“When the US sneezes,” it has often been said, “the world catches a cold.” The quote, originally used by Metternich about France, is true about America economically, and in terms of foreign policy, but it is also true in terms of culture. In his sunny book How the World Was Won, Peter Conrad wrote:
“Runaways and detractors find that America is inescapable. William S. Burroughs lived abroad from 1948 to 1974, but never defined himself as an exile. ‘One can hardly say that one is in exile from the United States as a whole,’ he explained; it would be as absurd as claiming to be in exile from the world.”
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This much is unarguable. Even using the word “Americanisation” feels a bit clichéd. One could talk about McDonald’s, or Friends, or Kobe Bryant — and many have — but what is more interesting is how America exports not just its products but its causes. For example, the #MeToo movement spread around the world in 2017, beginning with a tweet by the American activist Tarana Burke and ending up everywhere from Spain to South Korea. True, the concept was adapted to be relevant to the different circumstances of different countries, with local instances of sexual assault being discussed, but the phenomenon demonstrated the ability of American culture to direct the course of social change.
So it has been with #BlackLivesMatter. The protests that followed the horrific death of George Floyd have spread not just around the United States but across the Western world. This is strange, on the face of it. Whatever your stance on American law enforcement, it is at least predictable that a nation with a militarised police force and a bloated incarceration system would experience such crises. One might not be very sympathetic but one cannot be surprised, especially after lockdowns have left people to stew in their own frustration.
But why did such large, intense protests take place in Britain, where last year just three people were shot to death by the police? Why did sizable protests take place in Iceland, Poland, and the Czech Republic, which all have small or miniscule non-white ethnic minorities? No doubt, people in these countries could point to local factors to rationalise the demonstrations. But there are more structural factors at play.
Both #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter began life as hashtags, and their global reach can be explained partly by the international nature of social media platforms. Through Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, YouTube et cetera, people, and especially young people, across the world are plugged into the same conversations. “Influencers” like Charli D’Amelio — with 60 million followers on TikTok — and Logan Paul — with 25 million followers on YouTube — speak to a global audience on a scale that stars of radio and television could never match.
Their opinions — and those of many, many others — not only shape their followers’ perceptions of world events but, like their clothes and music choices, become status symbols, signifying contemporary, cosmopolitan tastes, especially in nations where the cultural mainstream is more traditional and conservative. “Influencers” become sales representatives of woke capital, for which social rather than economic causes are a useful means of prettifying one’s brand image without threatening one’s bottom line.
Even the aesthetics of protests in the non-English speaking world often take their lead from English-speaking media. I recall seeing photos of a climate march in Warsaw, where young people carried posters bearing slogans like “The Earth is Getting Hotter Than Shawn Mendes” and “Let’s Fuck Each Other Instead of Planet”. These seemed like the kind of posters which had a good chance of going viral on US Twitter and no change of convincing a Polish family to convert their coal-burning furnace into something more environmental.
Yet the global adoption of US causes has a more explicitly political function as well. As James Hunter, the first theorist of the “culture war” has argued, a culture war is also a class war, built around the controversial accumulation of status by educated and urban representatives of cognitive-cultural capitalism. Some form of contest will always occur when industry and agriculture decline, and when higher education swells in response, as there is so much status, and wealth, waiting to be claimed. But American media directs these contests onto battlegrounds of cultural values.
#MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter are essentially memes, and the US culture war provides effective memes around which international members of the progressive classes are able to construct their identity. When a twenty-something European representative of the creative industries attends BLM protests, they are not just explicitly supporting black people but implicitly defining themselves against elements of society associated with parochialism and neophobia. It is an expression of self-image as much as a meaningful protest.
Some might call this a cynical interpretation, and instead argue that protesters are expressing solidarity with victims of authoritarian governance, where they happen to live. Doubtless, some at least intend to do that. But an interesting question is why the Chinese state does not inspire half the outrage of that of the US. After all, if foreign instances of racial prejudice demand our opposition then there can be no more striking an example than the Chinese government locking up to a million Uighur Muslims in re-education camps.
A simple explanation for this not being a fashionable cause is that China is not an English-speaking country. This makes events in China less globally explicable, but also less relevant in a world where, as I have written before, English is not just the global language but a class signifier, denoting wealth, education and awareness of popular culture.
But it is also explained by censorship. Chinese people could not build an online presence accessible to the Western world. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter are all blocked in China, and even TikTok, which is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company, was not made available in China. If a Chinese person tried to start a #UighurLivesMatter campaign they would be arrested before you could say “hashtag”.
Moreover, the Chinese government even endeavours to limit the extent to which Westerners can criticise its policies. TikTok, unsurprisingly, removes videos which are critical of the Chinese government, and even Western organisations bow in the face of Chinese soft power. Zoom deleted the accounts of pro-democracy campaigners in the US on behalf of the CPC. Blizzard Entertainment suspended a Hong Kong gamer for supporting protests. LeBron James felt obliged to offer cringe-making criticisms of the Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey for his “misinformed” endorsement of the protestors.
The English actor John Boyega speculated in his speech to London’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations that he might lose his career over participating in the protests but criticising the Chinese would have been considerably more dangerous for his career prospects. LucasFilm loudly applauded Boyega for speaking in London but did not raise a squeak of protest when the Chinese casually erased the black actor from Star Wars promotional materials in China. My point is less to beat a snare drum marked “hypocrisy” than to point out that this censorship works. “Free Tibet” was a prominent cause in the 1990s, but almost no one in the West spares a passing thought for Uighur Muslims today.
To restate the arguments over the values that underpin culture wars would be pointless. It is done enough elsewhere. But the Americanisation of culture wars deserves resistance in itself. It homogenises national priorities, obscuring cultural and political differences, to such a ludicrous extent that British people end up arguing about police violence in a year when, yet again, it was revealed that the police had sat back and done next to nothing as a gang of men had groomed and raped young girls in Britain. Police brutality and overzealousness might be a particular problem in a Midwestern US state, while not being a priority in a northern English county; the globalisation of politics obscures local conditions.
It also distorts our understanding of the world, limiting our awareness of international affairs to those which are the focus of the narrow spectrum of social media trends. Whether you are a progressive or a conservative, you should be so in the terms of your national circumstances, and with broader frames of references than those which have been provided by social media monopolies.