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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Autumn 2001

The Global Monoculture

‘Free Trade’ versus Culture and Democracy

The Council of Canadians

Global cultural homogenization is sweeping the world. Indian physicist and activist Vandana Shiva calls it "monoculture of the mind." Dominated by US and Western values and lifestyles, driven by a consumer-based, free-market ideology and carried through the massive US entertainment-industrial complex, the global monoculture has infiltrated every corner of the Earth.

In China, Latin America, the Pacific Region, South America, Africa and the industrialized world, young people want Nike sneakers, Gap clothes, Michael Jordan T-shirts, the latest CDs, Hollywood blockbuster movies, American television and mass-market books. Around the world, North American corporate culture is destroying local tradition, knowledge, skills, artisans and values.

Artisans groups trying to sell their products locally have been wiped out by global fashions. Much more than an economic problem, the decline of artisanship may be consuming some of the world’s older traditions and finer crafts and eroding the world’s cultural diversity, with little notice.

There are no clear estimates of the number of artisans in the world, although some crafts groups believe it is the largest employer outside agriculture. Says the Toronto Globe and Mail’s John Stackhouse, "With each endangered craft are centuries of songs, expressions and lifestyles that are part of an artisan’s creative environment." Nawal Hassan, an Egyptian artisan-activist, adds, "This is an issue of identity. All our civilization has ceased to be spiritual. Our civilization has become commercial."

Combined with the destruction of the habitat of aboriginal citizens in many parts of the world, this assault on local cultures is having a profound impact. Hundreds of languages spoken today are lost each decade and it is estimated that one-half of the world’s 6,000 languages will no longer be spoken or read by the end of the 21st century.

Technology is also advancing one culture and one language. The US has more computers than the rest of the world combined. English is used in 80 percent of websites, yet fewer than one in ten people worldwide speak the language. Everywhere, Internet access divides educated from illiterate, rich from poor, young from old and urban from rural.For many countries feeling the deadening and harmonizing impacts of economic globalization, protecting cultural diversity has become as important a fight as preserving biodiversity.

Many societies, particularly indigenous peoples, view culture as their richest heritage, without which they have no roots, history or soul. Its value is other than monetary. To commodify it is to destroy it.

There is a growing sentiment in many parts of the world that culture is not just another product like steel or computer parts. Through funding programs, content regulations and other public policies, countries have encouraged their own artists and cultures and tried to maintain some space for their own intellectual creations.

Culture as Business

The entertainment-industrial complex, on the other hand, sees culture as a business – a very big business that should be fiercely advanced through international trade agreements like the World Trade Organization (WTO). This industry combines giant telecommunications companies, cable companies and the Internet, working together in a complex web. The productions issuing from this superweb include publishing, films, broadcasting, video, television, cable and satellite systems, mega-theater productions, music recording and distribution, and theme parks.

Mass-produced products of popular culture are the biggest US export, according to the United Nations 1999 Human Development Report. A huge, well-organized coalition links the US entertainment, media and information technology sectors in a "common front" to oppose cultural protectionism. Companies such as AOL Time-Warner and Disney have powerful friends on Capitol Hill and in the White House. They work closely with the government, which in turn has taken a very aggressive stand in protecting their interests.

The pending admission of China into the WTO has the US motion picture industry salivating. Already, the 10 US films allowed in every year totally dominate the Chinese market. Zhang Hui Jun of the prestigious Beijing Film Academy fears that the US invasion will induce Chinese producers to slavishly follow Hollywood’s formulas at the expense of innovative Chinese productions.

For many years, the US State Department has used a variety of trade remedies to strike down nation, state and local rules aimed at protecting indigenous cultures. In recent years, the battle has heated up as more countries adopt measures to support their own artists and cultural producers.

While it is true that these fights have shaped up more over film and TV than the live performing arts, the pressure to cut back on government funding for any cultural sector that does not totally pay its own way is growing in all countries. The messages are loud and clear: "Get big or die," and "Get a corporate sponsor or fold."

