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Techno Globalism Essay

Music and Globalization: Diversity, Banalization and Culturalization

Alexandre Lunsqui

Introduction

1First, the facts: Globalization seeks to enhance economical growth by stimulating trade among nations. The process does not prioritize cultural diversity and departs from a clear and simple premise: we are all consumers. The results of this phenomenon are contentious and suggest that governments and institutions around the world should re-evaluate transnational trade procedures in the name of sustainable development, peaceful coexistence and preservation of culture. Music, being one of most important manifestations of human culture, is intrinsically connected to globalization both positively and negatively. In this article, I will analyze the impact of globalization in music primarily by questioning anthropological habits that have crossed centuries and shaped our world economically, socially, and culturally. Also, I will examine the role of the music industry as well as the artist’s responsibility in the process. Further in the analysis, I will describe my own experiences composing contemporary music for an Afro-Brazilian instrument – the berimbau – as an example of cultural pluralism transcending geographic and aesthetic barriers.

Anomalies of a Journey: Interaction and Culture

2Throughout human history, survival, differentiation, power and knowledge have formed a quadrant that has responded for to luminous and spectacular actions, as well as evil and tragic ones. As we analyze how social and geo-political developments have forged the world up to the present day, we observe that a balanced system without predominance of one group over another – by using physical, ideological and/or economical violence – has never existed. We have come to realize that interaction, which is in the core of our human condition, also presents a threat. During this process, local, regional and global realities have collided and overlapped resulting in a complex, multi-cultural, and ever-changing web of territories that challenge our understanding of Nation.

3In a reference to three representative nineteenth-century Afro-Brazilian writers who were criticized for being internationalists1 Decio Pignatare points out the artificiality and incongruence behind the idea of nationality: “How is it possible for they not be internationalists if their ancestors were forced out of their own land, taken as slaves and tortured by the Luso-Brazilians ?”2 The decimation of indigenous populations in both North and South America – the only local human inhabitants of these places – is another example of the artificialities behind the idea of national legitimacy. Unsolicited visitors become hosts and vice-versa : a long process has shaped the world like a bulldozer shapes a backyard.

4With different levels of diplomacy, and propelled by high technology and contemporary mercantilism, almost all human activities are now related – voluntarily or not – to the process of globalization. If the term suggests any association with unification, it soon becomes clear that it is less about embracing the world as a community than expanding markets to the highest possible levels. The global community is, in fact, a rigid three-part stratum constituted by dominant, semi-peripheral and peripheral countries whose relationships are dictated by the market rules. In such a pragmatic system, cultural integration and integrity seem to have little importance if compared with efficiency and profit. The system works for many people, though, especially considering how easily we tend to forget some of the most important developments of our history, e.g., colonialism. Furthermore, social exclusion is often treated simply as a byproduct of the mechanism; a malfunction of the machine. However, if almost half of the world’s population struggles to survive on a dollar a day, the idea of economic prosperity leading to social prosperity – which is the main motto for supporters of globalization – needs to be revised.

5The impact of globalization on the arts is also kaleidoscopic. Particularly in music, it has led to multi-cultural endeavors with very distinct nature. If on the one hand it has allowed for a fertile exchange of knowledge and creative practices among artists worldwide, on the other its commercial rhetoric has contributed to the vulgarization of many kinds of music by distorting its cultural values and replacing them with purely commercial goals. It is, therefore, amidst anxious and celebratory narratives3 that, among other things, I believe it is necessary to protect music from music itself. Let me explain: If music becomes a commodity to serve the entertainment industry, then it is more than time to protect music genres that were not meant to serve corporate economic agendas or superficial fantasies of hypnotized audiences – and artists – who usually endorse – or simply do not care about – this process of cultural banalization.

6Article 1 of UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity states :

“As a source of exchange, innovation and creativity, cultural diversity is as necessary for human kind as biodiversity is for nature. In this sense, it is the common heritage of humanity and should be recognized and affirmed for the benefit of present and future generations”4.

7The dangerous paradox in this statement is that concepts like exchange, innovation, and creativity can be used either to support the status quo, or to defend cultural diversity, as claimed by UNESCO. A central point in this discussion is that whatis necessaryfor human kind can receive very different interpretations depending on whether the question is being formulated by the industry or by those urging that life is more than consumerism. One thing is certain : When everything is for sale, culture can be treated simply as another potential revenue source. From the production of music to its perception, from how we understand and respect the traditions of this art to the exploration of new sound territories and the exercise of independent creativity and free-thinking, market-oriented priorities of corporate globalization have crucial – and frequently negative – consequences in the music-making process.

