Political cultures in the process of globalization

Political culture is generally described as the sum of values, sentiments, and knowledge that give form and structure to the political process. Such a definition suggests that political culture in a given country to a large degree depends on its historical experience, prevailing religion, level of education, and culture understood as the sum of artistic expression. Western theories of political culture often examine the basic orientation of political culture–namely, whether it is consistent with democratic practices or opposed to them.A number of theories relate democracy not only to social and economic conditions but also to certain democratic values. Political culture as the sum of values and typical attitudes plays an important role in making democracy stable or unstable.

However, political culture itself is not an unchangeable monolith. People in various countries and regions are constantly exposed to new experiences and their attitudes toward politics as well as their values change as a result. While for centuries such changes were relatively slow and incremental, in the last several decades the relatively stable systems of values in various societies have come under increasing pressure-a consequence of the process known as globalization.

This process, described and analyzed by many thinkers in recent years, is characterized by the growing spread of global communication systems; global economic activities, including rapid movements of capital on a planetary scale; both the spread of uniform cultural patterns across the globe and the growing exchange of unique cultural experiences among various societies.

However, the process of globalization has so far been described mainly in the language of economics, technological progress, and cultural exchange. Surprisingly little has been written or said about the political ramifications of this process-that is, if we discount the numerous analyses of the weakening power of the national state and the gradual growth of the power of various supranational organizations.

Perhaps this focus on the diminishing role of the national state and the building of supranational political institutions is natural, given the fact that the process of economic, technological and cultural globalization is justifiably seen as possibly dangerous–unless mankind manages to bring it under political control. In other words: the process of globalization will produce the same social and political dangers that Western national states had experienced for centuries-until they, in their modern democratic incarnations, managed to harmonically combine the ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

In other words, since World War II, Western democracies have maintained democratic systems that combine liberty (represented by political democracy) with equality (represented by the rule of law) and with fraternity (represented by various forms of solidarity and civil societies). The fact that the process of globalization is not matched by global democratic political institutions that would ensure global legal, environmental, educational and health standards, as well as guarantee various forms of global solidarity, has contributed to the growing differences between the poor and the rich regions of the world. Just as the primitive capitalism in the national states of the West once produced huge social conflicts and wars, or alternatively produced utopian (totalitarian) alternatives to itself, the primitive global economy may yet produce the same.

However, should democracy prevail on the global scope, it is clear that major changes will first have to occur in the political cultures of those countries that are still governed by authoritarian regimes. In this context, the question of whether the process of globalization is conducive to such changes is crucial.

In general, there seem to be two contradictory developments with regard to this question. On one level, there is a lot of resistance to change in economically less developed countries that is often driven or supported by deeply embedded cultural stereotypes. On another level, it is apparent that the systems of values, sentiments, and attitudes that form the political cultures of non-democratic countries are increasingly exposed to pressure to change. That pressure is not represented only by various forms of political pressure from developed democratic countries but also by more subtle forms of influence and incentives that infiltrate undemocratic countries as part of the „package“ of values that come with the process of globalization.

The spread of modern communication technologies, such as the Internet and global media, is one aspect that is perhaps even too prominent to analyze in detail. What is important in this process is not only the often cited fact that such modern technologies ignore national borders and thus subvert attempts of authoritarian regimes to control the flow of information, but also the fact that they, in general, foster attitudes that have not been common in the political cultures of traditionally closed societies until now. The Internet, for example, promotes the formation of horizontal networks and loose „virtual“ communities as well as the culture of unbounded discussion. This stands in direct opposition to those political cultures where hierarchy and control from above have been accepted until now.

The same is true about many other forms of technology that are associated with the process of globalization. Most such technologies are based on various forms of instant communication and, as such, transcend national boundaries. For example, the aviation industry is increasingly becoming one global, internally connected system that uses the same standards, language and safety measures. Many scientific projects are now spanning the boundaries of individual countries, as the resources of individual countries are no longer sufficient to cope with such projects. The international space station is a good example of how developed Western democracies and the troubled, unstable Russian democracy cooperate, using common standards.

Political cultures of less developed countries are increasingly exposed to an onslaught of Western consumerist trends. If we put aside the moral question about whether this is good or bad, it is clear that such an export of consumerist trends creates expectations and changes attitudes in less developed countries. On the one hand, this culture of global consumerist fashions can produce frustration in less developed countries, where people have less of a buying power; on the other hand, it also serves as a stimulus. It creates aspirations that eventually can translate into various forms political pressure.

