Culture as a tool of Imperialism

In order to better understand the dynamics that shape the usage of culture as a tool of imperialism at the hands of oppressors to subjugate those they think are beneath them, it’s vital to have at least a preliminary understanding of what constitutes ‘culture’. Traditionally, a culture is closely linked to the places and it is fixed and immovable. The word ‘traditionally’ bears importance here as this aspect has witnessed quite a change. Globalization results in the transfer of the culture from one place to another. When people migrate, it is not just physical entities that are moving from one geographical location to another, it is their culture that travels with them, ending up producing a hybridity of cultures. A culture includes language, traditions, literature, customs, religion(s), morals, among other aspects. These aspects are not static, but are ever-changing. These dynamic processes continue to change as a society continues to evolve.

Imperialism is a word derived from the Latin word “imperium”, meaning to rule over and the extending of a country’s power and influence through colonisation, use of military force, or other means. It works on creating an ‘Us v/s Them’ situation stemming from ‘inferred’ racial/economic/military superiority. By dehumanising an entire group of people, by claiming to have an upper hand in the moral landscape and culture and promising to uplift the ‘needy’, it creates an environment where the oppressors can justify their crimes.

Antonio Gramsci described cultural hegemony as the power of one group over another. According to him, culture and the media exert such a powerful influence on society that they can influence workers to buy into a system that is not economically advantageous to them. Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony is pertinent in the modern day because of the concern that rising globalization will permit one culture to so completely assert its power that it can wipe out its competition.

Herbert Schiller defined Cultural Imperialism as “the sum of the processes by which a society is brought into the modern world system and how its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced, and sometimes bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond to the values and structures of the dominating centre of the system”. Edward Said looks at this from an ‘East-West divide’ perspective. His understanding of the issue arises from the misappropriation (either on purpose or plain ignorance) of culture. How one ‘perceives’ the other.

The usage of culture as a tool of Imperialism isn’t something new, or something that just can be attributed to Britain, erstwhile Soviet Union, Russia, or USA. The ancient Roman Empire used Cultural Imperialism as a tool in its conquest of Italy. The Roman Empire imposed Latin on the people of Etruria, replacing the Etruscan language, which ultimately led to the demise of the language and other aspects of the Etruscan culture. The Roman culture was also imposed on Greece where the Romans altered the Greek culture to conform to their ideals. The Ottoman Empire, in the 16th century, exerted its influence on Europe’s southern and south-eastern regions. The Qing dynasty (China) controlled East Asia, including Manchuria and Kashgaria, whilst the Russians held Central Asia and stretched across Siberia to the Pacific, where in 1858–60 they expanded their long-established presence. In Africa, the Fulani had ruled large parts of West Africa, while in 1900, the Abyssinians possessed an empire of many nations, rivalling the extension of Egyptian control over the Sudan and Equatoria.

A hegemonical power uses literature, film, television, the internet, and music, today. It has far moved on from the traditional economic and military usage to impose its will. This has set a dangerous precedent, as this is a more sinister way of achieving domination. With Imperialism having grounds in economic and military landscape, there’s at least the fact that it is open and has the ‘room’ for people to oppose it. Cultural imperialism sneaks up on the population. It works slowly and gets the population accustomed to the new culture. There is an obvious difference in economic situation of the countries involved. This directly translates to newer forms of technologies being available in the ‘developed’ world. This isn’t just limited to technology, but the way of life as well. From music, cinema, literature to even lifestyle, everything further deepens the ‘idea’ of the glaring divide between the ‘developing’ and the ‘developed’. This results in discontentment. The population devours content. This content shows the population a different life. Different from theirs; different in ideals, different in morals, different in language and customs, different in food. It presents them an alternative that they can aspire to.

As early as 1987, Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times about a young Chinese woman planning to have an operation in order to make her eyes look rounder, more like the eyes of Caucasian women. The pervasiveness of cultural influence is difficult to track, however, as the young Chinese woman says that she wanted to have the surgery not because of Western looks but because she thought they were pretty, which in turn was propagated through a constant barrage of material in media and literature.

