Cultural diversity

Publications and Studies

“Culture: A single solution—the cultural exception”

Alternatives internationales, Juillet-août 2005 – p. 36-39 – 2005/07-08

Monthly magazine Alternatives internationales has published a feature issue on culture under the evocative title: “Demain, tous américains?” (Will we all be Americans tomorrow?). The special issue looks at topics like the cultural identity of peoples, concentration in the cultural industry, global domination by the majors, and the threat to artistic pluralism posed by profit-driven market logic. It explains “good reasons for being afraid”: the flood of American TV and the invasion of “Planet Globalwood.” The seven articles on culture also include an interview by Sandrine Tolotti with Jean-Michel Baer, adviser to the president of Arte and former director of culture and audiovisual at the European Commission, and Jean-Pierre Warnier, professor of ethnology at Université Paris V, in which they affirm that the only viable solution for culture is the exception.

Asked whether the adoption of the draft convention by UNESCO member states means that cultural pluralism is under threat from globalization, they warn that the pluralism of artistic expression could be severely undermined by the capitalist logic taking hold in the cultural industry. “‘Market logic’ channels investments to productions expected to turn a profit at the expense of sectors and works with less immediate economic prospects—with everything that this entails in terms of standardization […]. Yet cultural goods are not products like any other. The economic theory of comparative advantage […] that underlies free trade and the WTO makes no sense when applied to culture.”

Moreover, in this era of globalization, they point out that the issue of culture is first and foremost a matter of global politics. Over the course of the past decade or more, the “cultural exception” has emerged as the dividing line between two conceptions. The first, initially championed in Europe, has won over the vast majority of countries on the planet: Culture must be exempt from ordinary trade law. The second is incarnated by the United States, which is largely isolated on this issue: Culture is a commodity like any other.” During the final phase of the Uruguay Round trade negotiations in 1993, American representatives demanded that liberalization be extended to the audiovisual sector. The European Union played a key role in blocking this “commodification” of culture, which would have had devastating consequences for audiovisual promotion and support mechanisms. But as the authors point out, the U.S. never misses an opportunity to pick up the fight, and the combat is intense at the WTO, where talks on the next phase of liberalization in trade in services are underway. “The EU has made no offers to liberalize the audiovisual sector and has not filed any request in this sense with its partners. But even though 130 of the 148 WTO member countries share the view that culture is not a commodity, the EU has nonetheless received requests for liberalization in the audiovisual sector from countries like Brazil, China, India, Mali, Peru, Jordan, Korea, Taiwan, and Mexico. “It is time,” say the authors, “to ask whether we want UNESCO to do something useful.”

However, they observe that more and more voices are speaking out for cultural diversity within governments and civil society alike. It is this support that has led to the draft convention, “the challenge being to confront the hegemony of a liberalized market and of local authorities with little respect for minorities or freedom of information to ensure that the world’s peoples enjoy free access to cultural goods.” They add that the draft convention adopted on June 3 holds out considerable promise, even though the United States, in its anger, will do everything it can between now and the October General Conference to secure amendments, […] particularly to article 20, which stipulates that the UNESCO convention is not subordinate to other treaties. In other words, cultural diversity will benefit from a legal instrument that shelters cultural policy from all attempts at liberalization.”

At the same time, the authors argue that the defense of cultural diversity is not a new form of protectionism in disguise. States may conserve the right to forge cultural policy, but the battle over content and the significance of cultural diversity has yet to be waged. There can be no future for cultural diversity without exchange, intercultural dialog, and sharing. “The nations of the South do not always understand the European position, and often view the diversity issue as smokescreen that the rich nations hide behind to protect their markets. If we do nothing to prove them otherwise, many will succumb to the siren song of bilateral trade negotiations with the U.S. and open up their cultural markets in exchange for American investment.” [05-22]