Who in the United Nations’ Center on Transnational Corporations had the silly idea of commissioning two separate reports on the “positive” and “negative” sociocultural impact of transnational firms on developing countries? And how much time and money were spent on the writing and publication of what is essentially a tired rehash of the now largely passé debate of a decade or more ago?
Transnationals and the Third World is the case for the negative. Armand Mittelart seems to have been chosen to write it because of his co-authorship, in the early 1970s, of “How to Read Donald Duck,” an analysis of the negative cultural images transmitted by Disney films and associated enterprises. True to the terms of his charge, Mittelart has written a completely one-sided, biased, and ideological tract that argues by assertion and citations from a wide variety of secondary sources. The only original research he did, an evaluation for the government of Mozambique of an experimental television program that was to encourage local participation and promote freedom from “the whole system of cultural dependence,” is discussed for two and a half pages, while earlier similar experiments in Tanzania get exactly one sentence. For the rest, it is the familiar litany. The transnationals monopolize television, advertising, publishing, news, food production, and pharmaceuticals in the Third World. They transmit cultural models that are individualistic, materialist, consumerist, and reflect the values of the developed countries. All this is “imposed” on the Third World through “the incorrect use of information” as part of “the outside development model that corresponds to the logic of expansion of transnational capital.”
The alternative is a policy of “self-reliance” that will “overthrow the established hierarchy of needs that have [sic] inspired universal industrialization strategies and recognize “food, clothing, housing, health, education, self-fulfillment and participation as fundamental needs.” Just how this is to be done is never clear, except that it seems to involve a great deal of public regulation, and, more likely, state ownership. The various international codes of conduct are seen as ineffective, and even the New International Information Order, Mittelart recognizes, can be used by authoritarian regimes—the dominant political form in the Third World to impose more rigid political control.
Because of its superficial and scatter-shot approach, the book never gets at the basic issues involved in the controversies relating to the cultural impact of transnationals. What are the areas where public control should be exerted over private economic activities—and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each? (The debt crisis has suddenly forced many countries to take another look at the transnationals as sources of investment capital, shared risk, and technological innovation.) How best can governments promote national culture, and what is the appropriate mix of national and international education? (The regulations on television imposed by the military government of Peru, which Mittelart praises, only produced endlessly boring hours of native folkdancing.) How does one avoid imposing one’s own cultural preferences on the people in the name of defending national values against the onslaught of Disney, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola? (Inca Cola in Peru was undrinkable, and the Mexicans have still not applied their legislation mandating the mexicanization of brand names.) This book is no help in answering these important questions.