Cultural Imperialism: Influence of Western Media

How useful is the concept of cultural imperialism for understanding the influence of western media on non western audiences?

Introduction

To best answer the question within the title we need first to define the concept of cultural imperialism so as to ascertain how it differs from traditional modes of imperialism; it is important to understand how cultural imperialism is a logical by product of the long and varied history of the west’s relationship with the rest of the world and how this, in turn, affects the global perception of western media within non‑western audiences. We then need to look at the most important concept in the study of cultural imperialism, the advent of globalisation as an economic and political reality. And finally we likewise need to define and examine the influence and limits of western media (and new media) to discern its relative power within the broader pattern of westernisation which has been discernible across the globe for the past thirty years.

Before we begin we must be aware that the history of imperialism frequently exists within individual western cultures and it is important not to see cultural imperialism or indeed any kind of colonisation as purely a western tactic of oppression against the rest of the world. Britain, for example, although known as the classical imperial nation of the world until the end of World War One at least, is a more interesting case study (in the context of this particular study) for the extreme form of cultural imperialism that existed within its own borders.

As the island fragmented into three separate nations, with another autonomous culture across the Irish Sea, one civilisation grew to be numerically and thus militarily more significant than the other two. Inevitably England used its strength to impose its own brand of cultural imperialism on first the strategically weaker Welsh and next, invoking a protracted campaign of subjugation, against the Scots to the north. The English imposed their culture upon the Celtic peoples of the island via brutality and imperialism, stationing troops in both countries and forcing the local population to breed with their colonial masters so as literally to root out the essence of their individuality and homogeneity. Customs such as the Highland attire of wearing kilts was banned for periods in the middle ages and an official policy of extermination was pursed by London in relation to the Welsh language. We can thus see how imperialism is an inevitable phenomenon of evolution, one which, as we will demonstrate, is greatly accelerated by modernisation and industrialisation. Britain is an example of the continuation of imperialism and why being on the receiving end of it does not necessarily entail an end to its global practice.

Cultural imperialism

“A great deal of the world’s history is the history of empires. Indeed, it could be said that all history is imperial – or colonial – history, if one takes a broad enough definition and goes back far enough.” (S. Howe, Empire: a Very Short Introduction, p.1; Oxford University Press; Oxford, 2002)

Imperialism, as a concept of one culture attempting to dominate another, is as old as the paradigm of civilisation itself, as we have already ascertained. History has traditionally cast imperialists as war mongers, typified by the Spanish and Portuguese occupation of Latin America from the sixteenth century and the Scramble for Africa in the second half of the nineteenth century, both renowned cases of advanced European cultures imposing their way of life and customs upon a people ill equipped to spurn their military and technological advances. This is what we will refer to as either political or traditional imperialism, which is ideologically different to cultural imperialism, although the lines of distinction between are frequently blurred, as Harvey explains.

“Imperialism is a word that trips easily off the tongue. But it has such different meanings that it is difficult to use it without clarification as an analytic rather than a polemical term. I here define that special brand of it called ‘capitalist imperialism’ as a contradictory fusion of ‘the politics of state and empire’ (imperialism as a distinctly political project on the part of actors whose power is based in command of a territory and a capacity to mobilise its human and natural resources towards political, economic and military ends) and ‘molecular processes of capital accumulation in space and time’ (imperialism as a diffuse political‑economic process in space and time in which command over and use of capital takes primacy).” (D. Harvey, The New Imperialism, p.26; Oxford University Press; Oxford, 2003)

Cultural imperialism is a key feature of Marx’s critique of media theory, which he viewed as dominated by the ruling classes. Via this domination, he argued, the ruling classes would best be suited to perpetuate their stranglehold on power.

