Why economists should go six feet under

Born in the 18th century, the economy was then accompanied by an epithet that defined it as « political ». That is to say, subjective and sensitive to changes in society. Nowadays, the economy is a queenly science, even despotic, which wants to govern everything. Including our relationship to our own identity.

The economy is closely linked to the use of words. Take Karel de Gucht, the European Commissioner for Trade. This is how he described the challenge of the political negotiations to create a transatlantic market: « Our main objective is to tackle the barriers that are hidden behind customs borders — such as differences in technical regulations, standards and certifications. These barriers often cost time and money. This is where we can make real savings for our companies, create jobs and bring added value to consumers. »(1)

Let us translate Mr. de Gucht’s words: democracy, parliamentary work and the content of laws are not the vital heart of society, let alone its supreme foundation, but rather odious obstacles to the flourishing of commerce and the economy. The latter, to continue its expansion, must eradicate as soon as possible all the « legislative distortions » that hinder it. 

To this end, the European Commission requested and received on June 14 an official mandate to negotiate with the United States. Since then, twenty groups of negotiators have been working to standardize U.S. and European legislation and, if possible, to define common transatlantic decision-making processes. Thus, a handful of individuals are today negotiating a set of laws that should, tomorrow, regulate the lives of over 800 million people. And although the subjects covered are vast (agriculture, chemicals, cosmetics, electronics, investments, sanitary and phytosanitary standards, intellectual property, medical services, pharmaceuticals, rules of origin, the right of multinationals to bring claims against States before international courts, etc.), no government has vetoed them. In the European Parliament, a comfortable majority of MEPs even endorsed this process in which democracy seems destined to dissolve into the economy. (2).

CulTural exCePTion

Officially, it is only about creating more wealth to get out of the crisis. For example, the European Commission keeps pointing to an independent study claiming that the creation of a transatlantic market would enrich a European household of four by €545 per year. The only problem is that the study is by no means independent, as the Centre for Economic Policy Research that carried it out is run by a network that is very close to the European Commission and the banking world. Judge for yourself: its president (Guillermo de la Dehesa) is also Vice President of Goldman Sachs in Europe while one of its founders (Richard Portes) is an official advisor to the President of the European Commission (José Manuel Durão Barroso). Moreover, this Research Center has as institutional members central banks from different countries (England, Belgium, Spain, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, European Union, etc.), as well as private banks (Barclays, BNP Paribas, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan, Santander…). 

Accustomed to devious characters promising white to make black, many European filmmakers have reacted strongly to the transatlantic project. In April 2013, they launched a petition against the American steamroller: « Faced with the United States, whose entertainment industry is the second largest source of exports, the liberalization of the audiovisual and film industries would mean the announced dismantling of everything that has protected, promoted and developed European culture. This policy, coupled with hyper-taxation of American digital giants, looks like a conscious attempt to bring culture in Europe to its knees. »

This criticism of American economic hegemony over the audiovisual and film industries has been heard by many governments and MEPs, who have decided to exclude these activities from the European negotiating mandate. This must not have pleased Walt Disney or Time Warner, two audiovisual business empires particularly active in transatlantic lobbying. Similarly, the European Commission and certain European governments have suggested that they would try to bring in through the window this commodification of the audiovisual and film industries that others had just chased through the door. 

Thus, for the European Commission and its friends, everything is economic and the economy is everywhere at home: culture is therefore a commodity to be circulated freely, and so much the worse if America possesses a host of talents (singers, writers, musicians, painters, directors, scriptwriters,…) as well as an impressive media network to promote them. In liberal economics, this is called « comparative advantages » and each country is supposed to be able to enjoy its own without hindrance. But for those who contest the commercial takeover of culture, culture is not a commodity at all, but the heart of human identities. Culture helps us to define ourselves in relation to others, to time, to the world and to ourselves. A point of view that is supported by the content of many American cultural creations. 

