Thursday, June 21, 2012

Being Global

It is always fascinating to talk about globalisation, because it is never real or sincere. Embedded in popular imagination with metaphors of a flat world, it only represents an ideal few bankers would like to believe in.

There was a time when the poor was global, and the rich was local. Global was called International then, as the nations, aligned with their landowning rich, were still at large. The changes in the last thirty years, as the Western nations claimed an irreversible victory in the battle of ideas, and we allegedly arrived at an 'unipolar' world, happened primarily through the rise of global money and global media, undermining the nations as they had to queue up for financiers' money. In this new world, Rupert Murdoch could tell a British Prime Minister to go to war in Iraq, or George Soros could bankrupt a nation overnight. In a strange reversal, suddenly the poor is local and the rich is global, and international became a somewhat out-of-use concept.

However, the term international, much favoured by many modern writers, isn't exactly an equivalent of global: It had an underlying conception of a human future which is missing in the way global is perceived. International was about rising above the differences, of languages, religions, and climates, and forging bonds across borders; global is about reducing the differences in a factor of money and applying them on that great level playing field, the spreadsheet. One could say if international was driven by modernity, an expansion of our perspective to embrace complexity, global is post-modern, atomised, reducible to consumption habits and simplified to the level of our basic needs and desires. So, being international meant understanding the beauty of Indonesian cuisine and relishing it alongside the Thai, the Burmese, the Malaysian and the Vietnamese, but in a true global sense, these should all be flavours added to a Big Mac.

I am indeed old school: I was born in the wrong decade, and grew up in the wrong city, steeped in the wrong ideology: I never learnt to love globalisation. In fact, it never arrived before I forced myself into a journey - of being international, of connecting with other people and of a search for common humanity. For me, this was about freedom - of being free of narrow perspectives that localism invariably impose. Being a traveller was a badge of honour for me. Living and studying at different places was the height of my ambition: This was about being more of the human I wanted to become, and getting rid of some of the pretensions that invariably grows if one never travelled. 

However, it is an issue of timing that I got caught in the globalisation creep. My international journey, unknowingly, became a global career, something that is portable not in the sense of diversity but commonality, not for its flexibility but invariability. In short, this is just the opposite of everything I believed in. In this construct, even being human meant something different from what I started with: It was not about having the universal and noble sentiments to rise above our physical limitations, but the opposite, the very absurdity of noble sentiments, usually shaped by our unique cultures, at a time when our physical innards are similar and the way to meet their requirements could be universal. In short, I ran away from my parochial comfort in search of an international experience, but ended up in a world of global money.

As with many things, I should accept this now as the spirit of our age. There is no escape, it seems, from globalism. Not at least as long as one's world is limited by the English language media; the world outside seemed to have been obscured by an Anglo-American ideology which has won, self-declaredly, the bid to define what globalisation should mean. It is a strangely varied simplicity, a Rumsfeld-Dimon-Murdoch complex, unified in a common code but infinite entertainment. Signing up to this, whether in a shop on Oxford Circus or in a small town shopping mall, is the best one can do. The margins, those not yet into the party, are crushed into despair: Witness in my small suburban community just outside Kolkata, where the mechanically reproductive music and culture now dominated its local life, alcohol changed from being a symbol of non-conformism to a symbol of status, the local art of making pancakes gave way to enthusiasm about consuming burgers, and where, a disconnected minority, mostly old, are left out to ridicule and irrelevance. The aspirations of reaching out have been crushed to acceptance of a way of life, defined at a distant centre, and conformism, particularly at the margins, seems the safest way to live a life.

At the same time, however, I make the opposite journey. I have travelled from periphery to the centre, but as with Jules Verne's characters, it is only after reaching the centre, one truly appreciates the varied beauty of the periphery. My interactions with globalisation give me, hopefully, the escape velocity to return back to periphery: Once the commonality of human consumption has been understood, the variability of human experience should, must, be explored. Becoming human no longer remains about coming over to find commonalities, but, in an age of ubiquitous commonality,  doing just the opposite, of discovering the human strains in the boring provincial lives, of leaving for an endless return journey, a discovery of humanity in its variety and richness.

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