Culture versus Corporation: Music as a Product

8With the culture of market values spreading out throughout the world, television, disposable music and a wide array of alienating products have gradually replaced local cultural values. The ethnomusicologist Steven Feld asserts :

“The hero and villain of this situation, the music industry, has triumphed through continuous vertical and horizontal merger and consolidation. By aligning technologies of recording and reproduction with the dissemination capacities of other entertainment and publication media, the industry has accomplished the key capitalist goal of unending marketplace expansion”5.

9Today, a frustrating and paradoxical reality is taking place especially among poor families from peripheral countries. In many cases, these are communities that have lost any hope of ascending in the stratification pyramid. Their local culture has become completely vulnerable to any external and often dominant influence. Through the penetration of television worldwide, these families whose children barely have access to education are constantly exposed to ludicrous merchandizing and all sorts of superfluous goods only accessible to wealthier parts of the society – themselves the pillars of lavish consumerism. The power of mass media is ubiquitous and could be a valuable tool if at least partially utilized for educational purposes. However, it is well known that with education come social awareness, cultural consciousness, and critical judgment, which are forbidden resources to populations controlled by all kinds of economical, social and political oppressive matrixes.

10Following the same motto, it is interesting to observe how music becomes quite volatile in the industry’s hands. For example, what today can represent an anti-establishment cultural manifestation in a particular community (e.g. hip hop), tomorrow can be easily transformed into a stereotyped and marketable product for global consumption that carries little or nothing from its original ideologies. One observes a severe degradation of anthropological values taking place when the market controls and distorts the cultural identity of a community. Unfortunately, developments of this kind can be often found in the musical genre known as world music, agenre that has attracted a growing audience in the last few decades6. I would like to reproduce here Steven Feld’s disturbing account of the itinerary of an African lullaby originally recorded for a project for UNESCO in 1973. The song was later remixed and included in a very popular CD:

“The recording [named Deep Forest] has attracted a huge audience worldwide, selling approximately four million copies and appearing in several editions and remixes. Several songs, including ‘Sweet Lullaby’ appeared in video form ; several, again including ‘Sweet Lullaby’, were also licensed as background music for TV commercials by, among others, Neutrogena, Coca-Cola, Porsche, Sony, and The Body Shop”7.

11In addition to the distortion of the original cultural value of the song, no compensation was given to the Baegu community – where the original music came from – since this music is placed under the category of oral tradition, and therefore receives no ownership protection.

“Academically that means that her song typically circulates in an aural and oral economy, without an underlying written or notated form. Legally, however, the term oral tradition can easily be manipulated, from signifying that which is vocally communal to signifying that which belongs to no one in particular. When that happens, the notion of oral tradition can mask both the existence of local canons of ownership and the existence of local consequences for taking without asking”8.

12The late Milton Santos, a Brazilian geographer and thinker, himself a descendent of slaves, stated: The essence can be found at the local level, and the appearance at the global level9. These notions cannot be treated retroactively only. On the contrary, the essence is an a priori condition and cannot be overlooked by the propellers of globalization. The central spine of the problem is that smaller ethnicities, especially from peripheral countries, are often mistakenly treated as being inferior and naïve, as well as culturally monolithic and immutable, and ready to be assimilated by more powerful cultures. One overlooks the fact that, in spite of their already mentioned social vulnerabilities, these populations still carry deep cultural values and often have superior environmental awareness, virtues that are becoming irrelevant in today’s insatiable race for economic expansion.

13To illustrate this discussion, I would like to briefly examine two rich musical manifestations coming from completely different contexts. One has survived atrocities, resisted foreign domination, and is a paradigm of human creativity and communal celebration. The other is the result of centuries of aesthetic and technological transformations that have led music creation to conquer new territories of artistic expression. I am referring to the complex polyphonies of the pygmies Aka from the Central African Republic and the investigative nature of Western contemporary classical music. Considering our way of making music, i.e., as part of a larger context that depends upon solid institutions, would the achievements of the latter be possible without centuries of globalization? While the answer to this question goes beyond the scope of this article, I would like to point out that, if there is something to be learned – and I hope there is it –, is that both of these artistic expressions are linked not by political forces or historical events, and much less by commercial interests or institutional needs, but rather by their transcendent values10 and profoundness. I wonder if we can transpose this perception to other areas of the society instead of simply considering it as an abstract notion. We would be speaking here of a different kind of globalization, one primarily based on mutual respect and understanding.