Any form of imperialism has two major goals, economic and political: to capture markets for its cultural commodities and to establish hegemony by shaping popular consciousness. In order to create a market, it is important to show the target populations what they’re missing out on, and that in turn will lay the ground for future market expansion of major corporations. A major example here, is how the United States based companies have formed a monopoly over regional players of other countries in their own territory. It isn’t a day’s process. The media corporations feed the masses ‘the idea’ and once ‘the idea’ is stemmed into the collective psyche of the society, they’re given it (the product). It isn’t much different from how drug abuse works. A sudden intake increases the dopamine in the brain, the receptors become accustomed to such high levels, and then if you try to remove the source, there’s a push. A need for more. And that is what corporations were after. Need. Need means market. Market means money, and that achieves the economic aspect of imperialism. This lays ground work for the larger and more sinister aspect of imperialism- political. This aspect is inherently hegemonial and divisive in nature. It seeks power and will destroy anything in its path to achieve it.

It could be argued that American cultural exports promote intercultural understanding; after all, to sell to a culture, a business must first understand that culture.Many countries import American entertainment media, but the US does not import many TV shows and films made elsewhere. In an important study of this imbalance, Varis (1984) found that in Africa, 40 percent of TV programs were imported, with 50 percent of those imports coming from the US. A largely one-way media flow between the US and other countries is caused by a number of factors. Following World War II, many countries established TV networks but lacked TV and film production studios, a large cultural working class (scriptwriters, directors, actors, technicians), and means of financing the production and distribution of national entertainment. USA had the economic capital to not only finance such productions, but also call people from other countries asking them to work there.

What makes some TV shows and films more territorially mobile and trans-nationally attractive than others? The fact that US-based TNMCs can push their entertainment media into markets across the globe.Imperialism isn’t just in an economic-military sense of control and exploitation. Cultural domination forms an integral aspect of it. Marc Ferro explains by saying: ‘colonization was the ‘power’ of a people to “reproduce” itself in different spaces’.

In today’s world, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the world really has seen just one ‘super-power’ not only in terms of economic and military strength, but also in its ability to hegemonize the rest of the world. The need to be a major exporter in order to maintain full employment during the transition back to peacetime life was something the American diplomats and economists theorized in the mid-1940s period (starting from 1941 when it officially entered World War II). Foreign markets would have to replace the War Department as a source of demand for the products of American industry and agriculture. This in turn required that foreign countries be able to earn or borrow dollars to pay the United States for these exports. In January 1944, the annual meeting of the American Economic Association was dominated by proposals for post-war U.S. economic policy with the central theme of the meeting being the relative roles that government and business would play in shaping the post-war world. It eventually resulted in the coming of the Laissez-faire economic system by insuring adequate resources to finance the international payments imbalances that were anticipated to result from countries opening their markets to U.S. exporters after the return to peace. The fact that only United States possessed the foreign exchange necessary to undertake substantial overseas investment, the ideal of laissez-faire was synonymous with the worldwide extension of U.S. hegemonical power. It meant that American commercial strength would achieve the government’s underlying objective of turning foreign economies into satellites of the United States.

Coming back to the commercial aspect of things. “cultural imperialism” can be used to refer to many different processes and effects: the building of Starbucks outlets across once colonized territories with a direct competition to the home-based coffee-shops constitutes a form of imperialism as it furthers the idea of superiority in the psyche of the populace; the spread of American-English, which causes “global language death” (Phillipson 2003) is also an integral aspect of it.

Following the end of World War II, the European empires began to crumble, USA became a new kind of postcolonial empire that ruled markets through sovereign states. In his 1952 essay “Great Britain, The United States, and Canada,” Harold Innis (1995) stated that the US empire was “made plausible and attractive in part by the insistence that it was not imperialistic” and warned against “the threat of Americanization”. USA emerged as the economic, political, and military superpower, locked into rivalry with the Soviet Union, with both trying to influence world affairs. Following

USA established the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, put forward US Dollar as the de-facto international trade currency, and held the biggest share of gold. In addition to being an economic powerhouse, following World War II the US became a military juggernaut: the national security state grew, the US arsenal and military bases expanded, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) put the US defense establishment in charge of international security. The US established the Marshall Plan and the Act for International Development in order to rebuild Western Europe, whilst also aiding decolonizing regions to modernize along US-sanctioned developmental lines.

