On The Cultural Question

culture Mike Wayne argues that with the policy conference for Left Unity looming in March 2014, it is time to start thinking seriously about the centrality of culture for any genuine attempt at large scale social transformation. 

Without a move towards democratic participation in culture, the social and economic objectives of a socialist politics that aims to redistribute wealth and power from the minority to the majority, cannot be achieved. Culture is the key site where new subjectivities can develop that will sustain the long process of change we want to see. Without cultural participation and transformation both the form and content of social, economic, political and other objectives, will be limited. In form they return to the well-worn grooves of top down change that is no change at all. In content, policies will be increasingly hemmed in by the immense pressures that capital and state will place on any movement for change unless there is a popular counterweight that is mobilized, critical, watchful and demanding. Culture is key to developing the critical and communicative resources that such a movement requires. At the same time, without that broader objective to fundamentally shift resources from the exploiting minority to the majority, cultural programmes for change end up as ameliorative sticking plasters or voluntaristic in their appeals for ‘ideological struggle’ over and above social and economic redistribution.   Cultural change and social and economic change that is real, are necessarily and inextricably interconnected.

Culture is not an invitation to join a transcendent and abstract universal community of the ‘best’ that humanity has produced in the ‘arts’. It does not float free of history and society and politics. Nor is culture locked into fragmented and insular identities, with their own micro-political concerns. Culture could be thought of in many different ways that are useful for a socialist politics, but here is one: culture is the means by which people express their lived experience and its perpetual modifications. That lived experience is part of a shared and interconnected history within a socially and economically divided world. A radical cultural programme would be one that empowered people to find out about that world and its history and their place within it so that they can change it.

This is why culture is not an add-on to more ‘important’ ‘bread and butter’ issues, to use the language of a moribund economism. Culture is the site where consciousness of experience (or not) is forged, where history, memory, pain and pleasure are recognized and is the means of communicating across the divides of ethnicity, gender, age and region created by contemporary capitalism. It is also the means of communicating across the various strata that make up the working class and to use the language of sociology, the divide between the working class and the middle class. The critical and communicative articulation of experiences in cultural forms are necessary to forge the bonds of solidarity that can withstand the inevitable ferocious counter-attacks that any programme of radical change will face.

Needless to say, Left Unity’s cultural programme must have nothing in common with the dominant form of contemporary cultural policy. Here culture is integrated into the neo-liberal order. Culture is seen as a means of encouraging competition between regions, stimulating creativity that can be channeled into commodities, developing skills that be transferred to employment (usually low paid) and making ‘partnerships’ that transfer financial and intellectual resources to the private sector.

Looking at the infrastructure for cultural provision in this country we can identify four ‘terrains’. Firstly there is the High Arts, largely state funded through the Arts Council. The majority of funding tends to go towards servicing the cultural tastes of the middle and upper classes (the major theatres, opera houses, orchestras, etc). Then there is the commercial mass media owned by large interconnected corporations with huge power for taste and opinion formation. Thirdly there is the public sector. Unlike the state provision of the Arts, public sector broadcasting has historically had a broader engagement with popular culture and a more explicit mandate to be part of a national conversation than the High Arts. Similarly, libraries, although not immune to the sort of class stratifications that effect other forms of cultural provision, are certainly more open to working class users than the High Arts. Finally there is what I would call the terrain of Popular Culture. This is to be differentiated from mass culture as it is the culture that expresses the lived experience of working people most directly. This popular culture certainly has had complicated relationships with High Culture (think the working class bands and choirs before de-industrialisation, think the Pitmen Painters) and continues to have complex relationships with mass culture which mines it for its cultural ore (black culture in particular having a certain cache). Unlike High Culture, the public sector or commercial mass culture, Popular Culture has virtually no sustained funding sources and co-ordinating organizations. Insofar as it exists beyond everyday lived expressions, in special arenas set aside for cultural leisure, then it exists or existed in a patchwork of community centres, working men’s clubs, and cultural forms such as theatre that have been in a perpetual struggle to survive. Sometimes the only resources available to this Popular Culture is heroic self-initiative and sacrifice. The class nature of this unequal distribution of resources for cultural participation is stark. In Salford for example on the site of the old docks, there now stands the Lowry theatre, the BBC’s Media City and the Imperial War Museum, all publically funded organizations that cost hundreds of millions of pounds to build and sustain and whose workers and users are overwhelmingly middle class.  Not more than a mile away there stands the Salford Arts Theatre, on the edge of a large working class estate. It is run on a voluntary basis by a working class couple in their spare time and for years without any public support at all. For some time buckets were regularly spread around the foyer to catch the rain water leaking in through the dilapidated roof.

It is this fourth sector, the sector of Popular Culture, which ought I think to be a priority for Left Unity when thinking about its cultural policies. This is the terrain which needs to be expanded, supported and transformed as the political awareness and confidence of the people themselves changes through self-activity. Popular Culture provides the means by which presence of the working class in the public sphere can provide the leverage by which to democratize certainly the High Arts and the public sector and even to an extent some parts and levels of the commercial mass media.

