Globalisation And Terror
By Helena Norberg-Hodge
06 March, 2010
“Fundamentalism and fascism have always emerged when societies are pushed into deep insecurity by outside forces — most commonly those of imperialism and economic globalisation.... Today, these forces are creating deep-seated insecurities and resentments across the world, as traditional cultures, value systems and even elected governments crumble before the onslaught of rapid technological change, the Americanisation of culture and the spread of the corporate monoculture.”
It did not take long for the horrifying images of September 11 to mutate into the increasingly familiar spectacle of high-tech, stage-managed warfare, complete with cruise missiles, laser-guided bombs, and remote satellite imagery of their destructive effects. So little time was devoted to considering how we arrived at this pass that we are likely to revisit it again and again. For the frightening response by the US and British governments will almost certainly lead to more fundamentalism in the South, heightened rivalries and friction between local ethnic groups (as is already happening in Afghanistan), the undermining of regional governments (as is already happening in Pakistan), and further anger and resentment aimed at westerners in general and Americans in particular (as is already happening in Indonesia and elsewhere in the Islamic world). In the long run, it will lead to more terrorism as well.
Long before September 11, anger and violence were on the increase, particularly in the South. According to the Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity (INCORE), ethnic conflicts are underway in at least 43 countries around the world. Westerners are largely unaware of most of these, thanks to the parochial focus of the mainstream media — which devotes an inordinate amount of attention to the gyrations of the stock market and the sexual pursuits of politicians and movie stars. Most of us are only dimly aware, if at all, of the ethnic conflicts that simmer and periodically boil over in Sri Lanka, Eritrea, Bhutan, Turkey, Guatemala and many other regions, including Afghanistan. These conflicts become `newsworthy' only by virtue of their proximity to western industrial countries — Chechnya and Bosnia, for example — or when they slake the media's thirst for sensationalism — as was the case in Rwanda. But unbeknownst to most Westerners, fanaticism, fundamentalism, and ethnic conflict have been growing for many decades — and not just in the Islamic world.
Failure to recognise this trend can lead us to focus on the attack on America in isolation, and to ignore the broader pattern of which it is part. Thus, speculation on what motivated the terrorists has ranged from the ridiculous (they simply “hate us for who we are — `infidels' who don't share their faith”) to the reasonable (they were driven by anger over the Gulf War, US support for Israel, the presence of US troops in Muslim holy lands, and so on). Some of these analyses may approach the immediate reasons for this tragedy, but they fall well short of reaching the root causes common to most such conflicts today.
To really understand the rise in religious fundamentalism and ethnic conflict, we need to look at the deep impacts of what might be described as the jihad of a global consumer culture against every other culture on the planet. Doing so not only allows us to better understand the September 11 tragedy, but to see a way forward that lessens the violence on all sides.
My perspective comes from experiences in numerous cultures in both the North and South over the past 35 years. When I studied in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1966, the Tyrol conflict was raging; during several stays in Spain in the 1980s and 1990s, the Basque separatist group ETA was active, as they still are today; as a resident of England I've seen the effects of the IRA's long-running battles with the UK government; having worked for a quarter-century on the Indian subcontinent, I've also seen tensions and open conflict among Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims in India, and between Buddhists and Hindus in Bhutan.
Most important of all, I have been able to witness first-hand the evolution of tensions between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority in Ladakh, or `Little Tibet', in the western Himalayas. For more than 600 years these two groups lived side by side with no recorded instance of conflict. They helped each other at harvest time, attended one another's religious festivals, even intermarried. But within a decade of the imposition of western-style `development', Buddhists and Muslims were engaged in pitched battles — including the bombing of each other's homes — that took many lives. Even mild-mannered grandmothers — who a decade earlier would have been drinking chang, eating tsampa and laughing with their Muslim neighbours — told me, “we have to kill all the Muslims or they will finish us off.”
How did relations between these two ethnic groups change so quickly and completely? The sudden transformation is unfathomable, unless one understands the impact of globalisation — an impact being felt by individuals and diverse cultures worldwide. In Ladakh, the integration of the largely self-reliant local economy into the global economy was both debilitating and demoralising, and led to what can best be described as a cultural inferiority complex — and consequently to a rise in religious fundamentalism and violence. As `development' and `modernisation' continue to level cultures and undermine rural life, they are having similar consequences virtually everywhere.
From cooperation to competition
When I first arrived in Ladakh 25 years ago, there was absolutely no indication that Ladakhis thought of themselves as poor or inferior. Though natural resources were scarce and hard to obtain, the Ladakhis had, in fact, a remarkably high standard of living. Most of the region's self-reliant farmers only really worked four months of the year, and poverty and unemployment were alien concepts. Resources were used sustainably, and pollution was non-existent.
