Culture In The Era of Globalisation

Valedictory Address:  Second EMS Memorial Seminar
 AKG Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, March 18, 2000
Culture in the Era  of Globalisation, Commercialisation and Communalisation
-- Some  Thoughts
Sitaram Yechury
It is indeed an exceptional honour to be asked to deliver this valedictory address at a seminar in honour of Comrade EMS and in which some of the outstanding creative minds of our country have participated.  At the outset, I must confess a sense of gross inadequacy on my part to do justice to both the topic under discussion and to the occasion.  What I, therefore, propose to do is to share some thoughts, not in a studied and reasoned format, but more in the nature of random reflections.
I cannot but begin by endorsing the view that the topic chosen for this year's seminar is most appropriate to honour Comrade EMS. For, above all, EMS was a man of culture.  Culture, as everything else for EMS, was not an arena of abstract play of ideas and emotions. It always remained an arena of intense struggle between contending class forces. Class struggle was EMS's culture.  And, in a class divided society, it is everybody's culture, whether individuals are consciously cognizant of it or not. EMS's views and contributions in the field of culture must always be placed in this context.
Before we engage in a discussion on the theme, I recollect a personal experience.  Way back in 1986, I was asked to accompany Com. EMS to Berlin, to attend the Congress of the Socialist Unity Party (the then ruling party of the German Democratic Republic).  During  the free time we had, our hosts wanted to know what we would like to do. I suggested visiting Brecht's theatre in East Berlin which was (and is even now, I presume) called the `Berliner Ensemble'.  EMS readily agreed and we went to see a theatrical production of one of Brecht's short poems, "In love of a revolutionary".   The programme, it was stated would be for a duration of two hours.  We were curious to see how the depiction of such a short poem could consume so much time! As the programme began, apart from the Brechtian practice of introducing characters through the audience, we were initiated to an exiting experiment. As the play was proceeding on the stage, in the background  a film was being shown.  The script of the film was not directly woven into that of the play. But, both put together created a powerful ambience which transcended beyond both a proscenium play and a film.  EMS found this experiment very fascinating.
Such a process of experimenting with new forms was echoed many years ago in India by that genius of a filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak. He spoke of the future forms of art as a fusion of some of the existing forms and specifically of a form that goes beyond the celluloid fusing theatre, choreography and cinema.  As we shall see later, the creative emergence of such forms would be crucial to combat the onslaught of cultural imperialism under globalisation. 
Globalisation, commercialisation and communalisation are not unrelated aspects impacting culture in today's world.  In the Indian context particularly, all these knot together to strengthen the grip of ruling class hegemony over our society.
When we speak of culture in the context of today's discussion, we do not speak merely in terms of this or that performing art.  We speak of culture in its broad sense -- as a manifestation of the superstructure -- that includes language, arts, religion, education, laws, customs etc.
On the issue of the ideological hegemony exercised by the ruling classes, Marx and Engels observe:
"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch, the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production so that the ideas of those who lack the  means of mental production are on the whole subject to it.  The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations; dominant material relations, grasped as ideas: hence of the relations which made the one  class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.  The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things, consciousness and therefore think. In so far therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an historical epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age; thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch."  (German Ideology, Moscow 1976, p. 67 emphasis added.)
It is this hegemony of the `ideas' of ruling classes that as Gramsci explains is not enforced merely by the State.   The  State is only the "outer ditch" behind which stands a powerful system of "fortresses and earth works", a network of cultural institutions and values which buttress the rule and domination of the ruling classes.
