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Cultural Exception Cultivates Civilization, Economy

The French Republic threatens to veto the free trade negotiations between the European Union and the United States of America, if culture is not excluded from the negotiations (as the Cultural Exception in the rest of world trade!). France is right, this essay will show why.

Ultimately, culture is about the greatest wealth. And the greatest wars. Ultimately culture is what makes us what we are, the honor of the human spirit, and the love that endows the mind. It should not be about fighting for bones.

The EU-USA free trade accord is a good idea. Exchanges between USA and EU are already 40% global exchanges, yet, their total GDP is 55% of the world total. That means they could help each other by trading more. (And what about that silly visa thing?)

Custom duties are already low. So the accord is mostly about new, common norms, and the removal of non customs barriers to trade (such as the American regulation that real French cheese is poisonous, verboten).

The rest of Europe is all for free trade with the USA, because a law of 1933 forces the government of the USA to contract with companies of the USA, exclusively (except when there is no choice, and that’s why the US Army ordered 345 combat helicopters built-in Marseilles’ Eurocopter recently, following the US Coast Guard; the USA did not produce a new helicopter type in 20 years, whereas Eurocopter churn them out, so this is a case of no choice!).

But France looks at the millennia, and the mind breathing through them. France does not want to see vacuous, mono-cultural minds. History shows that vacuous, mono-cultural minds have always translated into civilization-destroying horrors. Thus France decided to cultivate cultures, by introducing in GATT (General Agreeement on Tarifs and Trade) the Cultural Exception. Bush’s America never liked that.

Let’s not forget that, in 1938, and 1939, or even 1940, American culture did not overwhelmingly see something ultimately objectionable in Nazism. Literally. So there was no ultimatum of the USA to Hitler (whereas France and Britain gave one). The father and grandfather of two American presidents, Prescott Bush, was Hitler’s most precious collaborator. All the way to August. 1942. August 1942, that’s three full years after the Franco-British declaration of war to the Nazis.

The mind France wants is much grander than that of Big, Uncle Sam Watching All, As Ordered by Greedy Wall Street. In 1948, the perfidious USA proposed France to forget all the French debt owed to her self-interested liberator of sorts during World War Two, as long as France would allow free reign of American movies over France. France, wisely, declined.

This, by the way shows that, from the American point of view, cultural supremacy is more important than money. Even from the American point of view, culture is priceless. Thus why should not others brandish the same principle? As I am going to show, culture ought to become more important than ever. And, if the Americans were smart, instead of having a dog fight with the French, they should learn even about, and from, the importance of culture.

Let’s call Princeton to the rescue.

Excellent editorial of Paul Krugman in Sympathy for the Luddites, about the drawback of technological progress:

“In 1786, the cloth workers of Leeds, a wool-industry center in northern England, issued a protest against the growing use of “scribbling” machines, which were taking over a task formerly performed by skilled labor. “How are those men, thus thrown out of employ to provide for their families?” asked the petitioners. “And what are they to put their children apprentice to?”

Those weren’t foolish questions. Mechanization eventually – that is, after a couple of generations – led to a broad rise in British living standards. But it’s far from clear whether typical workers reaped any benefits during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution; many workers were clearly hurt. And often the workers hurt most were those who had, with effort, acquired valuable skills – only to find those skills suddenly devalued.

So are we living in another such era? And, if we are, what are we going to do about it?

Until recently, the conventional wisdom about the effects of technology on workers was, in a way, comforting. Clearly, many workers weren’t sharing fully – or, in many cases, at all – in the benefits of rising productivity; instead, the bulk of the gains were going to a minority of the work force. But this, the story went, was because modern technology was raising the demand for highly educated workers while reducing the demand for less educated workers. And the solution was more education. “

So far, so good. However Paul, although he means well, then gets confused by the evil spirits, and unwillingly deviates to the Dark Side, at least, the way he concludes:

“. there may have been something to this story [more education, less equality] a decade ago.

Today, however, a much darker picture of the effects of technology on labor is emerging. In this picture, highly educated workers are as likely as less educated workers to find themselves displaced and devalued, and pushing for more education may create as many problems as it solves.”

. Education, then, is no longer the answer to rising inequality, if it ever was (which I doubt).

So what is the answer? If the picture I’ve drawn is at all right, the only way we could have anything resembling a middle-class society – a society in which ordinary citizens have a reasonable assurance of maintaining a decent life as long as they work hard and play by the rules – would be by having a strong social safety net, one that guarantees not just health care but a minimum income, too. And with an ever-rising share of income going to capital rather than labor, that safety net would have to be paid for to an important extent via taxes on profits and/or investment income. I can already hear conservatives shouting about the evils of “redistribution.” But what, exactly, would they propose instead?”

