Globalization: A Threat to Cultural Diversity?

January 27, 2000

A talk by Dr. Salvatore Puledda – January 27, 2000 – Hunter College School of Social Work – New York City

Good evening. I want to thank the faculty and administration of Hunter College and the Humanist Center of Cultures of New York for inviting me here to speak. The object of my talk will be globalization, a term we are hearing a lot lately, from very different sources. Globalization is broadly presented to us as an accelerated process of economic interaction among countries and cultures, supported by a large array of modern communication technologies. From a generally optimistic perspective it is said that through globalization, progress and wealth will arrive to even the most backward of countries, and the standard of living will increase everywhere and for everyone.

Globalization is also presented as a natural process in the sense that it obeys the natural laws of the market economy. Nevertheless, there are some underlying fears or a sort of anxiety that have arisen about the potential results of such a process.

These fears seem to revolve primarily around three points:

  • The process seems too big, too fast, and beyond people’s control;
  • For the average citizen, globalization implies opening their doors to the world, and therefore to the problems of the world, problems that are sometimes the result of long and complicated histories that are not easy to understand. Once aware of these problems, people fear, they will feel responsible for resolving them;
  • The interchange of objects, people, and ideas creates a situation of general confusion in which people experience the loss of their traditional references, that is, the loss of what they call their cultural identity.

These are the kinds of concerns that circulate in this moment and to which we will try to respond from the perspective of the Movement for New Humanism. This perspective may appear radically different from the one that the media presents to us every day. But before we continue I need to define some of the concepts that we will be discussing, for they can often seem diffuse and vague. In particular, we will try to clarify the nature of this globalization process and develop an appropriate context for understanding this concept of cultural identity.

To start with, we say that the process of globalization is not at all a natural process, that is, a process that moves according to certain natural laws such as laws of the market, as this is generally explained. In fact, these so-called natural laws of the market do not exist and will never exist since the economy, like all other human activities, is something intentional, dependent on the will, desires, and projects of human beings. We see globalization, then, as an intentional, guided process, the expression of a certain economic model that carries with it a certain ideology and vision of the world. This ideology has a name; it is called speculative capitalism, that is, capitalism in its most recent phase of development, in which the growth of the economy is no longer linked to production but to the speculative financial market. Put more simply, we are speaking of the ideology of making money from money, and at the cultural level, of the religion of money.

At the forefront of this ideology are the multinational corporations and the banks. Their very nature is transnational and they are not bound to any specific country, even while most of them have their roots in the Western world. From the time that this process began in the last century, these structures have not stopped expanding their influence toward every corner of the world. And recently they have further concentrated their power through astonishingly rapid acquisitions and mergers. The increase in their power has been directly connected to the worsening loss of the authority and legitimacy of the nation state, a phenomenon that is characteristic of the second half of the last century. These multinationals and banks have sought to supersede and transcend the barriers and restrictions put in place by the nation states, and so in doing they have created a sort of parallel «virtual state» with its own rules and procedures. This parallel state has now reached an extraordinary level of power. Capital can now flow from one country to another in seconds, and even the most powerful countries or regional blocs are increasingly aware of their inability to control it.

To give but one recent example: The European Union, which consists of 15 member states, is currently the largest economic bloc in the world. At the last biannual meeting of the European Union, in Helsinki in December 1999, one item on the agenda was the issue of how to pay for these countries’ social welfare programs. As a result of self-imposed deficit restrictions, the money had to be raised through revenues of some sort. So it was proposed that a capital gains tax be placed on European citizens who were investing in the London Stock Exchange. But the British authorities refused to do so, explaining that such a tax would result in capital flight from London to other markets. And so an impasse arose between Great Britain and the rest of the European Union members, which is still unresolved. What this makes clear is that even the largest economic bloc in the world is no longer capable of taxing its wealthiest citizens—those who can afford to speculate in the financial markets. As a result of this situation, we are witnessing a steady reduction worldwide in the resources allocated to healthcare, education, pensions, and other programs that meet the needs of society. It seems that no country can any longer tame this unregulated monster which is speculative capital.

