In The Culture of Liberty, Mario Vargas Llosa asserts that modernization provides for a better quality of life. “That is why, when given the option to choose freely, peoples . . . opt for modernization without the slightest ambiguity.” Through modernization peoples can free themselves from unjust and stagnant traditions. It gives them a taste of the American dream, a chance to improve their lot in life, and a voice on the global stage. Modernization and globalization are inherently preferable to local economies and ways of life. For proof, you only need to look at how developing nations have embraced it.
Llosa’s explanation presumes that when a nation modernizes, it does so by choice. If a people really wanted to remain traditional, they could do so indefinitely. This explanation fails to acknowledge the role of international trade treaties like the World Bank. Over the past sixty years, these treaty organizations have used loan-sharking tactics to “open up” national economies and force them into the global market. This cycle has been noted repeatedly in documentaries like Life and Debt and Our Friends at the Bank. Faced with rising taxes and harsh austerity measures, people in developing nations have little choice. They sell their land, close their shops, and join the globalized work force.
At the same time, American media has spread to movie theaters and radio stations throughout the world. Hollywood films and pop music have become cultural ambassadors, and they illicit desires that local economies cannot meet, be it for fast cars, spacious houses, fashionable clothes, or American leisure. Other cultural values can also be conveyed through media, but non-American film makers are often ill prepared to compete. Given the millions of dollars that go into the production of a typical blockbuster, American media has become a dominant voice and it says the same thing in a thousand different ways: modernize and you will be as happy as a Hollywood film.
Although Llosa’s explanation is simplistic and overlooks how nations can be coerced into modernization, his emphasis does fall in the right place. A conversation about the ethics of modernization must consider the people’s will. Is modernization embraced because it truly brings about a better quality of life, or is it embraced because it is the only life raft in a man-made ocean.