Music and Integrity: Research and Exchange

14Recently, UNESCO increased the number of members of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage to more than 50 countries. Under this program, UNESCO tries to preserve Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by first mapping out cultural manifestations according to Risk of Disappearance and then elaborating an Action Plan. Among the cultures that can benefit from such a program are the Aka pygmies from the Central African Republic, the Yoruba-nago from Benin, the Wajapi Indians from northern Brazil, the Zappara people between the Peruvian and Ecuador Amazon, the classical music from Iraq known as Maqam, the Mongolia’s nomad culture known as Morin khuur, the Vietnamese Nhac nhac music, and a few dozen other cultures around the world that have been gradually put on the verge of disappearance. Specifically in relation to music, UNESCO states :

“The function of music and its tool – the instrument – must not be limited to the mere production of sounds. Traditional music and instruments convey the deepest cultural, spiritual and aesthetic values of civilization, transmitting knowledge in many spheres”11.

15In contemporary classical music, the exchange among composers coming from different regions of the planet has never been so strong. At this level of artistic exchange, one hopes that cross-fertilization is not a mere superficial collage of styles and even less an amalgamation of disparate cultures being linked through artistic tourism. Rather, it is about “a voyage of discovery, a sonic experience of contact, an auditory deflowering that penetrates the harmony of difference”12. This means that, from the creative side, artists should be free to manipulate and transform sound phenomena and everything they might represent without barriers. From a social perspective, however, a solid commitment to guaranteeing a healthy exchange of intellectual, cultural, and educational benefits must exist that goes far beyond commercial interests.

16For the past six years in collaboration with American percussionist Greg Beyer, I have been working on a series of pieces involving the Afro-Brazilian instrument known as berimbau. The instrument

“is part of a family of ancient instruments known as musical bows. The instrument is a representative from Brazil with African roots. Its closest relatives come from a region of southwest Africa currently occupied by the country of Angola… The literature mentions depictions in cave paintings from 15,000 BC. The berimbau is made of a long hardwood or bamboo staff of various sizes. Running from end to end of this stave is a stretched string, fastened with tension to the stave in various manners. The material of the string can be of natural materials (e.g. twisted animal hide or hair), or of steel or some other metal wire”13.

17Also, a gourd is attached to the stave in order to provide resonance. In terms of performance techniques, one hand holds the instrument and a large coin or flat stone, and the other holds a small stick that is used to strike the string. An external percussion instrument called caxixi adds a kind of white-noise accompaniment to the sounds of the instrument.

18My personal approach to the berimbau was to research new technical possibilities, incorporating a new music language while tackling the deep historical elements that are intrinsic to the instrument. To date, I have written a rather complex piece for solo berimbau, entitled Iris (2002), a piece for six berimbaus entitled Repercussio (2005), and a piece for nine instruments and berimbau called p-Orbital (2005-06). This new orientation of the instrument by no means represents a denial of its own traditions. I stated my belief in Greg Beyer’s doctoral dissertation :

“Proposing new ways of playing the berimbau is a form of thoroughly investigating some of the historical and technical aspects related to the instrument. I wanted to create something that would incorporate the historical complexities surrounding the instrument and its traditional language chafing against a rhetoric that invokes microscopic explorations of timbres, kinetics and form. By doing so, I was being faithful to my musical beliefs as a contemporary music composer as well as to the complex social and cultural gestalt that accompanies this instrument.

The idea of freedom and/or the lack of it was also essential to the construction of the piece. That is why, in first place, I created a solid structural frame that suggests imprisonment and rigidity. Paradoxically, more vaporous material is used in these rigid sections. The conflict between the strict frame and the actual sound suggests two things : the contradiction between history and reality – the lies associated to the idea of slavery abolition in Brazil – and the complementarity between mind and body. For example, the upward gestures going beyond the wire or the wood of the instrument are always trying to escape some kind of behavioral predictability. These gestures want to escape the physical frame of the instrument. I think that, at least in the context of this piece, the mind is directly associated to the idea of freedom and never to the idea of conformity. One cannot forget that the slaves, while being kept captives for centuries, never gave up resisting. Finally, for me the notion of giving new perspectives to something is directly related to the awareness of it”14.

