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GATT & the Shape of Our Dreams | The Nation

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GATT & the Shape of Our Dreams

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Maastricht, NAFTA, GATT.... As the complex struggle over the globalization of the capitalist market proceeds, the debate surrounding it gets more tortuous and the linguistic hypocrisy defies even Orwell's imagination. Freedom to work means the right to be exploited, and internationalism is identified with the movement of capital in search of profit and universality with the reign of merchandise throughout the world. The result is not so much strange alliances (these would have happened in any case because of the multiplicity of the interests involved) as a dangerous confusion. Thus, resistance against the expansion of big business may well be taken for narrow nationalism. The only remedy for this is to put each action in its context and explain its motive and the vision of society by which it is inspired. But doing this is not always easy.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

How difficult it is to clarify matters is illustrated by a fierce fight during the recent GATT negotiations, a struggle over money that is insignificant in its immediate effects yet may be crucial in the long run, as it will shape our dreams, our thoughts and, therefore, our acts. The battle is over Europe's insistence that it continue subjecting American movies and audiovisual materials to quotas and other restrictions--the so-called "cultural exception." In the European, and particularly the French, press the issue was portrayed as being largely a fight by greedy Hollywood producers for a heftier share of foreign film revenues. This clashed with the US. version, which was that hypocritical, elitist Euros are protecting a dying industry from more popular US. products. But behind such silly contradictions there is a serious question. To put it succinctly: Should culture be treated like any other commodity?

Imperialist! Protectionist! Joan of Arc! The right of people freely to choose! When such high-sounding words are tossed around--often to conceal less exalted interests--one is tempted to paraphrase: "When they hear the word culture they reach for their checkbook." In fact, a great deal of money is involved. What is at stake is the removal of obstacles hindering the export offensive of the mighty American film industry. Not that Western Europe is now a Zhdanovian fortress tightly protected against the wicked products of Hollywood. Last year, U.S. audiovisual exports to the European Community (with films, TV and videotapes accounting for about one-third each) amounted to roughly $4 billion. They have much more than 'doubled in the past ten years and dwarf shipments in the opposite direction, estimated at around $250 million.

The dominant position of the U.S. media industry is even more striking if one looks only at the subject of greatest controversy, the cinema. Out of the total film revenue earned within the E.C., nearly three-quarters now goes to American companies, the proportion ranging from about 60 percent in France to 90 percent in Britain. Last fall, as Federico Fellini's coffin was lying in state in a Cinecittà studio, people were really mourning the virtual death of the Italian cinema. They could have extended their rites to Western Europe's film industry as a whole. France, with its 150 or so movies a year, provides the only quantitative exception, The French, not surprisingly, were also the main inspirers of the campaign to keep film and television out of GATT negotiations, a crusade fought with great passion by European directors, actors, writers and technicians.

Which obstacles do the Americans want removed? Essentially two: film subsidies and quotas for television. For the first, let us take the French example. France has a National Center of Cinematography, which levies a tax on cinema tickets (11 percent), TV revenue (5.5 percent) and videotapes (2 percent). From this it raises nearly $80 million a year, which it plows back into the trade, notably through credits to filmmakers as an advance on their future earnings. About a third of French films get such credits, which provide for a substantial portion of their budgets; without such aid many quality films would not be made. The French say the levy is an internal matter of the profession. The Americans retort that it is state sponsored and that, though foreign films are taxed, only the French ones get credits.

The TV quota system is, potentially, a more serious hurdle. It is based on a community directive known as "television without frontiers," which stipulates that, in principle, a majority of the programs shown on each TV station must originate within the E.C. (Actually, the proportion is not supposed to fall below the level of 1988, which was 60 percent.) The French have made an additional stipulation: At least 40 percent of the programs must be produced in a Francophone country. Such quotas, if they persist, will set a real limit on American expansion. The proposed extension of GATT rules to cultural products would not involve the immediate removal of barriers, but through such devices as the most-favored-nation clause (which would mean that, say, American films must be treated like German or British ones), it would spell their destruction in the not-too-distant future. The E.C. first asked that the "specificity" of cultural goods be recognized, then, under French pressure, that they be "excepted" from the GATT talks altogether. The French view prevailed in the final stages of the negotiations. The battle is far from over, but the American offensive has been temporarily contained.

The facts and figures confirm that what is being questioned in this trial of strength is not the dominant position that the American film industry has already acquired in the European market. It is Hollywood's inexorable drive toward a quasi monopoly, with European companies reduced to the marginal role of suppliers for special-interest audiences or subsidiaries of American giants. Régis Debray, ex-revolutionary in Latin America and later an adviser to President François Mitterrand, argued against such an outcome, quoting the words of a Time Warner executive in conversation with the head of We, a Franco-German cultural TV channel: "You French are best at making cheese and wine, or in fashion. Filming is our specialty. So let us get on with filmmaking and you keep on with the cheeses." In other words, comments Debray, "let us shape the minds and you stick to stomachs."