american idenTiTy

For many of us, Bugs Bunny is a charming rabbit who makes children laugh with innocent mischief. The very patriotic past of this rabbit is generally ignored. In the 1940s, he actively participated in the American war effort by being the hero of propagandist cartoons. With a well-felt sarcasm, the Bugs Bunny of the time considered the Japanese as cowardly and cowardly beings, who had to be fought without mercy. Far from being exceptional, this detour of cultural productions to the service of the reason of State was prolonged during the cold war. In a context where the European population was engaged in fervent social and trade union struggles, the CIA developed an ambitious project of cultural warfare to isolate the radical left from the moderate left. The idea was simple: in all forms of art, it was to secretly finance artists or events likely to make the hearts of Europeans lean towards Uncle Sam. For example, to counter the disastrous image of segregationist policies in the South of the United States, orchestras of black musicians were sent on tour to Europe, in order to prove the enviable fate of « colored people » in the United States. Similarly, the Museum of Modern Art in New York (then run by the Rockefeller family) agreed, in the 1950s, to massively support works of abstract expressionism to the detriment of realist painters and sculptors, the work of the latter being judged too close to works inspired by workers, factories, industrial settings and landscapes… 

This cultural propaganda, organized clandestinely by the CIA from 1950 to 1967, achieved one of its primary objectives: to allow the United States to go beyond the narrow status of economic power to become the unavoidable beacon of Western culture. So, even if we have never set foot in Hollywood, Las Vegas or New York, we all know the physiognomy of these cities photographed and filmed from every angle. Similarly, to open a book by William Faulkner is to plunge into the rural South of the United States. Just as one travels to Louisiana following the pen of James Lee Burke. 

Whether they are world famous (Isaac Asimov, Mary Higgins Clark, Paul Auster, Stephen King) or not, whether their names are Adrian C. Louis, Bret Easton Ellis, Dan Fante, John Irving, Richard Brautigan or Wally Lamb, American writers are a testament to the abundant richness of American culture. Which promotes both sanitized products and high quality artists, including in the criticism of theAmerican Way of Life. 

To listen to Bruce Springsteen, for example, is to plunge into the America of the working class and the disenfranchised (like the soldiers left to their ghosts after the war in Born in the USA), it is to become one with these disillusioned beings living on the bangs of a society that nevertheless points to their dreams, especially when it comes to love, social climbing and cars (as in Born to Run, I’m on fire, Thunder Road, Racing in the Street…). A hope for success that runs up against the unshakeable wall of inequality, especially in My Hometown where, against a backdrop of racial discrimination, a child of the sixties dreams of freeing himself from his hometown but finds himself, twenty-five years later, busy telling his son: « look, this is your hometown »… 

american culture

In fact, social realism and criticism of the American model are an integral part of cultural productions from the United States. For example, the television series On Tap pits a Baltimore police team against various criminal circles linked to drugs, fencing, trafficking in women… The hierarchy is described in very crude terms, especially when two of the protagonists talk about their superior’s foul mood: 

« He must have taken a dump on himself. 

As if he wasn’t used to it. The piss flows down ». 

From wiretaps to close surveillance, investigators uncover links between local drug lords, prostitution ringleaders and high-ranking members of the official hierarchy, leading one of the protagonists to say: « This is the thing that everyone knows about and no one talks about. You follow the drugs, you find another drug case. When you follow the money, you don’t know where you end up. 

Far from the hackneyed clichés of the economy, where money seems to be a blessing the more it multiplies, many American series evoke the constraints, power relationships, misdeeds and inhuman consequences of a narrowly material vision of life. The series Six Feet Under reveals the daily life of the Fishers, a family that owns a funeral home where, in spite of everything, life goes on. While everyone is looking for their own way, even if it means hiding their personality under a veneer of pomp and circumstance that is supposed to satisfy the conformist desires of others, the family business Fisher & Sons sees the dead pass by… and the countless emotional springs that are mobilized by the fact of establishing links with bereaved families. This human logic, made of ups and downs, of respect and missteps, is opposed by the imperial norms of the Kroener society. A veritable merchant empire of death, this powerful company dreams of transforming Fisher & Sons into one of its subsidiaries and does not hesitate to pull any cheap stunt to achieve this. Without exaggeration, touching on a fundamentally fragile moment of life (the one when one loses a loved one), the series Six feet Under reveals, at times, the dehumanized underbelly of a world where even death is no more than a commodity. This is why economists would do well to lose themselves in Six Feet Under, or in the social vagaries of the series Treme, whose heroine is the city and music of New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

