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How far is globalisation a form of Americanisation? Drawing on theory critically evaluate why the US has been so hostile to overseas left wing regimes since 1945?
There has been a great deal of debate over the extent to which the current phase of globalisation can be defined or delimited by the process of Americanisation. Multinational corporations have adamantly maintained that their operations overseas are not vehicles of Americanisation, but are instead a form of ‘indigenisation’ through adaptation to local cultures. Some scholars have argued, however, that contemporary discourses about globalisation have fallen under the spell of a form of historical perennialism in which current trends have been extrapolated too far into the past and inaccurately conceptualised as being merely a continuation of deeper trends. “Globalisation is now used to describe everything and its opposite, from the Roman Empire to WW1, from cosmopolitan behavior to Genghis Khan’s conquests, and even the Neolithic age,” writes Daniele Conversi in his article titled The Limits of Cultural Globalisation? (Conversi 2010, p. 36). Central to this misconception is a confusion between globalisation as an ideology, usually expressed as a form of cosmopolitanism, and globalisation in practice. Whether the current phase of globalisation is the latest chapter in a millennia-long saga of societal integration, or is in fact something completely different, it is difficult to dispute that it has taken on a distinctly American character since the end of World War 2.
On a superficial level, the Americanisation of the world seems obvious and intuitive. English is now spoken with at least partial competence by over half of the world’s population and has become the de facto lingua franca facilitating communication between people from remote locations. Not only is English the dominant language on the internet, but more than a third of the world’s mail, telexes, and cables are in English, and approximately 40% of the world’s radio programs are in English (Swain 2011). Of the top ten global brands, seven are based in the United States with Coca-Cola occupying the top spot, leading many to perceive it as a symbol of Americanisation. The fact that the McDonald’s fast food franchise has disseminated to all corners of the globe has made possible the somewhat tongue-in-cheek use of the “Big Mac Index,” now regularly published by The Economist as an informal way of comparing the purchasing power of any two currencies (Hoefert and Hofer 2006). As we will see, the forces of cultural homogenisation flowing from the United States go far beyond language, hamburgers, and soda.
The modern era of globalisation can be demarcated by the Bretton Woods agreement in 1944 (Korten 2001), which set the basis for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, establishing, in the IMF’s own words, a system of “global surveillance activities (IMF 2007).” During the early years of the Cold War, the Marshall Plan facilitated the transfer of American industrial management models to Western Europe (Kipping and Bjarnar 1998). The methods employed to help Western Europe recover from the ravages of war would later be applied to under-developed countries, first as a means of deterring the spread of communism, and later as a project of global trade liberalisation. In the words of Dutch-American sociologist Saskia Sassen,
The most widely recognised instance of Americanisation is seen…in the profound influence U.S. popular culture exerts on global culture. But it has also become very clear in the legal forms ascendant in international business transactions. Through the IMF and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), as well as the GATT, the U.S. vision has spread to—some would say been imposed on—the developing world (Sassen 1996, p.20).
While Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter all played a role in advancing the neoliberal agenda, it wasn’t until Reagan that the doctrines of privatisation and deregulation took on the ideological character espoused by many conservative thinkers today (Conversi 2010). What came to be known as ‘Reaganomics’ was advanced during the 1980s when structural adjustment loans (SALs) were leveraged to “blast open” and “discipline” the Third World (Bello 1999, p. 27).
While the advent of Reaganomics had a considerable impact on economics and finance abroad, Conversi contends that its effects on cultural practices may have been even more extensive. “In Reagan’s years, the robust nexus between politics, economics, military and the expansion of mass consumerism was amplified through the media industry,” he writes (Conversi 2010, p. 39). A constant condition that the IMF and World Bank attached to their developmental support packages was the total overhaul of local cultural productions, formerly tied to regional and national markets or subject to state regulation such that they would be left to the mercy of corporate expansion.
In the cultural arena, the removal of trade barriers has led to the unfettered preponderance of American items of mass consumption and to the virtual erasure of millions of local cultural producers, an event that has been presented as an ineluctable step on the road to further development. This has led not to the kind of globalisation envisioned by cosmopolitan theorists, but rather to the assertion of a cultural hyper-power (Conversi 2010, p. 41).
Hollywood’s embrace of the global marketplace led to the collapse of native film industries in both Europe and Asia, which were displaced by an invasion of American cultural products via mass distribution agencies (Conversi 2010). The content of Hollywood movies can have subtle yet profound effects on the culture and institutions of foreign countries. One Chinese activist described in detail how the portrayal of the inner workings of the United States government and judicial system in American popular culture has convinced many Chinese citizens of the merits of American-style democracy (Nye 2004). The bombardment of US cultural exports has been a primary motivation for the Chinese government’s increasingly draconian information policies.
