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Delicious Doughnuts In Berlin: The Dilemma Of Political Community In the Age Of Global Capitalism

New cosmopolitanism and Islam are not so much two opposing answers to the dilemma of political community posed by capitalist globalization but reflections of capitalism's contradictory character.
John Brady

Issue #25, March 1996

The cosmopolitan may live all his life in one city and maintain the same citizenship throughout. But he refuses to think of himself as defined by his location or his ancestry or his citizenship or his language....He is a creature of modernity, conscious of living in a mixed-up world and having a mixed-up self.
— Jeremy Waldron, political philosopher.
Many Turks feel as if they were second class citizens. For this reason they are awakening and searching for their own values....One has to decide for or against Islam. Islam is the one and only true way.
— Meral, Turkish immigrant.
Who are we? Well, we aren't really Turks, and we aren't really Germans either. What's left then. The answer is: We are Muslims.
— Emir Ali Sag, social scientist, illustrating a common attitude among Turkish Muslim youth in Germany.
Capital's ceaseless striving towards the general form of wealth drives labor beyond the limits of its natural paltriness, and thus creates the material elements for the development of the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption, and whole labor also therefore appears no longer as labor, but as the full development of activity itself, in which natural necessity in its direct form has disappeared; because a historically created need has taken the place of the natural one.
— Karl Marx, troublemaker.

Each time I come to Germany, I am impressed by the degree to which German popular culture has increasingly become European and international in character. A number of years ago this new internationalism was most evident in the music world as Nirvana and grunge in general made their presence felt across Germany with a speed that was truly impressive. This past summer one could note the increasingly international flavor of advertising and TV news. English is frequently the language of choice in ads, and besides the regular German news programs it is now possible to sample a variety of news feeds from around Europe and, of all things, even possible to get NBC news. Most recently, I have witnessed the arrival of doughnuts in the Federal Republic.

Listening to the musical fruits of Northwest youth alienation or watching Willard Scott on the Today show in a German context may have produced mild forms of cultural dislocation in the past. But the appearance of doughnuts really shocked me. I would never have thought that something seemingly so American would arrive in Berlin, the capital city of a country where strudel and not the long john, to traffic in crass stereotypes, is the bedrock of the national coffeecake culture. Seeing doughnuts in Berlin gave rise to the question, what does it mean to eat doughnuts, a quintessential American snack, in a non-American setting? I want to use my answer to this question as a means to approach one of the more important issues of contemporary politics, namely the question of the relationship between the globalization of capitalism, the attendant global mobility of cultural products and the construction, through the use and consumption of such products, of new transnational social identities.

Globalization and Me: the Cosmopolitan Doughnut

I have to confess, I like doughnuts. Alot. The doughnut shop around the corner from my house in Oakland is one of my favorite neighborhood haunts. While I was preparing for my qualifying exams, I would make almost daily trips to Golden Gate doughnuts on 41st and Telegraph to sample their long johns, cake doughnuts and French curls. Such trips got me out of the house and into the neighborhood and thus provided a much needed break from the daily grind and isolation of exam preparation. And of course my daily trips also satisfied my material needs for doughnuts, a need that seems to assert itself whenever I have serious work to do.

Eating doughnuts isn't just about fulfilling my desire for sweets and my need to procrastinate, just as any act of consumption is never simply an instrumental exercise in need fulfillment. Through consumption we establish relationships and express, for example in our fashion choices, the need to belong. And so it is with buying doughnuts. Walking over to the doughnut shop is something of a nostalgia trip for me. It calls to mind my childhood where the trip to the doughnut shop was a frequent Saturday morning staple. Scarfing down a chocolate-covered cake doughnut with colored sprinkles allows me to wallow in sentiment and call forth rosy memories of childhood and home. In this it provides an outlet for feelings that are not necessarily tolerated in the academic environment in which I find myself. This learned milieu prides itself instead on a detached and critical worldliness that tends to scoff at such provincial and nostalgic yearnings for home and family that I allow myself while munching on a chocolate glazed.

But going down to the doughnut shop isn't just about romanticizing my childhood, it is also about the present and my relationship to my neighborhood. At the doughnut store, the various groups that give shape and life to North Oakland are represented. There I can observe the old men playing dominoes and chewing the political fat, the local Christian missionary trying desperately to convince the skeptical drifter of the necessity of Jesus' salvation, and the ubiquitous Keno players and their mostly vain attempts at capital accumulation through luck. I enjoy the trips to the doughnut store and the observation of such scenes because they provide me with a sense of belonging and participating in my neighborhood community, however subjective, illusory and naive such sentiments might be. Again, such experiences counterbalance my experience in the academic world, where relationships are marked by a high degree of transitoriness and any feeling of community, if one exists at all amidst the political infighting and intellectual pettiness at which scholars seem so gifted, is attenuated at best.