« This country is hard on men, very hard. Eight miles of their sweat torn from the earth
of the Lord, where the Lord himself had told them to sink it. In this sinful world, honest, hardworking men cannot profit. It is those who own stores in the cities who, without sweat, live off those who sweat. »

William Faulkner, As I Die

In a completely different style, the much maligned video game GTA V is not just an odyssey of violence and cynicism. It is also a plunge into the heart of the most inhuman realities of the contemporary world, ranging from computerized filing (by the company Life Invader) to the privatization of wars (the company Merryweather Security Consulting being riddled with « mercenaries just back from our oil war ») to the countless toxic contents of our food (beverage dispensers displaying the words « Deliciously Infected »). In the same way, the benefits of « free trade » are taken for what they are: a fair for relocations while one of the main characters advises another to give up petty crime with these words: « Go to school. You will be able to rip people off and you will be paid for it. That’s what we call capitalism ». A societal criticism which joins that of Georges Brassens in his Stances à un cambrioleur

the market, always the market… 

But let’s not be naïve: the American counterculture is not a universe independent of the world it criticizes. For example, the video game GTA V has just broken all sales records in the entertainment industry by accumulating, three days after its release, a turnover of one billion dollars. A financial windfall that will please the American company Take-Two Interactive, owner of the development studio Rockstar, which is behind the game. Similarly, the television series On Tap, Treme and Six Feet Under were created by the pay-TV channel HBO, itself owned by the Time Warner empire. As for Bruce Springsteen, his worldwide successes have long made the Sony merchant empire monetarily happy… 

Among the multiple sources that inspired this dossier, some (of high quality) also feed financial empires. This is the case of Marie-Monique’s Our Daily Poison (published by La Découverte, a subsidiary of the Editis group which belongs to the Spanish multinational Planeta). To a lesser extent, this is also true for Stéphane Foucart’s La fabrique du mensonge and Who is leading the way? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War by Frances Stonor Saunders (both published by Denoël, a publisher belonging to the French publishing giant Gallimard). Published by independent publishers, the following books escape this grip: Comment les multinationales construisent l’Europe et l’économie mondiale (éditions Agone), Menace sur nos neurones. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s… and those who profit from them (Actes Sud), Les armées secrètes de l’OTAN (éditions DemiLune). As for the book Le grand marché transatlantique, les multinationales contre la démocratie, its editor (Bruno Leprince) has close ties with the French Left Party. Finally, if Michael Lewis and his account of the financial crisis (Le casse du siècle) were published by independent publishers (W.W. Norton & Company, Sonatine), the passage through the Poche format threw him into the arms of the Point collection, owned by the La Martinière Group, which has made an agreement with Google to digitize his outdated works. Similarly, it is through the Internet and the Web giants that you will have to go if you want to mark your opposition to the transatlantic negotiations by signing the petition launched for this purpose: www.no-transat.be.

Bruno Poncelet


the PorC’s seCTor 

The European Union is one of the most protectionist pork markets in the world. […] There remains an impressive array of unscientific sanitary and phytosanitary barriers that reduce imports. […] The United States is the cheapest pork producer in the world, and without the restrictions [tarifaires européennes] and unjustifiable sanitary and phytosanitary barriers, the European Union would become a huge market for high quality American pork at competitive prices. 

National Pork Producers Council (of the United States) February 3, 2012 


Notes et références
  1. Discours prononcé (en anglais) le 21 février 2013 à la Commission du Commerce international du Parlement européen. Référence du document: Speech 13/147.
  2. Les deux seuls groupes politiques à avoir unanimement dit
«non» au mandat de négociation sont ceux de la Gauche Unitaire Européenne (autrement dit, «l’extrême-gauche») et des écologistes.
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