19To some extent the level of idealism expressed in such statements is not very different from the idealism of making contemporary music in third-world countries. The first two examples below are from the score of Iris, for berimbau solo. Other than the conceptual ideas surrounding the history of the instrument, I tried to generate a wide spectrum of sonic elements based on the struggle between the technical limitations of the instrument (ergonomic constraints), a more microscopic orientation to timbre and the use (or denial) of rhythmic matrixes commonly associated to the instrument. It is important to point out that the berimbau does not have a melodic nature. On the contrary, usually the pitch collection is limited to two or three pitches that outline the rhythmic patterns of capoeira15 playing. In Iris, however, I wanted to expand the pitch possibilities to an extreme, mapping the wire as if I were dealing with a string instrument. Instead of melodies, I used small contours that are controlled either by very precise intervals (quarter-tones) or generic shapes (ascending and descending). Among the new techniques created by Greg Beyer and largely explored in this piece is the use of a harness that allows the performer to free both hands while playing the instrument. The opening of the piece is based solely on sounds coming from the scratching and striking of the gourd with two sticks. The technique allowed me to explore complex noise envelopes that resulted in textural counterpoints. This attitude of dissecting an instrument and re-creating its sonic possibilities is very much analogous to the instrumental investigation that a composer like Helmut Lachenmann and others have done with western instruments. It is a constant dialogue between the new and the tradition in the hope of transcending both spheres to create a new reality. In example 1, three layers of material happen simultaneously: The right hand dialogues between percussive attacks directly on the wood and melodic contours with regular and irregular speeds. Meanwhile, the left hand creates a polyrhythmic counterpart by striking the open wire with the large coin.

Example 1. Alexandre Lunsqui’s IRIS (2002).

20The example 2 makes use of glissandi of various kinds, another technique that is unusual for the instrument. Greg Beyer pointed out that these figures reminded him of “Xenakis’ musical experiments in imitation of the chaotic movement of gas molecules, each with its own glissando of an individual, specified length”16. This exemplifies the microscopic way I was approaching the berimbau.

Example 2. Alexandre Lunsqui’s IRIS.

In another work, entitled p-Orbital, the berimbau (example 3, the last instrument on the score) is part of an ensemble with nine other instruments (flute, two bass clarinets, trumpet, electric guitar, piano, violin, cello, bass). The piece explores a wide array of elements varying from textural material to spectral harmonies, from raw sounds coming out of bottles of water and sand paper to driving rhythmic elements. To some extent, the techniques used for the berimbau in this piece follow the traditions of the instrument. However, here the berimbau is used to generate noise, varying from harmonic and to inharmonic sounds, which functions as a link between the various kinds of materials used in the piece. Noise elements resulting from frictional and percussive articulation, harmonic entities, and rhythmic flow, the berimbau underlies the grammar while controlling the musical syntax throughout the piece. Consciously avoiding the traps of simplistic stereotyping while being reinforced by the orchestral instruments, the sounds of the berimbau are completely re-contextualized in this piece.

21In Repercussio (example 4), written for six berimbaus, each instrument has different dimensions both in length and diameter, resulting in six different fundamentals. To expand the pitch possibilities even further and to be able to work with more complex harmonies, the placement of the gourd along the wire was carefully planned according to specific frequency ratios, e.g. 4 :3, 4 :1, 3 :2, etc., which allowed each instrument to basically have two fundamentals. In the example below, densities and textures, along with polyrhythm and sound spatialization, i.e., techniques and procedures commonly used in contemporary music, all were used to create and expand a musical text that hopes to transcend cultural and aesthetical boundaries. Another important aspect to consider is the pedagogical value of this kind of work. The musicians must not only learn how to play the new instrument, but also be acquainted with historical and sociological developments. There have been many attempts to incorporate ethnic instruments into chamber ensembles and orchestras, but in many cases the results have been simplistic and stereotyped in nature. Among the reasons for this oversimplification of the material has to do with the difficulties of learning and mastering a traditional instrument and making it more than an ornamental part of an ensemble with modern instruments. It is also a result of perceiving such mixtures as merely exoticism, which is a complex discussion that goes beyond the scope of this article. Therefore, no orchestra yet exists in which violins and flutes share the same space with the African-Brazilian berimbau, the Chinese sheng, the Japanese sho, the Iranian tanbur, and many other instruments from cultures worldwide.

Example 4. Alexandre Lunsqui’s Repercussio for six berimbaus (2005).

