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Wilhelm Roepke

The brass mouth trumpeting the virtues of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) is Ben Wattenburg. His views display the kind of thick-headedness that Wilhelm Roepke fought against so valiantly. What’s this impenetrable cloud made of that compels him and his kind to stumble along like the proverbial blind man leading the blind? The pit into which he falls is surely his lust for commerce.

GATT, writes Mr. Wattenberg, is not only a big step toward global economy but “toward an overarching global culture.” Because of satellites and international computer links and in a world of global entertainment, publicity and advertising—”all able to leap countries in a single bound”—this is inevitable.

We may take issue with the premise that Mr. Wattenburg knows what he is talking about when it comes to “culture.” Some of the best students of culture deny that it can be “global.” As Richard Weaver writes, culture is primarily regional; it may be national but it is not international and certainly not global.

Culture requires thoughtfulness, reverie and self-denial, not the intensifying exercise in self-indulgence bred from a narrowly understood self-interest. It is a set of established forms needing space and distance, protection from the leviathan of commerce. Culture means piety, respecting things, and learning how to leave them alone to fulfill their own natures. It’s that upward pull we get from the ideal and the heavenly, not the downward pull of immediate self-interest and push-button gratification. Culture means cultivating, the slow process of patience and rootedness in the same soil, the loyalty and the wholeness that comes with living with people face to face, generation after generation, in the same locale or region. It seeks the personal and the individual in all spheres of life including economics and trade.

Culture is opposed to the abstract and anonymous, to the casual social intercourse of electric signalling which passes for “communication” and which, like its sexual counterpart, is as promiscuous as it is prostitutional. It is no more conducive to culture than a one-night stand is to marriage and the family. Thus, the phrase “global culture” is an oxymoron.

Above all, culture reflects man’s understanding of his relation to God. That is why an organic community seeks harmony and balance in all its aspects but with an emphasis on man’s eternal destiny and purpose rather than on his material interests alone. It recognizes that the overall pattern of life and our spiritual growth are inseparably bound together.

When Mr. Wattenburg enthuses over GATT and electric technology, we know what he really means by “culture”: flat uniformity in the name of commercial convenience. We shall all watch the same silly programs on television and be subjected to the same propaganda from governments and industries. We can then completely convert to the metric system and the same uniform products. Indeed, he glories in the belief that the whole world is “Americanizing.” We are supposedly No. 1 in everything: technology, education, the military, and culture. American capitalism and pluralism supposedly are the heart’s desire of every other nation. Nothing is to stand in the way of commerce and free trade. Since industrialization has robbed people of their productive assets, notably land, turning them into the proletariat with only their labor to sell, it is now proposed to rob them of their culture, turning them into the idiotariat, to borrow from British economist Fred Hirsch, leaving them with only the “culture” of the globalized boob-tube.

One of the early intellectual forces of the conservative movement after World War II, Peter Viereck, feared this commercialistic tendency as early as 1953. Until now, he says, Marx’s criticism of capitalism has been falsified by the fact that free trade and commerce were walled off to a limited area of life and not allowed to contaminate culture or the rest of society. But if we, like many Republicans of Viereck’s time as well as today, fail to maintain this respect and protect our culture, we will be validating Marx’s criticism:

The bourgeoisie has played an extremely revolutionary role….It has destroyed all feudal, patriarchal, and idyllic relationships. It has ruthlessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound men to their “natural superiors”; it has left no other bond betwixt man and man but crude self-interest and unfeeling “cash payment.” It has drowned religious ecstasy, chivalrous enthusiasm, and humdrum sentimentalism in the ice-water of selfish calculation. It has degraded personal dignity to the level of exchange value: and in place of countless dearly-bought chartered freedoms, it has set up one solitary unscrupulous freedom – freedom of trade. (From The Communist Manifesto.)

What communism could not do, the commercialism of capitalism is doing. This attitude, says Viereck, places us in the “Sahara of inhuman aridity: the belief in Economic Man.” When commerce dominates, culture dies.

This global attack on culture in the name of commerce is a significant social cost which must be set against the imaginary gains of raising American living standards by creating more jobs, tariff reductions and more goods at lower prices. How is the American standard of living increased if Americans’ culture (what is left of it) goes down in spite of more jobs and goods and services? Further, what other painful social and economic adjustments will have to be made to gain these “benefits”? Is further instability and insecurity really what Americans need or want right now? And finally, to the extent that some international trade is desirable, are there not alternative ways of securing these benefits without intensifying our dependency on a global economy?

Roepke reminds us of the close relation that necessarily exists between economic and political order. An intensive international trade tends to induce the formation of a corresponding politics. That is why some rightly worry about centralizing trends such as European unification and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Certainly, we see evidence of increasing centralization and uniformity in provisions like the much-publicized Section 742 of GATT requiring every newborn baby to receive an IRS taxpayer identification number. That alone ought to give every red-blooded American the willies.

Surely, we have to agree that Weaver and the Southern Agrarians, G. K. Chesterton, and the English Distributists as well as Roepke himself understood that a humane economy requires us to keep the beast of economics and trade in its proper place. Instead of praising what GATT will do for “intellectual property rights” (copyrights, patents and trademarks), or reciting for us the all-too-tiresome litany in veneration of computer technology and modern telecommunications, Mr. Wattenburg, and those who share his views, should ask themselves what it will do for property rights in culture, in society, and in economic stability and continuity. Among other things, concern for a humane economy for means rejecting the mythology of destabilizing, unlimited “growth.” But that’s another matter.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. © 1998 The Wilhelm Roepke Institute. Reprinted by permission.


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