“The ideas of the ruling classes are in every age, the ruling ideas: i.e. the class, which is the dominant material force in society, is at the same time its dominant intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production… in so far as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of each epoch, they do this in its whole range, hence, among other things, they regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age; thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.” (K. Marx & F. Engels, Selected Works, pp.64‑65; Lawrence & Wishart; London, 1968)

Karl Marx’s famous quote on the subjugation of the masses by traditional ideological means has helped to pave the way for modern media theory. It follows naturally that the ideology of the ruling classes of the dominant international power would enjoy the same position of pre‑eminence that Marx describes. Yet his theory works only within the context of a single capitalist society and its socio‑economic structure. For instance, when Marx talked of his media theory of the ruling classes he had in mind only one nation; specifically how Prussian aristocrats had managed to influence proletariat German ideology. Marx’s theory is more complex when discussing the influence of western media on non‑western audiences because there is inherently a massive cultural divide that must be bridged before any level of influence (in real terms) can be attained by the imperial power.

Cultural imperialism is therefore, a social phenomenon that occurs at a later stage of a long historical chain of colonialism that cannot be viewed out of its political and economic context. Cultural imperialism is an intangible form of colonisation that was practised by the western empires that took over the world and exploited insidious and organic link between conquerors and conquered. It is thus a vague concept that is hollow out of the specific context of its territorial and political evolution and we must therefore take a look at the ways in which western culture attempted to dominate foreign societies before the advent of the mass media and westernisation.

“At some point west Europeans ruled most of the world, but they never ruled all of it. Japan, China, Tibet, Thailand, Persia, Afghanistan, and most of the Arabian Peninsula were not incorporated into overseas empires.” (D.B. Abernethy, The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires, 1415‑1980, p.255; Yale University Press; New Have & London, 2000)

If one looks at the countries and regions that Abernethy cites as beyond the historical influence of Western European cultural expansion it quickly becomes apparent that all except China and Tibet have fallen under either the political or economic control of the USA. That means, quite simply, that the USA and/or Europe have controlled, at some point in history, almost the entire planet.

It is an immensely important point because to understand the importance of western media upon non‑western societies we must first comprehend the level of influence of historical cultural ties, how the west has penetrated societies for centuries, opening up the indigenous psyches to the fundamentals of western civilisation. Centuries of undermining local heritages and cultures have resulted in a modern world which is already au fait with the fundamental characteristics of western civilisation even before the arrival of the digital media age, which clearly makes the role of the western media one of re‑enforcement, not instillation.

Furthermore, as a by product of western imperial strategy, political imperialism has helped to establish systems of law that are more western and international in their influence than necessarily geared towards the social problems of the nation in question. The contemporary issue of Iraq will provide analysts with the answers to the presently hypothetical questions of the transplantation of western law in non‑western societies.

World War Two hastened the end of the traditional European colonial influence in most parts of the world. Two superpowers remained ideologically, economically and politically supreme and both were quick to realise the benefits of cultural imperialism, specifically media imperialism in cementing their authority domestically and internationally. The USSR used a primitive form of propaganda to minimise nationalism and political dissent in its territories but the truth remained that fear of reprisal and brutality remained the reason for the externally peaceful façade of the Soviet Union. The USA, on the other hand, was quick to realise the value of democratic cultural imperialism; the wholesale western saturation of what the US Establishment perceives to be the ‘American dream.’

Thus, much of the accelerated westernisation that has been witnessed since the second half of the twentieth century has been as the result of American influences. Scholars are increasingly discussing this process of Americanisation, the traditional powers of Western Europe conspicuous by their absence from the discussion, and we must bear this in mind when discussing the international problems of media and modernity.

Westernisation is tantamount to Americanisation. The United States leads the way in terms of food (MacDonald’s), drink (Coca‑Cola) and visual entertainment (Hollywood cinema). Thus, “world patterns of communication flow, both in density and direction, mirror the system of domination in the economic and political order.” (J. Sinclair, E. Jacka & S. Cunningham, Peripheral Vision, p.297 in, F.J. Lechner & J. Boli (Edtd.), The Globalisation Reader, Second Edition; Blackwell; Oxford, 2004)

America has exploited Hollywood as its most blatant and far‑reaching mode of cultural imperialism, its aesthetic qualities enough to dissolve barriers of language and custom across the globe. Cinema, as a mass cultural phenomenon, would simply not have existed were it not for west coast American production teams. Furthermore, the USA transmits via television, a blatant form of cultural propaganda through world giants of broadcasting such as Fox and CNBC. Only the BBC can truly claim to rival American broadcasters on a world scale.