Final Considerations: Future

22With its capacity for generating individual intellectual and emotional responses while accessing aspects of group identification, music can echo ideas and easily travel beyond geographic boundaries. Conversely, music can be manipulated by a powerful industry insensitive to its cultural, social and artistic values. The immateriality17 of music is inevitably affected and transformed by the materiality of the context. While on the one hand music has the potential to enrich, enlighten, and instigate cultural and social consciousness, on the other it can be transformed into a mere object (product) to serve all kinds of non-musical purposes. It is not by accident that the mass media find the most marketable music one that barely provokes an intellectual response18. Less materialistic behavior will not threaten social, economical, scientific or artistic development. Quite the contrary, it is a question of balancing development and political and social behaviors accordingly to respect, understanding and multiplicity.

23Today, every aspect of contemporary life gravitates around an economic system that has been gradually adopted – or imposed, depending on the analysis – across the planet. The virtues and flaws of this system are intrinsically related to the process of globalization, which in its turn is dangerously based on the accumulation of power, hegemonic attitude, and distorted materialistic needs stimulated by the lure of consumerism. In music, the notion of tradition and avant-garde, East and West, North and South must co-exist under the umbrella of artistic creation and integrity. In life, tradition and avant-garde, East and West, North and South must co-exist under the umbrella of humanity. If we are not prepared to respect other cultures around the world, independent of their political orientation and economical status, then the process of globalization needs to be revised, for it must not result in cultural and environmental corrosion.

Bibliographie   

Beyer Gregory, “O Berimbau. A Project of Ethnomusicological Research, Musicological Analysis, and Creative Endeavor”, Unpublished Dissertation, 2004.

Castillo Monique, “World citizenship today: Kantian cosmopolitism facing globalization”, http://monique.castillo.online.fr/pdf/alexandrie_2002.pdf (consulted in August 2006).

Croce Benedeto, “Art as Intuition”, in Art and Philosophy, New York, St Martin’s Press, 1964, p. 46-59.

DeWitt John, Early Globalization and the Economic Development of the United States and Brazil, Westport, Praeger Publishers, 2002.

Deleuze Gilles, Guattari, Félix, A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Franklin M.I., Resounding International Relations on Music, Culture, and Politics. New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

Faria Hamilton, “Arte e Identidade Cultural na Construção de um Mundo Solidário”, Encontro Mundial dos Artistas da Aliança, http://www.polis.org.br/publicacoes_interno.asp ?codigo =104 (August 2006).

Feld Steven, “A Sweet Lullaby for World Music” in Public Culture n° 12, Winter 2000, p. 145-171.

Hobsbaum Eric, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Pignatari Décio, Cultura Pós-Nacionalista, Rio de Janeiro, Imago Editora, 1998.

Steigerwald David, Culture’s Vanities: The Paradox of Cultural Diversity in a Globalized World, Oxford, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2004.

Notes   

1  The writers were: Machado de Assis (1839-1908), João da Cruz e Souza (1861-1898), and Pedro Kilkerry (1885-1917).

2  Décio Pignatari. Cultura Pós-Nacionalista. Rio de Janeiro, Imago Editora, 1998, p. 39. (translated from Portuguese by Alexandre Lunsqui).

3  Steven Feld, “A Sweet Lullaby for World Music”, in Public Culture n° 12, Winter 2000, p. 154.

4  “The International Convention on the protection of the diversity of cultural contents and artistic expressions will officially establish that cultural productions and property require a special status different from the status of other products and services that are subject to gradual liberalization and more extensive trade”. (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, http://www.ohchr.org/english/law/diversity.htm, consulted in August 2006).

5  Steven Feld, op. cit., p. 146.

6  “[…world music] swept through the public sphere first and foremost signifying a global industry, one focused on marketing danceable ethnicity and exotic alterity on the world pleasure and commodity map”. (Ibid., p. 151)

7Ibid., p. 156.

8Ibid., p. 161.

9  Hamilton Faria. Arte e Identidade Cultural na Construção de um Mundo Solidário, Encontro Mundial dos Artistas da Aliança, p. 10, http://www.polis.org.br/publicacoes_interno.asp ?codigo =104 (consulted in August 2006).

10  The immateriality of these artistic expressions : the intangible or metaphysical qualities intrinsic to a musical work, as opposed to materialistic values.

11 UNESCO : http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en (consulted in August 2006).

12  Steven Feld. op. cit., p. 166.

13  Gregory Beyer. “O Berimbau. A Project of Ethnomusicological Research, Musicological Analysis, and Creative Endeavor”. Unpublished Dissertation, 2004, p. 1.

