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«INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON SOCIAL SCIENCES SRI LANKA – 2013 (ICSS) “Culture, Globalization and the Developing World” 22nd – 23rd November ...»

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The discipline of economics on the other hand focuses entirely on the „economic‟ or to be more precise a construct of assumed economic principles. These principles of course are deemed to be operative in a culturally sanitized notion of the economy. Social anthropological studies of „simple‟ societies have always had a holistic understanding of economy and culture. The linkages between the economy and culture were perhaps so obvious in such societies, that it was empirically impossible to ignore it. Modern industrial societies on the other hand are differently constituted. The economy indeed appears as an entity, which is separate and distinct from other aspects of society. Even though it is influential in terms of its impact on people‟s everyday lives, the complex set of principles by which it functions is seen as accessible and comprehensible to a domain of only highly qualified trained economists. It is in that sense opaque to the ordinary person even though it impacts his or her life deeply. It indeed appears to have a life distinctively its own. It is built upon a whole set of theoretical assumptions from which returning to the empirical domain is always not so simple. Not surprisingly while everyone would have an opinion on „culture‟, there would be a willingness to suspend one‟s judgment on economic matters, seen as the legitimate domain of experts. A few more words on the specific nature of the economy in capitalism are required to fully appreciate its specificity.

The specificity of industrial capitalism within which you and I live has been incisively described by Karl Polyani who states that “… the development of nineteenthcentury industrial capitalism “was exceptional in that “the relationship between the xxxvi economic system and social relations assumes a different form to that which historical and anthropological research has shown to exist in all other societies”. He emphasizes

the point that:

Whereas in other types of society „economy, as a rule, is submerged in … social relationships‟ (Polyani 1968: 46), in the case of industrial capitalist market economy „[i]nstead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system‟ (cited in Smart: 28) In such an economy we cannot easily make sense of the manner that every small detail of our lives, our ways, behaviours, sensibilities, subjectivities, ideas about selfhoods and culture are shaped by the economy…the point that Polyani makes about „social relations‟ as „embedded in the economic system‟.

Outlining the distinctive features of modern industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century, Polyani observes that „gain‟ was elevated to a prominent position and, as a „justification of action and behaviour in everyday life‟ (1968: 30), provided a basis for the self-regulating market system. The idea that people act to safeguard their individual interest in respect of material goods and possessions is peculiar to a form of economic life controlled and regulated by markets. In such circumstances, where the economy is „directed by market prices‟ or subject to market control, there are overwhelming consequences for the whole organization of society (Smart 28-29 emphasis mine).

In other words what Polyani is saying is that certain features of modern industrial capitalism is projected as natural to people. It is „human nature‟ that people seek „gain‟ and „profit‟ and are always seeking to maximize their self -interest. This proposition needs further rethinking. In the colonial period, often societies such as ours were seen as strange with people disinclined to work for profit, or work for furthering investment to accrue more profit. The natives were seen as irrational, i.e. bereft of the dominant economic rationality. This is evidence of the weakness of the proposition that profit seeking, individual self-interest are driving motors of human nature and therefore of culture.

This as we all know is far from true. Otherwise there would have not been such a concerted effort to change both „human nature‟ and „culture‟ to promote work ethics and discipline to be productive. More recently in the context of globalization, we witness an effort to promote a culture of spending, and thereby be productive. There is another point that I would like to make here, which I shall return to a little later in my talk. I speak here from my location in India but I would contend that it would have resonance elsewhere too. This is particularly relevant for the changes that we have seen in contemporary societies of our region. This relate to the efforts made by a host of agencies, from advertising to managerial to public relations and communication to the old and new media that seek to create a new culture of conspicuous consumption from a culture of xxxvii frugality and austerity. Gandhi epitomized the latter as a virtue. Today they are seen as hazardous to the economy. This is a point I shall deal in greater detail when I discuss the contention that globalization has ushered in a capitalism that is about consumption, not production.

But first I would like to underscore a key feature of capitalism across periods, the constant revolutionizing of the instruments of production, which Karl Marx alluded to. Or else we will be theoretically erring to make sense of the relationship between culture and economy in general and with specific reference to globalization. Karl Marx‟s observations on this dynamism of capitalism holds true even as we gather here to discuss globalization and culture.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbances of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away. All new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind. The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, establish connections everywhere (Marx 1967:38 emphasis mine).

So far we have sought to emphasise the distinctive nature of the modern capitalist economy and question the tendency in social science to either collapse our understanding to cultural or to economic determinism. We now briefly look at how social sciences have looked at culture and economics. Economics is the discipline that both explains and legitimizes modern industrial capitalism and understands it as a given.

It has created an entire approach whereby „culture‟ is seen as an add-on, an extra that either helps or obstructs the smooth functioning of the economy. On the other hand, in much of sociological literature (here I include social anthropological), gender and cultural studies there is a widely held belief that globalization is essentially about cultural changes, tangible cultural changes. I argue that this understanding stems from three sources: (i) empirically it stems from the hyper visibility of consumer culture and the myriad new cultural artifacts that define everyday life in a hyper visible mediated world;

(ii) historically from a sense of cultural siege that colonialism inflicted upon colonized societies; and (iii) theoretically from a legacy of modernization framework, extremely significant in our parts of the world with intellectual legacies drawn from a motley mix xxxviii of evolutionary theory, cultural assimilation and functionalism; compounded in more recent times with bits and fragments of post modern sensibilities with a special affinity to culture.

It is important for us in the south to interrogate an increasingly flattened cultural understanding of globalization. Social sciences have to take a careful path between a narrow (theoretically neat but empirically fraught) „economistic‟ approach as well as an empiricist, cultural determinist approach. We have to emphasize that both economy and culture are inextricably connected; and that theory and empirical research are neither dichotomous nor exclusive. This is a theme that runs through my exposition.

There are two broad parts in which I have divided my paper. I shall first discuss the reasons for the global attention on culture in popular, (mass media) political and academic discourse(s) in the contemporary context of globalization. This I argue affects both the developed and developing world, even though there is a differential impact. I touch very briefly here on the new body of research that is emerging not from the university but corporate and developmental research. This caters to needs of the organizations and I argue therefore cannot be informed of a sociological imagination and theory that can engage with the complex relationship between economy and culture in globalization. Second, I shall look at the specific significance that culture holds in the collective imagination of societies of developing countries, many with a colonial past.

Finally, in the conclusion I explore the salience of neo-liberal economics in the contemporary context and how this has to be understood as a cultural vision, a political project and not merely a set of technical or managerial prescriptions relating to the economy. This is of particular importance for my contention that there we need to stay away from both cultural and economic reductionism. For economists often do the obverse of what we sociologists and social anthropologists do- treat economy as a selfpropelled entity, cut off from culture. It is only a theoretically and historically informed perspective that would enable social scientists to practice a perspective that avoids the pitfall of both cultural and economic reductionism.

–  –  –

Culture, consumption and everyday life: the empirical obvious I started my talk with the basic question as to why „culture‟ comes to our mind first when we in our everyday life think about globalization. We, particularly middle class South Asians like you and me experience the tangible impact of globalization in the xxxix everyday objects and services we consume. The fruit juice and cereal at breakfast; the television and mobile telephones; the computers and Xboxes that our children play with;

the kind of schools they go to; the clothes which we wear; the shops which we buy from;

the crockery which we would like to use; the holidays we desire define our „culture‟, in the widest sense of the term--- our „way of life‟. This process had impacted the west earlier, prompting scholars like Baudrillard to describe western society as a „consumer society‟ (Baudrillard 1998; Bauman 1998b) An increasing range and diversity of material goods and services is now available for consumption, and the shopping mall and the activity of shopping have become prominent features of contemporary social life, the cultural centre of which is consumption (Baudrillard 1998). For a capitalist economic system that increasingly needs consumers more than it needs producers, the „spending-happy consumer is a necessity‟ and for the „individual consumer, spending is a duty‟ (Bauman 1992: 50).

To explain the strategic importance accorded to consumption in the latter part of th the 20 century, Baudrillard recalls the lack of effective demand that produced economic depression and a crisis of capitalism in the 1930s. He suggests at that time modern industrial capitalist societies „knew how to make people work…[but] did not know how to make them consume‟ (1975: 144). The realization that it was no longer production but circulation that was the central problem for capitalism led to the identification of consumption as the strategic element and the mobilization of people as consumers as a

necessity- „their‟ “needs” became as essential as their labour power‟ (Baudrillard 1975:


Labour power is produced through deliberate efforts to make it part of the work culture –that is, incorporated as essential to the routine requirements of the modern industrial capitalist workplace. This is done through the construction of work ethic and related disciplinary technologies that produce appropriate forms of human subjectivity.

In other words, consumer „needs‟ have to be continually conditioned if an economy that rests on that has to function effectively and profitably (Galbraith 1963, 1969; Marcuse 1968; Baudrillard 1998; Klein 2001).

Consumer needs or wants have become a strategic element because the basic predicament confronting contemporary capitalism is „no longer the contradiction between “profit maximization” and the “rationalization of production”…but that between a potentially unlimited productivity…and the need to dispose of the product‟ (Baudrillard 1998: 71). Decisions about the purchase of goods are strategically too important to be left to unconditioned consumer choice. So demand is managed through a „huge network of communications, a great array of merchandizing and selling xl organizations, nearly the entire advertising industry [and] numerous ancillary research training and other related services‟ (Galbraith 1969: 205; Packard 1957; Klein 2001).

There would be ample evidence of these in Sri Lanka,1 just as there is in India (Chaudhuri 2014).

I would like to draw from examples from Sri Lankan society to buttress my point. This is an article written by a management expert to comment upon the imperative

needs to focus on the new postmodern consumer of Sri Lanka:

Few, if any, would argue the wisdom of placing the customer at the centre of business. It is a foregone conclusion. However, the Marketing mantra of the consumer as the hub of everything the company does, continues to be chanted without much evidence of its practice in many organizations.

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