Global Policy Forum

The Hidden Dimensions of Globalization:


By Jean Tardif

May 29, 2002

Beyond "cultural exceptionalism" toward a World Cultural Council?

It is much too soon to know whether September 11, 2001 will change the world as much as the fall of the Berlin Wall has, but it has unquestionably brought home very important dimensions of globalization. In particular, the shock has raised questions about global management of the relationships between diverse cultures and societies and about the media as channels of globalization. Should cultural industrialization, led by a small number of large media conglomerates radically change the ways we think about managing cultural relationships? What might be the conditions that would allow these relationships to become genuine dialogues between cultures that are equal in dignity, if not in resources?

What is at Stake in Global Dynamics: Three Key Issues

Since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia national territories have been the foundation of international relations based on relationships between sovereign states. Today's global dynamics more and more transcend this interstate model, however. Not everything is nor will everything be globalized. Globalization does nonetheless constitute the structuring process for key sectors of contemporary activity, constraining us to rethink the relationships between territory and security – its geopolitical stakes – and between territories and economies – its geoeconomic stakes. Quite as important, it is changing relationships between territory, cultures and the representations of them that we have.

September 11 revealed many things, but prominent among them, alongside economics and security, was the ineffectiveness of the interstate system in managing relationships between societies and cultures. Socio-cultural realities no longer coincide with the borders of nation-states. The consequences of this can be seen in the prominence of cultural reactions to 11 September, the difficulties of Europeans in articulating national identities with European integration and the many struggles about identity that we observe around the globe. Cultural questions have political dimensions that cannot be reduced to artistic matters or to cultural "products."

Globalization obliges us to find new responses to the fundamental political issues of, "what should we do, what can we do, what do we want to do, together locally, nationally and, more and more, extra-nationally – regionally, globally?" The demands of democracy don't stop at national borders. Asking such basic questions prods us to recognize that the national project is not finished and may still serve as the most appropriate place to organize societies and exercise citizen responsibilities. This national project , along with the roles of the national state, needs to be redefined and articulated with political projects at other levels, most notably the extra-national. This is clearly true for security and economics, but it is also the case for cultures, seen as the collective representations that societies make expressed through shared values and cultural products. Answers to these new questions will not always be the same. Globalization brings a post-western era which can only be organized in "geometrically variable" ways.

How Does Globalization Affect Relationships Between Societies and Cultures?

Internally Recent events, particularly in Europe, demonstrate clearly that many, if not most, countries must find new ways to manage relationships within their populations, whether through new policies of multiculturalism or other methods of integration that bring changes in national identities. These are very important matters indeed, but they concern internal sovereignty, and are not part of the discussions about cultural pluralism that our Forum should address. It is instead at the extra-national level (rather than "supranational" or "post-national") that issues relating territories and cultures in new ways present the most urgent challenges.

Samuel Huntington contends that the national interest of a nation is a function of its identity, whose cultural dimensions evolve over time. The quest for identity – or the need for recognition – is constant over history and is not reducible to national projects alone. Instead, it is one component of global dynamics. Since cultures do not necessarily coincide with national boundaries, contemporary realpolitik must deal with the complex realities of what Vacla Havel calls "cultural spheres."

Can we specify the concrete bases of identities, and of cultural pluralism, for the global era ? Realism demands recognizing a dialectical reality involving multiple ways of belonging. We need to understand that the divers foundations of identities come on an ever-changing spectrum ranging on one side from country-cultures (Japan, Denmark, China…) through cultural spheres (the Arab world, for example) and linguistic-cultural areas (francophonie and its Spanish and Portuguese equivalents) to Hollywood "world culture" (the McWorld of Benjamin Barber) on the other. Each of these different definitions expresses particular changing realities of global dynamics with which we must come to grips to establish effective global governance in the cultural sphere. In this light, to give but one example, citizen in European countries might have different centers of interest, poles of identification and constantly changing engagements at city, national, EU, and linguistic levels and be asked to exercise rights and assume responsibilities at each level depending upon the circumstances.

