Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Postcard poverty versus the McFuture

Momentarily breaking up the echo-chamber tedium of the Orrinanism-fest that is the modern Brothers Judd blog, the redoubtable Peter B makes an sharp insight.

He quotes an article by Spengler in the Asia Times:

Many beautiful things will disappear because poor people no longer will suffer to make them. One simply cannot find decent Mexican food in the United States, in part because traditional Mexican cuisine requires vast amounts of labor. Machine-made corn tortillas never will hold the savor of the hand-made article, but Mexicans migrate to the US precisely to escape a life of making tortillas by hand.

Will more money make them happier? I do not think so, any more than the loss of traditional Chinese culture in the globalized urban jungle of the coastal cities will make Chinese peasants happier…What it will do, however, is enable them to contemplate their unhappiness with a sense of empowerment. People with money, education and opportunity may be as miserable as any illiterate dirt farmer, but they have the means - how did Thomas Jefferson put it? - for the pursuit of happiness. Whether they choose good or ill is not up to this writer. But it is a vicious form of condescension to condemn people to perpetual poverty in the name of preserving traditional culture.

Peter writes:

This illustrates one of the great fault lines of modern conservatism, especially in North America. Supporting both the progress that liberates from poverty and the traditions that ground in non-material priorities, conservatives wrestle with the inconsistencies and ambiguities of celebrating constant change and innovation while at the same time fearing the dark side of timeless, immutable human nature. This is why conservatives are right to be wary of ideology and why both optimism and pessimism are prominent in conservative thought.

Not so on the modern left, which has surrendered to full-blown, ideologically pure reaction. Whether defending international law as if it were inscribed on tablets from Sinai, opposing globalization and trade in the name of cultural preservation, doubting other cultures wish or are “ready” for democracy, fear-mongering about the environment, supporting traditional poverty and oppression in Africa or waxing furiously and nostalgically about the disappearance of pathological sewers like the ghettos of New Orleans, the left has declared total war on the modern and now seems to be animated by a feudal ideal of a static, hierarchically-ordered, centrally-directed bastion of protection against chance and change that would condemn much of the world to poverty without escape. Indeed, as disorganized and directionless as today’s left may seem, they do seem united in their determination to stand athwart history yelling: “Stop!”

The Guardianista’s obsession with ‘authenticity’ for his annual holiday destinations is just another example (environmentalism and socialism are the others) of his anti-humanism. He is not a cultural relativist because he openly asserts that anything ethnic (ie. backward, outmoded but looks pretty in National Geographic) is superior to modern western culture.

Globalisation has of course lifted many more people out of abject poverty than all the charities put together. Unfortunately, we non-Guardianistas have to face the fact that an inexorable march towards the drabness of a global mono-culture may ultimately be the price humans pay for refusing to allow state-enforced poverty.


Susan's Husband said...

It's a transition phase. Eventually there will be enough wealth for people to afford have hand rolled tortillas once again. If the Mexican peasants could make, say, the equivalent of $10US per tortilla, I bet you'd see a lot more of them stick to it.

Oroborous said...

Ach, beat me to it.

The future won't be a "McFuture", or a drab global mono-culture.

Things were standardized in the 19th and 20th centuries because that was the cheapest way to make them.

However, we're developing the tech to make small or even one-off runs nearly as cheaply per-unit as doing a bazillion.

Thus, the future is likely to be much less drab than the present is, although the individual touches might largely be small mods to common designs.

Brit said...

I appreciate your optimism, chaps, and indeed for all I know you may be right, since I have even less confidence in my own ability to predict the future than I do in anyone else’s (which is not much).

However, it seems to me that it is more likely than not that such great American exports as Microsoft, baseball caps and denim jeans, and burger restaurants will continue to grow rather than shrink, as will such successful British exports as the English language and football. In which case, global diversity will surely decline accordingly.

While I disagree with the Left that enforced poverty and restricted individual freedoms are prices worth paying for artificially keeping richness and diversity alive, nonetheless I do think that their deaths are to be mourned, on an aesthetic level if nothing else.

Hey Skipper said...


If you take human nature to be universal (I do) then you shouldn't be surprised that people, no matter their origins, will ultimately respond in similar ways, when they have the freedom to do so.

In general, Iraqis and Brits have no love of having the hand of totalitarianism at their throats.

In general, when they have broken that grip, Iraqis and Brits will desire the same things in their lives.

No wonder the Left loves indigenous cultures: they are the result of people doing not that they choose to do, but rather what they are forced to do.

BTW -- and this is no slam on Orrin -- Peter is often the best thing about BrosJudd.

Oroborous said...

