2006/11/17 - Keynote at The National Library Board

Is culture a commodity ?
Keynote Address by Pierre Buhler, Ambassador of France to Singapore,
at the Knowledge Leadership Series, The National Library Board,
“Free Trade agreement : implications, issues and challenges
for the Media, Culture & Heritage Industries”,
Singapore, November 17, 2006

First of all, I would like to thank you for this invitation, which gives me an opportunity to offer a European – or French, rather - point of view on an issue which has been sometimes hot, sometimes dormant, but which is always lingering, whenever a new round of trade talks is in sight, or when some other legal international agreement is being negotiated. To put it plainly, this issue boils down to a basic one : culture and trade, culture and commerce, culture and business.

Culture and politics

So what does this notion, the notion of culture, encompass? It covers huge territory, for under culture you will find such various features as the arts, language, the crafts, both creation and tradition, more often than not intertwined with national identity, religious identity, ethnic identity, etc. You will find culture equated with historical legacy, heritage and even civilization. But above all, culture is also, and very much so, a political notion, heavily loaded with such notions as identity, memory, nation, collective self-esteem. One should never underestimate how strongly the very concept of the nation, the most powerful entity of our times, is rooted in history, founding myths, identity and culture – which, in many respects, is the glue that binds the nation.
No wonder then that in the formative phases of the nation-state, in 19th century Europe, governments and politicians have been eager to mobilize culture as a highly efficient tool to knit together sometimes elusive communities behind such abstractions as a flag, patriotism, and even nationalism. They did it in the first instance through education, schooling, the unification of language and support for the arts. The same stands true for later nation-building ventures in the 20th century.
So, basically, the picture we have here is that of a culture widespread throughout a whole society, certainly attracted by power - and wealth, but much more so, and in a resolute and proactive way, when the states entered their nation-state building phases.
Now, on the other hand, trade is also part of life, and certainly no less so than culture. It has sprouted in every society, on every continent. And as he tried to identify the roots of capitalism, French historian Fernand Braudel noted that trade had, during the Middle Ages, become “the liaison, the engine, the narrow but vivid zone wherefrom the forces of life, the novelty, the initiatives, the growth and even progress would spring ”. Ideas, works of art, crafts, books have thus circulated or spread throughout the world more often as a result of supply and demand phenomena than at the tip of a bayonet. But arts and culture have also blossomed at times when patrons of the arts – be they kings, princes, sultans, popes, aristocrats, tycoons and robber barons - commissioned work, supported artists, bought art and so forth.

Early skirmishes

A quite diverse landscape, for sure, hardly lends itself to be squeezed into a single, plain, mechanical economic model. It is rather, a landscape which is constantly altered, remodeled, reconstructed by powerful market forces. Let me just offer two historical illustrations of this tension, both linked with the movie industry, both tied to the rise of America in the wake of the two World Wars. After WWI we have the USA emerging as a political, economic and military power, and cinema taking off as an industry, combining artistic input with steady technological progress. This prompted French producer Charles Pathé to express the fear that “the USA, with their infinite possibilities, might grab the world market of cinema, probably for ever”.
And his prophecy seemed on the verge of fulfillment in the wake of WWII, at a time when the European national cinemas were weakened by the war, and when the American majors, which had churned out about 400 films during the war years, were in desperate need of access to the European market, lobbying hard for the US government to get it. And so in May 1946, the French government signed an agreement with the American Secretary of State Byrnes, guaranteeing such an access to our market. With quotas, for sure, but quite generous ones. This in turn prompted a call to arms within the French establishment. Was not that agreement the death knell of French cinema? A number of prominent voices campaigned vociferously against it. And Louis Jouvet, an actor and luminary of French theater and cinema, even made history with this famous remark : “the alteration of the taste would be irremediable and fatal. Our stomachs, grown up with Bordeaux wine, will have to get used to Coca-Cola. This is tantamount to abdicating our quality of Frenchmen”.
The upheaval was so overwhelming that at the end of the day, the government had to withdraw its agreement and renegotiate it, settling for lower US film quotas and the creation of a special cinema support fund fostered by a tax on every movie ticket. But the story does not stop here, for the UK and Italy, in a situation similar to France’s, were able, a couple of years later, to extract the same concessions from the United States. And this is why French, Italian and British cinemas were, for decades, among the most robust national cinemas in Europe.