“It could be argued that the BBC produces a product that is as internationally persuasive and pervasive as any other global corporation. It has certainly been responsible for producing a form of cultural hegemony that has helped to dictate and form British public opinion and social attitudes for nearly a century.” (G. Creeber, Hideously White: British Television, Globalisation and National Identity, pp.28‑29, in, Television and New Media Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1, February 2004)

We clearly need to look further than the influence of cultural imperialism and western media for the westernisation of the globe, which has been taking place with greater acceleration for the past forty years. We need to analyse ways in which the west affects people’s real lives in non‑western societies.

Globalisation

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The single most important contemporary factor behind the ascension of western culture, even in the far reaches of the globe that the European powers failed to penetrate in the nineteenth century, is the economy and, specifically, the economic reality of the concept of globalisation. “Globalisation means the spread of free‑market capitalism to virtually every corner in the world.” (M. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, p.9; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; New York, 1999) As a paradigm, globalisation entails bringing the entire planet up to speed with the economic dynamics of the west, which serves as a model blueprint for non‑western societies to attempt to emulate.

Since the 1970’s globalisation has shifted from a phrase that used to be bandied about by politicians with vague electoral agendas to an economic and political fact. The reality is that the world’s largest economies are funding development programmes throughout the Third World and particularly former Soviet territories. It is a sad fact of humanity that nothing is free, and that international economic assistance for states in Asia, Africa and the CEEC countries comes at a price: namely that aid will continue to arrive so long as the ruling parties work within western political, economic and, to a lesser extent, social, ideals.

This state of affairs has obviously resulted in an enormous degree of westernisation. Countries such as India have been opened up economically and culturally to influences that they were not subject to, even in the days of the British Raja. In return for its embracement of economic liberalisation and the introduction of a republican form of democratic government, India has, in recent years, found itself at the heart of the growth of the MNC phenomenon, with a host of multi‑national companies moving their enterprises to Mumbai. The city has a thriving stock exchange, a myriad of skyscrapers, function halls and a genuinely metropolitan population, on a par in many ways with the great capital western cities. Like Hong Kong before it, to take a glance now at Mumbai is to look into the physical aspirations of the traditional western dream, underscored by countless Hollywood movies; indeed, without an enormous American influence, how can we possibly imagine the financial and cultural growth of ‘Bollywood’, whose stars in recent years (in line with the tangible growth in globalisation) have been elevated to quasi‑religious status in India?

The influence of popular culture as a tool of imperialism is a separate study in itself and is fraught with confusions of interpretation. “Reflection or instrument? Supply or demand led? Elite manipulation or popular psychology? National delusion or merely elite self‑delusion? These are some of the questions posed by imperialism in the continuing debate on the problematic relationship between culture and ideology.” (J.M. Mackenzie, Introduction, in, J.M. Mackenzie (Edtd.), Imperialism and Popular Culture, p.13; Manchester University Press; Manchester, 1994)

Globalisation is thus much more than merely an international economic plan. Politics and economics cannot exist outside of one another in the sphere of international affairs and are in evidence in the influence of western media on non‑western audiences. Cultural imperialism is, essentially, disguised as economic aid.

