Culture Is Not a Store!

We were awakened at midday, after a night flight from JFK, by drumming and clapping and lots of festive noise outside our hotel room overlooking Barcelona’s most fashionable street.

“The feast of Saint Joan,” said Alison, my knowledgeable wife, throwing back the shutters.

Thousands of people snaked back as far as you could see.

“Possibly it’s Midsummer’s Eve,” she reconsidered.

It was Mardi Gras-ish, a summer carnival, rousing and celebratory, with mass dancing in the streets. Colorful banners were draped across the front lines of the successive waves of revelers. globalization = our blood, read one banner.

“Oh,” Alison said. “The World Bank was going to have a meeting here this week, but they canceled it because they were afraid of demonstrations.”

Partly it was the place, Passeig de Gràcia, with its signature Antoni Gaudí buildings, which our hotel looked out upon, that gave the demonstration a different tone from any I’ve ever seen. Passeig de Gràcia is an international shopping avenue, a designer boulevard. This is the neighborhood of Chanel, Armani, Calvin, Gucci, Caroline Herrera, Ermenegildo Zegna, and friends. After ten years of Catalan economic expansion, the street had achieved Madison Avenue stature. This background made the demonstration and demonstrators seem very stylish and chic.

And yet – and not really at odds with the chicness and the festive tone – on each side of the boulevard, almost as a sight gag, a slapstick thing, there were matter-of-fact young men clubbing down the plate-glass storefronts of the designer boutiques. I could see how difficult it is to break shatterproof glass. You have to pierce it first with your bat or tire iron or truncheon and then pull it from the inside out, producing not shards but uniform chunks (baby-fist-size and sea-greenish). The merry glass breakers were followed by other energetic young people with spray-paint cans producing carefully composed and rendered graffiti.

In the American media mind, we’ve made anti-globalization out to be a granola sort of thing, thanks to the Seattle protests. But in Europe itis, semantically, as pernicious and menacing as racism.

As we watched the scene from the balcony of our expensive hotel room, there was that moment – the time-standing-still moment – in which we waited for the festive aspect of the demonstration to dissolve, American-style, into mayhem and madness (switch to handheld camera). But that didn’t happen here. Rather, the festivities proceeded in a seemingly good-natured manner as the windows of the Passeig de Gràcia high-fashion establishments were systematically and ritualistically breached. The police came, but they came later – well after the demonstration had passed. (There really did not seem to be any obvious or concerted objection to what was going on.)

Now, it is true that demonstrations in Europe are a more common and accepted part of intellectual and political life. And, after all, it was only broken glass – a police onslaught would probably have been a lot more costly.

Still, I wondered if you couldn’t infer a special kind of tolerance here. This behavior might have been bad, but the cause was pretty good. What right-thinking European didn’t have his or her serious concerns about globalization?

When we came out on the street, on the tail end of the crowd, we followed – as though we were reading museum tags – the articulate graffiti (which was sometimes hard to separate from the various official logos and signage): WEALTH IS NOT REASON! CAPITAL IS NOT FREEDOM! CULTURE IS NOT A STORE! All this was arguable, but it wasn’t nonsense.

“I am in sympathy with such demonstrations,” said a Spanish business associate of my wife’s later over a long lunch, just a bit apologetically.

“And what exactly,” I pressed, “is the issue, do you think?”

“Well, globalization,” he said, saying what should have been obvious, and clearly assuming I had missed the point entirely.

Concurrently, I read in the International Herald Tribune, there were globalization protests in Salzburg, Austria, and in Papua New Guinea (where four students were killed).

And next week, the protesters will be on their way to Genoa, Italy, for the annual summer summit of the G8. There, George Bush and members of the American political press will meet the anti-globalization movement for the first time. In an effort to help the world leaders avoid the riffraff and the breaking glass, the venue for the G8 meeting has been moved to a cruise ship offshore. Bush himself, running if not hiding, is slated to stay on a U.S. military base during his time in Italy.

In the American media mind, we’ve made anti-globalization out to be a granola sort of thing – possibly because whatever this movement is began (at least for the American media) eighteen months ago in Seattle. We see it as a loose collection of overly generalized environmental and friend-of-the-Third World-working-man grievances (the Times op-ed page seems always to be going on about the naïveness of the anti-globalization view).

