Furthest Right

American Culture: A Possible Threat (Thomas Molnar)

American Culture: A Possible Threat

Thomas Molnar


Book Review: Alain de Benoist’s Europe and the Third World


Is American materialism damaging other cultures?

       A vast number of books published during the last thirty years about the Third World contain only as much reality as conforms to the author’s biases. Many of these books are haphazard compilations of statistical information with hastily drawn conclusions. Alain de Benoist, known in Europe for his nonconformist views, offers an explanation for the weakness of Third World studies, distinguishing three stages of Western interest – or lack of interest – in former colonial territories.
        The first phase extended from before World War II to the late fifties, decades in which the colonies and other “exotic” lands were described in terms of metropolitan interest: the raw materials they offered, the merchandise they absorbed, the cost of administering them, and the prestige they represented for a colonial power in a world where square miles and cultural influence counted.
        The second phase lasted from roughly 1960 to the late seventies. In this period, enthusiasm for decolonization and for the heroic halo surrounding the newly independent countries reached its peak: Nkrumah, Sukarno, Ben Bella, Nasser, Nehru could do no wrong. Western media took them for models of heroism and statesmanship; the white man became positively ashamed of his color. The Nehru jacket was the rage of cocktail parties, and London admired Nkrumah although he rapidly squandered the billions that had been given to Ghana by the British. The handful of new countries in which government was relatively honest and efficient – first among them the Ivory Coast – and where the white man was neither massacred nor ignored as entrepreneur, teacher, and adviser were dismissed by the enthusiasts as stooges and Uncle Toms.
        Inevitably, a third (and current) phase in the relationship to former colonies emerged by the midseventies. Suddenly former enthusiasts, who had supported industrialization of jungle and desert, made an about-face and showed contempt for the natives’ inefficiency in running the steel mills, airlines, and factory complexes that Western governments were shipping to Africa and Asia. New regimes were blamed for donors’ errors of judgment. The Third World was dismissed to wallow forever in underdevelopment.
        Few had the courage, in the course of all three stages, to draw up an honest balance sheet for Western involvement with Third World territories.

Benoist’s Thesis
        It is at this point that we are well advised to join Benoist’s study of the situation. Let me begin directly with his thesis. Benoist asserts that the United States, because of missionary zeal in spreading its own way of life and because of commercial interests, has been imposing on Third World countries its products and methods. The American public hears of public and private generosity in rushing food to famine-stricken areas, evacuating victims of disasters, and offering compensation for damage suffered (such as Dow Chemical’s aid to India’s Bhopal).
        What is not grasped is that America, and the Western nations generally, have appeared in other parts of the world not merely as commercial and industrial entrepreneurs, but as powers determined to mold “primitive natives” so that they change their way of doing things. This is an old issue that neither Benoist nor other critics will ever settle. After all, the movement of history includes the migration of peoples and ideas – and of techniques and worldviews.
        Still, Benoist criticizes the West because of Western hypocrisy and because of some dire effects of Western involvement in the Third World. He finds that the industrial nations, primarily the United States hiding behind its anticolonial record, have pushed underdeveloped countries to organize their economic life according to Western interests. These interests include extensive monoproductions: oil, minerals, certain agricultural products – the exclusivity of which make these countries dependent on Western consumers who then determine the price and the magnitude of the demand on the world market. Thus a new relationship of dependence comes into effect, and with it, forces that may prevent certain countries from rising economically, while the critics of the Third World claim that these countries should blame themselves alone for their lowly status.
        The enormous foreign debts of an increasing number of Third World countries are part of this pattern. True, Mexico, Brazil, and Nigeria contract debts because they import articles, goods, and services for which they are unable to pay, given their fragile economic and social structures. Certainly they are guilty of overdrawing. But, there is another side to the problem: Western governments and government-instructed banks encourage the Third World nations to borrow beyond their means. And there are other kinds of problems: A few years ago, German, American, and Japanese pharmaceutical firms pressured Bangladesh not to cancel substantial orders; if it did, it was hinted, Western governments would “reconsider” aid projects. Cases of this sort – the pressure cost Bangladesh $50 million – are appalling, though what Benoist fails to mention is that Third World leaders and officials are easy marks for cuts on juicy contracts.

The Third World and Europe
        The book also stresses the “common struggle” of the Third World and Europe against the overwhelming economic and ideological power of the United States. Benoist, whose documentation is impeccable but perhaps somewhat one-sided, insists that not only the Third World, but Europe is being colonized by America. How is this imperialism exercised in Western Europe? American negotiators, by virtue of American preponderance in the world market, have ways of putting pressure on foreign governments and intermediaries to purchase American products: movies, television sensationals like Dallas, or entire Disneylands. Why do foreign governments not protest? It may be because the penetration of American fashions escalates in proportion to the American publicity techniques that prepare the terrain for demand. Then, demand for these products leads to further imports of advertisement and market-research methods, in a constantly spiraling way.
        Where did this all begin, with the chicken or with the egg? Governments, socialist or liberal, European or African, Muslim or Christian are not prepared, in the twentieth-century oikumene, to resist American corporations, banks, multinationals, and mass-cultural products. It is almost futile to ask why at a point where the United States is economically and culturally dominant and therefore imitated. Benoist emphasizes that this material penetration is inseparable from the ubiquitousness of American-produced ideology, which is different from the traditional spirit and style of the rest of the world.
        According to Benoist, the destinies of Europe and the Third World are now linked in a common struggle against American economic and mass-cultural preponderance, for otherwise Europe and the Third World risk losing their soul, their sense of identity, language, and history. Despite the simplifications of this thesis, it is unfortunate that Benoist’s critique does not receive a serious hearing in this country. We remain satisfied with our good conscience and regard those who challenge it as either primitive or envious people. We refuse to consider the proposition that American materialism may do damage to others.

Thomas Molnar is professor of religion at Yale. He is the author of The Pagan Temptation; The Decline of the Intellectual; Sartre: Ideologue of Our Time; and God and Knowledge of Reality.


[The World and I (New York), May, 1987]



Share on FacebookShare on RedditTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn