Our Mongrel Planet

Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World's Cultures By Tyler Cowen, Princeton University Press, 179 pages, $27.95

In a short story by the late William Maxwell, an American named John Reynolds takes his family to Le Mont-Saint-Michel 18 years after his magical first visit. Their hotel is bland, the food mediocre and they are swept along in thick throngs of harried tourists. Worst of all, the walled gardens that Reynolds remembers as visions "from a fifteenth-century Book of Hours" have been plowed under so that the souvenir shops can expand. Disconsolate, Reynolds thinks to himself:

Once in a while, some small detail represented an improvement on the past, and you could not be happy in the intellectual climate of any time but your own. But in general, so far as the way people lived, it was one loss after another, something hideous replacing something beautiful, the decay of manners, the lapse of pleasant customs, as by a blind increase in numbers the human race went about making the earth more and more unfit to live on.

Maxwell, it sometimes seems, is one of the few writers Tyler Cowen does not mention in his gluttonously omnivorous works on culture and commerce. But there is no better encapsulation of what Cowen calls the "cultural pessimist" than Maxwell's John Reynolds, who, at least, has illustrious company: Plato, Augustine, Rousseau, Pope, Swift, Hazlitt, Tocqueville, Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, T.S. Eliot, Theodor Adorno, Bloom (Allan and Harold) and Catherine MacKinnon all qualify, in Cowen's estimation, as gloom-and-doomers. Cowen, on the other hand, is a cultural optimist, and of the sort that one can only be if one grew up, as Cowen did, with a father who ran the local chamber of commerce.

Cowen has made his name as a professional booster for the benefits that the market brings to the arts. An economist at George Mason University and a libertarian, he first staked out his position in 1998 with In Praise of Commercial Culture, arguing that much of our artistic heritage, both high and low, is due to the invisible hand -- whether that meant the wealth of Florence or the greed of Beethoven. Cowen maintains that, far from reducing everything to bland mass-culture pap, the market ensures a diverse menu of artistic goods. Book superstores, the enemy of literary declensionists, carry a much wider variety than the corner shops they supplant, and best-sellers account for only 3 percent of their sales. Nor, he argues, does today's diversity necessarily crowd out older art forms. "[F]rom 1965 to 1990," he writes, "America grew from having 58 symphony orchestras to having nearly 300, from 27 opera companies to more than 150, and from 22 non-profit regional theaters to 500."

Cowen's latest book, Creative Destruction, continues in the same vein. In it, he counters those -- from the American political scientist Benjamin Barber to the French farmer-activist José Bové -- who charge globalization with smothering the world's diversity of cultures under a blanket of kitsch, sensationalism and cheeseburgers. But his tone has changed a bit in the intervening years. The neutrality of the new work's title (borrowed from the economist Joseph Schumpeter) is intentional: Cowen has not only narrowed his focus; he has also reined in his inner Pangloss and, despite the occasional elision and the seeming philistinism of his arguments, makes his case about as well as one can. Globalization, it is clear, is not going to destroy the world's cultures. The question remains, though, whether that is what we should be worried about in the first place.

Cowen's argument is twofold. First of all, the national cultures ostensibly threatened by globalization are themselves hybrids, created by interactions both ancient and modern. Cowen delights in showing the braided influences behind so-called indigenous art forms. Caucasian carpets drew on Persian and Chinese designs (and later Moscow chintz), and, in turn, influenced Sioux beadwork. Navajo weaving mimicked Spanish patterns, which themselves carried the mark of Moorish decorative art.

When Paul Simon incorporated South African mbaqanga music into his Graceland album, critics accused him of cultural imperialism, but mbaqanga was itself largely an amalgam of Western spirituals, jazz, rock 'n' roll and even minstrel music -- so much so that many South Africans scorned mbaqanga as derivative. As Cowen writes, Simon was drawn to it "precisely because it shared so many sources with his own synthesis of the Western pop tradition."

Cowen's second argument flows from his first: If cultural exchange helped create the diversity of cultures we have today, it can't be simply a homogenizing force. Although globalization tends to decrease diversity between cultures, it increases diversity within cultures. It is now possible to get foie gras in the United States and le Big Mac in France. In that sense, the two countries are more similar and the world is more uniform. But each society now offers a more diverse set of choices, a diversity that both countries' inhabitants can more easily take advantage of. This dialectic shapes Cowen's portrait of globalization: A global culture is created, piece by piece, but it grows more variegated and complex along the way. And, even as geographically based identities blur and fade, new subcultures, based on shared tastes in music or literature or obscure hobbies, grow up.

One reviewer to take issue with Cowen's rosy view of globalization was, unsurprisingly, Benjamin Barber. Economists such as Cowen, Barber wrote, "treat exchange within the mythic frame of perfect market freedom, where it is the result of two equally free, equally voluntary, equally powerful contractees who sit down as gentlemen and make a deal." That is not, Barber argued, how things actually happen. "Once the relative power of the intersecting cultures is factored in," he writes, " ... the happy reciprocity of cultural hybridization is trumped by the unhappy preeminence of the dominant culture."

But, as Cowen sees it, dominance is no simple thing. Global culture remains a stubbornly mongrel creation. For all its success with its movies, the United States has been unable to do nearly as well exporting its TV programs. And despite the best efforts of McDonald's, the most popular fast food in England remains curry. Even where American chains thrive, indigenous cuisine doesn't simply die away: Paris and Hong Kong, two gastronomic meccas, boast the world's busiest Pizza Huts. Cowen might also have mentioned Coca-Cola's recent struggles to adapt in an increasingly diversified and discriminating world beverage market, or Euro Disney, which was a flop until it introduced rides based on French movies and started serving wine.

Of course, there is always a loss with such exchanges, and Cowen admits as much. Certain things will get plowed under for the souvenir shops and megaplexes, and though Cowen is certain that what replaces them will be just as beautiful and multifarious, this loss dents even his indefatigable optimism. Perhaps a little provincialism, he concedes, is a healthy thing.

Which brings us to the question of whether this is the right debate to be having in the first place. To argue over culture with Cowen is to debate the look and feel of globalization instead of its substance. It is also highly irresponsible because the true weaknesses of Cowen's laissez-faire libertarianism become clear only beyond the realms of crafts and cuisine. After all, cultures, unlike people, don't suffer; they only change. Culture is simply human beings reacting to and making sense of the world around them. It is literally an inexhaustible resource. In that, it is perfectly -- and uniquely -- suited to Cowen's worldview.

Someone more concerned about human welfare than about culture might have a different view of the global market. To speak of global trade's impact on health and well-being is much more complicated and ambiguous, and it might tax even Cowen's powers of blithe rationalization. Above all, it would put questions of cultural gains and losses in perspective. Perhaps the best example of the disparate stakes is provided by Cowen himself in his first book, where he writes that the African slave trade "revolutionized world music. ... Most contemporary popular musical forms -- blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul, jazz, swing, bebop, boogie, ragtime, calypso, samba, forro, son, ska, reggae, salsa, meringue, plena, and rap -- were created by Africans in the New World or were derived from African influence." A diversity of styles, to be sure, but hardly a fair exchange. The artistic creativity of slaves and former slaves can never justify or compensate for their loss of freedom. Even a libertarian would acknowledge that.