And it becomes clear that it is at the behest of the American capitalist system that we are witnessing this worldwide political and social revolution. “Americans – at least those Americans charged with framing the nation’s basic policies – do view themselves as tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection. In that sense, the advent of the age of globalisation permitted the United States to return to its true vocation.”(A.J. Bacevich, American Empire: the Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy, p.54; Harvard University Press; Massachusetts, 2002) Apart from the ex‑European colonies where, in countries such as Algeria, language is the conduit through which an intrinsic relationship with the former imperial power is inevitable, the USA is the pioneer of the global brand of cultural imperialism that we have witnessed within the past two generations. It was apparent in1982 when Noam Chomsky, one of the foremost intellectual opponents of American cultural imperialism, wrote that:

“The North‑South conflict will not subside, and new forms of domination will have to be devised to ensure that privileged segments of Western industrial society maintain substantial control over global resources, human and material, and benefit disproportionately from this control. Thus it comes as no surprise that the reconstitution of ideology in the United States finds echoes throughout the industrialised world.” (N. Chomsky, Towards a New Cold War: Essays on the Current Crisis and How We Go There, p.84; Pantheon; New York, 1982)

The North‑South conflict to which Chomsky refers is the gulf in standard of living and economic capability that exists between the north and south hemisphere. And he his quote has proved prophetic, although no conclusion can be offered on a process that is ongoing and is, as yet, relatively virgin territory for scholarly analysis.

It becomes clear that the global adoption of western attitudes with regard to political and economic structures is a deep‑seated process that has evolved over centuries and is embedded at an institutional level. It is a highly relevant point because, without these building blocks in place, western media would have no influence whatsoever on non‑western societies. We must now turn our attention to the modes of western media that are used as tools of cultural imperialism to ascertain its worth in penetrating autonomous national cultures.

The impact of western media and the limits to its influence on non‑western audiences

“What can the West do to help bring about the kind of Russia with which it can be in partnership? The first step is to be realistic. There are definite limits to the West’s ability to influence Russia directly, at least through government policies.” (D. Yergin & T. Gustafson, Russia 2010 and what it means for the World, p.288; Nicholas Brealey; London, 1994)

Historically, Russia has been the United States’ ideological nemesis in modernity. The abolition of communism in 1991 and the subsequent adoption of western forms of economic liberalisation and parliamentary democracy has been a less than smooth process. Indeed, Washington has found its efforts often thwarted in trying to install the type of political administration that they would most like to see in the Russian Federation. However, the adoption of western‑style media in Russia has achieved what official policy has failed to do.

In August 2000 the Kursk submarine sank in the Barents Sea killing all one hundred and eighteen people on board. In the aftermath, the Russian government tried to blame the disaster on a collision with an American submarine that had been covertly tracking the Kursk, a ludicrous claim that was finally retracted after British scientists offered conclusive proof of an explosion caused by a torpedo on board. (Vanishings: The Kursk Lost at Sea; The History Channel, 18 February 2005)

In the days of the Soviet Union, newspapers and television in Russia would no doubt have reported the same propagandist theory of western intervention as a way of avoiding domestic culpability. However, with the influence of western media style free press and the brand of investigative journalism that accompanied democracy to Moscow at the beginning of the 1990’s, the Russian media were quick to point to the blame that lay at the hands of the government and in fact press pressure was cited as the reason that President Vladimir Putin spent over US$130 million, twice the Russian Navy’s entire operating budget for a year, to raise the Kursk from the depths of the Barents Sea in October 2001. It is a key point in determining the influence of western media on non‑western audiences and the example of Russia bequeaths another key fact: that western media, as a tangible influence in a non‑western society, can only have an impact in a culture that has assumed the same freedoms of speech and opinion that has marked Russia’s transition to democracy. Without this fundamental political ideal of freedom of speech already in place, the cultural divide that naturally exists between the imperialist and the colony only widens.

There are therefore definite limits to what western media alone can achieve from the perspective of non‑western audiences. We have mentioned Hollywood as a visual form of American entertainment export and there is of course popular music that is generally considered a western phenomenon. But the influence of other modes of modern media on non‑western audiences has natural barriers set against them, namely language and custom. However, exposure is achieved through a saturation of international television channels and funding given to local economies that is overseen so that western capital is not wasted on irrelevant nationalistic concerns. Capital is likewise injected into the local media economies to ensure a democratic marketplace for ideas and opinions and not a perpetuation of command, authoritarian style media. This pattern has been reproduced in most parts of the world that have experienced the effects of globalisation. The former Soviet Bloc have opened up their domestic media markets to foreign investment and development and a similarly inquisitive style of journalism is prevalent, like that which had curtailed some of Putin’s policies in Russia. However, whereas western media has resulted in a more responsible form of government in many parts of the world it has failed to impact huge swathes of the planet.