Canadians live next door to the world’s biggest candy store. While we still have a vibrant, live performing arts community, government funding has been severely cut. Local theater productions have a hard time competing against imported US mega-productions and many theater halls across the country have been renamed for corporations that now sponsor the shows they fancy.

Culture and the WTO

Current WTO trade law subjects culture to all the disciplines of the agreement. There have been seven complaints concerning culture lodged at the WTO since its inception. Of those resolved, all effectively limited the right of a state to protect its cultural industries.

The most significant was a 1997 ruling in which the US successfully forced Canada to abandon protections for its magazine industry (even though US magazines make up 85 percent of all magazines available on Canadian newsstands). The US is taking a hard line because any exemption for Canada will set a precedent for other countries, especially in the developing world where cultural protection is just emerging as an issue.

Former US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky triumphantly declared that the decision would serve as a useful weapon against other countries’ attempts to protect their film, books and broadcasting industries.

The US State Department remains furious about the role that Canadian cultural activists played in defeating the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) several years ago.

According to Christopher Sands of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, "What further startled US policymakers was to hear these Canadian arguments echoed in Europe and even Asia. In an increasingly small world, ideas travel fast, and the Canadian concern that the MAI would lead to greater American cultural hegemony touched a chord around the world." The lesson for US trade negotiators was clear: "Canada’s example matters."

The failure of the 1999 WTO talks in Seattle doesn’t mean the problems for the cultural community are over. Ongoing talks related to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and Trade-Related Intellectual Property rights (TRIPS) have placed the entire telecommunications sector – including the Internet, broadcasting, patents, trademarks and copyright law – on the table.

Speaking before a House committee in early 2000, Barshefsky vowed to use the WTO to promote US corporate-entertainment interests around the world. "We are developing proposals for a wide range of sectors where our companies have strong commercial interests," she said. "Our companies are poised to be among the primary beneficiaries from stronger commitments at the WTO."

Toward Cultural Diversity

Trade is as old as humanity. Fair trade rules can be a positive development if done with respect for other aspects of life. But in recent years, the WTO has overtaken every other sphere of life, enforcing free trade rules on behalf of powerful transnational corporations. This, in turn, profoundly affects every culture in the world, basically enforcing a for-profit model on every aspect of society and denigrating any activity that is not, at its core, commercial.

What can be done? How can we maintain the free flow of intellectual creations and art, while promoting diversity in the face of a giant, centralized, monolithic corporate/cultural juggernaut backed by international trade regimes?

The debate is about finding ways to provide choice, so that in the deluge of cultural products available, citizens can choose to watch, listen to, or enjoy a book, magazine, film or sound recording that reflects their own local reality. More than anything else, the debate is about cultural diversity.

I have four strong recommendations. First, our governments must fund a vibrant cultural sector in all of our countries, one that reflects the diverse, local and indigenous societies in which they, and we, thrive.

Second, culture must be carved out of free trade agreements, particularly the WTO. Although citizens and their governments are still very likely to want to promote the export of their cultural products, they must always retain the right to set fair-trade conditions in order to protect and promote their own stories, history and unique culture.

Third, it is time for a new international instrument to deal with this emerging issue. To succeed, such an instrument must have a status equivalent to that of trade agreements. It cannot be subservient. It must recognize the importance of maintaining cultural diversity and set out rules that, over time, can be changed, since we cannot know today what form cultural expression may take in the future.

Finally, artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians from around the world must form an international civil society force to stand up to the corporate colossus now dominating global culture.

This process already has begun. Last year, a global network of nongovernmental organizations concerned about cultural issues met in Santorini, Greece, to form the International Network for Cultural Diversity. More than 160 organizations from more than 30 countries have committed themselves to becoming a powerful voice in the coming decades.

Maude Barlow is chair of The Council of Canadians. This article is excerpted from a speech delivered to the Globalization and Live Performing Arts Conference in Melbourne, Australia on June 23, 2000. This article originally appeared in Canadian Perspectives.

   

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