The term ‘cultural imperialism’ has its share of issues as well. How do you differentiate between a genuine market expansion that has no other but economic needs in mind and the one with a more sinister undertone (of global dominance)? One way could be to assume that that every aspect of modernisation in inherently imperialistic in nature. Other could be take every case on its merit. An interesting aspect of cultural imperialism is that it is single sided. One, large player, dominating the playing field. The argument of imperialistic undertone to any undertaking changes when there’s a reciprocation. The smaller country begins to trade its ideals, its culture, its language, its history, its customs with the bigger one. As Beltran (1978) says: ‘It is logical to expect a nation exerting economic and political influence over other countries to exert a cultural influence as well. When the influence is reciprocal with those of such countries, the case is one of balanced, legitimate and desirable intercultural exchange. But when the culture of a central and dominant country is unilaterally imposed over the peripheral countries it dominates at the expense of their cultural integrity, then the case is one of cultural imperialism.

Accelerated globalization is influencing and transforming the cultures people used to experience in local sense. Globalization results in a form of heterogeneity. In view of cultural globalization, a question is always being asked. Does globalization promise a global culture? Traditionally, a culture is closely linked to the places and it is fixed and immovable. Under the conditions of globalization, the relation between the place and culture is reconstructed. De-territorialization of a culture and cosmopolitanism are two main points in describing and interpreting the cultural globalization.

In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said focuses on three major cultures: British, French and American, to show how their current identities are the product of power. The memory and sustaining ideology along with political practices of an empire persist. Said talks about cultural forms being hybrid, and the fact that we inhabit a world of “overlapping territories and intertwined history”.

Franz Fanon’s discusses the use of culture as a tool of a liberation. Fanon explains the way in which ‘native’ cultures are homogenised and dismissed as being inferior in nature, by the colonisers, as a way to dehumanize them.

Schiller (1976) defined Cultural Imperialism as being “the sum processes by which a society is brought into the modern world system and how its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced, and sometimes bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond to, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominating center of the system”.

Schiller talks about how American media corporations work as trojan horses. US media corporations establish a networked technological infrastructure for US financial investment, distribution, and marketing, while US commercial entertainment products ideologically reinforce this process by transmitting “in their imagery and messagery, the beliefs and perspectives that create and reinforce their audiences’ attachments to the way things are in the system overall”.

David Rothkopf, former managing director at Kissinger Associates, declared that the US is the indispensable nation-state in the management of global affairs and, as such, should actively globalize liberal capitalist democracy and multiculturalism in order to overcome a possible “clash of civilizations” between Western and Eastern cultures. In order to achieve this, the outlet and the process of information flow needs to be in direct control of the superior power, which we see in the example of USA.

Using culture as a tool of imperialism, as explained above, isn’t clearly new. While it is important to look positively at processes like globalisation which leads to a conflux of ideas, cultures, traditions, identities, languages, it is also imperative to not have a sinister or ulterior motive in propagating it. Societies do not evolve in isolation, rather are shaped by the different experiences that people from foreign lands bring. This holds true for every society, at any stage of development. There is a need to let the natural course of amalgamation of cultures take place. The need to look past from ‘Us v/s Them’. To rise above nationalistic ideals that not just pontificate one’s own set of ideals/beliefs/traditions onto the world. Almost every crisis in the world is a result of the incessant need to grab more power, to gain hegemony, with an ultimate aim to spread a specific set of ideals across the globe. This results in hindering the natural progression of humans and eventually, states, as humans are what form the basis of those states.

 

References:

  1. Harvey, David. The New Imperialism
  2. Hudson, Michael. Super Imperialism: The Origin and Fundamentals of US World Dominance
  3. Kristof, Nichloas. In China, Beauty Is a Big Western Nose https://www.nytimes.com/1987/04/29/garden/in-china-beauty-is-a-big-western-nose.html 
  4. Kroes, Rob. American Empire and Cultural Imperialism: A View from the Receiving End Vol. 23, No. 3 (Summer 1999), pp. 463-477 https://www.jstor.org/stable/24913675?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
  5. Mirrless, Tanner. Global Entertainment Media: Between Cultural Imperialism and Cultural Globalization
  6. Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism
  7. Tomlinson, John. Cultural Imperialism