Such culture is mediated and transmitted through a complex web of social relations and the consequent social structure.  The family, the community, caste, religion, its places of worship like  temples, churches, mosques, gurdwaras etc are the institutions that constantly feed the fodder to shape values and opinions bolstering ruling class hegemony of `ideas'.  In the process, they create the `myth' of a `common culture'. This `common  culture' is nothing but the selective transmission of class dominated values through the various institutions referred to above. Nothing else illustrates this more graphically than the current ruling class euphoria over the visit of US President Clinton. Their servility to imperialism requires the obfuscation of imperialist pressures on India that erode our sovereignty amongst the people.  Opposing the protests against imperialism by progressive sections of our people, the ruling classes invoke our so-called `common culture' of `Indian hospitality' to visiting guests.  `Athithi Devo Bhava', we are told! In the process, the ruling classes  conveniently ignore lessons from our own `traditions' and legends. Recall that  Vishnu comes in the avatar of Vamana to the audience of king Mahabali.  He is accorded the warmest of welcomes and asked to seek any gift he wishes. Vamana seeks `three feet of land'. His wish being granted, he assumes the form of  Vishnu's `Viswa roopa darsana' and places one foot on `swarga loka' (heaven), one on `bhoo loka' (earth) and then asks Mahabali where to place the third!  With Mahabali's head alone remaining unoccupied, he places his foot there and pushes him down to `patala lokam' (under world) thus killing him.   Incidentally, legend has it that Mahabali recognising that he has been tricked asks Vishnu to let him return to his people once a year for a day. Vishnu relents and that day is celebrated as `Onam' by the Kerala people!
It is interesting to note that the same legend has a different and opposite interpretation in North India. Mahabali is depicted as the king  of `Asuras' (demons) whose killing became necessary for the very survival of humans.  Therefore, while one section of Indians in the north celebrate the death of Mahabali, in Kerala his return is celebrated!  It is such diversity, within the Hindu fold itself that the communal forces seek to negate in pursuit of imposing a uniformity so necessary for their political project of establishing a rabidly intolerant `Hindu Rashtra' (In all possibility, this legend reflects the struggle between the conquering Aryans and resisting Dravidians which the later lost).
Let us return to the creation of the myth of a `common culture'.  Interestingly such aspects of our tradition (Vamana and Mahabali) are never invoked.  Here is a guest who abusing the hospitality accorded to him kills the king himself. A very appropriate analogy for Clinton's visit indeed!  Instead of the king, it is the country that imperialism seeks to decimate. By invoking the so-called traditional culture of unquestioned hospitality, the ruling classes are selectively transmitting class-dominated values, convenient for their current objective of mortgaging India and its people to US imperialism.
Further, it would be extremely wrong to conclude, as the communalists seek to do today, that our `common culture' is immutable.  Take for example, the case of the ruling classes in Central America. For over four centuries, they embraced Roman Catholicism.  But when the clergy, in one country after another, chose to embrace liberation theology and sided with the oppressed, the same ruling classes, overnight so to speak, shed their "centuries old culture" and embraced protestantism!  `Common culture' is both invoked and discarded when it suits the interests of the ruling classes.
Culture, therefore, constitutes the ideological formation that advances the interests of the ruling classes. On the  obverse, also arises the culture of the oppressed that opposes such culture of the ruling classes.  Culture thus becomes the arena of class struggle.
Thus, every period generates a specific cultural ethos subscribing to the requirements of the ruling classes. Yet, long after that particular period and mode of production ceases, the `cultural impact' continues. Slavery, for instance, generated the specific culture of `racism' based on the colour of the skin of the slaves. But, as Engels had said, slavery leaves behind its `poisonous sting' of racism for long after, in fact till date.
In the specific context of India, we must note that with the co-existence of capitalism alongwith various forms of pre-capitalist economic and social formations, a mosaic  of cultural  milieu coexist.  What the communalists seek to do is to homegenise this diversity into a monolith expressed by their slogan of "one country, one people, one culture".  More on this later.
Under capitalism, while culture as an ideological formation bolsters the rule of capital, the forms of culture go through a process of commodification, as everything else in society.  Much has been written about this process and needs no repetition.  The cultural products of capitalism are aimed at achieving social control rather than expressions of social creativity.  The exchange value of these products always supercede their use value.  This, of course, does not hold for those cultural products that emerge from dissent and opposition to capitalism.
Globalisation is a qualitatively different stage in the evolution of capitalism and imperialism.  This is a stage marked by immense growth of finance capital and its internationalisation.  These enormous amounts of capital seek quick profits, mainly from speculation across the globe.  They, thus, need facilities for free flow of capital without any restrictions across countries.  Its tendency is to negate geographical borders hence sovereignty of independent countries.
Alongside, the tremendous concentration of wealth and assets in giant multinational corporations, who control the bulk of world's production and distribution of  goods, also seeks to convert the world into a single global market.  Economists have well documented this process and we shall not go into those details here.
