How Powerful Is American Culture?
The world is not as homogenised as it appears
I normally avoid starting an article by referring to what someone has said on social media; commentary about commentary can feel like an elevated form of gossip. But today I’m making an exception, on account of this much-ridiculed tweet by the Portuguese author Bruno Maçães: “For the first time in 100 years American cultural power is almost nonexistent outside US borders.” An absurd remark, you might say, given the pervasive influence of American language, TV, music, fashion, politics and indeed social media platforms in western countries and beyond. But when Maçães tried to defend his statement, he raised an intriguing point.
We often assume that omnipresent brands like Starbucks are evidence of American cultural power, yet Maçães argued we should “distinguish between culture and commerce.” He continued: “There was a time when a hamburger was American culture, now it’s just commerce… Culture in time turns into commerce, it loses the creative moment.” I’m not exactly sure what Maçães means by this culture/ commerce distinction (vagueness is another pitfall of writing about tweets), but I think there is a valuable insight here about consumerism today.
In the context of global capitalism, the popularity of Nike trainers, iPhones, Teslas and Coca-Cola does not necessarily imply admiration or respect for the United States, just as the success of Samsung and TikTok doesn’t reveal an affinity for South Korea and China. The most pervasive products tend to have their cultural specificity stripped away in order to sell as widely as possible. They are pitched to local audiences by local marketing teams, using narratives and celebrities chosen for the relevant demographics. McDonalds in France is actually quite different from McDonalds in the U.S. – or in other countries for that matter – because the consultancy firm Deloitte advised it to emphasise its commitment to French produce and sustainability.
So the United States’ ability to produce these globe-spanning brands is arguably more a sign of economic than cultural power. American companies – or rather, multinational companies based in the U.S. – are good at exploiting the framework of global capitalism, which they have played a big part in designing. Consuming so many American products does of course mean that our culture is intimately affected by decisions made in American boardrooms. A corporation can launch a new menu option, clothing range or advertising campaign, and soon people in distant places will be talking about it. But the reverse is also true: American output is influenced by its foreign consumers. The taboos of Chinese audiences and political censors now shape the contents of Hollywood films, and western companies do not advertise their support for Pride month in the Middle East. Is this not also a kind of cultural power, exercised over America?
When people talk about cultural power, they generally imagine products and ideas whose appeal is bound up with the image of a particular country. With the U.S., that could be Harley Davidson motorcycles or gangster films, niches equivalent to Swedish furniture, Italian handbags and Korean boy bands. Maybe American cultural pre-eminence lies in the abundance and reach of its distinctive products: rap music inspires many more people around the world than English tailoring does. Then again, the global middle-class can increasingly take a mix-and-match approach to consumer goods, appreciating the fruits of many countries in the same day. Such relativism implies that enthusiasm for one aspect of a country’s culture does not equate to a fondness for, or even familiarity with, that culture more broadly.
There is however another account of American cultural power, which imagines it as something more ambient and insidious. In this view, it does not matter if people consciously admire the United States; that country’s clout is manifest in the countless American habits and assumptions that much of the world adopts as thoughtlessly as it parrots American phrases. This would mean Starbucks and iPhones really are symbols of U.S. power, since they belong to a modern way of life that is fundamentally American. Even when such products are not made by American companies, the very fact that modern culture consists of identical, mass-produced consumer goods shows the lasting influence of the United States, whose peculiar genius for this kind of commerce goes back to Henry Ford’s Model-T and the soup cans celebrated by Andy Warhol.
This is where anxieties about American cultural dominance intersect with wider concerns about homogenisation. Everywhere we go, we see local heritage giving way to the same clothes, the same food, the same shops and brands, the same architecture – in short, the same forms of existence. The spectre of American influence is often summoned as a way to make sense of this bewildering convergence of cultures.
But even if we now find ourselves surrounded by the same products, it should be remembered that we do not understand and interact with those products in the same way. The anthropologist Daniel Miller has been making this point since the 1980s. Miller’s original illustration came from social housing in London, where residents were assigned identical apartments in near-identical buildings. Visiting these estates, Miller quickly realised they were anything but homogenous; people had responded to their conditions very differently, often going to great lengths to modify them according to their own preferences and ideals.
This is a useful metaphor for the particularity that lies concealed in an apparent global monoculture. An American-inflected consumerism provides the overarching structure in which much of the world now lives, but different groups of people interact with that structure in specific ways. A certain brand of clothing can have very different associations in Madrid compared to Maputo. At the Costa Coffee outlet in my town, you will find a social setting quite distinct from the same shop in the last place I lived. Likewise, when we see people around the world identifying with American political movements like Trumpism or Black Lives Matter, it is often because a globalised media has made them the best vehicles for expressing local discontents. We tend to overstate how homogenised everything has become because we arrive in a new place and recognise all the signs, but aren’t aware of the particular meanings they have there.
This has important implications for how we think about the cultural influence of the U.S., or any other nation that might provide the tools and templates of modern existence. Yes, being able to change the way people in other places live undoubtedly reflects a kind of power. By and large though, what matters most in terms of our identity are not the origins of our cultural practices, but the ways we adapt those practices to our own circumstances.
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