Not so fast. Our collective stomachs are financially too precious to be left to France, as was shown in the bitter GATT battle over agriculture. On the other hand, the control of our minds, or to put it more prosaically, the monopoly of the image, may well be a prize awarded to the dominant power.

In the early days of the cold war, Arthur Koestler provoked an outcry when in a magazine story he imagined Moscow occupied and Guys and Dolls being performed at the Bolshoi. How distant that indignation seems today, when Rambo Umpteen is being splashed all over China, when recent American soap operas and sitcoms dominate the screens of Western Europe, while earlier versions are dumped in the poorer half of the European continent. If this trend is allowed to continue, we will be sentenced to a sinister uniformity of heroes and models, metaphors and dreams. Mastery of the image may well become both the instrument and the symbol of leadership in the new world order.

The ambiguity of the discussion springs from the duality of cultural goods, conceived potentially as both creative works and as merchandise. GATT has no such preoccupations. It deals with the free flow of commodities, and it so happens that the United States is better at manufacturing, packaging, advertising and selling cultural goods. It has advantages in size and scope, in language and experience. The difference was driven home in October, when Jurassic Park opened in France, amid the usual ballyhoo, in 450 of the nation's 4,402 cinemas. Germinal, the French blockbuster based on Zola's novel, had been launched a couple of weeks earlier on 370 screens. The French product had cost $28 million, the American double that amount. So far so good. French critics, however, were quick to point out that by the time it had reached Paris Jurassic Park had already pocketed $327 million in the United States and, together with revenue from merchandising, may well top a billion dollars by the end of the year. Income from foreign sales should be as astronomical. Commentators seized this occasion to explain less exceptional examples of American advantage, notably the mass-produced T V programs that, having covered their costs at home, can be dumped abroad at prices the local competition is unable to match.

What should the Europeans do to fight back? Concentrate, streamline their operations, dub their films into English and then improve the sales of their slicker wares? The remedy looks worse than the disease, judging by some of the European co-productions aimed at the lowest common denominator and recorded in English so as to broaden the market. Yet even if the Europeans did overcome their linguistic and national differences and manage to produce films or soap operas as successful as the American ones, this, far from solving the problem, would simply worsen it. Our increasingly Americanized TV screens, whatever the origin of the programs, make the conclusion obvious. What is at stake is the nature of the product, not its language or the nominal nationality of the producer. After all, Universal, the maker of Jurassic Park, is owned by Matsushita, Columbia by Sony, Fox by ex-Australian Rupert Murdoch and M-G-M by Crédit Lyonnais. And vertical concentration in the world of electronics and the media is increasing: The German publisher Bertelsmann and the Dutch telecommunications conglomerate Philips-Polygram also plan to invest in Hollywood. Yet all this will not fundamentally alter the extent of American cultural domination.

Herein lies the misunderstanding surrounding the recurring campaigns against American "cultural imperialism." Clever European merchants may occasionally use that slogan to favor their business--but not many of them and not the really big ones. Sua Eminenza Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian king of commercial television, who recently revealed his neo-Fascist sympathies, and Martin Bouygues, whose father, with money made on public works, bought TFI (the biggest French TV channel, with about half the national audience), know only too well that if they launched an offensive against the whole system they would be undermining their own position within it. The so-called anti-imperialists are not taking aim at American art. They are attacking the commercialization of creativity, the imposed uniformity, the manufacturing of culture, which American big business has raised to a fine art but of which it is not the only practitioner.

Fortunately, some artists have always been able to overcome social obstacles and create against the odds. This is less difficult for writers and painters than for filmmakers because less initial outlay is required. Yet there are such creators in all forms of art; they are as numerous in the United States as in Western Europe and, far from being resented by the "anti-imperialists," they are hailed by them. Toni Morrison, who on her recent European journey was feted here on Arte, and Woody Allen are among many recent examples. Yet whatever their success, real artists go against the trend of the machine of commercial mass culture, which codifies our desires, stifles our dreams, shrinks rather than widens our consciousness. The "anti-imperialist" battle thus knows no frontiers. It is, in fact, our common struggle against commercial conveyor belts and culture treated as a commodity.

This, in turn, suggests the only way for Europe's genuine resistance, though it is not an easy battle. Since culture will not cease to be a commodity in a world of merchandise, in art as well as in politics the road to independence seems to lead through a radical transformation of society. That implies the painful search for a world in which artistic creation will no longer be dominated by the tyranny of the market but will not be subjected to the dictatorship of the state either. The provision of guarantees against the latter development has become an imperative since the dreadful Soviet experience.

Let us not kid ourselves. We are not there. We are not even moving in that direction. Indeed, for the immediate future the prospect is gloomy. With the expansion of cable, the spread of satellites and Europe's continued deregulation, we are actually going the other way. All we can do at this stage is to multiply pockets of resistance, islands of free creation. We can organize holding operations, using such pretexts as the conflict over "exclusion" to slow the advance of the commercial juggernaut of cultural conformity. In this rear-guard action we may rely on our gut instinct against GATT culture, that is to say, the resistible reign of merchandise.

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