In addition to their own rules, the multinationals and banks that direct this process of globalization have their own culture, which is articulated in a system of values and behaviors. This culture is reproduced through educational programs and the media, gurus and prophets, who explain to us every day that money is the only true value: Money is pursued, multiplied, worshipped; money is the only god, and thus money justifies everything. While they continue to speak of other values—equality, opportunity, democracy—beneath the thick layer of hypocrisy the message is the same: The only true value is money. This culture has taken root even in the poorest segments of the population: They fervently believe that getting money is their only defense against the harsh realities of everyday life, and so they orient their lives in this direction. Who wants to be a millionaire? Everyone.

At this point I want to make it clear that poverty is not a value for us. By denouncing the cult of money we are neither romanticizing being poor nor promoting an ascetic lifestyle. Quite the contrary. We wish only to stress that the fundamental problem of today’s economy is not the production of wealth, but its distribution. Considering the world as a whole, we have an enormous productive capacity and surplus, but this historically unprecedented wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few. Money flows to money, and the divide between the richest segment of the population and the poorest grows ever wider. Yet everyone knows that at this time in history it is possible in terms of technology to provide food, housing, medical care, and decent living conditions for the entire population of the world. And if this is not happening it is only because the process of globalization is directed not toward resolving these problems but instead only toward increasing the power and wealth of the few.

I also want to point out the two international institutions that bear the fundamental responsibility for the expansion of the current process of globalization: the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. To make themselves competitive in the global economy, less developed countries are pressured to assume huge debts through these organizations. As the interest on these debts accumulates, the State is then forced to sell off the assets of the nation—its utilities, its land, its natural resources—until the infrastructure of the country is no longer controlled by its own people but by foreign institutions and individuals. More than two dozen countries now use the U.S. dollar as their national currency, in effect forfeiting their ability to regulate their own economies. Generations of people have labored hard to build something, which is then destroyed in a few months. We have seen many examples of this in recent times: Mexico, Thailand, South America. Money flows into a country if it is thought that a profit can be made, but when the money leaves, the economy of the country collapses, with no thought given to those who are affected.

This model of globalization has become the winning model of life, and this model is being spread to the remotest corners of the globe. And as it spreads it carries with it the ideology of money, competition, and individualism. The environment, cultural diversity, the human being itself—all are considered secondary, things to be utilized, or simply crushed if they try to oppose this process, whose strength is enhanced by the near-universal belief that there is no alternative.

As this ideology is exported, it clashes with many cultures around the world, especially those whose social structures center around the family and religious beliefs. In response, these cultures attempt to erect barriers between themselves and the rest of the world because they do not wish to integrate into this model of life, which they do not view as an option. This is happening to a degree even here in the United States, where the integration seen in prior times—the «melting pot» model—is today no longer seen as desirable by many new immigrants.

In some parts of the world, the imposition of this single model has in turn begun to produce reactions that are expressed violently and irrationally. And there is no reason to believe that such outbreaks will diminish; on the contrary, they will only grow in size and frequency as the pressure to conform increases. And they will appear here in the U.S. as well, as the recent disorders in Seattle against the World Trade Organization demonstrate.

The other problem we face is that when cultures are forced to defend themselves, too often they end up defending everything—even their secondary or negative aspects. As a result, a «cultural fundamentalism» forms, in which everything external to a culture is rejected, in which only one’s own way of life and one’s own religion have any place at all.

Here I want to clarify that we do not see this process of globalization as something that is only negative. Indeed, we are grateful that this process has brought us to the point where all countries, all cultures of the world are coming together for the first time. This process has allowed a level of interaction among people that a generation or two ago would not have been thought possible. It has generated greater opportunities for exchanging ideas, beliefs, and cultural models. And it has demonstrated that the differences between people are insignificant when compared to the experiences and aspirations that they all have in common.

I will now try to clarify what this elusive concept of «identity» means. Normally it is believed that a personal or cultural identity relates only to the past, that it is a reflection of the historical accumulation of experiences through which a person or a community of people has lived. It is as if layers of experiences are accumulated and deposited, and that this is what forms identity.

This belief derives from a larger belief in the passivity of the human consciousness, in which the consciousness is conceived as a sort of mirror that simply reflects the world. In reality, things do not work this way. If we examine ourselves, we will see that in the important moments of our lives we make a correspondence, a connection between our past experiences and the idea of our personal project for the future. This image of the future—who we want to be—is always influencing our actions in the present. This image that we form of the future is as important as our past in creating our personal identities. We are not only what we have done or what has been done to us; we are also our future projects, our desires, our aspirations.

