American Culture

Suburbanise! How Aid and Trade obliterate unique cultures

Suburbanise! Make the world a monoculture!Poverty will end.

Despite all the screaming, all the noise, all the stone throwing. Despite “Make Poverty History” and billions of Dollars in aid and opposition to capitalism.

Poverty will end.

The foundations for that post-poverty world are being laid right now. The pity is that it is not likely to look very different from the world experienced every day by suburban Americans and Europeans.

Suburbia. Soccer moms, endless commutes, housing flatlands, shopping malls, sterile sameness.

It is from these monotonous neighbourhoods of conformity that social activists and western capitalists explode, frustrated and enraged, in the hopes of … making the rest of the world the same?

From the outside in

Business owners, by and large, are extremely conservative. They look for proven markets and familiar environments in which to do business. If the market is dramatically and culturally different then local partners are sought. If there are no local partners then they stay away unless they can guarantee themselves a monopoly.

So, for instance, US companies wanting to do business in China look for local partners who can run the factories for them and simply supply goods. European companies wanting to do business in Africa only look at commodities such as minerals, ores, timber or – indeed – oil, where they can own the entire supply chain. They treat the country as an island and simply export everything they produce, paying the bribes necessary to smooth the way out.

Where there is nothing valuable, or where the country is just too impossibly unstable, only the most scary of entrepreneurs go. While they may make a lot of money, they may also wind up dead.

This is development from the outside in.

The poor in these countries are not involved in the way in which capitalism is expressed in their communities. It will take the shape of the people who brought it.


In the course of our research we have spoken to dozens of large South African companies investigating the “bottom of the pyramid”. Each has expressed themselves in a similar way. Each is nibbling away at the edges of poverty zones, creeping inwards, like gas crossing a porous membrane.

Diffusing, overwhelming. Until the whole is the same.

It is a slow process but it is happening. The number of people living on less than US$1 per day has dropped to its lowest point (as a percentage) ever and now numbers less than 1 billion people worldwide.

Poverty will end.

In the process unique cultures are subsumed and the peoples of emerging nations are losing their cultural identity and self-expression. The creeping wave of investment swallows their poverty and absorbs them into an alien culture.

And they are waiting – passive, supine – because of an international movement against poverty that sees the poor as helpless victims incapable of saving themselves.

The poverty of aid

The G8 has just announced US$ 60 billion in aid till 2010. Expressed by many, is the belief that the US must do “something” to end poverty and support the poor.

It is an outrageous conceit. It is a piece of European and American cultural imperialism on such an epic scale that it reduces regime-change in Iraq to a dust-mote in a desert storm.

It says, “You are helpless. You are incapable. But here, we’ll give you some money to keep you healthy, keep you alive, and get you ready. Ready? Well, sooner or later our companies will come here and rescue you from poverty. When they arrive you better be ready for one of those jobs in our factories.”

Consider the impact.

The poor have become complicit in the lie of their own incapability. They appear, begging bowl in hand, at every international gathering. They demand aid to support their diseased, illiterate, and infrastructurally barren nations. They take this cash. Perhaps it even gets spent. A year later they’re back for the same thing.

At the same time, creeping inwards, western companies absorb their economies.

In 100 years what will be left will be a stable and prosperous nation. But one which is utterly culturally alien to the people living in it.

It is this sense of inevitability that incenses people like Osama bin Laden. Their culture is being subsumed by something larger and hungrier than theirs.

Liberals and socialists may be just as outraged by the dominance of western capitalism ideology but, by demanding aid for the impoverished, they are actually assisting that western onslaught.

In generations to come it is the aid workers and left-wing liberals who will be most identified with a nation’s loss of cultural identity.

There is another way.

From the inside out

The poor are not helpless. Neither are they poor. They just have smaller economies.

If those economies are developed and supported with technical know-how and information transfers then they can meet the advance of western capitalism with a home-grown version.

This is what is happening in China and India. Both nations are so astonishingly large that, despite generations of suffering and neglect, they have both started to unleash their inner economies.

You may not like the shape of these forms of capitalism. Chinese capitalism is hopelessly autocratic and environmentally destructive. But it is an alternative. So is Indian capitalism with its concentration on vast numbers of highly skilled workers co-ordinated by sophisticated software.

You may not like any of these new forms of capitalism but they do offer what capitalism is so good at: choice.

Whythawk was started in 1998, not so much to end poverty, but to assist poor communities to invest in themselves so as to maintain their own cultural integrity.

I have enjoyed travelling around the world and seeing the wonderful diversity of self-expression; from music to food to architecture to fashion to lifestyle. I have always felt it would be a terrible shame if this diversity was reduced to that of middle-Europe-meets-middle-America.

