Currency cultural exchange
It has been said by a number of historians that the 19th and 20th centuries began to reveal their big themes within a handful of years. Certainly by 1910 the constituent causal elements of the Great War had fallen into place, Russia had begun to melt into revolution, across the British Empire constellations of African and Asian lawyers were turning their minds to challenging the colonial administration that trained them, Freud had produced his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Einstein published his first paper on on relativity and in America Henry Ford had become convinced of the possibility of a mass-market car. But it was a number of creative visionaries who began to map out what the subtle cultural ramifications of these changes might be, how these new technological advances and innovative thinkers would combine to deliver a new set of existential aspirations. In 1907 Picasso unveiled ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, a painting that was not a further resolution of the aesthetic conundrum of light and hue that had been teasing European artists for centuries, it wasn’t an evolutionary step that took us closer to understanding the subtle mechanics of paint and canvas, ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ was the beginning of a new aesthetic aim, a paradigm shift, from trying to resolve the physics of the visual, to trying to come to terms with its metaphysics; creative expression like torn pages from a diary, not perfectly metred poetry. It was not a depiction of other people, it was a self-portrait of everyone.
During the same year that Picasso painted ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, Scott Joplin composed ‘A Quarrel in Ragtime’. For America at the turn of the twentieth century this was a new kind of musical deal, it didn’t ask for silence or your attention. It was physical. It grabbed you, robbed you of choice and tormented you with that fact. Perhaps that is why it became known as Ragtime, it simply ragged you until you gave in. This was music created as an analogue of the stars and stripes, an amalgam of intercontinental narratives dynamised by by the confidence of the new century. Waltz and military marching band in ancestry, it suppressed a racy and innovative treble clef; as Ragtime took off, the pianist’s right hand was able to enjoy more and more freedom, playing innovative harmonies, mocking the thudding, plodding Nineteenth Century rhythms of the left hand into submission, pushing the new genre to its limit to discover Jazz lurking beneath. For Joplin, as the son of a former slave, resolving oppositions on the keyboard between the left and the right hand; between black and white keys, was missionary, political. His work brought the music of the un-polite intensity of fields and backstreets to the concert theatres and dance halls and with it came the politics. In one generation, things that seemed un-contestable were being questioned by those who had previously been voiceless, an analogue of parallel oppositions and dialectics that were simultaneously being tested in Paris by a generation of visual artists, the perfect score for the era as a new set of ideas and values emerged across the world.
Today, a century on, we are in a similar place, the mourning for the certainties of the last century is over, the Blair-Bush era is at an end, the post millenium hangover has subsided and we are beginning to sense, perhaps even welcome, a significant impending global ideological gear shift and socio-economic change. Whilst the twentieth century could be considered to have revolved around resolving some of the monumental dualities of the time, the twenty-first century has proffered a different set of questions and challenges.
At the turn of the new millenium certain global economic fundamentals seemed unchallengeable: 28% of the world economy remained American, Europe continued to have a combined near equivalent economic power to the USA, but was too culturally divided to reap the economies of scale benefit, Japan remained in its decade-long recession, and although the Chinese economy made up only 6% of the world economy, it was growing at an unrivalled rate against the backdrop of modest ambient global growth. But these mutually supporting elements of the world economy were shaken to the core by the significant diminishment of the USA in the 2008 economic downturn: the world subsequently changed culturally, economically, politically.
There has been debate about where the disintegration of the Cold War world alliances began, but it is obvious that with the collapse of the Berlin Wall came a destabilizing of the late twentieth century East/West dialectical balance of global strategic political and economic alliance. The ideological vacuum was filled by new global economic imperatives. The lack of rigorous checks on those new and unprecedented post-cold-war freedoms of capital and the concomitant infrastructure allowed the financial sector to operate beyond national law and regional culture. The critical vacuum propogated overconfidence, perhaps even a complacence, corruption and greed, which bred the ambience that allowed some of the constituent elements of the 2008 economic implosion and loss of credibility in the financial markets. This certainly contributed to the present global recession and tested to destruction the idea of unregulated free market economics. The consequent global acceptance of necessary political stewardship of international and national money markets has re-emphasized the importance of culture and values. The imperatives upon which decisions will be made in the future will have to have more explicit checks built in, many underpinned by trust inducing values; such as familiarity, ethics and culture.