The process of globalization is not a one-way street; it is not a mere form of Western imperialism, as it is often argued. Goods, knowledge, cultural products, religions, achievements of national cuisine, even technologies now travel in both directions. Yet, it is indisputable that the process of globalization was triggered by technologies that were born in the West and was for a long time primarily driven by multinational companies that also originate primarily in the West (although many now also originate in Japan and other east-Asian countries). Certain values, new forms of human interaction, and new forms of communication have spread simultaneously with such technologies and companies. Without any doubt they have had a profound impact on the political cultures of the countries to which they have spread.

The basic political message of the process of globalization is a message of democracy. However, it has also been a message of inequality, frustrated expectations and, occasionally, hidden imperialism. At the end of the second millennium, mankind faces two extreme possibilities: either quick democratization in undemocratic countries (and their subsequent integration into a system global political institutions) or growing differentiation between the rich and the poor and frustration in less developed countries.

The process of globalization is at this point changing, above all, the behavior of political elites. Political leaders in less developed countries are in some cases trying to perform a difficult balancing act that they will not be able to sustain for long. While they are trying to exercise undemocratic political control over the populations of their countries, they are in many cases being forced by the realities of globalization to open their economies to the outside world. „Free trade“ is the buzzword of this process. China is the best example of such a difficult balancing act.

One the one hand, Chinese leaders have been able to maintain an authoritarian communist regime; on the other, their efforts to modernize the country have forced them increasingly to open China to the outside world, including modern technologies. The traditional political culture in China is, of course, of great help to Chinese leaders in sustaining an undemocratic political regime while building a progressively liberal economy. That political culture is based on the fear of the outside world, strict hierarchy, and cultural as well as religious patterns that does not promote political and social upheavals.

However, it is also possible to argue that the growing access of an ever larger number of Chinese to the outside world, the spread of modern communication systems, and the promotion of ideas that form the backbones of Western democratic systems will eventually impact China’s political culture. The fact that the traditional political culture of China is not inherently incompatible with democracy is quite apparent, for example, in Taiwan. In fact, the example of Taiwan suggests that the system of values and attitudes typical for Chinese society can be extremely successful in helping to build a dynamic market economy, once undemocratic political constraints are completely removed.

At the same time, Taiwan or Japan are good examples of how certain basic features of traditional political cultures remain present even in newly established democracies. Some cultures, even under the conditions of political democracy, will continue to stress hierarchy, while other cultures will stress equality. Even Western democracies display very varied types of political cultures, which depend, for example, on the prevailing religion. Differences between Catholic countries and Protestant countries have also been studied and described in depth. The democratic systems of the countries, where, for example, Hinduism, Islam or Buddhism are the prevalent religions without any doubt reflect some of the specific features of those religions. At the same time, it is clear that none of those religions can by nature be considered a basic obstacle to building democracies.

One of the basic issues in the relationship between globalization and political culture is the question of whether globalization promotes civic culture. The concept of civic culture was first comprehensively analyzed by political scientists Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba in their work „The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations,“ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963). They studied the relationship between civic culture and democracy in five democratic nations. Robert Putnam’s book „Making Democracy Work“ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) persuasively explained the economic differences between the developed Italian North and the less developed South by different traditions of civic activism.

In looking at the process of globalization, it is possible to argue that it has helped to spread the concept of civic culture far beyond the boundaries of those Western nations where developed civic cultures have been the bedrock of political cultures. Not only modern communication systems but very often the labor standards of multinational companies have helped to promote some basic civic and human rights, such as the rights of association, women’s right or minority rights. The culture of free discussion that is inherently present in some modern interactive communication systems also foster the growth of civic cultures in countries where they formerly did not exist.

Finally, the process of globalization has created the foundations of a supranational civil society. Numerous professional associations, trade unions, lobbies, environmental groups and (paradoxically) anti-globalization groups are gradually creating a global network that involves an increasing number of countries. Undoubtedly, the growth of this global civil society affects political cultures around the world. It promotes horizontal networks rather than vertical social structures and hierarchies. It promotes active participation over passivity. And it promotes global responsibility.

Clearly, no country, regardless of its political elite’s efforts to isolate it from the outside world, can be left untouched by the various effects of globalization. In general, it seems the process of globalization promotes the types of behavior that are more conducive to democracy-building and consolidation than to the contrary. And the gradual democratization in various parts of the world is the fundamental prerequisite for eventually creating a system of working global democratic institutions that hopefully can establish an institutionalized system of global solidarity and responsibility.

