Alexandria Virtual Cultural Centre of WA

The Three Nexal registers:
Identity, peripheral cultural industry, alternative cultures

Nikola Janović and Rastko Močnik

11.2. The socio-historical backgrounds

The long shadow of “cultural exception” still hovers over the debates on cultural policies. Now discarded from official use, the term had not been considered very auspicious even at the time of its emergence.VI Deficient as it may appear in political and juridical usages, the term nevertheless clearly indicates the circumstances in which it has been contrived: a situation of defensive struggle against uniform expansion of the free-market arrangements across every sector of global society. Those who contend that “culture” should not be surrendered to the onslaught of neo-liberal globalisation, have used, have indulged in, and have finally abused the formula according to which “cultural goods and services are not commodities as others” – a proposition that is either a tautology or a contradiction. It is a tautology within the relevant discourse universe, since according to the World Trade Organisation regulations no category of commodities is, strictly speaking, reducible to any other one. While in the terms of social science, and, for that matter, of the common sense, the slogan is a contradiction since all commodities are interchangeable precisely under the aspect of their being commodities. What could then be the rational core in the controversy that emerged with the refusal of certain parties (among whom, prominently, Canada, France and EU) to submit cultural goods and services to the unrestricted rule of free market?

An analogy may be instructive. With the privatisation of pension systems (another category of social services presently being submitted to the mechanisms of global free market), one commodifies a social relation – the relation among generations, classically analysed by Marcel Mauss under the concept of échange différé, delayed exchange.VII In this way, the specific domain of relations among generations, traditionally regulated in various specific ways, is submitted to the general pattern of the commodity market, presumed to be the best model of co-ordination in any sphere of social practices. Commodification is just another type of social relation – the one that prevails in capitalism and the one considered, by the presently prevailing ideology, to be generally the most efficient type of social co-ordination. Karl Marx who analysed capitalism as a system of generalised commodity exchange, proposed a concept to designate the particular type of social relation which had emerged from the generalisation of commodity economy: the “commodity fetishism”,VIII defined as a “necessary illusion” that makes relations among human beings assume the “phantasmagorical” form of relations among things. Instead of contemplating her or his old age through the notional schemes entailed in the welfare systems of the social state, in other words, instead of considering her or his future, and eventually acting upon it, in political terms – our person to-be-retired, after the pension reform, starts calculating her or his old age in the terms of interest rates, revenue on capital investment, stock-exchange trends … that is, in the terms formerly reserved to the classical financial speculator. IX What does this democratisation of haute finance jargon mean? It means that human beings no longer refer to their own lives politically, as members of some political association, be it as abstract as “nations” used to be – but as atomised individuals directly confronted with their commodified sociality abstracted in global value-processes. This means that their colleagues at work, their neighbours, friends, lovers, their own family appear to them, within their life-plan calculations (composed of precarious and discontinued short-range “projects” X ), as so many competitors in the struggle for re-appropriation of their sociality under the abstract form of appropriation of value. Substitution of the commodity-relation for the lost political social relation in this case means loss of any, be it illusionary, control over the atomised individual’s own existence. XI

Let us offer one more example of the same transformation. If, by appealing to the clause of “the most favoured nation”, a transnational company or a government acting in its interest, kills an advantage conferred by a national government to a company from a developing country, it dismantles a political intervention in South/North global relations: seemingly, by enforcing free-trade economy against political favouritism but, in fact, by mobilising mechanisms of the present world-hegemony against the solidarity policies of an obsolete political power, the nation state. While appearing to be the affirmation of the logic of economy against voluntarism of politics, this is a struggle of one type of social relations, the relations of global corporate domination, against another type, the relations of solidarity.

While in the first case, class struggles (within the frame of the nation state or on the world-systemic level) would be articulated as political confrontations and negotiations, they would be displaced towards some other form of social tension in the second case, which is our contemporary situation. The pension reform would then be promoted as a means to restore to an economy under national jurisdiction the ability to compete on the world market. The aid to a developing nation would be attacked as an unfair intervention into the mechanisms of free market. What really hampers the success of a national economy would, in both cases, be defined as some socio-economic deficiency: unsuccessful or belated modernisation in the developing country, incapacity of transition from industrial to post-industrial society in the case of the crumbling welfare state. The reasons for the incapacity of structural transformation would finally be sought in religious traditionalism, ethnic tensions, patriarchal family structures and other “cultural” features. Commodification of cultural practices and products is then an intervention designed to break down the obstructive mechanisms of an inadequate social order. It destroys one form of social cohesion, a form that the newly imposed social relations make obsolete and regressive, and replaces it by another form – the one that corresponds to contemporary world relations and fosters a particular country’s integration into the new world order.

What remains of the old and discarded mechanisms of social cohesion can now be construed as “cultural specificity” that contributes to cultural diversity – and is made the object of juridical protection.

We can now see the paradoxical outcome of these processes. What, at a first glance, seemed a ruthless occupation of the cultural sphere by the economic sphere, what seemed to be the destruction of culture by the logic of commodification, actually establishes an autonomous cultural sphere as a collage, as a Sargasso Sea of free floating bits and pieces of what used to be mechanisms of social cohesion that had to yield under the onslaught of the free economy and its organised repression (World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, etc.).

What really vanishes between the triumphant economy and the emerging cultural diversity is the political sphere.

Consequently, it is not the suppression of the cultural sphere by the sphere of economy (or the threat that this may happen), as the advocates of “cultural exception” want us to believe, that is the most fascinating socio-structural event of our time. It is the disappearance of the political sphere – or, more precisely, its transformation into various branches of the “management” of society. Political parties no more represent social groups and their presumed interests, they are all together, as fractions of one and the same political apparatus, involved in the management of the whole of the society and, merging with administrative apparatuses and apparatuses of “governmentality”,XII they reproduce the effect of social totality. By a different path, the over-all result of the presently dominating global trends, rejoins a situation that has been acutely described under a classical form of “totalitarianism”:

    … in countries where a unique totalitarian party rules, … such a party no more performs narrowly political functions, it carries out technical, propagandistic, police functions and functions of moral and cultural influence. The political function is indirect, for if there exist no other legal parties, there exist other effective parties and tendencies that elude laws with which they are in confrontation – and against which [the sole legal ruling party] struggles as if playing at blind man’s buff. It is certain that with such parties [the unacknowledged effective parties] cultural functions dominate and that they produce the emergence of a particular political jargon: political questions are now hidden under a cultural disguise, and become as such insoluble.XIII

To suit the present liberal project, this description of the fascist state needs to be amended at only one point: “culturalisation”XIV of political “questions” is not a forced, if inadequate, response of political forces that are denied legal existence – it is induced by the very transformation of the legal political apparatus itself.XV And hence it is “productive” (and not, as Gramsci contends, an only sterile disguise): it is productive up to the point that certain states themselves (or entities that are considered as such) can presently exist as merely “cultural” constructions.XVI

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