The cultural hegemony that such a globalisation process seeks is expressed in the need to create a homogenisation of public taste.  The more homogenous the taste the easier it is to develop technologies for the mechanical reproduction of `cultural products' for large masses.  Commercialisation of culture is a natural corollary of such globalisation.  See for instance, the sudden popularisation of western concepts like "Valentines' day" amongst our urban youth accompanied by the sale of universal products of cards and gifts. In many third world countries, illiteracy may be rampant but the image of Walt Dysney cartoon figures are familiar to the children!
Viewed in terms of class  hegemony, the culture of globalisation seeks to divorce people from their actual realities of day to day life.  Culture here acts not as an appeal to the aesthetic, but as a distraction, diversion from pressing problems of poverty and misery.  Consequently, it seeks to disrupt the energy of the people and their struggle to change and improve their miserable existence.  As Michael Parenti says, "A far greater part of our culture is now aptly designated as "mass culture", "popular culture", and even "media culture", owned and operated mostly by giant corporations whose major concur is to accumulate wealth and make the world safe for their owners, the goal being exchange value rather than use value, social control rather than social creativity. Much of mass culture is organised to distract us from thinking too much about larger realities.  The fluff and puffery of entertainment culture crowds out more urgent and nourishing things. By constantly appealing to the lowest common denominator, a sensationalist popular culture lowers the common denominator still further. Public tastes become still more attuned to cultural junk food, the big hype, the trashy, flashy, wildly violent, instantly stimulating, and desperately superficial offerings.
"Such fare often has real ideological content.  Even if supposedly apolitical in its intent, entertainment culture (which is really the entertainment industry) is political in its impact, propagating images and values that are often downright sexist, racist, consumerist, authoritarian, militaristic, and imperialist." (Monthly Review, February 1999)
The media culture that globalisation promotes is starkly exposed by the manner in which the Indian big business media is bending  over backwards to pay obiescene to Bill Clinton.  The days proceeding the visit are full of reports as to who, Chandrababu Naidu or Krishna will win in taking Clinton to their state.  Hyderabad has won and Bangalore lost.  But, this was precisely the period when farmers were committing suicides in Andhra and Dalits were burnt alive in Karnataka.  These reports appear as inconsequential news items.  Reports on beggars being removed from Hyderabad for Clinton's visit hog headlines!  Such is the divorce that media culture seeks to create between people and their actual conditions.  Eminent media personalities N. Ram and Sashi Kumar have dealt in great detail on this issue and whatever else I may say would only amount to an incompetent  repetition.
Communalism, apart from straight jacketing and distorting history as Prof. Panickar has pointed out, apart from hijacking India's rich cultural diversity to suit its communal project of establishing a rabidly intolerant Hindu Rashtra as others like Prof. Ninan Koshy and Mohan Thampi pointed out, seeks  to create an illusion of opposing this culture of globalisation by appealing to the need to preserve the `glory of the ancient' and the `traditional' forms of Indian culture.
It would be totally erroneous to assume that the culture of globalisation is anti-traditional. On the contrary, it co-opts the traditional forms into its format.  Witness the various channels of  music television today.  Traditional Indian forms such as Bhangra, Dandi and so on are embraced by the `pop' culture.  Such has been its impact that it has completely transformed the concept of enjoying or appreciating music.  So much so that my daughter today speaks of `watching' a song, not `listening' as our generation did.  Traditional forms are coopted to create the homogenisation of public taste that we spoke of earlier.  The mechanical reproduction technology to cater to large masses is where the entertainment industry, the backbone of globalisation `culture' makes its super profits.
Further, if traditional forms can reap super profits, then they would, in fact,  be promoted by the cultural moguls of globalisation.  Witness the fact that Rupert Murdoch buys the worldwide rights for Ramanand Sagar's Ramayana!
In fact, the obverse is as true! If there are profits visible then the self styled champions of Indian culture and protectors of its `traditions' will embrace western forms without batting an eyelid.  Witness the nauseating  welcome rolled out by Bal Thackeray's Shiv Sena to the epitome of globalisation culture, Michael Jackson!  His obscene gyrations are more preferable to the communal forces than the gazals of Pakistan's Ghulam Ali, whose performance they prevent in Bombay!