The same dynamic holds true for an entire people, and in this case we speak of cultural identity. Cultural identity is not only the accumulation of ideas, customs, languages, and ways of eating and dressing that have come down to us from the previous generations; it is also what a culture chooses to do with these things at a given moment of its history. It is the future project that a culture gives itself.

This is particularly true for older cultures. How, for example, does India, with thousands of years of history, define her culture? What heritage will she draw upon? Will she refer to the Vedas, to the Vedanta, to Buddhism, to Gandhi, or to the atomic bomb? In each moment of its history a culture is obliged to take from its past those memories that are most useful to carry on its project. In short, cultural identity is a project that people create for the future, extracting particular elements from their past. It is not something passive or static like the contents of a bag, but rather something we continuously recreate in facing the challenges that the current moment presents. There are always choices being made. There is always a selection. And there is always liberty.

We also recognize that in the lives of individuals, and countries as well, there are both positive and negative experiences, which form part of their cultural heritage. A person or an entire people can decide upon a project that eliminates or neutralizes the negative experiences, and reinforces the positive ones. Do we Italians, taking my nationality as an example, want to bring forward into the new millennium the tragic experience of the Mafia, or do we instead make a conscious choice to change this negative social behavior? Being able to make this choice allows us to distinguish between a mechanical identity, created by automatically reproducing elements from our culture without thought or reflection, and an intentional identity, formed by choosing those aspects which are deemed to be of the highest value for our future.

This process of globalization is quickly accelerating, and soon we will find ourselves standing side by side, culture to culture, looking ahead for the first time toward a common future. This future does not belong to any one culture, but instead must be a shared project that allows the inclusion of all. At this moment the question will arise: What shall we bring forward with us together into the third millennium? Each culture is called upon to reflect, to make an examination of its past, and to identify which of its qualities, experiences, and traditions are most valuable for itself and for the others on this planet.

Having defined and clarified our position on globalization and cultural identity, I would now like to finish by speaking briefly about the proposals and activities of the Humanist Movement in relation to these themes.

In contrast to the destructive process of globalization that is being led by the banks and multinationals, the Humanist Movement for 30 years has committed itself to working toward the creation of a Universal Human Nation, one in which the differences between cultures are considered something of value and not something to be marginalized or eliminated. The Universal Human Nation will be an expression of the first planetary civilization the human being has seen, and it is something that will arise from within the hearts of humanity, not from its leaders. To this civilization, each culture will bring some of its own experiences, forming part of a larger, inclusive project. I want to stress, however, that we do not aspire to something homogeneous—like McDonalds and yuppies everywhere. The development of a common project does not require that people relinquish the particularities of their cultures. Instead, this common project sees those particularities, that diversity, as strengths and resources to be drawn upon, as a successful project among individuals that incorporates the talents and points of view of all its members.

At the base of the work of every Humanist Center of Cultures is this question: What contribution will each culture bring to the common project of the Universal Human Nation? Will they bring the frustration, the discrimination, the wars and violence that characterize some moments of their past? Or will they look for what we call the humanist moments of their culture, those periods of their history in which the human being was considered the most important value, in which peace and cooperation among diverse groups was considered fundamental, in which violence was rejected as the worst enemy of humanity, in which all religious beliefs, including atheism, were respected, in which science and new ideas were developed so that pain and suffering in the human being might be overcome? All the great cultures of the Earth have passed through humanist moments in their histories, and more than ever they must now appeal to these moments in this special and critical moment of human civilization in which we now find ourselves.

To conclude, I will say that here, you are in an unparalleled situation to take up this important discussion, for in some ways New York is a mini-model of the globalization that has been occurring across the planet. Living here together are people from all the countries, cultures, and religions of the world. Work that is done here can have repercussions far beyond the borders of the city. The task of all the Centers of Cultures—indeed, the task of all of us—is to make people aware that their cultural differences can be something valuable, that the human being and not money is the most important value, and that solidarity is far more important than competition.

All of this can seem like a utopian dream to many of us, especially when we walk in the shadow of these skyscrapers and gaze up like insignificant ants at the high places from which the wealthy and powerful direct this destructive process of globalization. But we should always remember that these insignificant ants represent some 90% of humankind.

Thank you for your attention.

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