Oxymoronica and the myth of global culture
written by Adam De Gree
When it comes to power and the control of populations, there are three elements of society that scoff at the slogan don’t tread on me: governments, businesses, and communities. And while the rights of individuals clash with corporate fascists and our power hungry elected officials it is in fact leaders of local communities, with their ways and means, that can exercise a special sort of tyranny over their members, manipulating them through the leverage of social and peer pressure. In the words of John Stuart Mill,
“Any despotism is preferable to local despotism. If we are to be ridden over by authority, if our affairs are to be managed for us at the pleasure of other people, heaven forefend that it should be at that of our nearest neighbors.”
So politicians and businessmen have been trying to stamp out this local cultural power in favor of a single, clear, and numbing strategy since the beginning of recorded history. But Mill had clearly never seen a typical global marketing campaign (Just Do It), so while his words rang true in the 19th century, it’s a bit harder to agree with him today. In fact, it often seems that the first two threats to individual autonomy—government and business—have teamed up, and they’re doing their best to wipe out what remains of the local cultures that once challenged them for people’s allegiance. Collusion is easier than competition, after all. And it sells a hell of a lot more sneakers.
Nowhere is this strategy more evident than in America. When the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville visited during the 1830’s, he marveled at the multitude of local associations he found. In Europe, people waited for the state to fix problems (much like today), but in America, citizens fixed things on their own. Viscount de Tocqueville was amazed to find that when carriages crashed on a road, “the neighbors immediately constituted a deliberative body” to solve the problem, and they did the same to hunt down criminals, provide healthcare, put on concerts, and promote temperance.
What de Tocqueville called the “art of association” provided an important check on the powers of government in a time when elected leaders put friends and cronies into positions of power. After seeing how party politics worked, the Frenchman declared that “there are no countries in which associations are more needed, to prevent the despotism of faction or the arbitrary power of a prince, than those which are democratically constituted.” Yet while the vices of politics are still with us, these more local associations are starting to die out, much to the delight of global brands and the people they task with their marketing.
Business or government—often, both—have taken over the tasks that ordinary people once tackled on their own in voluntary organizations. It used to be the case that everything from healthcare to policing was a local matter. In the south, African-Americans who found no friends in government formed societies with names like ‘100 Men Benevolent Debating Association,’ which brought the community together to “assist its members when sick, bury its dead in a respectable manner and knit friendship.” Meanwhile, Northerners banded together to provide similar services through churches, who took it upon themselves to, as the good book put it, “Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ.”
Yet while healthcare used to be handled by associations of people who shared resources in times of need (for 1 million Americans in the Alliance of Healthcare Sharing Ministries it still is), politicians have since passed laws to compel individuals to purchase it from big businesses. (Corporatized medical insurance itself arrived on the scene until just before World War I.) It should be no surprise that profits soar while association membership plummets. At the same time, Americans now care more about party affiliation than religion or cultural heritage—a perfect coup.
When local, cultural ties have been made irrelevant, the only sources of meaning left for people are the State and the Market, Capitol and Capital. Yet these are so abstract and impersonal that they always ring hollow. While it’s easy to see that local associations foster relationships in which, as de Tocqueville put it, “opinions are maintained with a degree of warmth and energy which written language cannot approach,” the same can’t be said of national election campaigns, let alone global ones. They consider culture to be a manufactured product, a mere matter of marketing.
The stories political leaders tell about their own countries are just that—stories. No country is small enough to represent a real community with its own set of shared values. Narratives of nationalism, with their founding fathers and cheap slogans of unity, are an attempt by politicians to make us forget this fact, but as soon as trouble arises, we immediately remember how different we really are. Why is it that negative emotions are summoned to rile up voters from sea to shining sea? Because fear, envy, and desire have become the motiving forces of modern politics, as well as the basis for most of our algorithms. Positivity just doesn’t have much power at scale.