“Culture Wars”

Actually the status quo lasted till the late 80s, when the EC intended to organize the European market of TV programs, with quotas for European creation and a support fund in favor of such works. It was a conspicuous attempt to erect a wall against the invasion of American programs, already amortized on the huge domestic market, and therefore offered at discount prices. Now the call to arms came from the other side of the Atlantic and we had a new “culture wa”r going on, with such arguments as “the cultural exception” vs. the “free flow of goods and ideas”, which was one of the main goals of the “Uruguay Round” which ended in 1993. True, the successive technological breakthrough and especially the digital revolution have upset, to say the least, the comfort of the status quo.
But what has not been settled is where the boundaries should be drawn between the realm of commerce, free trade and business on the one hand, and culture, art, heritage, on the other. The dispute about where these boundaries run is on-going in the negotiating arenas of global governance. Actually, its focus is not so much on such forms as the performing arts or the visual arts, heritage institutions or museums, public libraries or monuments. Nobody seriously argues these should fall in the realm of the market, auctioned to private companies to operate. Sometimes theatres happen to be private, sometimes they are private and not-for-profit, sometimes run or subsidized by the State. Hardly a voice can be heard for that scheme to be dismantled and opened up to the market. For in most cases, there is not much profit to be made.
Where the issue has become a hot talking point is when art meets industry, when a film or a TV program reaches millions of viewers, when the financial stakes are huge, when powerful special interests weigh in. This is where the legitimacy of governments to protect national industry is the most challenged. This is where the boundaries between culture and business, between art and commodity become the most controversial. Where do we draw those boundaries ?

Culture as a public good

I believe the question cannot boil down to an artificial – and sterile - opposition between two irreconcilable schemes, “immaculate” culture vs. “dirty” commerce. This is nonsense. Let us rather view it in a broader prospective and introduce the notion of public goods. As you know, a public good is a good whose consumption by everybody else does not subtract significantly from your own consumption of that good. Books and treatises have been written to discuss such issues, but the notion is rather commonsense : whether it is national security or environment, whether it is freedom or justice, whether it is public health or basic education, no serious observer, or politician has tried to make the case for leaving it up to the market to ensure the efficient allocation of these goods.
What about culture and heritage? My answer is definitely yes. They also fall within this definition, they also belong to the realm of public goods. Their consumption by one individual does not diminish the consumption by other individuals. But one can argue, and rightly so, that culture is an abstract and all-encompassing notion. For a public good is normally non-excludable, i.e. you cannot exclude individuals from its consumption. In the case of law and order or national security, the point is obvious. In the case of culture it is much more debatable : for you have to buy a ticket to go to see a movie or to visit a museum. So it is not what economists will call a pure public good.
Is it still a public good ? Everyone is entitled to his own opinion about the issue, individuals as well as states. And the states started to ask themselves that question in the late 90s, at a time when the 1994 GATT agreement was step by step encompassing in its realm the exchange of cultural goods and services, which no provision would exclude. There was actually a special regime known under the name “cultural exception”, which allowed for time-limited or temporary exceptions to a general rule of free circulation of all goods and services. A very fragile dam, indeed, in the face of the next wave of liberalization. This is what first prompted some countries with strong opinions about this question to open the debate, and to launch a discussion on substance. Intriguingly, this was neither a Franco-German venture, nor an EU endeavor. As you probably know, culture does not, broadly speaking, fall under European jurisdiction ; only audiovisual industries are being regulated on a pan-European basis, through a directive on TV endorsed in the late 80s and which set the rules for the upcoming single market. Among them, most notably, minimal broadcasting quotas for European creation in each other’s programs, as well as support mechanisms for TV creation. But basically Europeans were less united in their views on how culture should be distinguished from commerce than on many other issues. And therefore French attempts to that end would most often be met with a yawn.
This is why the meeting of minds occurred not among EU countries, but between France and two countries most directly exposed to have their national culture crushed by the American steamroller, Mexico and even more stringently Canada. And it is together with Canada that France embarked on that journey armed With a method and with a goal. The method, in a nutshell : rather than try to save shrinking spaces of national cultures from the assaults of the marketplace, why not define in the first instance a regime protecting those cultures in their formidable yet threatened diversity? The goal would be, after several non-binding declarations in various fora, a treaty, legally-binding, no less authoritative than other international agreements such as GATT, a treaty negotiated and drafted within the most relevant and legitimate international body, the United Nations, and namely its culture branch, UNESCO, with its large membership.