In 1975, I was shown around the remote village of Hemis Shukpachan by a young Ladakhi named Tsewang. Since all the houses I saw seemed especially large and beautiful, I asked Tsewang to show me the houses where the poor lived. He looked perplexed for a moment, then replied, “We don't have any poor people here.”
Even though Tsewang's self-confidence was typical of Ladakhis at the time, the seeds of dissatisfaction were already being sown. In 1962 a road linking the region with the rest of India had been built by the Indian Army, ending Ladakh's near-total isolation from the influences of the global economy. In 1975 — the year Tsewang showed me his village — the region was fully opened up to the process of `development'. Within a few years Ladakhis were exposed to television, western movies, advertising and a seasonal flood of western tourists. Subsidised food and consumer goods — from Michael Jackson CDs and plastic toys to Rambo videos and pornography — poured in on the new roads that development brought. Ladakh's local economy was being incorporated into the global economy, and its traditional culture displaced by a global monoculture.
Almost immediately, competition increased dramatically. The `cheap' subsidised food imported into the region made farming seem uneconomic, thereby undermining the agricultural foundation of the village-scale economy. Meanwhile, development pressures were fracturing the intricate structure of human relationships on which local agriculture — indeed the whole of Ladakhi culture — depended. Men and children were being drawn into urban areas where modern-sector jobs and schooling were centralised, leaving behind farmers — many of them women — who could no longer rely on family members or cooperative labour, and were forced to compete for the services of paid labourers. Those that left their villages, meanwhile, quickly found themselves in competition with one another for the scarce jobs of the new money economy.
Competition also increased for political power. In the past, most Ladakhis wielded real influence and power within their human-scale economy. In the new world brought by modernisation and development, Ladakhis were being absorbed into a national economy of 800 million, and a global economy of six billion. Their influence and power were reduced almost to zero. The little political power that remained within the region was funnelled through highly centralised institutions and bureaucracies, many of them prone to favouritism and abuse.
Competitive pressures increased further as development replaced plentiful local materials with the scarce materials of the global monoculture: thus mud brick and stone gave way to concrete and steel; sheep's wool and yak skin to imported cotton and polyester; barley and cow's milk to instant noodles and bottled soft drinks. The result was artificial scarcity: people who had thrived for centuries on local materials were now, in effect, competing for resources with everyone else on the planet.
Everywhere in the world, competition puts those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder at a great disadvantage. The implicit promise of `development' — that people will eventually attain the standard of living enjoyed by citizens of the richest industrialised countries — is realised by only a small handful. The gap between rich and poor widens, and anger and resentment steadily increase.
Throughout the South, `development' systematically destroys local economies, thereby sapping villages of their vitality. Even still, life in a village offers far better prospects than life in one of the South's rapidly expanding cities, where little more than unemployment, urban squalor and crushing poverty await the majority. But an almost irresistible urban pull is exerted by the media and advertising, whose images consistently portray the rich and the beautiful living an exciting and glamorous version of the American Dream. Satellite television now brings shows like `Baywatch' to the most remote parts of the world, making village life seem primitive, inefficient and boring by contrast. Young people in particular are made to feel ashamed of their own culture. In Ladakh, the psychological impact was sudden and stark: eight years after telling me his village had no poor people, I overheard Tsewang saying to some tourists, “if you could only help us Ladakhis, we're so poor.”
This undermining of self-esteem, occurring throughout the South, is actually a conscious goal of global advertisers, who promote their own products by imparting a sense of shame about anything local. An ad executive in Beijing admitted that the message being drummed into Third World populations today is: “imported equals good, local equals crap”.
But it is not just local products that are denigrated by advertising and media images: it is local people as well. In Ladakh and around the world, the one-dimensional media stereotypes are invariably based on an urban, Western consumer model: blonde, blue-eyed and clean. If you are a farmer or are dark-skinned, you are made to feel primitive, backward, inferior. Thus, advertisements in Thailand and South America urge people to `correct' their dark eye colour with blue contact lenses: “have the colour of eyes you wish you were born with,” the ad copy reads. For the same reason, women in the South use dangerous chemicals to lighten their skin and hair, and some Asian women even have operations to make their eyes look more Western. These are profound statements of self-rejection — of embarrassment at being who you really are.
Few in the South have been able to withstand this assault on their cultural and individual self-esteem. A few years ago I visited the most remote part of Kenya's Masailand, where I was told that people had withstood the pressures of the consumer monoculture, and still retained an untarnished dignity and pride. So I was horrified when a beautiful young Masai leader introduced me to his father saying, “Helena is working in the Himalayas with people who are even more primitive than we are.” The old man replied, “That is not possible: no one could be more primitive than us.”