China stands as a lone example of a nation that has opened its doors to economic westernisation yet resisted the urge to adapt to a western political model. Thus, in terms of the domestic Chinese media, the level of influence the west can claim to have over decision‑making and unbiased reporting is negligible. The media remains state‑controlled in China and her territories and there are severe restrictions to western media distribution, including new media solutions, which obviously diminishes the cultural influence of the west in that part of the world. Moreover, North Korea remains shut off diplomatically from most of the civilised world. But the USA and the west have more deep‑rooted problems in trying to exert their cultural influence elsewhere.

In recent generations the west has been reminded of the existence of a strong, fundamental challenge to prevailing globalisation concepts; a form of identity based not on nationalism or economics but on religion and it is here that we find the influence of western media, in parts, to be virtually non‑existent. “The emergence on the world stage of the Ayatollah Khomeini suggested the potency of another way of envisioning governance and human destiny that rested on traditional values and the primacy of religious leaders and institutions in shaping the life of society.” (R. Falk, A Worldwide Religious Resurgence in an Era of Globalisation, in, F. Petito & P. Hatzopoulos (Edtd.), Religion in International Relations: the Return from Exile, p.182; Palgrave Macmillan; New York, 2003)

The history of the cultural war between East and West that appears inexorably destined to mark the twenty‑first century has its roots within the same chronological time frame as the process of conquest and political imperialism. The Ottoman Empire was the only major contemporary rival to dominant forms of Western European ideology in the nineteenth century and the geographical proximity resulted in a long‑running cultural stand‑off. “In spite of frequent warfare, cultural exchange between Ottomans and the West ranged from watchful tolerance to benign contempt. The Christians had a long‑standing horror of Islamic contamination, going back to the rise of Islam and intensifying with the Crusades. The Ottomans were more tolerant of religious difference but the millet system combined permissiveness with an effort to seal off Christian minorities into segregated communities.” (P.D. Curtin, The World and the West: the European Challenge and the Overseas Response in the Age of Empire, p.178; Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, 2000)

This cultural siege mentality has survived in most Islamic states into the twenty‑first century. The Arabian resistance to western media and culture is truly remarkable considering the change that has been witnessed in Japan, India, Eastern Europe and China. We can categorically state that, in terms of the Arabic states of the Middle East, the influence of western media on non‑western audiences is virtually non‑existent and its presence is frequently barred by local law, as was the case until recently in Afghanistan.

The attempt by the West to impose its system of territorial states and regional representation upon the region as a form of political imperialism (that was also inserted with equally detrimental results in south‑eastern Europe) has resulted in a cultural backlash in the Middle East that serves as a barrier against western media imperialism to this day.

“In past years, the foremost challenge to the (territorial state) system came from the doctrine of pan‑Arabism (qawmiya), which sought to eliminate the traces of Western imperialism and unify the Arab nation, and the associated ideology of Greater Syria, which stresses the territorial and historical indivisibility of most of the Fertile Crescent. Today, the leading challenge comes from Islamist notions of a single Muslim community (umma). Intellectuals and politicians, denouncing it as an artificial creation of Western imperialism at variance with Arabic yearnings for regional unity, have repeatedly urged its destruction.”(E. Karsh, Rethinking the Middle East, p.1; Frank Cass; London, 2003)

So, rather than existing as a part of the world that has ‘come around’ to the western way of thinking, transplanted by centuries of political and economic domination, the Middle East is instead a region that has traditionally rejected the cruder forms of historical western political imperialism. Consequently, cultural imperialism and western media have little influence in the Middle East, certainly in comparison with the rest of the civilised world.