The Strategic Nature of Relationships Between Societies and Cultures

It is as important for a society and culture as it is for a country to see its language, values and views of the world shared and carried by others. Understanding these things as "geocultural stakes" gives strategic importance to relationships between cultures and societies comparable to those involved in geo-security and geo-economic matters. It is thus curious to note that cultural matters, dissociable from identity issues, are quite absent from contemporary strategic debates, including those about the consequences of globalization.

The one possible exception to this may be the United States which has long recognized that its images and visions of the world are central to its international power. In the words of James Rubin " in terms of military capacity, economic strength and the power of our ideas and culture, we are the only superpower in the world." The Americans have thus been successful in supporting firms that can profitably disseminate American images, ideas and values throughout the world. They have understood that the best ways to sell themselves is to create desires and dreams. We cannot reproach Americans for their ability to sell their cultural products and make them an instrument of power. But we must remember that, we are not only talking about trade. Recent political speeches by American leaders clearly demonstrate a strategic vision in which cultural values are central. However much culture exists in the sphere of the symbolic, it also includes quite specific political dimensions.

Some observers have begun to worry that legitimate American responses to September 11 could tempt the US toward the new imperial system theorized by Huntington as uni-multipolar world. This danger emanates less from a particular country than from a system. We have been worried for some time about the homogenization that globalization might bring to world economic space. But, as Claude Nicolet has noted, "whether or not there is a desire for hegemony, the greatest danger of imperialism is in the cultural sphere." The spread of languages and cultures have less to do with their intrinsic virtues than with the underlying power that promotes them. Is it acceptable toady that relationships between societies and cultures depend primarily on the objectives demands of what Jeremy Rifkin calls "cultural capitalism?"

Industries of The Imagination

We must recognize that relationships between cultures and societies are no longer mediated primarily by states. Is it acceptable that they are now submitted to market rules, to the goals of profitability and more and more oriented to the homogenization of products created in the few huge studios that manufacture the world's dreams? Today it is the media, the primary channels for cultural globalization, that are at the heart of issues about cultural pluralism, given their economic power and their influence on our symbolic order . Technological development has made cultural exchanges continuous at planetary level with unprecedented rapidity and amplitude. There are vast new possibilities for the enrichment of different cultures in this. But these possibilities cannot be realized in a situation where the imbalance in cultural exchanges is too large. Much of humanity is not yet caught up in these new cultural patterns, but unbalanced and unequal media flows could reduce cultures that cannot find their own places in cyberspace to a peripheral status. It is impossible to ignore the threat of cultural Darwinism promoted by a market controlled by a few groups operating on global level and which privilege the marketization of culture and for-profit cultural products that use diversity as an exploitable resource in ways that might lead to domination by a globalizing hyperculture.

The industrialization of culture has consecrated the economic dimensions of cultural exchange and practices that justify huge global firms. According to the president of ATT, such firms should meet the imperatives of "ubiquity" that include access for clients everywhere in the world plus appropriate infrastructures and products for doing so. The firms themselves claim that freedom of direct foreign investment and access to markets justify keeping their transnational strategies free from national regulation. All of this allegedly justifies the size, concentration and vertical integration of firms.

This is the schema that has prevailed in the cultural sector, which has the highest level of economic growth of any and which is displacing aerospace as America's largest exporter. It is not surprising that corporate cultural interests have sought to make the opening of markets their top priority in the WTO and to insist that the rules that apply to merchandise trade should apply to the "cultural market." In consequence, the real struggle of those who defend cultural diversity now must take place, like it or not, around the vertical integration and concentration of firms, even within the European Union.