The rise of fundamentalism
In the past, Ladakhis would be unlikely to define themselves primarily as Buddhists or Muslims, instead focusing on their village or their extended family. But with the heightened competition brought by `development', that began to change. Political power, formerly dispersed throughout the village-scale economy, became concentrated in bureaucracies controlled by the Muslim-dominated state of Kashmir, of which Ladakh was part. In any country, the group in power inevitably tends to favour its own kind, while the rest often suffer discrimination, and Ladakh was no exception. Buddhists became convinced that political representation and government jobs — virtually the only jobs available to formally-schooled Ladakhis — were disproportionately going to Muslims. Thus, ethnic and religious differences — once largely ignored — began to take on a political dimension, causing bitterness and enmity on a scale previously unknown.
Young Ladakhis for whom religion had been just another part of daily life took exaggerated steps to demonstrate their religious affiliation and devotion. Muslims began requiring their wives and daughters to cover their heads with scarves. Buddhists in the capital began broadcasting their prayers over loudspeakers, so as to compete with the Muslim calls to prayer. Religious ceremonies that once were celebrated by the whole community — Buddhist and Muslim alike — became instead occasions to flaunt one group's numbers and strength. Within a few years, tensions between the two groups exploded into violence. This in a place where, previously, there had not been a fight of any sort in living memory.
It was clear to me that the young men who were ready to kill people in the name of Islam or Buddhism had not had much exposure to the traditional teachings of their respective religions. Instead, they were the ones who had studiously modelled themselves on Rambo and James Bond, and who were the most psychologically insecure. On the other hand, those who had managed to maintain their deeper connections to the community and to their spiritual roots were psychologically strong enough to remain gentle.
It was also the case that the Ladakhis most prone to fundamentalism and violence had long exposure to western-style schooling, another feature of conventional `development'. The forces of `modernisation' pulled Ladakhi children away from the traditional education that prepared them for life on the Tibetan Plateau, instead offering them an education suited to a modern, urban way of life that will forever be beyond their reach, and training them for jobs that simply don't exist. As Sonam Angchuk, leader of a students' organisation in Ladakh points out, young western-educated Ladakhis “are really in trouble.... They are rejected by the modern and they are cut off from the traditional. They are really lost.”
This is true all over the South, where young people — who are highly susceptible to both the implicit promise of western-style schooling and the urban lure of media and advertising — are becoming increasingly frustrated and angry. Samuel Huntington, a political scientist at Harvard University, agrees that this ranks among the root causes of fundamentalism and terrorism:
“The people involved in fundamentalist movements, Islamic or otherwise, are often people with advanced educations. Most of them do not become terrorists, of course. But these are intelligent, ambitious young people who aspire to put their educations to use in a modern, developed economy, and they become frustrated by the lack of jobs, the lack of opportunity. They are cross- pressured as well by the forces of globalisation.... They are attracted to Western culture, obviously, but they are also repelled by it.”
The story of Buddhists and Muslims in Ladakh is thus by no means unique. The rise of divisions, violence and civil disorder around the world are a predictable effect of the attempt to force diverse cultures and peoples into a single global monoculture. The loss of personal and cultural self-esteem, along with greatly heightened competition, can lead to divisions deep enough to result in fundamentalist reaction and ethnic conflict. This is particularly true in the South, where people from many differing ethnic backgrounds are pulled into cities where they are cut off from their communities and cultural moorings, and face ruthless competition for jobs and the basic necessities of life. In the intensely demoralising and competitive situation they face, differences of any kind become increasingly significant, and tension between differing ethnic or religious groups can easily flare into violence.
Since the North's own rural communities and economies are being undermined by many of the same destructive forces at work in the South, it should be no surprise that the effects are similar even here. Christian fundamentalism, for example, has taken root in America's rural heartland, as have increasing levels of hostility towards immigrants, blacks, Jews and other ethnic minorities. It is even reasonable to argue that the deadly domestic terrorist attack on Oklahoma City in 1996 ultimately sprang from the same source as the more recent attack on New York and Washington.
Despite the clear connection between the spread of the global monoculture and ethnic conflict, many in the west lay the blame at the feet of tradition rather than modernity, putting the onus on `ancient hatreds' that have smouldered beneath the surface for centuries. Certainly ethnic friction is a phenomenon which predates colonialism and modernisation. But after a quarter-century of firsthand experience on the Indian subcontinent, I am convinced that globalisation and its partner, `development', not only exacerbate existing tensions but in many cases actually create them. They break down human-scale structures, destroy bonds of reciprocity and mutual dependence, and encourage people to substitute their own culture and values with the artificial values of advertising and the media. In effect this means rejecting one's own identity, rejecting one's self. In the case of Ladakh, it is clear that `ancient hatreds' never existed, and cannot account for the sudden appearance of violence.
