for instance — as a doctor, teacher, counsellor, politician, writer — which were not open before. Distances having been travelled, now there are other cultures and other people to associate with in daily life, new languages to learn and new beliefs to tolerate. In the latest phase of globalisation, the number of identities it is possible to have has exploded.

This explosion of identities affects not only the diaspora but also the local or ‘native’ population.[5] Though the diaspora is relatively small, cultural changes as it adapts to the multicultural context of globalisation can have a dialectical impact. On the one hand, local life is enriched not just culturally but even materially as immigrants contribute special skills to the economy. But the change in old routines also upsets. The task of assimilating newcomers falls on everyone but the locals see it as disproportionately their cross to bear. They doubt the loyalties of the newcomers and demand proof of a wish to integrate.

Hostility to newcomers is not new. Xenophobia is in many ways just another side of the coin of communitarianism. The very notion of community is inclusive of the like but as a consequence, excludes the unlike. The deeper the community feeling, the less cosmopolitan a culture will be.  Third World countries which have not experienced much immigration — such as India — can maintain policies that discriminate against the foreigner in terms of employment opportunities and residence, marital and citizenship rights. But developed countries have experienced the impact of globalisation in a much more acute form. On the one hand, their industries have often been gutted as the production of mature manufactures has moved to the cheaper labour areas of the Third World. They are also receiving immigrants, often clever professionals as well as unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Their legal regimes are non-discriminatory to the extent that the immigrants win rights of residence and citizenship much faster in the First World than they would in the Third World.

Old-fashioned racism is now defunct in developed countries except on the extremist fringes. It was based on hatred and fear, which are now gone. But the fear has been replaced by disquiet, a sentiment which is milder but widespread. As David Goodhart put it in Prospect, the journal of ideas that he edits, ‘The diversity, individualism and mobility that characterise developed economies — especially in the era of globalisation — mean that more of our lives is spent among strangers.’ As he describes it, ‘[T]he central dilemma of political life in developed societies: sharing and solidarity can conflict with diversity… is especially acute… for progressives who want plenty of both solidarity — high social cohesion and generous welfare benefits paid out of a progressive tax  system — and diversity: equal respect for a wide range of peoples, values and ways of life.’[6]

This dilemma then leads to the idea that citizenship rights should not be lightly bestowed upon immigrants. A community has to have stiffer entry rules. For those on the Right of the political spectrum this means the immigrants have to be loyal to their new community in public, whatever they may do in private. This was the basis of Norman Tebbit’s notorious loyalty test for people of subcontinental origin watching cricket in England. He wanted them to show that they now ‘belonged’ to their new country by supporting England against their country of origin. Of course, every Scot would fail such a test while watching rugby at Twickenham, but that merely raises the further question of how many nations reside within the United Kingdom. But the problem remains that the deeper a welfare state is, the less cosmopolitan it can afford to be. If immigration is to be liberally allowed, one has to be cruel to be kind. The immigrant has to serve an apprenticeship of some years before s/he can be admitted to full citizenship. 

A new chapter has been added to this controversy by Samuel Huntington’s latest book, Who Are We? 7 After centuries of welcoming immigrants and even boasting that it is a melting pot, there appear to be doubts in America about its national identity. Huntington contrasts the seamless national identity built up in the years following the Civil War to the situation since the 1960s when ‘subnational, dual-national and transnational identities began to rival and erode the preeminence of national identity’ (p. xv) The timing of this outburst is set by the events of 9/11. This is the seminal event of globalisation that has shaken American culture. ‘The tragic events of September 11 dramatically brought that identity back to the fore. So long as Americans see their nation endangered, they are likely to have a high sense of identity with it. If their perception of threat fades, other identities could again take precedence over national identity’ (ibid). An understanding of this sense of identity brought George W. Bush to victory in the 2004 election.

Huntington’s analysis traces the fragmentation of the American identity as beginning with Civil Rights legislation and the very difficult task of integrating one of the oldest immigrant communities in the USA — the Afro-Americans. But there are Hispanics now who want their language to be taught in schools along with English. Asians want temples and mosques to be constructed and wish to practice non-Christian religions. The events of 9/11, however, put the spotlight on Muslims. Suddenly, Islam has become the centre of controversy and attention all over America and the developed world. There are Muslim diasporas all across the First World, as there are diasporas of Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. America has absorbed many such groups previously and they have all assimilated. So why the fuss with the Muslims?

To understand this is not easy. To be able to discuss the problem dispassionately is difficult, but let me make an attempt. Many leaders in the West reacted after the events of 9/11 by attempting to understand the nature of Islam. They read the Quran. Tony Blair talked of ‘the children of Abraham’ as a banner uniting Jews, Christians and Muslims. There has been a cascade of books on Islam. Yet, I think there has been a basic misunderstanding. The dual purpose that religion serves, as a private system of beliefs shared with co-religionists and as a public identifier in nationalist discourse, are being mixed up here. Religion is being used by many fundamentalist groups not for its theological or moral content but as an ideology of exclusion or separation, as a political banner. In this, Muslims are not at all unique, as Christian and Hindu fundamentalists have also hijacked religion for promoting the notion of an aggressive attack on modernity, either as embodied in gender rights or the secular ideals of tolerance. But the case of the Muslims is globally challenging both the host communities where their diasporas live as well as countries where they form a majority. This is why the dual use of religion needs special examination in the case of the Muslims. Let me try and separate the two and draw upon the historical background I have referred to above.

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