Eating doughnuts in Berlin is a different matter. Here it isn't so much about home or the neighborhood, but about being an American in an environment that I know well, but that still remains foreign and strange to me at times. By enjoying what seems so American in a non-American context, I can create a flexible social position between the German and American societies. Eating doughnuts is a release. For one moment I can remind myself of my Americaness and take a certain comfort in it, and then in the next moment go on negotiating my partial integration into German society. In both Oakland and Berlin I am faced with the challenge of defining my identity and negotiating my social position within the larger political community. Each location presents particular barriers to participation in society and admits of different degrees of social integration. Although its importance is slightly exaggerated here, the consumption of doughnuts is part of a catalogue of activities that make up the substance of these complex processes of integration in both places. What is important to note about this doughnut example is the flexibility with which a cultural product and article of consumption like the doughnut can be deployed in different processes of social identity definition. The doughnut as something typically American is not bound to its American context, but rather can cross borders and take on meaning for individuals outside of a purely American context. The doughnut has escaped its rather humble beginnings and grown beyond the seedy coffee shop, the police station and the trailer park to appear in new surroundings and generate new meanings. The doughnut, in short, has become cosmopolitan.

Cosmopolitanism and Fundamentalist Islam in the New Europe

The doughnut is not alone in its cosmopolitanism. In our age of global capitalism, cultural products, like financial capital, have become more and more autonomous from the national frameworks in which they were originally produced. Thus American hipsters consume Japanese animation and Hong Kong cinema and construct on the basis of their access to this cultural capital new social identities that are more cosmopolitan than they are American. The children of Turkish workers in Berlin borrow from American hip-hop and the American graffiti scene to create a new youth culture through which they both assert their position in the German public sphere and support a more or less stable social position in a hostile host society.

This globalization of culture has consequences for the definition of political community. For the past 250 years, the nation has been the primary form of community through which individuals have been integrated into liberal democratic society. Yet, the globalization of capital and the attendant globalization of culture have to a certain extent undermined the primacy of the nation as the foundation of political society. But if not the nation, then what form of community will provide the basis for politics in the future? This is the dilemma of globalization and in Europe today and a variety of solutions are being offered. The proposed solutions range from the revival of invidious nationalisms and ethnic particularism to the attempt on the part of European Union officials, through the sheer power of their bureaucratic will and mostly out of thin air, to create a new European identity. I would like to discuss two specific reactions to the dilemmas of globalization: the articulation of a new cosmopolitanism and the popularity of fundamentalist Islam in Europe. The two are interesting because they seem to propose two opposed solutions to the problems that globalization creates for the formation of political community. The new cosmopolitans, like Jeremy Waldron above, cautiously embrace globalization as the extension of modernity and political pluralism.

Fundamentalists, by contrast, are deeply suspicious of this new modernity and see its excesses as an indication of its de-humanizing essence. But not only to the neutral observer do the camps seem diametrical opposites. The self-understanding of each group is partially defined by its opposition to the other group. Thus, the new cosmopolitans, to exaggerate just a bit, consider themselves as the brave, and perhaps even virtuous defenders, of the liberal democratic tradition. They see in the rise of fundamentalism led by tyrannical Mullahs, who are not only religious but willing to say so publicly, one of the gravest threats to their prized democratic tradition. For the fundamentalists the opposite is true. In their eyes, modernity and globalization pretty much boil down to drugs, sex and cable TV, all of which lessen people's religious ardor and thus lead to almost certain doom.

It is worthwhile to take a somewhat more serious look at the differences between these two political tendencies, if we are to make sense of their simultaneous appearance on Europe's political stage. The cosmopolitan vision of the future is being articulated to different degrees in left-liberal intellectual circles, transnational political movements concerned with such issues as migration and racism and of course popular culture. As a vision of the political future, the new cosmopolitanism celebrates the possibilities of cultural and political pluralism. Political community, so the new cosmopolitans say, is not the result of membership in a nation or adherence to a particular religious tradition. Rather, it is based on notions of universal personhood. Individuals have rights and duties not because they are Germans or Turks, but because they are human beings. At the heart of this vision is the individual as a cultural chooser who confronts the uprootedness of our period and the collapse of national and other particular narratives of political belonging through the creation of hybrid identities that draw on various cultural and political influences.

Despite what most European politicians would have their constituencies believe, Islam cannot be reduced to fundamentalism and this should be kept in mind here. Islam is not a monolithic religious tradition and among its adherents in Europe there are divergent views as to its meaning and place in the political community. Middle-class members of the immigrant communities advocate a moderate vision of Islam in which it takes its place next to Catholicism and Protestantism in a religiously pluralistic Europe. Among working class immigrants, nationalist and fundamentalist visions of Islam are more popular. It is the later two views of Islam that stand in opposition to the new cosmopolitanism. For the advocates of Islamic fundamentalism, the answer to the dilemmas of globalization lie in the re-assertion of religious traditions and norms. For the fundamentalists, membership in society is established through adherence to a religious belief and the relationships between social groups are established and maintained by their religious and cultural heritages.