Stopping the violence
If we wish to prevent the spread of ethnic and religious violence, the first place to start is by reversing the policies that now promote economic globalisation. Those policies include `free trade' treaties, public investments in trade-based infrastructures, subsidies — both hidden and direct — for the huge corporations involved in global trade, and of course conventional `development' efforts in the South.
The attempt to create a global monoculture in the image of the west has proven disastrous on many counts, none more important than the violence it does to cultures that must be pulled apart to accommodate the process. When that violence spins out of control, finally reaching us in the West as it did on September 11, it should remind us of the heavy cost of levelling the world's diverse multitude of social and economic systems, many of them much better at sustainably meeting people's needs than the system that aims to replace it.
Until relatively recently, those diverse cultures were a product of a dialogue between humans and a particular place, growing and evolving from the `bottom up' in response to local conditions. Though outside influences like trade always changed cultures, what has happened since the end of World War II is something completely new. Today, investments and corporations from outside are transforming every aspect of life — people's language, their music, their buildings, their agriculture, the way they see the world. That `top down' form of cultural change works against diversity, against the very fabric of life.
In any case, the western model that is being pushed on the world is not replicable: the one-eyed economists who look at electronic signals to tell them whether economies are `healthy' or `growing fast enough' never do the arithmetic needed to see if the earth has enough resources for their abstract models to work. It is little more than a cruel hoax to promise the poor of the world that `development' and `free trade' will enable them to live as Americans or Europeans do, when that promise is a physical impossibility.
It is therefore important to look critically even at those well-meaning proposals for further `aid' to the South as a means of alleviating poverty — a presumed cause of terrorism. The elimination of poverty is certainly a worthy goal, but when our `aid' serves to tie people more tightly to a global economy over which they have no control — and undermines their ability to produce their own needs, maintain their own culture, and determine their own future — it is unlikely to prevent either poverty or terrorism. Like `free trade' — also claimed by some to be the solution to terrorism — most `development' aid benefits only the corporations poised to exploit the labour, resources and markets of cultures being integrated into the global economy.
Would a shift in policy — away from the costly effort to create a global consumer monoculture, towards support for diversity through stronger local and regional economies — help reduce fundamentalism, ethnic conflict, and terrorism? Recent experiences in Ladakh clearly show that ethnic tensions do diminish when people are encouraged to maintain their own culture and economy. This has been among the goals of many years of `counter-development' work in Ladakh by ISEC and its predecessor, the Ladakh Project. Those efforts have aimed at de-idealising the west by painting a fuller picture of modern urban life — including the crime, unemployment, loneliness and alienation — thereby helping to reinstill respect for the indigenous culture. Efforts to strengthen the agricultural economy — using Ladakh's own traditions as a base — have helped to revitalise the human-scale village economy. The introduction of simple technologies that make use of locally-available renewable energies (solar, wind, and water power) have limited the need to trade global dependence for an improved material standard of living. And giving voice to women (the keepers of tradition) through the formation of an indigenous Women's Alliance has provided an important link between the past and the future.
These efforts have led to a growing sense that Ladakh's future is in the hands of the Ladakhis themselves, and have helped to revitalise both cultural and individual self-esteem. This change is apparent even among young Ladakhis, the most vulnerable to the psychological impact of `development'. Today, tensions between Buddhists and Muslims have subsided and religious fundamentalism has ebbed. The likelihood of civil war or `ethnic cleansing' in Ladakh appears remote, and the future looks peaceful. Our political leaders should be informed that no smart bombs or cruise missiles were needed to accomplish this miracle.
Thomas L. Friedman, “A Tweezer Defense Shield?”, New York Times, Oct. 19. 2001.
Ancient Futures Learning from Ladakh, (video), ISEC, 1993.
“A Head-On Collision of Alien Cultures?”, interview with Samuel Huntington, New York Times, Oct. 20, 2001.
Helena Norberg-Hodge is an analyst of the impact of the global economy on cultures and agriculture worldwide and a pioneer of the localisation movement. She is the founder and director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC). He book Ancient Futures has been described as an "inspirational classic" by the London Times and together with a film of the same title, it has been translated into 42 languages. She is also co-author of Bringing the Food Economy Home and From the Ground Up: Rethinking Industrial Agriculture. In 1986, she received the Right Livelihood Award, or the "Alternative Nobel Prize" as recognition for her work in Ladakh