For all the talk of western capitalist hegemony it is only the partnership between business and aid that is truly hegemonic.

It takes a brave person to stand against this tide and defend the poor. To say, “I’m not offering money. You don’t need it. But I can show you how to organise to create your own cultural capitalist core and meet the tide as an equal.”

Suburbia. Lost the sounds and smells and energy of urban bazaars. Wares and shops leaning up against each other. Music and foods mingling to create distinctive memories.

Suburbia. Let it not be so. For the sake of a more interesting and vibrant future we have to try.

6 replies »

  1. Okay, let’s have a look at this inevitability, because your assessment is omitting what strikes me as one compelling factor – and you hint at it yourself when you mention bin Laden.

    Not sure if you’ve read Sam Harris’ THE END OF FAITH. It’s an important, if not perfect, book, and in it he comes awfully close to suggesting that a worldwide war with Islam is inevitable. Whether that’s true or not, there’s no arguing that there’s a counter dynamic to suburbanization (which also probably brings “modernization,” and hopefully represents a secularizing force).

    So how does the powerful upsurge of fundamentalism – both Islamic and Christian – map onto this trend you’re predicting?

  2. Let’s look at it differently. Say you’re a typical suburbanite. You watch TV every evening for five hours while eating junk food. After you hit 30 you’re obese. Your heart is coated in wasted muscle and enlarged arteries and copious quantities of lard. You never exercise.

    There are several responses. The faith-based, as well as reactionary, response is to declare: “This heart may have been fine for a person with a different style of living, but it no longer serves. We need a new type of heart.” Or we need to go back to basics, or we’ve lost our faith and are being punished. You get the idea.

    On the other hand, there is a whole world of exercise out there. Western exercise forms such as running, hiking, climbing, swimming. Asian forms such as tai chi, kung fu. Eastern forms like yoga. Cultural exercising.

    Is the heart the problem or is the lifestyle the problem?

    A heart, in and of itself, is fine. But it needs a culture to surround it to keep it in a healthy environment so it can do its job correctly.

    Thing is, if we concentrate in the media only on the workings of the heart then people will get outraged when they see it not working as promised. They will blame television, fast-food joints, society at large for making them unhealthy, even the design of the heart. But they will not admit that they chose the lifestyle that led to this point.

    What I was talking about is all those exercise forms (cultural variety) that get lost when one world-view dominates. Exercise is fantastic, but let’s keep it broad. That way, when we tell people what the remedy to being fat pigs is, they don’t have to feel that they have to give up their cultures to adapt. At the moment, that is precisely what we are telling people in other cultures.

    So too with faith-based rebellion against society.

    To quote a very spiritual man, Mahatma Gandi, “Become the change you seek.”

  3. Gavin, you know I appreciate good philosophy, but the process you describe – a fairly logical implication of modernizing forces already at work – is countered by a VERY real anti-modernizing threat in the form of global fundamentalism. There’s even a way of reading this as a three-front war, since suburbanization is at odds with an alternate path that you favor.

    So I guess what I’m asking is a lot more applied and practical – especially since I know less about the structures of Islam in Africa than I do elsewhere.

  4. Sam, it isn’t a three-front war, it’s a one-front. I’m the one proposing an alternative. At the moment, however it’s expressed (and I see little difference between bin Laden and the stone-throwing, car-burning protesters at the G8 conference), the choices are for a gradual and seemingly unstoppable immersion within a Euro-US-Western cultural milieu or opposition to it through tariffs, subsidies, sanctions, isolationism, or end-of-days-style evangelical mythologising (like radical Islam, end-of-days Christianity, or even end-of-days climate-change anti-capitalist lunatics).
    The myth that capitalism imposes a one-size-fits all cultural imperative on people and communities has radicalised all sorts of people in lots of different ways. In what way is Dr James Dobson, with his intolerance of homosexuality or free choice, any different from bin Laden? He may be more moderate, but he’s on the same continuum. How about ETA in Spain? Or the IRA? Or the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka? How about PETA, the animal “rights” terrorists who’ve killed scientists? Or the anti-abortion snipers who shoot doctors?
    If you start thinking we’re heading for a war between Islam and everyone else then you’re falling in to bin Laden’s trap. That’s what he wants you to think. It isn’t happening.
    But there is a war between people who think they risk their right to be different (remember the rather emotive “end of history” claims by US neo-cons) and the people who want that myth to be true.
    Capitalism is not a fixed shape imposed on all. It’s whatever you want it to be. And this is what I will keep writing about.
    If you choose to be a helpless victim, certainly, you’ll get whatever happens to be going. Just like education, really. If you engage, you get to steer it.
    Each side thinks that we have reached the “end of history” and that only one type of capitalism will win. Some want that, some don’t.
    That is the only issue. And both sides are wrong.