American cultural imperialism has been met with varying levels of resistance. In recent years, the cultural policies of governments abroad have come to encompass protectionist measures that Harvey Feigenbaum has described as being “cultural counterattacks” against the homogenising effects of neoliberal globalisation. These protectionist policies typically involve intentionally limiting the availability of American broadcast programming through the use of sophisticated quota systems:
The French, for instance, require that 60 percent of the prime-time television shows be European productions and that 40 percent be French. Canadians require their television networks to broadcast significant content, and the South Koreans will tolerate large numbers of television shows from abroad only if they have scientific or educational content (Feigenbaum 2002).
As a counter-weight to the U.S. championing of neoliberalism, France has been attempting to pull Europe in a different direction. Cultural exception is a political concept introduced by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1993 and refers to the belief that cultural products should be exceptions to the trade agreements codified by the World Trade Organization (WTO). The United States and various industries and lobbies have predictably lambasted cultural exception as being protectionist, culturally chauvinist, deleterious to global free trade, and that it makes it easier for oppressive governments to suppress minority voices. Despite these objections, however, cultural exception was upheld by UNESCO in 2005 with only two countries (the U.S. and Israel) out of two hundred voting against it.
Much to the dismay of narrow-minded theocracies such as Iran, and oppressive regimes such as the Chinese government, the effectiveness of these protectionist policies are limited by new decentralising audiovisual technologies such as satellite and digital on-demand television. China has responded to the threat of new media with the infamous Gold Shield Project and increasingly severe penalties for breeches of its digital information policies. Most media industries, however, have at least partially acquiesced to the cultural hegemony of Hollywood and the United States (Feigenbaum 2002).
If we accept the premise that global trade liberalisation has been a central tenet of U.S. foreign policy since 1945, the reasons for U.S. hostility toward left-wing regimes abroad becomes obvious. Left-wing leaders typically promote socialist and populist policies such as protectionism, nationalisation of industries and the socialisation of services, all of which are anathema global free trade. Virtually every left-wing government since World War 2, almost all of them democratically elected, has faced at least some degree of opposition from the U.S. Government ranging from trade sanctions to overthrow and the instigations of coup d’états.
The following examples of covert foreign regime change actions illustrate the lengths that Western politicians have been willing to go in order to protect private property and ensure free trade across the globe. In the 1953 Iranian coup d’état, the CIA collaborated with the United Kingdom depose the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh who was attempting to nationalise Iran’s petroleum industry, which threatened the profits of British Petroleum (BP) (New York Times 2000). During the Guatemalan Revolution of 1944-54, the CIA engineered the overthrow of the democratically elected Jacobo Árbenz whose ambitious agrarian reforms designed to grant land to millions of landless peasants were seen as a threat to the land holdings of the United Fruit Company. After the CIA installed a puppet regime led by the military dictator Carlos Castillo Armas, the country entered a civil war lasting decades in which over 200,000 people were killed (Streeter 2000). Probably the most famous example of a democratically elected leftist leader who was ousted by the U.S. is Chile’s Salvador Allende who adopted collectivist policies that nationalised industry before being deposed, killed, and replaced by the far more repressive Augusto Pinochet. A more recent example, though not himself deposed by U.S. machinations, was the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez whose administration proposed and enacted democratic socialist economic policies involving redistribution of wealth, land reforms, and the establishment of worker-owned cooperatives.
Despite all of this, it remains fashionable in both scholarly and popular discourses to maintain that globalisation and Americanisation are wholly distinct phenomena. As mentioned earlier, representatives of large multinationals such as McDonald’s often attempt to portray their relationships with local cultures as bi-directional and reflexive rather than hegemonic, pointing to such practices as incorporating elements of indigenous cuisine into fast-food menus (Conversi 2010). Another somewhat inane example is the choice made by McDonald’s to replace Ronald McDonald with Asterix the Gaul as their official mascot for French markets. Globalisation apologists often employ the terms ‘glocalism’ and ‘glocalisation’ in an attempt to describe these ‘intercultural’ encounters as being largely symmetric and egalitarian and to characterise globalisation as being compatible with the maintenance of local cultures. What we typically see, however, are local businesses being forced to Americanise their appearance and practices by market pressures (Conversi 2010). One prominent example is ‘Bollywood’, which despite being heralded as an affirmation of Indian national identity, produces cultural content that merely imitates American cultural forms (Rao 2007). A case can be made that such indigenised forms of ‘Americana’ are potentially even more devastating to cultural diversity than more candid forms of imperialism because they can more easily don the disguise of national indigenousness (Conversi 2010).
We can conclude that while superficial efforts have been made on the part of multinational corporations to adapt their products to indigenous cultures, such efforts are motivated by market forces rather than by any concern for cultural diversity and tend only to exacerbate trends toward cultural homogenisation. While optimists taking the long view may interpret American cultural hegemony as a necessary evil required to lay the groundwork for a truly cosmopolitan global society at some point in the future, it simply does not make sense to posit neoliberal globalisation as being continuous with earlier globalising trends. The period from 1945 to the present coincides with the ascendency of a global order taking a very particular form and encompassing the widespread enforcement of trade liberalisation, privitisation, deregulation, and an antipathy toward left wing regimes. Whether Americanisation will become a permanent fixture of our transition to a truly planetary society remains to be seen.
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