And, herein lies the convergence of interests of globalisation and communalism.  Both seek the homogenisation of public tastes.   The former to strengthen its cultural hegemony and to reap superprofits. The latter, in addition to these, to pave the way for the establishment of a rabidly intolerant theocratic State of Hindu Rashtra. Its slogan of "one country, one people, one culture" can acquire a real status and meaning only through such homogenisation negating the very fundamental foundations of India's rich cultural diversity. 
Further, both globalisation and communalism seek to divert the attention of the people away from day to day problems and importantly weaken their struggle against the existing exploitative order. Both use culture as an important conduit to achieve this.  Globalisation's manufacture of `popular culture' and the way it operates, we have noted earlier.  Communalism seeks to achieve this objective by repeatedly engaging  people's attention on structurally generated emotive issues. Recall the entire gamut of issues raised by them to divide the people.  Right from the temple issue at Ayodhya, Article 370, Common Civil Code, Pakistani cricket team's visit to India, paintings of M.F. Hussain, films of Deep Mehta, Saraswati Vandana, religious  conversions etc etc are all divorced from the grim day to day realities of the people.  Poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, misery that stalk the majority of our population are not issues that constitute their `cultural construct'.  Diverting the attention of the people and thus weakening their struggles against their miserable conditions of existence constitutes an important pillar of the cultural project of communalism.
Communalism's apparent manifestations of opposition to `western' culture is, thus, only superficial. In terms of their content, the interests of globalisation and communalism converge.  Thus, in practice, the struggle against one cannot be separated from the other.  This is corroborated by the convergence of interests in other spheres as well.  Communalism has shown itself as the most ardent supporter of imperialism today and an ally of the latter in the globalisation drive.  Communalism has shown itself as the firm protector of the interests of the Indian ruling classes and its leadership, the big business. Hence, the struggle against imperialism in the present context cannot be divorced from the struggle against communalism.
Before we conclude, there is one other issue that needs to be considered.  Whenever one mounts a critique of the type of culture being purveyed by these forces, one is confronted by the reaction that after all this is the type of culture that people want!  Globalisation's `popular' culture, we are told, is a reflection of people's taste!
Nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, Marx in his analysis of capitalism made a very penetrating observation.
"Production not only provides the material to satisfy a need, but it also provides the need for the material. When consumption emerges from its original primitive crudeness and immediacy -- and its remaining in that state would be due to the fact that production was still primitively crude -- then it is itself as a desire brought about by the object.  The need felt for the object is induced by the perception of the object.  An objet d'art creates  a public that has artistic taste and is able to enjoy beauty -- and the same can be said of any other product. Production accordingly produces not only an object for the subject, but also a subject for the object. (Karl Marx, "Introduction" to Economic Manuscripts of 1857-58)
This is all too visible for us to see today!  The billions of dollars spent annually on advertising are creating the `subjects' for the `objects' that the system churns out.  Likewise in culture.  The audience is first created to receive a product of mass consumption.  The homogenisation of public tastes is thus created through an advertisement blitz that dullens if not erases critical faculties. It is not therefore, as though, this `culture' is catering to people's taste.  Tastes are being created to accept uncritically the `culture' that is being churned out.
How does one then combat such a cultural onslaught?  An onslaught that drives away truly popular people's culture.  At the first instance, it is necessary to bring back on to the cultural agenda people's issues, whose obfuscation and erasure is the raison d'etre of  the culture of globalisation and communalism. This is paramount to counter the cultural hegemony that they seek.
Further, apart from using and innovating upon the existing forms, new forms of popular culture need to be evolved.  These are necessary in order to  combat the power of the electronic media that is slowly but surely eroding normal social interaction by confining people particularly children and youth to the TV sets. And, in this context, we return to the beginning of our discussion and our experience in Berlin.
This is not  for a moment to suggest that existing forms should be discarded or to suggest that once other forms are created, the battle has been won.  All new forms and innovations may soon be coopted by the cultural moguls of globalisation.  The point that needs to be underlined, however, is that in terms of content, people's issues must be brought on to the agenda and in terms of form creative innovations are necessary. Only through such efforts can the struggle to combat the present cultural onslaught be strengthened.