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Brave new McWorld

Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures, Tyler Cowen, Princeton University Press: 180 pp., $27.95

February 02, 2003|Benjamin R. Barber | Benjamin R. Barber, a distinguished professor at the University of Maryland, is the author of numerous books, including "Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World" and "The Truth of Power: Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House."

Critics of imperialism have long insisted that international exchange and free trade are screens for the colonization of one culture by another. In my "Jihad vs. McWorld," for example, I argued that the dominant pop culture of the United States, embedded in fast food, fast music and fast computers, not only erodes the particularity of foreign cultures but also promotes a radical homogenization of taste and mores within American society as well as around the world. The homogenization thesis does, however, have challengers. They are mostly anthropologists such as David Howes, Constance Classen or Jean Comaroff who, reporting from the field on the reception of global markets, have been at pains to show how complex and multifaceted cultural interaction can actually be. Using terms like "hybridization" and "creolization," such scholars have noted that culture is constructed by consumption as well as by production and that through the "creativity of consumption" imperial homogenization can be turned back into cultural particularity or even into a kind of counter-colonization. Classen cites the surreal artist Leonora Carrington's charmingly ironic story about how "in the Mexico of the future one would find tins of Norwegian enchiladas from Japan and bottles of the 'rare old Indian drink called Coca-Cola.' "

Economists, though dispositionally inclined to champion cultural exchange as a facet of free trade, are not usually such anthropological sophisticates. But Tyler Cowen, an unapologetic neoliberal who teaches at that busy hive of free market economics George Mason University, prides himself on his cultural cosmopolitanism. As Chris Mooney notes in a recent profile of Cowen in the Boston Globe, Cowen is not only the author of the not-so-subtle and altogether revealing laissez-faire celebration "In Praise of Commercial Culture" (1998) but also a gourmand sophisticate who writes an online restaurant guide whose motto is "restaurants manifest the spirit of capitalist multiculturalism." He describes himself as a devoted "cultural consumer," suggesting just how rooted in the language of consumption his free trade approach to cultural exchange is. Yet he admits to tastes that run the gamut from Vietnamese cuisine to Taco Bell. He likes Beethoven but listens to Smashing Pumpkins as well. According to Mooney, Cowen collects Haitian art, has traveled to more than 60 countries and drinks French wines. A rather different breed of economist.

Once we know something about Cowen's predilections, we can be sure that in his new book, "Creative Destruction," he is doing something more than merely sharing a student's academic library research. When he opens this short work, subtitled "How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures," with a comment on the cultural complexity of Haitian music and closes it with a remark about how a visit to a Wal-Mart in Mexico will prove that America's export commercialism brings diversity rather than uniformity to other lands, we figure he's probably got a Haitian music collection and has walked the aisles of Wal-Marts in places other than Virginia. As it turns out, Cowen actually does bring the knowledge of a traveler and the love of a collector to the mixed cultural artifacts he uses as evidence for his defense of globalization and free trade. This gives to what otherwise might seem merely an ideological tract a certain experiential authenticity that enhances the persuasiveness of its sometimes dubious arguments.

At its best, "Creative Destruction" -- its title is drawn from economist Joseph Schumpeter's classic description of the dialectic in which capitalism destroys as it evolves -- offers good reasons to treat with several grains of salt the claims of critics, like this reviewer, that McWorld is homogenizing the planet and leaving in its wake a trail of devastated local cultures. That is especially true because in this work (unlike in his "In Praise of Commercial Culture") Cowen displays some ideological balance, acknowledging, for example, that while international trade can enhance diversity, it can also lead to what he calls "the tragedy of cultural loss."

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