The same can be said of the growing globalist movement, which also relies on a contrived idea of the nature of culture itself. While anti-immigrant sentiment holds sway at the national level, international, global culture needs something even stronger than our everyday fears to hold it together—in fact, nothing less than apocalypse will do. Good thing that we have one on hand. Enter climate catastrophe, a moral drama in which science is sometimes prostituted to the vagaries of virtue signaling: Does consumerism leave you feeling empty and without purpose? Well, try ‘green’ consumerism. If you just buy enough of the right products and use just the right hashtag, you’ll be doing the world a favor. Now that religion has gone a bit out of vogue, we have to find new ways to lead meaningful lives. Be rational—if you want to be a good person, buy good things! And of course, take to the streets, and above all, make sure we can all see your ‘I Voted’ sticker. You might even be able to get a free drink.
There could be no greater evidence of the success of governments and businesses in their usurpation of moral authority from communities unto themselves. In this new world, an anxious populace drifts from shopping malls to voting booths in search of salvation, chanting the vague slogans they’ve heard everybody else chanting. Democracy! Sustainability! Freedom! Make America Great Again! A sorry excuse for rebellion.
It’s hard to keep up with the shifting narrative on climate—some say we have 12 years left, others just 8. What’s clear, though, is that a new definition of expertise is afoot. After all, one would think that if we really cared about science we would leave it to the scientists and if we really cared about transforming capitalism we’d leave it to the economists—instead of entrusting it all to teenagers, no matter how clever their signs are. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “true terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country,” especially when they haven’t graduated yet.
While the forced narratives of national and global culture play out on billboards and broadcasts, the Earth keeps spinning. Contrary to the perceived planetary chaos, 70 people are lifted out of poverty each minute and find themselves in a novel situation—they can think, for the first time, of something other than only their immediate survival. If there is anything to global culture, it can be found here, in the emergent human experience of relative wealth, and the change that comes with it.
Not, of course, that this is happening because of the generosity of strangers. Nothing more than self-interest is ending poverty, because at distance, the only motives that hold true are fear, or greed. As Adam Smith put it, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.” While climate strikers deride corporate greed, it is the very same profit motive that eradicates poverty. You’ve got to have wealth to be a consumer, after all.
Yet for all that, wealth disrupts traditional culture because there is no tradition in which ordinary people have it. In fact, traditions embody strategies of coping with poverty by making new things. What would culture be without oppression? What would it be without the raw expressions that makes society sing?
It’s easy to be sentimental about community and culture, but the people who tend to be most romantic about local life often know little of it. We don’t have to go further afield than Europe to find societies that are just now experiencing consumerism for the first time. The Post-Soviet world, after a brief hiatus, has found the West once more, and what do you know? The forests are no longer full of berry-picking families on weekends, but the shopping malls are packed. It seems that once people make enough money to buy a basket of blueberries at the grocery store, they’d rather spare themselves the trouble of getting out to the woods. We may not like it, but seriously—who can judge them?
Culture may be everybody’s business, but no one is in charge of this thing. As local communities cope with the arrival of money, there’s no telling what will fall to the wayside, and what will remain to be passed down to future generations. It may be that creative traditions are largely abandoned, outsourced to the greater efficiencies of the division of labor. Or, it could be that people find value in doing things the old way, even though it doesn’t pay anymore. No one knows what balance of community, state, and market people will choose in the coming decades as they shape their cultures from the ground-up.
One thing is certain: culture is a matter of adaptation and evolution, and this process is fragile. The consummation of a radically new culture of the 21st century, one in which ordinary people can choose to grow their own food, or buy it, one in which they can express their values as they do more than survive for the first time, is far from inevitable. In fact, the contrived narratives of national and international ‘culture’ could keep us in a world where only the 1% enjoy this privilege.
Without the opportunity to emigrate, hundreds of millions of people are trapped in the grinding cycle of a subsistence-level existence, one in which a Taliban salary seems attractive. Without production and consumption, poverty is the only alternative for the world’s poor. No contrived story, no moral drama, could be more riveting than the one playing out all over the world, right as this moment. Culture itself hangs in the balance.