By Lane Crothers
The United States' position as the leading maker of global culture has been basically unchallenged for the last century or so, especially in the Western world. Yet the economic power of the Western world is waning even as new nations, with new models of economic and social life, are rising. Might one -- or several -- of these nations like China, India or Brazil become new centers of global culture?
I believe that the answer to this question for the foreseeable future is "no." While the U.S.'s cultural prominence is partially related to its political, military and economic power, such power is not the only cause of America's global cultural hegemony. Rather, the U.S. offers a unique convergence of several factors, including economic opportunity, political freedom and an immigrant culture that served as a test bed for new cultural products.
Let me offer a brief account of the rise of the American film industry to suggest the way political, economic and immigrant forces shaped American cultural hegemony. In the U.S., the film industry started as commercial enterprise largely independent of state control. Movies had to adapt to market conditions to earn profit for their producers. In order to achieve this goal, American movies needed to appeal to a diverse population made up of both native-born and immigrant citizens.
As a consequence, filmmakers had to make movies that could appeal to international audiences simply to meet domestic demand. This fact helped the American film industry become globally preeminent well before the U.S. became a superpower. In other words, while U.S. military and economic power strengthened the position of the U.S. movie industry as globally dominant, that position was not dependent on U.S. military and economic power. Instead, American producers had a competitive advantage in global markets that was later cemented in place by the U.S. post-war economic and military hegemony in the West.
Accordingly, while this military and economic hegemony may decline, it does not follow that American filmmakers -- or other agents of culture-making -- will lose global influence at the same time. Rather than being replaced by a competitor nation, a more likely future is one in which global corporations compete to control and marketize our access to cultural meaning. Corporations will increasingly shape a world in which consumer choice is equated with democratic choice, in which the freedom to consume is held equivalent to individual dignity and autonomy.
In this corporate future, "I am what I consume," and, "If I can consume, then I am free," will likely be dominant themes. Yet as the global resistance to neoliberal globalization suggests, the human yearning for self-determination, individual autonomy and respect for the dignity of the person transcends market politics. People want to experience, use and draw meaning from cultural forms and artifacts that have substantive meaning in their own lives, not just those that can be marketed to them void of any social connection to lived experience.
This, it seems to me, is what America has excelled at. It has taken its advantages in money and power and linked them to the creation of cultural forms that have broad appeal to millions of people worldwide. It has also expressed values and ideals that encompass the desires and dreams of large numbers of people across the globe. And while its actions have often fallen short of its ideals -- sometimes horribly, savagely short -- the ideals are there nonetheless. They stand as a globally appealing vision of what might be real some day.
The 21st century may not be the "American Century." But it won't be post-American, either.