By Raphaël Colombier
In 1998, the American discount-retailing giant Wal-Mart announced, to great fanfare, that it was expanding into South Korea. Eight years later, following performance that was lackluster, Wal-Mart sold its stores in South Korea and ended its operations in the country.
Wal-Mart’s poor showing in South Korea was not due to gross mismanagement or scandal, rather, South Korean shoppers simply weren’t interested in the shopping experience Wal-Mart offered. Wal-Mart’s Korean failure demonstrates a key point that is often overlooked in the debate over globalization: that globalization is not an unstoppable international conspiracy directed by our ‘neoliberal overlords’ in Washington, D.C. and Western Europe. Instead, globalization is the sum total of conscious choices made by billions of individuals around the world. By bringing the world closer together, globalization has enabled billions of people to live the lives of their choice.
Globalization is not an unstoppable international conspiracy directed by our ‘neoliberal overlords’ in Washington, D.C. and Western Europe.
Globalization as a phenomenon is incredibly hard to define. Many definitions of globalization deal only with its economic aspects: the expansion of free-market capitalist forces into international markets. However, globalization is much more than that. In addition to being characterized by the spread of things, globalization is also inherently about the spread of people, cultures, and even values. Watching an American Netflix series in Menton, or a Spanish football game in the United States? That’s an instance of globalization. Wearing a pair of jeans, or eating falafel? That is also globalization. Protests in Tahrir Square fueled by the desire for democracy? That, too, is globalization! The fact that globalization has brought the world closer together is undeniable.
Despite its manifold accomplishments, globalization is not without its faults. Yet, the recurring charge leveled at globalization–that it destroys local culture–misses the mark. In July 2000, an editorial in an Egyptian newspaper decried globalization as “cultural aggression.” The author wrote, “Aggression does not come from armies, but from … sandwiches, jeans and sexual writings, the songs of Madonna and the films of Stallone and Michael Jackson.” Such an argument is typical of opponents of globalization, who decry the supposed loss of traditional values and culture. However, it is important to remember that nobody forced Egyptians to watch Stallone movies or listen to Madonna. Leaving aside the fact that cultural change is an inevitable part of the human experience, if, as the editorial’s author seemed to think, traditional Egyptian culture has been lost in favor of “Western culture,” it is because Egyptians themselves decided, on the individual level, that “Egyptian culture” wasn’t as appealing as the alternatives. South Koreans, on the other hand, made the opposite choice, at least vis-à-vis Walmart. In neither case was globalization imposed with the intent of cultural destruction.
The recurring charge leveled at globalization–that it destroys local culture–misses the mark.
Where it does occur, coercive imposition of both goods and culture is indeed problematic. However, it makes no more sense to reverse globalization because of such incidents, than it would be to ban cars because of hit-and-run drivers.
Globalization therefore offers an enormous range of choice to a large number of people. All over the world, people can choose to embrace globalized products and ideas—or not. Fears of the destruction of local culture are insufficient grounds to deny billions greater choice in how to live their lives.
Choe Sang-Hun. “Wal-Mart Selling Stores and Leaving South Korea.” The New York Times, May 23, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/23/business/worldbusiness/23shop.html.
Juweida, Farooq. “Enlightenment and the Absence of Identity.” Ahram, July 30, 2000. My own translation.