It is evident that during the crash of 2008 the US lost some of its moral authority and with it was extinguished the fading embers of the Thatcher-Reagan era of Adam Smith unbridled Capitalism. Even without the global credit crisis of 2008, the signals of the faltering basis of the Free Market were plain to see in the earlier implosion of WorldCom and Enron. Though the world was forewarned no one could have been adequately forearmed against the biggest stock market crash, currency instability and economic instability since the 1930s. The effects of toxic American mortgage debt, institutionalized bad decision-making, compounded by complacency and greed, spread out across the world like a contagion, leaving no banking system or stock market unaffected by a crisis not just of credit, but also of confidence. For a period the market and those they serviced simply ceased to believe in the traditional system of capital value and there was a resultant dramatic crisis of trust and value.
Subsequently rather than New York, London, Frankfurt offering the international financial steer; the parts of the world with liquidity have found an opportunity to begin to rewrite the map of international financial power; moving capital influence and fluidity away from democracies and free markets in the West to the Sovereign Funds, the authoritarian democracies of South Asia and to China. This is a move from shareholder power over markets to the concentrated power and influence of a handful of families and political leaders who could choose to bring overt moral, geographic and cultural influence to future capital investment. Simultaneously in the West the huge wealth accumulated by individuals like Gates, Soros and Branson has become profoundly politically significant as the disempowered and disenfranchised of the world realise that the Euro-American super-rich now have a greater individual resource available to impact on world events through charitable giving than the development funding of any single nation. Ironically as governments across the West have coordinated the acquisition of substantial investments in their banks and financial sectors, they are less economically and politically powerful, nationally and internationally, than at any time in recent history. Power and money are both more diffuse and concentrated than at any time in the modern era, and such significant pools of money have never been so overtly tied to a very particular non-commercial, non- Western sponsored political agenda.
Historians are yet to give this period a name, but we are entering what military theorists have defined as a period of non-polarity; an era of complex over-lapping multiple cultural affiliations that will continue to shift and re-align, as the remnants of the 20th century financial infrastructures are affected by lack of liquidity and unravel into fluid ageographic sociologies. The global credit contraction, global warming, global resource shortage and global inequalities are unfortunately only exacerbated by the ramifications of the new multi-polarity that is replacing the post soviet uni-polar American dominated last ten years. This is bigger than politics – it is about culture, this is bigger than a single nation – it is about culture. And many world leaders have begun to recognise it; as Gordon Brown said, as Chancellor, the next international front will open up in a new theatre, a cultural one. And as at the turn of the 20th century the new millenium artists have already defined their place in the current watershed moment, Damien Hirst’s recent essays on value, Steve McQueen’s on our loss of moral compass and Zarina Bhimji’s explorations of post-colonial re-evaluations of the idea of exchange, have all said things
about the present period and posited predictions of the future more cogently than many financial specialists.
For individuals this period of economic instability has been reflective of the dramatic possibilities that have been afforded in the new fluidities of contemporary cultural identity and the dynamism of the cultural space in the digital age. These changes in the way that we communicate mean that citizens living in one region can choose to affiliate themselves to cultural communities on the other side of the earth in meaningful ways. The most forward thinking modern nation states have tried to work with that proclivity, giving people the flexible spaces to renegotiate new senses of themselves within their borders, knowing that the impending alternative will be to be overwhelmed by the change in the way that individuals consider identity. Today the discrete power of the individual can be conglomerated in ways that do not involve government, corporate finance or multi-nationals. We now, almost individually, have the power to create our own international platforms (and as Al Quaeda have shown) that can defy or even devastate the oldest cultures. It is a further erosion of established notions of modernity; increasingly there is no longer a single narrative into which to integrate, one interface through which to do it, no single belief system through which we must comply or participate, no single frame through which to read the world, no space in which we all feel a need to participate, in so many issues no absolute dualism of good and evil, no East and West, no Left and Right – but instead a complex sea of changing and intersecting sociologies that collide and collapse into each other. Individuals may decide to participate in debate at their own level of negotiation; permission to engage, or rules of engagement that no single agency can control. Governments cannot curate or legislate participation, as nations once did.
Today governments have to increasingly earn each citizen’s aspiration for political engagement. There has been something of an inversion of power within political relationships, governments must negotiate alliances with individuals – they can no longer simply demand loyalty and expect participation. It is states, their funding, cultural agencies and large corporations that need to think about how thay can be creative and flexible about building a dynamic interface to accommodate people’s sense of reengagement. In the new cultural landscape organizations have to find the language to sell fluid notions of inclusion into an open market, not just of nations, but of loose ideas and loyalties. Forward thinking government and business cannot afford to limit, to contain their citizens or customers’ sense of engagement in introspective conservative vision, the most flexible are learning from the radical commercial sector to open and embrace a wider notion of inclusivity and culture, building national and regional values, negotiated through citizens as an open proposition.
Augustus Casely-Hayford, King's College Institute Associate and a Research Associate at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), for Zamyn (2009)
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