It is not only the opposition between fundamentalism and cosmopolitanism that is interesting, but also the fact that both share a common element: a post-national view of political solidarity. For the cosmopolitans, political community is a political construction that any one can take part in regardless of national or ethnic heritage. (Of course, such individuals also have to follow the cosmopolitan rule book, always act rationally, and, God forbid, not go to church too often.) For Islam, religious belief provides the basis for political community and this is independent of the national or ethnic membership of individuals. With respect to Islam this raises an interesting comparison to American politics. In the US over the past three decades a faction of Christian fundamentalists has successfully politicized Christianity and used it as the basic political ideology for a cross-class, national political movement. Not only have they created a strong oppositional movement but these Christians have also expanded the power of fundamentalism beyond its traditional Southern US environs and to the country as a whole. Likewise, Islam, with its transnational elements, has the potential to create an oppositional ideology and political solidarity between the immigrant sectors of the working-class throughout Europe. Whether this potential will be realized by Islam's adherents is an open, but nonetheless intriguing question.

Common Roots

What are we to make of cosmopolitanism and Islam as responses to the globalization of capitalism? To start with, I think it is a fundamental mistake to see what seem to be opposed political tendencies as actual opposites, as the representatives of two different kinds of political rationality. Rather, I think they can best be analyzed as — and here those dear readers who are averse to totalizing logic and anything that smacks vaguely of causality should probably stop reading — part of a more fundamental development, namely the further evolution of capitalism on a global scale and the contradictions such evolution implies. For this reason, we should not be surprised that both political tendencies share a transnational element; rather the presence of this element is an indication of the common roots of new cosmopolitanism and resurgent Islamic fundamentalism in globalization.

To a greater extent than any previous social system, capitalism simultaneously creates and undermines the conditions for the expansion of human freedom and community. The market expands the scope of possible human relationships by bringing individuals together who might otherwise have remained isolated from one another. Through their common productive and consumptive activities, these individuals both create a level of material security that frees them from the limits of simple natural need and provides them with the autonomy to define their wants and desires. All of these elements are important pre-requisites of a viable community of free and equal social individuals. Yet at the same time capitalism is also a system based on the unequal ownership of the means of production. The relationships of economic domination and political hegemony that result from such inequality impair the ability of individuals to realize the potential for freedom and community that capitalism holds out. Keeping the contradictory nature of capitalism in mind helps us to understand new cosmopolitanism and the resurgence of Islam in Europe. In the visions of the new cosmopolitans we can see the utopian possibilities of globalization. The increased global integration of the market, the extension of the cultural industry to the world level, the creation of a transnational communications system has the potential to create a truly global stock of cultural ideas and artifacts and thus lay the groundwork for the creation of political solidarity free of national resentments. Individuals need no longer be constrained by religious, ethnic or national traditions in the creation of their identity or in their integration into society. Globalization, in short, has created the material elements for the development of a new phase of 'rich individuality' and political community.

But the globalization of capitalism, while expanding the possible realm of human freedom and providing the basis for a new type of political community, continues to subject individuals to economic and political domination. The thirst for new products and new markets may have brought delicious doughnuts to Europe, but it has also exposed new groups to novel forms of alienation and fragmentation. The ability to construct a viable political community is thus undermined. Immigrant laborers and political refugees, one of the more visible signs of globalization, for example, continue to live at the margins of European society and their material, cultural, and spiritual needs remain unmet. The ethnic ghettos on the edges of Paris or the new ethnic hierarchies developing in Germany demonstrate the limits of the cosmopolitan vision. It is in this context that we must see the rising popularity of Islam. Religion can be a powerful device for coping with the contradictions of the material world and the belief in Islam provides its adherents with the means to compensate for the alienated conditions of their material existence.

In the end, the new cosmopolitanism and Islam are not so much two opposing answers to the dilemma of political community posed by capitalist globalization but reflections of capitalism's contradictory character. The left can learn from the presence of both political tendencies. On the one hand, the new cosmopolitanism can serve as the source of new normative ideas for the articulation of a genuinely global political culture, while on the other Islam can serve a reminder of the importance of the material conditions of such a future community. If capitalist globalization is to mean more than simply the ability to enjoy the pleasures of doughnuts in both Berkeley and Berlin, both aspects — the possibilities and constraints — of its development need to be kept in mind by the left, so that we can offer a hopeful vision of the future but also adequately address the real limits to political freedom and equality that individuals face in everyday life.

John Brady is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at UC-Berkeley. He is currently in Berlin doing research for his dissertation, which explores the construction of a new political consciousness in that city's Turkish community. Contact him by e-mail at the following internet address:

Copyright © 1996 by John Brady. All rights reserved.