14 Ibid., p. 182.

15 Capoeira is a fighting dance created by the slaves in colonial Brazil around 400 years ago. It was a way to resist their oppressors and celebrate their own traditions. Capoeira continues to be widely practiced in Brazil and has also spread to other parts of the world.

16Ibid., p. 188.

17  Gilles Deleuze speaks of the strong deterritorializing force of music. Accordingly to him, this “explains the collective fascination exerted by music, and even the potentiality of a ‘fascist’ danger we mentioned a little earlier : music (drums, trumpets) draws people and armies into a race that can go all the way to the abyss (much more so than banners and flags, which are paintings, means of classification, and rallying)” (Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari. A thousand plateaus : capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. 302).

18  In Culture’s Vanities, David Steigerwald states : “There is no cultural ruling class left, strictly speaking, though the economic and political ruling class is alive and well. Where political and economic elites have discovered that they can rule without insisting on class-based cultural standards – indeed that their interests are best served by the absence of such standards - the critique of snobbery becomes mere evasion. The only cultural standard of our day is whatever sells, and to the small degree that art has any political purpose, its power to effect change, or even to rattle the status quo, is enormously diminished. It is equally clear that culture as a way of life has lost its democratic character”. (David Steigerwald, Culture’s Vanities : The Paradox of Cultural Diversity in a Globalized World, Oxford, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2004, p. 237).

Citation   

Alexandre Lunsqui, «Music and Globalization: Diversity, Banalization and Culturalization», Filigrane. Musique, esthétique, sciences, société. [En ligne], Musique et globalisation, Numéros de la revue, mis à  jour le : 25/01/2012, URL : http://revues.mshparisnord.org/filigrane/index.php?id=161.

Auteur   

Quelques mots à propos de : Alexandre Lunsqui

Alexandre Lunsqui was born in Brazil and now lives in New York City. After studying engineering and music at University of Campinas, he pursued postgraduate studies in composition at University of Iowa, Columbia University, and IRCAM (year-long cursus of composition and computer music). His music background includes Brazilian music, jazz, arranging, and contemporary improvisation. His pieces have been played in the Americas, Europe and Asia, in Festivals such as Gaudeamus Music Week, Darmstadt, Manca, CrossDrumming, Aspekte, Time of Music, Musica Nova, Beijing Modern, Music at the Anthology, Creative Music Festival, PASIC, and Resonances. He has been awarded the Virtuose Prize given by the Ministry of Culture of Brazil. A monographic CD with his chamber music is due to be released in 2007.

Joyce Shintani

Rod Dreher is senior editor at the American Conservative, where he blogs almost around the clock. A resident of south Louisiana, and a former writer for National Review, the Dallas Morning News, and New York Post, Dreher regularly comments on the challenges facing working-class Americans. The author of Crunchy Cons, his new book is The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.

In this email exchange with Catalyst Editor William McKenzie, Dreher discusses what he considers the plight of those caught up in the ongoing debates over globalization, trade, and even nationalism.

You have written about and followed working-class Americans, especially white working-class Americans. Why do you think so many of them have pushed back against the forces of globalization?

Because they haven't benefited from it, at least not as much as they have lost. Not too many working-class folks are going to be able to do a sophisticated cost-benefit analysis of trading patterns over the past three decades, and explain how they have been affected by globalization.

What many working-class folks see is that there used to be good jobs for them, and now there are fewer of those jobs. They see that their adult children, and their grandchildren, have less job security than they do. They see the rich getting richer and everybody else stalling out or declining.

It doesn't make sense to talk about overall economic gains to the American economy when so many of those gains have aggregated towards the top. You can also talk about how much cheaper globalization makes everyday consumer products, and how much that benefits the working class, but that does not compensate for the loss of meaningful employment, versus service-sector jobs that pay far less and have less dignity than what they replaced.

Finally, it is true that globalization has helped hundreds of millions around the world out of grinding poverty. But they are an abstraction to working-class Americans who have been made to bear a far disproportionate amount of the burden from policies that benefited foreigners -- and well-to-do Americans.

It is true that globalization has helped hundreds of millions around the world out of grinding poverty. But they are an abstraction to working-class Americans who have been made to bear a far disproportionate amount of the burden from policies that benefited foreigners -- and well-to-do Americans.

Which brings us to the cultural side of the reaction. The illegal immigration boom started around 1995, and didn't level off until a few years ago.

