Soft Power and the Death of Free Culture

Appointments in the Obama Administration make it clearer every day that the President-Elect fully understands the fundamental economic principle taught in every freshman econ class around the world—there is no such thing as “free” culture.

President Elect Obama also is an unambiguous supporter of the doctrine of “smart power” as articulated by the Report of the Smart Power Commission of the CSIS. Secretary of State Select Hillary Clinton mentioned the importance of “smart power” many times during her confirmation hearings.

“Smart power” is a foreign policy doctrine that balances the use of “hard power” (such as weapons or bribes) with “soft power” that uses a country’s cultural attractiveness to persuade opponents. Or more simply—stick and carrot.

Soft power includes the dissemination of popular culture, and there are few countries that have benefited more than the United States from the attractiveness of its popular culture. Soft power does not expressly offer a metric of the commercial success of popular culture as a driver for the success of a country’s soft power in the struggle for the hearts and minds of other peoples, but at the time it was written, that metric was unnecessary as the Pirate Bay did not exist when Joseph Nye introduced the concept in his seminal 1990 book Born to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power and was not fully part of the public debate in 2004 when Professor Nye published Soft Power.

But it is now. Because in order for popular culture to remain part of the tools available to those charged with operating a successful foreign policy for the United States, it is of critical importance for that culture to survive and grow, not fail and be regurgitated. The importance of these tools are not to be underestimated. Professor Nye notes in Soft Power “Long before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it had been pierced by [music,] television and movies….Lennon trumped Lenin….One [Chinese] dissident told a foreign reporter [during the Tiananmen Square massacre] that when she was forced to listen to local Communist Party leaders rage about America, she would hum Bob Dylan tunes in her head as her own silent revolution.” (Soft Power 49-51.)

These are all examples of the importance of maintaining cultural contact with both our friends and enemies. Unfortunately, the engine that drives the production of popular culture, including that of the U.S. and the U.K., is under a historic level of attack in the virtual world that undermines smart power options.

The thought leaders of the anti-copyright crowd (such as Lessig, Fisher and Geist) lead the grand apology for piracy from the amen corner (see In Defense of Piracy, about Lessig’s new book). They have a distorted view of the artistic world they study but never experience. These ivory tower academics position an artist’s struggle for economic freedom as a “war” that pits Silicon Valley Leviathans like Google (aka “innovation”) against “Hollywood” (aka “Hollywood”)—while incongruously trumpeting the democratizing influence of the Internet to open up new distribution channels for the “little guy” to go around “Hollywood”. But when the little guy gets to the promised land of innovation, she will find The Man 2.0 lunching on her work—for free.

4 thoughts on “Soft Power and the Death of Free Culture

  1. Thanks for a great article. As a musician these days, it’s tough not to feel beaten down to the point where you don’t even have the energy to stand up for yourself. Ok, that was a bit negative, but not too far off from the truth.I watched a clip with Lessig being interviewed with Stephen Colbert not too long ago. I couldn’t get over his arrogance and obvious disconnect with the artist community. He DOES NOT speak for me…I’m very pleased to hear that Obama will be taking the issue of IP protection very seriously. The lack of enforcement by our officials up until now dumbfounds me.Cheers:-)


  2. I am not sure u get it. Soft power is the use of cultural apparatus to further an elite agenda. Through trickle down funding which originates in select transnational corporations funding foundations, the pop culture becomes a tool of control: value system construction and maintenance. Materialism, hedonism, anti-traditonal norms of family construction, secuality, are all tools in creating a “Brave new World”. As such, the artists that receive such indirect funding, are harly what they think of themselves, originalist bohemians; instead they represent the most reactionary forces on the planet today.


  3. For all you reactionaries out there, you’ll also enjoy this quote from Professor Jazsi:”The first Act of this preeminent ‘authors’ rights’ treaty in 1886 [the Berne Convention] represented the culmination of a process which got underway in the mid-nineteenth-century with Victor Hugo’s vigorous campaign for the rights of European writers and artists. Other famous ‘authors’ rallied to the cause: Gerhard Joseph suggests that the manic energy with which Charles Dickens championed international copyright stemmed from the novelist’s private insecurities about his own ‘originality.'”And if you can decypher this next one, you’ll love Douglas Kennedy:”However enthusiastically legal scholars may have thrown themselves into ‘deconstructing’ other bodies of legal doctrine, copyright has remained untouched by the implications of the Derridean proposition that the inherent instability of meaning derives not from authorial subjectivity but from intertextuality. Above all, the questions posed by Michel Foucault in ‘What Is an Author?’ about the causes and consequences of the persistent, overdetermined power of the author construct — with their immediate significance for law — have gone largely unattended by theorists of copyright law, to say nothing of practitioners or, most critically, judges and legislators.” And my personal favorite:”But it should come as no surprise that the particular version of the “authorship” construct emphasized in the “work-for-hire” cases may, in practice, be inimical to the concrete pecuniary and moral interests of writers, photographers, sculptors, and other flesh-and-blood creative workers. In Reid and the cases leading up to it, certain attributes of Romantic “authorship” are emphasized while others are marginalized. If the essence of the Romantic account of “authorship” was to be found in its emphasis on the inspired individual, the profoundly anti-individualistic work-for-hire cases focus exclusively on inspiration itself. The origins of the “authorship” construct may lie in the tradition of “possessive individualism,” but in this version, it serves merely to rationalize possession.”Let’s not rationalize possession, starting with the code monkeys working on the Google search algorithm. Yes, indeed collectivism every time.


  4. Interesting quote by Kennedy, in that second bit–he’s basically buying into the “Mythical Man-Month”, suggesting that there’s no such thing as individual creative output. He’s saying that every creative work is actually the sum of every creative work that existed before it; although this does leave one wondering how anything new ever gets produced.


Comments are closed.