I see what you're saying, Brit.

So, I guess that the future will be a monoculture - just not a drab one.
Plus, anyone can find and live in a sub-culture, if they don't like the universal one.

Duck said...

Wow, excellent commentary by both Peter and Brit!

I share Brit's sense of being prediction-challenged. The future has a habit of confounding almost all predictions. Only in hindsight will the truly prescient be recognized.

I reserve a small place in my mind to worry about the loss of the kind of diversity Spengler is talking about. It will be a loss, but will be replaced by new sources of diversity that we have as yet not witnesed. Human creativity is truly prodigious. And the levelling of culture won't be as complete as we fear. People will obstinately cling to differences, and invent them where they don't exist.

When people gain enough wealth, they will learn to hand-roll their own tortilla, or will pay a premium for the real deal, as SH observed.

There are many more important problems that are being spawned by globalization, and this is one of them.

martpol said...

As a left-winger, I've decided to retire from commenting on political posts on Think of England - I haven't got the time and energy to be a minority of one!

Before I sign off, I'll note that both Spengler and Brit are guilty of precisely the same tendency to generalisation as are some of the left-wingers whose views they condemn. On our side of the divide, we need to admit that there are some benefits that have accrued from globalisation and capitalism, which many left-wingers choose to ignore. But blanket assertions that the modern left opposes trade or doubts the place of democracy in "other cultures", or that environmentalists are "anti-humanist", are similarly unfair.

To take just the last of those for now, it's quite clear that "environmentalism" is considerably more advanced in most quarters, and that these advances have often been brought about by left-wing thought. To describe sustainable development - working to develop economies in ways which will protect the environment at the same time as ensuring people's livelihoods - as anti-humanist would not only be a generalisation, but philosophically quite wrong.

Brit said...

By 'environmentalism' I don't mean 'caring about the environment' or 'being a bit green'.

I'm referring to the attitude amongst the more extreme wing of the leftie lobby that starts with the proposition that man is a parasite and his ultimate destruction will be a good thing for Gaia.

Brit said...

PS. Martpol: no need to retire. We all find ourselves in a minority of one (or two) on something.

It's about constructing arguments and hearing new ones, not Team A versus Team B. Very few bloggers I've come across fit neatly into any category - at least, the interesting ones don't.

Brit said...

PPS. Besides which, TofE values your input, because you're good at arguing. Which is a pretty rare thing on the internet, as you've no doubt discovered

martpol said...

Thank you, and I hope I don't come across as grumpy or indignant. Perhaps retire is a strong word...but I think I will be 'resting' my contributions for a while, as I am - fittingly? - currently overwhelmed by preparations for the World Schools Debating Championships.

I'm sure I'll be back...

Peter Burnet said...

A few things have to be said about this bemoaning the disapperance of aesthetic and cultural diversity. This stems very much from an aristocratic impulse--the "beauty" sensitivity of the materially secure steeped in the duties that call from the past. When it comes from traditional aristocrats, from the fops to the thoughtful, it often comes in a context of competing values and the carving out of a slice of the political pie--they generally don't expect those below them to share their sensibilities and the importance thereof and they really don't care. But when it comes from modern Western mass tourists or anti-globalist activists, it comes from the same patronizing "I know what is good for you, let me guide and plan your life" impulse that causes such havoc.

I have always thought the dissing of suburbia and its uniformity was way overdone--I don't think I've ever a met a surburbanite who whined about the lack of architectural or even socio-economic diversity and many suburbs are (and over time become more) attractive and diverse than we pretend. The fact is they are paradises for children, and that is the whole point of them--they represent a family-focused ethos and investment in the future. Say what you will about her, Maggie understood that perfectly. The gloomy European aesthete (too often with a messed-up personal life) who delights in dumping on American "uncultured" philistinism misses this completely. Even worse, he then goes on to build the most gawdawful publically-funded and planned workers' estates imaginable. Or he builds a bucolic Vermont--the most picturesque, aesthetically-controlled state in the US, and also the most kid-unfriendly one.

But there is much to lament for sure. Forget tortillas, one of my saddest moments was when an architect told me that if our Parliament Buildings were ever destroyed, they could not be replaced--no one would know how. But perhaps the most telling line in the Spengler article was when he said there is a reason Notre Dame only receives tourists and the magachurches are full of worshippers. I do not know what the answer is, but I suspect it lies in philanthropically-minded individuals and communities and not in political activism or government promotion of diversity of any kind.

Thanks for the kind words, all. Martpol, good luck in the debates, but I second Brit's enjoinder. Hell is a place where leftists are in one room and righists in another, each discussing endlessly how much they agree with one another.