Well conservatives want to conserve things the way they used to be before the awful revolutions in England, America, and France: bring back feudalism. In the ancient order, the Nobles paid no taxes, just as plutocrats nowadays increasingly do not.

And, of course, it was silly to want to use education to fight rising inequality: inequality and education live in different dimensions. One dimension cannot subtract from another, that’s basic math.

Ultimately, in all and any society, the ruling class decides how much it will earn. In a democracy, the People (Demos) Rules (Kratos), and so it earns well. In a plutocracy, the People is nothing, and gets nothing, beyond what is needed for serving the Devils (Plutos) who Rule (Kratos).

There is only one way to prevent democracy to turn into plutocracy: the application of severe and efficient methods to prevent the exponentiation of wealth. Either one can put an absolute limit on the wealth any family can control (that was the method used by the Roman republic for five centuries). Or one can apply heavy, exponentiating taxes (as most societies have done, sometimes with the help of human sacrifices).

Yet, as machines are going to take over most work, what are we The People going to do? A related question is that studies have shown We The People to be very sensitive to propaganda. It has long been known that People, like animals, can be imprinted: the first knowledge they get exposed to, because the only knowledge they own.

An experiment on 6,000 students, using 48 songs, showed that People pretty much love and appreciate what they have been told the tribe love and appreciate. What the better songs are, has more to do with what People are told they are, rather than any other criterion.

This, of course, threatens the very existence of democracy. As people believes what they are told to believe, how can one have democracy? This stage has been reached in the USA, one may fear.

For most People to be happy one needs two things, once decent living conditions are taken for granted: employment and happy, that means, correct, beliefs. Hence the importance of culture. Variegated culture presents minds with choices, and choices means imprinting does not have it easy. (So cultural diversification also fights the rabid oversimplifications leading to war.)

Indeed, there is one way out, and only one of the quandary posed by exponentiating technology: make culture more of an industry. Yes, because there is not just plutocracy that is exponentiating. Besides the government surveillance programs, technology itself is approaching a singularity.

The first Luddites were not English. They were the Roman emperors themselves. Later, after the French refugee + built the second steam boat, and went down a river one hundred kilometers, enraged conservatives destroyed the ship. That set back steam power by nearly a century (well the Roman emperors had set it back by 16 centuries, prior!)

Machines can do farming, and all sort of other tasks, including, increasingly, knowledge service. There is no doubt that robot doctors will do better than doctors in the future. For example, as far as automated gross diagnostics, they already do better. A robot brain surgeon can go where no human hand can, and no human can be so precise.

So machines can do more and more of everything. And that, even before Quantum Computers are massively for sale.

But machines cannot do culture. Yet, everybody can potentially become a culture worker. People can sing, paint, experience the world and tell about it, educate, relate and narrate (“blog”), etc.

It can be ascertained that culture is the growth industry with the greatest potential. In all and any industry, one should outlaw cartels. A fortiori, if culture is to become a growth industry, one ought to refute cultural hegemony, in other words, cultural cartels, cultural monopoly. Hence culture ought to be a “protected industry”, an industry where the grossest, simplest minded free trade rules do not apply.

The corporate culture of the USA’s cultural industry has certainly behaved as a cartel: it’s very difficult for small movies from a small author of a small studio to make it big in the USA. Whereas it can, and does happen all the time in France. “The Artist”, for example, which got the top Oscar, even in Hollywood, started as one such French state subsidized small movie.  

As the cartel aspect already shows, the very size of the cultural market of the USA makes asymmetric any “liberalization”. It’s as if one claimed that it is “liberal” and a “free exchange” of blows, between two fighters, one a gorilla, the other a human child.

Cultural diversity is a very old debate: the Celts had it with the Romans, 25 centuries ago. The Gauls, Romans and Franks spent the next 13 centuries conquering each other, until Europe became another name for cultural diversity.

Conclusion: in trade talks between the USA and the EU, culture ought to be off the table. Culture ought to be traded, but trade is not culture. That’s what the French republic is trying to say.

Patrice Ayme

Note: Decent, clever, civilized Americans of course agree with the preceding: In a press conference headed up by French culture minister Aurélie  Filippetti (Google’s enemy), Harvey Weinstein threw his support behind the cultural exception. “The cultural exception encourages filmmakers to make films about their own culture. We need that more than ever,” he said. He cited some countries moribund film industries and the morbid propensity to simply copy the American model to the detriment of indigenous creativity. “The most important thing is to preserve the environment of cultural films, because it’s good for business too.”

As we have seen, it’s a question of the global economy and global democracy too, especially looking into the only decent future we can have.

Cannes Festival Jury President Steven Spielberg called the cultural exception “the best way to support diversity in filmmaking” during his closing ceremony remarks. As Spielberg came to Cannes with his 80 meter yacht, and spent two million there for his creature comforst, one cannot suspect him to be scrapping the bottom of the barrel.

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