I was reading The Location of Culture by Homi Bhabha this week, and in particular a chunk on mimickry and colonialism. Bhabha looks at the encouragement of mimickry as the way in which colonial powers export their practises to foreign cultures, such that they become almost-but-not-quite the same as the occupying power. They can mimick the occupier in dress, language and rituals, but only in an ironic somewhat ridiculous fashion; they are never granted the opportunity to become entirely identical with the coloniser, to the point of actual self-government. This strategy is born partly out of narcissism on the part of the colonial power, but also paranoia that the occupied culture might become sufficiently equipped in the techniques of its occupier as to become empowered and dangerous. Mimickry is then an ambiguous practise, that lies somewhere between identity and difference, neither complete independence nor complete subjugation. Which, I wonder, might potentially have interesting implications for how we think about intellectual property...
Western economies, and the US in particular, worked hard at exporting various aspects of capitalism over the second half of the twentieth century. The Marshall Plan included the introduction of Fordist management techniques into Western Europe, and the German and Japanese economies were purposefully built up, partly to protect them from communism, but also in order to generate a larger market for US goods. The template of capitalism had to be standardised, which required weaker countries to adopt certain habits. They were encouraged to borrow techniques and models from the Americans... yet only up to a point.
When the US economy started to struggle in the 70s, and the Japanese and the Germans began to overtake it in areas such as car production, there was suddenly far less value for the Americans in exporting their 'template'. The Japanese and Germans had gone from being willing students to threatening competitors, and the limits of mimickry had to be identified and imposed. In a less straight forward way, China would now be another example, although with the added fear factor that they were never deliberately trained in the ways of capitalism by the US, but borrowed the various bits that might be of value to them.
Perhaps intellectual property regulations can be understood as techniques for policing the distinction between those practises which can be safely exported (the Fordist corporate model; dollars as the currency of last resort; English; software standards) from those practises which may not be copied (distribution of content; developing software code; key scientific innovations). IP law stipulates that ‘you may copy our behaviour in all respects except these ones’. In Bhabha’s terms, powerful Western economies seek mimickry from emerging Eastern economies, which is both narcissistic and paranoid: they want competitors which look like them, but aren't actually as able as them, just as former colonial powers would dress their staff in smart western uniforms.
And anyone wanting an example, check this out: a European Parliament report poses the shocking hypothesis that the Chinese may one day be able to innovate, and not just produce!