Cultural Diversity or Cultural Freedom

October 2003 -

A fresh reflection on the international working conference Reclaiming Cultural Diversity , at De Balie - Centre for Culture and Politics, Amsterdam, September 25 - 27, 2003.

On Saturday morning, on the third day of the conference Jeebesh Bagchi, one of the founders of the innovative Sarai new media initiative from Delhi, India raised probably the most fundamental question of the entire meeting. He wondered if 'we' as we are thinking and talking about cultural diversity in the face of the homogenising forces of economic globalisation are actually not talking about cultural freedom?

It was just one of the many problematic questions raised during this three day meeting of minds from 21 countries, who had been gathered by researcher Joost Smiers, of the department for art and economics of the Utrecht School of the Arts, to reflect on protection mechanisms for local cultures and cultural diversity, against the ravages of unleashed globalised capitalism (the wording here is mine). It might be useful to explore the question raised by Mr. Bagchi a bit further to understand exactly what the complexities are we are faced with when discussing such sensitive topics as cultural diversity and "cultural freedom".

Politically there is an immediate and obvious problem. It is a public secret that many national governments are happily exploiting the cultural diversity argument to in fact protect national cultural industries and economic interests. It leads many advocates of cultural diversity, whose genuine democratic intentions I do not wish to question in any regard, into an unholy alliance with the worst of what the anachronistic nation state has to offer; protectionism and isolationism...

Yet, when considering the concept of "cultural freedom" even more grim memories come to bear. The "freedom" claimed for a culture in distress has often been the instrument for many reactionary political movements to rally a critical mass of supporters to a desperate cause. Nationalism has always flourished with the idea of an identity under threat that needs protection, if not available by civilised means, then by any means possible. In Europe the ferocity of the manifold conflicts on the Balkans, and particularly the break-up of Yugoslavia have imprinted the fatality of this kind of cultural discourse and its exploitation by reactionary political forces upon our memory.

In its milder expressions this reliance on the 'imagined' cultural ties might lead to a cultural conservatism that attempts to lock out everything that has originated from beyond its imaginary cultural boundaries. In the Baltic States for instance, cultural tensions are still high between the new nationals and the large Russian speaking communities. Language, so often the cherished object of preservationists of cultural diversity, here is the object and instrument of intense political controversy. The cultural (i.e. linguistic) divides even translate here into a second rate citizenship. Yet, cultural freedom is the biggest price the reappeared Baltic nations have (rightfully) won in their independence struggle from the former Soviet Union.

What this cursory examination shows is just how quickly the debate about cultural diversity can end up in murky waters. None of the participants in the conference could be accused of sharing even the faintest of kinships with the regressive cultural politics pointed at above. Why then take this risky concept as the starting point, not only of this particular working conference, but also of an international debate that should lead to the drafting, acceptation, and implementation of an international convention for the protection of cultural diversity?

Here we see the dilemma that most participants faced. Culture, and in particular cultural markets - the commodified expressions of cultural forms - have become an explicit topic in the on-going free-trade negotiations that are spearheaded by international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Current legal instruments (most notably the so-called "cultural exemption" in the WTO) are weak and volatile protection mechanisms for cultural diversity. In a society saturated with media and information technologies cultural products increasingly take centre-stage in processes of economic and social exchange. Yet, the channels of distribution for these exchanges are simultaneously increasingly homogenised and concentrated in the hands of ever fewer media conglomerates. One of the few points that found consensus amongst conference participants was that the opening of cultural markets as proposed by the WTO would greatly intensify this trend and homogenise the distribution channels of culture even further.

Experience shows that in a monopoly or oligarchy, the diversity of cultural products and services on offer dramatically decreases. The danger is immediate, as the liberalisation of cultural markets by all signatory nations of the current round of free trade negotiations in the WTO is persistently on the agenda (in the so-called Doha-round, due to deliver such an agreement already in 2005). So what to do then?

The protagonists of the International Network for Cultural Diversity ( ) opt, above all, for a pragmatic approach. Rather than finding a satisfying answer to the many unresolved questions (such as; what does cultural diversity mean in different contexts? what counts as culture in the notion of cultural diversity? which kind of protection mechanisms work at all in which particular political and/or economic context? is content regulation of cultural production not the ultimate excuse for censorship by authoritative states? and even more so in the case of the internet, for unwarranted regulation per se?). Rather, the INCD suggests that the luxury of time to debate these issues to their final resolution is simply not available. Action needs to be taken now, if we are to have the time in the future at all to bring these issues to their resolution.

Cultural Diversity was often named in "one breath" (a Dutch saying) with democracy and democratisation. The main point for many was access for the broadest possible public to the broadest imaginable range of cultural offerings. The INCD group proposed that the democratic states of this world had to take the lead and set the example for others to follow: protection to set these high moral stakes. But we were left with a nagging question; can the state really be trusted in this?

Eric Kluitenberg is a cultural and media theorist, and is currently a member of the editorial staff of De Balie - Centre for Culture and Politics in Amsterdam.