If you were in Dallas during that time, for example, and you were a middle-class native, you probably saw some practical benefits -- better restaurants, cheaper labor, and so forth -- without too many down sides. But if you were a working class native, you may have seen your kids' public schools fill up with children who couldn't speak the language. It became much harder to use the public hospitals because waiting rooms were jammed with immigrants. Your neighborhood might have gone from relatively stable to being dominated by immigrants who did not speak your language and did not share your way of life.

Effects and benefits of globalization (Paul Taggart/Getty Images)

I remember around 2005 or so visiting an elementary school in a poor part of Dallas, a Christian school serving the children of immigrants, and listening to a sweet Latino boy deliver a history report about his hero, Santa Anna. You have to be crazy to think that there won't be a reaction from the native working class (at least the white working class) at some point.

This is especially true when Democratic elites portray them as racist and xenophobic for objecting to what's happening to the country, and Republican elites look down their noses at them for the same reason, and wonder why these benighted blue-collar people won't embrace the glories of the free market.

You can only shout "Reagan!" at people so many times before it ceases to have a mesmerizing effect. As the Republican Party learned last year.

I could throw a bunch of statistics back at you about how automation has actually changed the job place more than global trade or how globalized production helps working families by keeping the price of products like cars and jeans lower. But I think what you are describing is a far more visceral response. It's a fear of losing what was. So, if you’re like me, and think it is important that America not retreat from the global economy, how do you reach people who feel the way you describe?

You’ve hit on one of the defining political issues of the period into which we have now entered. It’s one in which the familiar ideological stances of left and right don’t offer much help. Nor does the new populism, as articulated by Trump – if “articulated” is the right word – have a clear idea what to do about automation, for example. We are all, to some extent, flying blind.

I don’t think the fear is based on nothing. The numbers on income stagnation, a slowdown in productivity, the loss of good manufacturing jobs, and so forth, are undeniable. People feel in their guts that something has gone very wrong – and they’re not wrong. I don’t believe that Trump has the slightest idea how to get the economy back on track, but who could possibly have confidence that the neoliberal establishmentarians of the Democratic and Republican parties do?

A lot of folks on both the left and the right sensed that those establishments were satisfied to manage the decline of the middle class. This is what the Bernie Sanders phenomenon was about on the left, by the way. Sanders didn’t have the answers either, but at least he was speaking to the deep sense of alarm that people have, and the erosion of authority in the normative institutions – especially the political parties – in contemporary America.

The economy cannot be easily separated from the rest of life. It matters a lot to the sense of self-worth of workers that their labor is meaningful. Cheaper cars and jeans cannot compensate for the loss of work with dignity.

This problem is not quantifiable, which, in the minds of many economists and others, renders it unreal. But it’s happening. I am doing better economically than most people my age, but now that my first child is getting ready for college, it occurred to me the other day that I do not believe that my children will be more secure economically than their mother and I are.

I grew up in a working-class home in the 1970s, and despite the economic travails of that era, my generation was raised with the confidence that we would be better off than our parents. That was the natural order of things, or so we thought.

I grew up in a working-class home in the 1970s, and despite the economic travails of that era, my generation was raised with the confidence that we would be better off than our parents. That was the natural order of things, or so we thought.

It didn’t hit me till the other day that I don’t know anybody who believes that anymore. Most of us, in my experience, believe that our kids will have to fight hard simply to hold on to what we have. The crash of 2007 and 2008 shattered a lot of people’s faith in the economic future, and I don’t think it has recovered.

We can argue over the extent to which globalization has caused this widespread economic destabilization, but I think we can agree that it will be politically impossible to return to the status quo. Brexit and Trump show us that. In the future, politicians of the left and right across the West will have to find a way to rein in market forces for the sake of social stability.

We can argue over the extent to which globalization has caused this widespread economic destabilization, but I think we can agree that it will be politically impossible to return to the status quo.

Pope John Paul II said that the market was made for man’s flourishing, not man for the market’s. Before the present moment, one might have considered that to be religious idealism. Now, it’s political common sense, and leaders who don’t understand the wisdom there are going to be swept aside. Greater automation, though, is going to make the job of politically managing the decline of manual labor even more difficult.

What I don’t hear too many people on the left or the right talking about is the role that moral libertarianism plays in the unraveling of our society. I’ve been reading an advance copy of “Move Fast And Break Things,” a hard-hitting book by Jonathan Taplin, director emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab.