The UNESCO Convention on cultural diversity

To make a long story short, and to cut through all the diplomatic turns and twists of lengthy procedures, let me just sum it up by noting that this effort has come to fruition on October 20th, 2005, when the General Assembly of UNESCO adopted by an landslide majority, a “convention on the protection and promotion of cultural diversity”. 148 voted in favor - 96% of the voting states -, 2 against & 4 abstentions. Only two votes were cast again : one by the USA, the other one by Israel, for reasons which obviously were not linked to the merits of the issue. I should add that this document has been agreed upon in a lightning mode, i.e. in 2 years only, which is an astoundingly short period of time for an instrument of that magnitude, and even more given the novelty of the concepts introduced. This could happen through the mobilization of a number of states from both North and South, international organizations (and you may be interested to know that the Asia-Europe Meeting has also endorsed the principles spelt out in the convention) and, moreover, of a great number of NGOs, networks, advocacy groups. A total of several hundred organizations which campaigned and lobbied hard at the governments for those 2 years. I even used the negotiation of this Convention as a case study in diplomacy of influence when I was teaching a graduate class on IR.
So what does this Convention entail?
-  it states that cultural diversity forms a common heritage of humanity and should be preserved for the benefit of all,
-  it entails the sovereign right of each nation to “design and implement their cultural policies and to adopt measures to protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions”. These policies comprise “regulatory measures”, subsidies, support for non-profit organizations, for public institutions, for artists, support for the teaching of arts in schools, broadcasting quotas of diffusion of national works on the radio or on television, screen quotas for movie films , flat price for books and so on. In fact, whatever fosters cultural diversity. France provides a good example of such policies. In Asia, Korea is today also a model example Believe it or not, in just 10 years, the domestic market share of Korean films jumped from 16% to a spectacular 50% and Korean films started to receive many awards in such prestigious international festivals, such as Cannes and Venice.;
-  last, but not least, the convention has extensive language on international cooperation, especially geared towards the needs of the developing countries and their right to special treatment aimed at buttressing cultural diversity.
So we find here both the definition of a public good, and a statement on the ways and means to provide it.
The reasons for its successful passing are threefold and innovative in every respect :
-  first the method in itself was exemplary : a strategic alliance between some governments and civil society (i. e. in our case numerous professional associations) ;
-  secondly, the tactics turned from defensive to offensive – dropping the defensive notion of “cultural exception” and moving towards the creation of a whole body of norms, legal norms, autonomous from any other body of norms and no less legitimate than the norms of the market or free trade ;
-  thirdly, the choice has been made to transcend the issue of culture vs. commerce – previously framed in terms of a transatlantic quarrel of European protectionism vs. predatory appetites of American majors – to become a more universal one of culture as an integral part of development.
The relative ease with which it was passed may be ascribed to its timeliness, and its ability to garner a rather broad consensus. There was possibly also a vague feeling that not much was really at stake here. I challenge this latter view. For, basically, what this convention provides is a legal basis standing on its own for cultural policies to be conducted in the way a nation sees proper. This is not to say, of course, that each nation is compelled to do anything specific to preserve or promote cultural diversity. But it means that each country or state is entitled to implement cultural policies of its choosing regardless of what other norms may be invoked. That no country will have to bend to injunctions to dismantle this or that cultural policy on behalf of trade-related norms. That each signatory will have more arguments to resist the inevitable pressures of more powerful partners in bilateral dealings, particularly when free-trade agreements are being discussed. Basically, it means that culture is not a commodity and does not fall under the rules agreed upon among nations for commodities. And under culture one obviously needs to also understand the more contentious spheres of the audiovisual industries and everything falling under the name of culture industries.
The Convention will come into effect once ratified by at least 30 States. 20 countries had ratified it as of today, including France. And the same network of civil society which had been mobilized to prompt the quasi-unanimous adoption of the convention is now lobbying governments to expedite the process of ratification in each country. For both the efficiency and the legitimacy of this new instrument are contingent upon its rapid gearing up – i.e., in this case, reaching a critical mass of ratifications, (50-60) for its organs to be set up and its first conference to be convened in the fall of 2007, when UNESCO holds its biennial General Assembly.
This development becomes all the more significant when we know that the USA has not disarmed in front of the massive signature rally and is, by its own admission, deterring weaker states from ratifying it or hollowing out, through bilateral FTA negotiations. So, as a whole, it would certainly be wishful thinking to believe that having a legal instrument will be a robust protection against uniformity. The struggle for diversity is not over.

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What is important to keep in mind is that this tug-of-war has been, in the first instance, prompted mainly by the appetite of American studios and major companies for a share of the European film market, of which they had already a lion’s share of almost 70 %, and which obviously was not enough. It had to be a predatory ” “90 plus” %
What is important to keep in mind here is that pluralism and diversity are, in the field of culture, a public good, worthy of stewardship. A similar move has been made in environmental matters, in favor of biodiversity. Cultural diversity is certainly no less a benefit to mankind than is natural diversity.

Dernière modification : 15/01/2010

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