But we may be translating “globalization” inexpertly. The Europeans obviously give the concept much greater specificity. To them, it seems clearly to define a particular condition and, it would seem, an indictable offense. To the degree that it’s an abstraction, it’s a vivid and sweeping one, full of symbolic implications. They know what they mean when they say it.

Globalization was certainly the word most often used in the European press to describe the reason for the bust-up of the attempted G.E.-Honeywell union. It was hard to be among Europeans over the past few weeks and not get a sense of the popularity of the blow that was struck against history’s largest industrial combination (Mario Monti, the European Union competition commissioner, may be as much an astute politician as a stubborn bureaucrat).

Whatever technical competitive reasons were cited by the European Commission, the real sin was the sin of globalization. You didn’t have to say much more than that: Globalization, semantically, is as pernicious and as menacing as racism. (Still, it did seem at least a little weird that Europe, which seems never to have met an oligopoly or anticompetitive condition it didn’t like, was suddenly the defender of free markets and level playing fields.) The undoing of the Microsoft restraints, of course, instantly became another pillar of the globalization critique (in fact, the European Commission, which is still investigating Microsoft, is now positioned to be the world’s savior here too).

But it isn’t just bigness, you begin to understand, that’s objectionable. It’s rapaciousness, arrogance, slickness, media savviness, brandedness – all of which the fashion designers on Passeig de Gràcia reasonably stand for.

It’s an aesthetic as well as an economic view. It’s about look and feel. American hegemony with Bill Clinton as president is qualitatively different from American hegemony with George Bush as president (Clinton’s globalization had a certain roguish charm). There’s a snobbishness to it (the Euros really think Bush is a major idiot).

Americans have come to think of Europeans as largely Eurotrash (a hyperavaricious subset of the hyperavaricious). But that’s vastly wrong. The Euros, even with their incredible economic growth, are uncomfortable capitalists and reluctant entrepreneurs (even though they’ve been rather good at it – as it happens, sales of luxury goods are falling in the U.S. but rising in Europe). They are still ambivalent about wealth (they never quite developed the American appreciation of wealth-based personal transformation). There’s even a stigma to being rich – a secret hatred that’s recently been under wraps (the end of socialism, and then the rise of venture capital and dot-comism has been psychically hard on the Euros).

They’re throwing off the shackles of affluence.

“These kids are right,” said the fashion designer and social philosopher Giorgio Armani, whose store was smashed in Barcelona, in an interview after presenting his new line inspired by Slavic culture (“poor people but with an exemplary interior elegance”). Elitist politicians, he said, “only think of themselves and little of ordinary people. It’s time for a little equilibrium.” Does even Armani believe that culture is not a store?

It’s the hubris of the new economy that, I’d argue, was bound to provoke a historical reaction – or it’s the inevitable fall that provokes it. For the better part of a decade, technology and capital have together made the argument that we had achieved some sort of nearly infallible economic model, which only had to be propagated and exported. Now, suddenly, there seems to be a crack in the wall (the shatterproof-glass wall) of economic determinism.

I don’t think I’m ready to argue yet that the fall of dot-comism in on the level of the fall of Communism, but you get my drift. You get hammered when you sell certitudes that fuck up. Indeed, if the force of the reaction is in proportion to the force of the certitude, a lot more glass will be broken. At the very least, everything becomes open to reinterpretation.

The issue of Newsweek I picked up on my vacation had just such a revisionist story. It was the reverse of the story that would have been written as recently as a half a year ago. It was the anti-achievement story. The anti-rat-race piece. The smell-the-flowers take. No longer was the New Economy what you wanted to be a part of. It was a story about our economic future that did not once use the word entrepreneur. It was about the European antidote to ambition and to workaholism. The go-slow, relax, drop-out alternative to the “accelerating pace of life in the global economy.” Along with this, I read in the International Herald Tribune that an American recession has probably begun. But then, the next day, this news, which was no news to most people, seemed to be downgraded or even dismissed because Microsoft was resurgent, and because a new quarter, which could not be worse than the past quarter (which was therefore good news), had begun.

This is what happens. There are the signs, and then there is the process of denying the signs.

The glaziers worked overtime, and shortly, the Passeig de Gràcia was restored. Barcelona was filled with shoppers; the restaurants were jammed; construction was going on everywhere. Nothing has changed, or everything is changing.


Culture Is Not a Store!