Oligopolized structures like those of the media would be questionable in any economic sector, including electronics, but it is unacceptable in the cultural sphere. This is the case from an economic point of view since we are dealing with industries with great economies of scale: a film costs no more to produce for a million spectators than for ten thousand. It is above all true because the media don't produce ordinary products, but concepts, values and visions of the world that circulate directly and continuously over the airwaves and screens of the entire planet. Thus the term "industries of the imagination" (P. Flichy) rather than cultural industries better captures the fact that culture cannot be reduced to the exchange of digital bits and entertainment products, even if all of this takes place and evolves in a universe of communications. David Putnam, former president of Columbia Pictures, noted that "some people are trying to convince us that films and television are economic sectors like any other. This is not true. They shape attitudes, create new notions of style and behavior and, in doing so, reaffirm or discredit larger social values…A film can either reflect or undercut our sense of identity as individuals or as citizens of nations."

Cultural identities are now largely created by media detached from territorial constraints and in trade in cultural goods and services. This is why, as with all oligopolies, large inequalities in cultural exchanges are unacceptable. If countries can invoke the defense of national industry to impose quotas on importing steel and agree to "voluntary restrictions" on the export of Japanese cars to Europe on economic grounds, are not measures to ensure minimal reciprocity in cultural matters a fortiori justifiable, particularly since values are at stake. Today, in European countries, screens are filled with anything from 65 to 85% of foreign products. This is not simply a matter of commercial imbalance, but primarily of relationships between cultural and social values with impacts that cannot be overestimated. Researchers at Columbia University, reporting a seventeen year study conducted on 707 families, concluded that television plays a significant role in the development of aggression in adolescents and adults. Answering only a single question should convince about cultural imbalance: "Where do the values, dreams and heroes of young people in Japan, Cameroon, Germany or Brazil come from….from local literature and culture, or from screens?"

Beyond "Cultural Exceptions:" Promoting Cultural Pluralism

Faced with the efforts of big firms to liberalize the "cultural market," some groups have succeeded in mobilizing support and convincing states to retain prerogatives over cultural policies and refuse to liberalize markets in cultural goods and services through the WTO. Defending cultural diversity seems today to be a recognized objective and negotiating position for the EU, despite divergent national positions. Is this any different from the "cultural exception" of 1993 which M-O. Padis asked whether it was a "way to exclude goods that belong in different universes of value from the market or to organize the market in ways to make the French cultural industry competitive." (Esprit, mars-avril 2002, 38). This idea has had the merit of allowing states to abstain from commitments to liberalize cultural markets within the WTO. Without abandoning it, we need to question its effectiveness with regard to the goals that have been claimed for it. Can the "cultural exception," a barrier without real legal weight, work as a Maginot line in the face of the technological progress and liberalization of telecommunications markets that is well under way within the WTO. These convergent trends create new constraining conditions that will render national measures beside the point and have even greater consequences than new negotiations on services. What can a small producer do when faced by a conglomerate that can open a film on 900 screens in one country in a day?

Tying the defense of cultural diversity to the power of states to define their own cultural policies neglects the fact that national policies cannot be effective if they are not backed by some instance that can govern trans-national cultural exchanges effectively. It is thus clear that the future of cultural pluralism will be decided at transnational levels. It is important to abandon the political schizophrenia allowing governments to support a powerless Unesco declaration defending cultural diversity while they simultaneously sdopt WTO measures leading to cultural liberalization. Geo-cultural issues need to be put on the same level as geo-political and geo-ececonomic ones. We need to extract relationships between societies and cultures from the economism that today dominates the world system. We need, therefore, to formulate goals to allow us to go beyond "cultural exceptions" and affirm the primacy of the social-cultural dimensions of human exchange.

