Global Culture, it’s Here

A global culture is not developing, it’s
here. It’s not yet mature, but a culture of global capitalism is rapidly
spreading throughout the world enabled by electronic and digital
media.
(Revised 1/18/2006)
(Revised 1/20/2006)
(I goofed in my attribution of the production of Marketplace. I should have attributed production and distribution to American Public Media. My apologies to American Public Media for the mistake.)

American Public Media’s Marketplace is originating from China this week and I recommend tuning in to get an important perspective on both the Chinese economy and an insightful look at the global culture of capitalism that is already well-formed and growing.

The era of U.S. economic hegemony is over. I think the future will belong to China if the U.S. continues on its present course. (However, see Thomas Friedman’s column on A Green Dream in Texas for an example of how to incorporate green technologies into corporate life for better impact.) In the Philippines I was discussing China’s influence on the island nation with a Philippine friend. He said China is becoming more influential than it has been in the past, and the influence isn’t merely regional proximity. It’s economic.

He also noted that China has no troops stationed beyond its borders. Its expansion is due in large part to its embrace of unfettered capitalism. Last night’s Marketplace looked at China’s transition from Maoism to capitalism and carried two stories on the lack of moral and ethical guidelines that mark this transition.

Under capitalism, according to the Chinese interviewed in the Marketplace stories, newly prosperous Chinese, both young and old, lack guiding principles that give order and meaning to their lives. Making and spending money is, in itself, not enough to provide meaning. Having discarded the moral teachings of Maoism, however onerous these might have been, has left Chinese in the emerging capitalist culture without a moral compass.

Hedonism, a term the Chinese commentators used in the story, is tiring and ultimately leads to physical deterioration and emotional despair. Capitalism is not a value system to live by. It requires additional values that inform the process of buying and selling. These principles come from other places, religion being foremost.

Before hearing the Marketplace stories, I was reflecting on the emergence of the global middle-class. One sees it in cities across the world. A shopping mall in Manila looks pretty much like a shopping mall in Des Moines. Global franchises sell the same products to us all. They change the marketing strategy to reach us, but the uniformity of these places is numbing and depressing (to me).

(Hooray for Kampala where I did not see one Starbucks!)

The global middle class is informed by digital and electronic media that propagate capitalism and the lifestyle of consumption. In urban markets radio, television, cellphones and the Internet are ubiquitous.

But those who cannot compete in this middle class are left, quite literally, in the dust. They include people in rural areas bound by the chains of poverty, those lacking the education or the means to secure education, those without the knowledge about how to participate in the global economy.

It’s been my experience over the years that we who live in the U.S. are not very well informed about these global trends. We can’t even locate some of the countries I’ve mentioned on a map. Moreover, our public educational system has been underfunded and allowed to deteriorate to the degree that even the capitalists say we are not competitive in the global marketplace.

Because unfettered capitalism is not values neutral, as the Chinese seem to think, I believe ethical and moral teachings must inform all economic systems, including capitalism. Detached from the guidance and balance of moral and ethical principles, capitalism is harmful. Chinese capitalism is not neutral on human rights. China’s record on human rights, free speech and assembly is abysmal.

Microsoft recently closed down a blog at the request of the Chinese government because the blogger was commenting on issues that in a free society are fair game. Microsoft faced the choice of closing the blog or losing its ability to do business in China. The company chose. The choice had a real, concrete result on free expression. It was not benign or neutral.

Likewise, the degrading of the environment in China is not values neutral. Pollution of the air and water and destruction of the landscape is becoming a significant health issue in addition to obvious environmental concern.

If the exportation of this kind of capitalism is what the world has to look forward to, those who have a different moral compass need to be informed and active in advocating for human rights, the environment, education and health, not just in our neighborhoods, but around the globe.

I believe for those of us who follow the Way of Jesus, this is a matter of faith. We are challenged to be informed about the world in which we live because under the teachings of Jesus we are no longer residents of our own circumscribed neighborhood. We are residents of a global society that places on us the responsibility to be informed and care for the whole of Mother Earth and her peoples.

To follow his teachings compels us to be concerned for those who are forgotten and left out of the mainstream society. Is this not what Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well is about? We are to include those who are excluded, affirming the dignity and worth of those who, in society’s judgment, don’t count.

To be faithful today requires us to be globally informed. And faithfulness challenges us to understand how our values and guiding principles connect us with others and the earth. If capitalism is global, then faith must be even more so.

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