The book’s title was Facebook’s motto for a while, meant to express Mark Zuckerberg’s ethos of disruption, which is what they call “creative destruction” these days. Taplin writes about how the form capitalism has taken in the digital age has tremendously negative consequences for democratic self-government. His book goes into detail about the Silicon Valley ideology of “techno-libertarianism” – Taplin’s term – has come to exercise outsized power in postindustrial America. It’s an economics book, mostly.

What I find so fascinating about the book is how the economic libertarianism Taplin talks about has developed alongside an equally powerful moral libertarianism – one that cannot help but have serious social and political effects. Put simply, radical individualism is powering the digital economy and dissolving old forms of doing business, just as it is powering social change, and dissolving old customs and forms.

The loss of community has been something social critics of the left and the right have been talking about since the end of the Second World War. Now we are seeing the family falling apart.  A professor at a conservative evangelical college told me not long ago that he doubted whether many of his students would ever form stable families. When I asked him why, he said, “Because so few of them have ever experienced one.”

Capitalism is tearing apart the social institutions – families and communities -- it needs to sustain itself. Don’t misunderstand – I’m not advocating socialism. But we have to understand what the dynamics of our individualistic cultural and economic values are doing to our social fabric, and deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it were. 

True, we have to deal with realities, and the reality is that some folks are really pushing back against the global capitalist system. Yet finding ways to make it work for more people is far different than ditching the system.

I rather keep tinkering with making it work better than let our current resistance lead us down a bad path. After all, we do want to sustain those many jobs that benefit from the movement of capital, labor, and goods across borders. And we want to keep benefiting from goods that cost less because they were produced overseas.

Let me offer another thought: It seems to me that being a globalist and a nationalist are not mutually exclusive. You can be a proud American and support the global economy. I bring that up because fear of losing one’s national identity seems to be wrapped up in the pushback against globalization.

What do you think? Must globalism and nationalism be at odds?

Well, let’s stipulate that a full retreat from globalism is not possible. We’re not going to return to mercantilism. The only realistic path forward is going to be some sort of pragmatic, limited retreat from globalist ideals.

Well, let’s stipulate that a full retreat from globalism is not possible. We’re not going to return to mercantilism. The only realistic path forward is going to be some sort of pragmatic, limited retreat from globalist ideals.

The European Union is constructed according to these market über alles ideals, and maintaining the euro, which binds the EU together, has crushed Spain and Greece, severely retarding their economic recovery and making them more or less vassals of Germany.

This is at the very least politically unsustainable. In the same way that FDR saved capitalism through the New Deal, which reined in the market to socially beneficial ends, these rising nationalist politicians may – may – save capitalism in our day by imposing limits on it.

I do think, though, that there is a fundamental irreconcilability between globalism and nationalism. Globalism is the ideology that all of our American elites believe in. The nation – its borders, its history, its customs, and its peoples – are not as important to them as the free flow of goods, money, and people as they wish. Nationalism, at its best, says that the elites in society ought to feel some palpable sense of allegiance to their own flesh-and-blood people, not universalist abstractions. It’s a matter of solidarity.

What remains to be seen is whether we still have much basis for solidarity. Over the last half-century, America has become so obsessively individualistic. We’ve taken a basic sense of national unity for granted.

What remains to be seen is whether we still have much basis for solidarity. Over the last half-century, America has become so obsessively individualistic. We’ve taken a basic sense of national unity for granted

Now, in this age of fracture, we are going to be sorely tested to see if we even have the capacity for national solidarity. Both right and left are to blame for this, in different ways, but I am especially worried by the left’s obsession with race, gender, and sexual identity politics. Progressives never seem to understand the demons on the right that their identity politics are summoning and validating. Sometimes I think we’re living in Weimar America. 

Isn’t that a pretty dark way to end this? I am impressed by the many local communities, nonprofits, and other forms of civic institutions that are involved in issues like education, mental health care, and mediating disputes. Can’t we find some solidarity there?

Yes, it's dark, but that darkness doesn't describe all of America by any means. I am thinking of the un-employed or under-employed white men I've heard from recently who tell me that they find themselves drawn against their conscience to white nationalism. All of them say that they're sick and tired of being blamed for all the problems of the world, especially when their own lives are miserable and without real prospects of getting better.

A white evangelical friend dropped out of a racial reconciliation group in his city because militant progressives came to dominate it, and drove away all who disagreed with their dogmatism. He said it was too exhausting. My fear is that as Trump and Trump's enemies inflame resentments, it's going to be harder for people to find solidarity, even in non-controversial lines of work. These next four years are going to be mighty long.

Modern assembly line (Nataliya Hora/Shutterstock)