We have witnessed how traditional forms of western media have a limited scope in terms of the impact they have on non‑western societies and that cultural imperialism has definite limits to its real‑term qualitative qualities. However, the 1990’s witnessed the advent of the new media tool that is quite literally reshaping the world that we live in, especially regarding issues pertaining to information exchange. The Internet has sparked a cultural revolution within the west and pried open avenues of exploitation that did not exist even in the wildest dreams of the early western imperialists. “We are journeying into a new period in which more and more human experience is purchased in the form of access to multi‑faceted networks in cyber space.” (J. Rifkin, The Age of Access: How the Shift from Ownership to Access is Transforming Modern Life, p.11; Penguin; London, 2001)

The impact of the expansion of the Internet has divided scholarly debate concerning the ways in which it will affect popular media culture in non‑western audiences. Initially it was thought that the broad potential for establishing web sites and exchanging information that would otherwise be barred would be of benefit to the non‑western cultures and would likewise help local economies and fortify indigenous cultures. The truth has sadly been a mirroring of the broadcasting and journalism media phenomena that have accompanied globalisation, namely that the power to transmit information on a large scale rests with western capital.

The Internet remains predominantly a western tool of commerce and not an international means of media liberation. Furthermore, the increased availability of the Internet and digital satellite communication systems in the western world has served only to exacerbate the considerable divide that already existed between western and non‑western cultures. Western society is now increasingly defined by its space‑time distancing. Traditional, non‑western societies, on the other hand, are characterised by direct interaction between people living in close proximity to one another. The two polar opposite cultures are in fact moving further apart as parts of the world strengthen their resolve against western cultural imperialism and seek to turn back the advances of human technology, while the west continues its astonishing leap through time and space. Clearly, no conclusion can be offered of the influence of the Internet on non‑western audiences at present.

Conclusion

“Imperialism is much vaguer than the empire. Its extent and limits are less definite, and for that reason open to interpretation and dispute. Power cannot be measured exactly. Because it is very rarely a one‑way process – you need a certain amount of compliance to give you power – it is rarely a straightforward quality.” (B. Porter, The Lion’s Share: a Short History of British Imperialism, 1850‑2004: Fourth Edition, p.9; Longman; London, 2004)

Cultural imperialism is a vague concept that cannot be understood outside of the context of traditional forms of imperialism. As a distinct branch of national culture, media is thus also intrinsically tied to the historical ties of the west and the rest of the world, ties forged centuries before the advent of the global media age. The influence of western media on non‑western societies is therefore bound with the history of international relations between the two cultures. Without an organic amount of compliance from the local population, which takes generations to form, the influence of western culture and media will continue to meet serious immovable obstacles to qualitative success. By far the most important factor is the presence and reality of economic globalisation. It is opening just such previously closed doors for western culture to penetrate, which is packaged attractively as economic aid and the pursuit of the western capitalist dream.

Finally, we must be careful to recognise the two‑way principle that is always at play behind the façade of cultural imperialism, how indigenous cultures influence commentators of the conquering power in the same organic way that the colonialists affect local culture. “Because of empire, all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and un‑monolithic.” (E.W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, introduction xxv; Chatto & Windus; London, 1993)

Similarly, the roles are reversed in societies that are hostile to any form of western imperialism. Just as western media has led a campaign of propaganda against Islam, so the fundamentalist Moslem states of the Middle East have resorted to the same discriminatory measures. As the only global ideology in the world to remain truly non‑western, the culture of the Middle East appears set on an inexorable course of collision with western media, society and culture.

As Chomsky underscores, “the goal of the imperial grand strategy is to prevent any challenge to the power, position and prestige of the United States.” (N. Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival? : America’s Quest for Global Dominance, p.13; Hamish Hamilton; London, 2003) With this in mind it seems that the USA is prepared to resort to modes of imperialism that historians had already written obituaries for: traditional, military conquest of sovereign overseas territories so as to impose western culture on ideologically opposite civilisations. As we have seen, this remains the only viable route for establishing western media and cultural influence at grass‑roots level on non‑western audiences.

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