What is most important to defend, the exceptional status of cultural goods, the maintenance of the status quo in relationships between governments and audiovisual producers, or the effective definition of conditions promoting real pluralism? To respond clearly it is useful to make a distinction between diversity and pluralism. Diversity is the premise of everything that lives, including human beings, one of the givens of nature. The physical ecosystem is something that evolves. The human ecosystem, in contrast, is the product of choice. Cultural pluralism is not a reified thing, nor is it a "global public good." It is instead the consequence of constant individual and collective choices, an affair of the will that refuses homogenization. Defending and promoting cultural pluralism is thus not defending a past and impossible status quo, cultural relativism or exceptional rules for cultural goods and services. Instead it is defending a reasoned expansion of the right to exercise individual and collective choices in conditions of sufficient autonomy in the absence of external constraints or conditions limiting its scope, including the possibilities for producing and exchanging diverse forms of cultural expression. This is a primordial issue for human development, a universal struggle whose adversary is a hegemony that is unacceptable when its touches the imaginary or seeks to instrumentalize cultures in the service power. Cultural pluralism is a fundamental political principle of world order and thereby one of the priorities of global governance.

What is at Stake in Geo-cultural Relations, Global Governance and Democracy

What are the practical consequence of these claims? How can geo-cultural matters of cultural pluralism be given the place they deserve in global governance? Given the role of the media in interactions between cultures, how can we reconcile the utilitarian logic of markets with the logics of identities in an exchange regime adapted to actual global dynamics? How can we reconcile the roles of different actors in the cultural sphere? How can we prepare and legitimate the decisions that we need to take on such trans-national issues?

Global governance is no longer a simple extension of the Wesphalian interstate system. It cannot be achieved by a utopian world government or parliament. It cannot happen through state regulation either. Governance, which is not a synonym for government, might be defined as the art of associating different concerned actors – since the state is no longer the only actor – in the articulated and coherent exercise of mutual responsibilities. This kind of governance must consider geo-political and geo-economic issues while also seeing relationships between societies and cultures not as fault lines, but as spaces for real dialogue and responsible exchange that cannot be reduced either to trade or power.

The public demonstrations of protest that now accompany international summits underline the democratic deficit in decisions taken at extra-national levels by delegates from states who have usually not asked for or received explicit mandates from their peoples for secretly negotiating treaties that often will prove more constraining for citizens than most national laws. It is a matter of urgency to re-found the legitimacy of extra-national decisions through genuine prior debates open to all actors involved in the issues. Despite many initiatives, there is today no existing Forum that moves beyond a dialogue of the deaf and episodic consultation to begin processes of genuine concertation. It is necessary to innovate in these debates by using the possibilities offered by the Internet. This is what PlanetagorA, an international association, desires to do in organizing a "Forum for Concertation on Cultural Pluralism" to structure public discussion among key players, including public officials, civic and social actors, firms and experts. The purpose is not the abstract discussion of culture, but rather to clarify issues of cultural pluralism in the information and globalization era in order to develop realistic proposals that might then be submitted to existing political instances for implementation.

To situate these debates it might be useful to consider one hypothesis. Might not a new, original regime be established outside the WTO to consider the particularities of trade and interaction between cultures? Such a regime would consider measures flowing from five basic ways of reconciling the different logics of markets and identities: carefully managed market opening; multi-functionality; responsibility; the precautionary principle; and reciprocity. To provide for practical responses we might also consider the creation of a mixed Fund. This regime could eventually become a new kind of political jurisdiction, a World Cultural Council, constituted following the quadripartite formula of the Forum and functioning on principles of co-decision and co-regulation by the different responsible actors.

The Forum's debates will go forward through multiple cycles with results to be presented at several important international meetings: The October 2002 Summit of the leaders of 55 francophone countries whose general theme will be cultural dialogue; the Summit on the "Information Society" to be held in Geneva in 2003; and the World Cultural Forum in Barcelona in 2004.

The challenges of cultural pluralism are no less important than those facing European integration. It is a matter of learning to live together not in a uni-multipolar world, but in pluralist arrangements that correspond to the realities of the human ecosystem. We need to find ways to ensure balanced exchanges between societies and cultures that are equal in dignity and able to reflect critically and honestly on their values, practices and adaptation to changing world conditions. To live together neither building walls nor trade are enough. Cultural security is as important as physical and economic security. We must find ways to respect identities as multiple ways of living with modernity and the human condition.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.