The Case of Central Europe

The post-communist Central Europe is a good example of how globalization impacts political cultures. Globalization in Eastern Europe has worked in the form Europanization. Many East Europeans would, however, disagree: They claim they have always been part of Europe-that is, Europe understood as the embodiment of Western culture. The process of Europanization, therefore, has to do more with adjusting to the new sets political, legal, economic, and social standards that were adopted by the European Union during the years when Eastern Europe was ruled by communist regimes.

If we look a bit deeper, though, we can see that, for example, the post-communist countries of Central Europe-the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia-do not have political cultures that are automatically open to adopting Western standards. Although each of those countries has a specific history, that plays an important role in the way its political culture works today, there are some common features, that are not conducive to democracy-building, whose origin one can trace to the political culture of the Austro-Hungarian empire and, of course, the effects of the communist rule.

Some of the most prominent features of the Central European political culture are provincialism, various brands of nationalism, underdeveloped civil societies, centralization, and a tendency to bureaucratization. For example, civil societies in Central Europe for a long time operated within certain ethnic and national contexts and, in some respects, substituted for weak political institutions. Various civic groups under the late Hapsburg Empire were often associated with national aspirations of individual nations, national cultural endeavors, or churches. In relations with other nations, civil societies of individual nations had a defensive character. Culture itself was also in this kind of position. In the environment where political aspirations could not always be expressed in the language of politics, the language of culture and arts often substituted for the language of politics. As a result, today neither politics nor culture use an unambiguous language.

Under the communist regimes, civil societies of individual Central European nations were suppressed. The Europeanization, as a form of globalization, of those countries has contributed to the growing internationalization and denationalization of civil societies in Central Europe. Many groups, such as ecological activists, professional associations, lobbies, and, in fact, anti-globalization protesters of various kinds, now operate not only in a pan-European context but also in a global context. Demonstrations of anti-globalization activists during the IMF and World Bank meeting in Prague in September 2000 were a good example of not only a global civil movement in this area but also of a profound change in the nature of civil society in Central Europe.

Another profound change in the political culture of Central Europe has been fostered by the set of standards that the EU prescribes to candidate countries with regard to how their bureaucracies work. The bureaucracies that the post-communist countries of Central Europe inherited from the communist system represented a marriage between the old Hapsburg Empire’s and the communist system’s bureaucracies. Those bureaucracies were inefficient, centralized and outside the context of real democratic control.

The EU has put pressure on individual candidate countries to professionalize, decentralize and depoliticize their bureaucracies. As a result, all candidate countries have been decentralized and all have, or will, pass civil service laws that limit political appointments and stress professional criteria.

The EU’s constant monitoring of progress in various candidate countries in the areas of political democracy, minority policies, market economy, harmonization of laws with those of the EU, and the ability to implement such laws has had a visible impact on the way in which political elites of those countries act. In fact, the language of political discourse has changed markedly. Of course, questions linger as to how much this new language has been internalized and how much political cultures in individual countries have changed, and whether what we see is not just another version of political correctness that may not be deeply entrenched. On the other hand, it is increasingly apparent that some of the old concepts of post-communist political thinking and behavior are losing out to the process of Europanization.

The stick and carrot type of pressure by international institutions has certainly not only played an important role in the outcomes of some recent struggles between democratic and undemocratic forces–for example, in Serbia, Croatia and Slovakia. It has also, it seems, been changing some of the stereotypes of political behavior. The buzzwords in Central Europe are the civil society, the rule of law, the market economy, and political democracy.

On the other had, one should not ignore the fact that some of the modes in which political culture in Central Europe worked as far back in the past as in the Hapsburg Empire keep resurfacing. The proclivity of politicians for bypassing some democratic mechanisms, for maintaining centralization in spite of the officially declared decentralization, for interfering with free media, is still strong. For example, the so-called opposition agreement between the two strongest Czech political parties, each representing an opposite side of the political spectrum, under which the two parties divide the spoils of power, resembles the power-sharing agreement that the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats in the democratic Austria practiced for decades-we know with what consequences.

And there is a degree of Heiderization in Central Europe that one can observe in the language and actions of some of the strongest political parties. We can hear the language of Euroskepticism, nationalism and xenophobia from the strongest right-of-center party in the Czech Republic, the Meciar forces in Slovakia, or the ruling Young Democrats and their populist Smallholder Party allies,

In general, Central Europe is an excellent laboratory of how the process of globalization, represented mainly by Europanization, works. It is always ambivalent, but despite this ambivalence, those stereotypes that we associate with modernity are slowly replacing old stereotypes of political culture.

Globalization and Culture conference, Buenos Aires – 8.- 9. 12. 2000


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