At the heart of a policy of cultural democratization we might imagine something like a network of Institutes of Popular Culture (IPCs) in every city for example. Their job would be to fund and galvanise cultural activity in two key areas: the communities in which people live and the trade unions in which many millions of people are still members. In the communities for example, the IPCs could play a key role in attracting strata of the working class who have been massively alienated from mainstream politics and education and whose majority access to culture and information is the mass media. The IPCs would provide the equipment and training for cultural expression in radio, local TV, film, theatre, writing, music and any and all art forms that people wanted to explore. Their philosophy of education would be one that encouraged autonomy and critical engagement with the world around them and the formation of ‘organic intellectuals’. The IPCs would help forge networks by which cultural forms could be circulated regionally and nationally. The physical infrastructure for these networks already exist in many cases, in community centres, cafes, museums, libraries, music venues, independent cinemas and so forth. But the IPCs could play a vital role in pulling these discrete sites into a national network. In relation to the trade unions the IPCs could help, through cultural projects connected to working class history, increase the participation of their members and the relevance of the trade unions to their members lives. The IPCs could also work with existing cultural providers to encourage democratization of their provision, increase education and properly invest in outreach programmes. The IPCs would also need to plug into the education sector, from primary through to Higher Education so that Popular Culture becomes a legitimate part of the curriculum.

The IPCs could be powerful motors of change. To work they would need many resources, not least philosophical and methodological resources that would enable autonomy and self-expression that was genuinely bottom up. Financially the resource question for culture is the same as anything else. Britain is a rich country, one of the richest in the world. It does not feel like that for many people because the wealth is badly distributed. But here’s a concrete example of revenue generation: a tax on advertising. Advertising converts the wealth stolen from working people into a bastardised form of cultural production designed to keep the capitalist machine ticking over. With over 17 billion currently spent on advertising in the UK, a tax on all corporate advertising, would raise sufficient funds and reconvert that surplus back into socially useful activity. Just a 1% tax would raise say £170 million per year. That would allow 340 IPCs to set up with a  budget of £500,000 each. This is a cultural infrastructure that could transform the cultural inequalities that have come to be acceptable by a system that has no motivation to do anything about them.

Of course there are many aspects of a cultural programme to be discussed, including immediate demands and goals. It is to be hoped that Left Unity’s Arts and Culture Policy commission will reactivate itself soon, encourage ideas from members and come up with some proposals to be voted on in March. I think something like the IPCs should be in the mix as a long term goal. But in the short term, and for all the reasons discussed above, Left Unity branches could think about how they can expand their constituency of members by engaging with Popular Culture in their own localities.




9 responses to “On The Cultural Question”

  1. John Tummon says:

    You are dead right about culture and building socialism. Richard Hoggart’s 1957 book, “The Uses of Literacy”, is one of my all-time favourites. He said “the chains of cultural subordination are both easier to wear and harder to strike away than those of economic subordination”.

    Among other things, Hoggart’s book charts the change in the lyrics of popular songs from the early 20th century, when lyrics were predominantly about not worrying, getting through hard times with a smiling face and self-deprecating humour about personal oddities, all located within a sense of working class community. From the 1950s this was challenged and overcome by the cloying, individualistic sentimentality of US crooners, pretending that they were singing to ‘only you’ while actually reaching millions – a culture based on dreams and fantasy rather than life, with home as a sanctuary and retreat. Hoggart argued that the commercialised ‘love’ at the centre of ‘home’ became a substitute for religion – love redefined as the endpoint of personal existence – ‘I’ll love you forever’, ‘from here to eternity’ – quasi religious language for the praise of human love – with a ‘just the two of us’ in a more atomised world losing its community values.

    George Melly’s book “Revolt into Style” charts how successive waves of young people trying to bring pop culture back towards their lives and what they want to express have been taken over, pasteurised and controlled by the music industry. What Melly did not foresee was how technology has in turn taken power away from this music industry, such that my son finds it possible to plan a national tour for his band on his own, without an agent, a record deal or a promoter, just by tapping into the network of indie venues that have sprung up throughout the country.

    Hoggart showed how popular literature mirrored this move to a culture based on fantasy – a pasteurized fantasy in which the press featured ‘human interest stories’ and picked on easy targets, pulling their punches when ‘interrogating’ real power, holding their readers in a state of passive acceptance in which they never ask a question while reading. This promoted conservatism and conformity.

    The home was separated, through these cultural developments, from life outside, such that culture transformed itself into ‘entertainment’ – a consumption activity centred on television, taking our minds off things rather than enabling us to engage with them. This entertainment culture has since become increasingly highly coloured and slick, driven by higher and higher spec technology, coupled with a lower and lower level of literacy and featuring a higher and higher incidence of the predictable twists in plots, in stories and in values. Dumbed down escapism.

    A pub culture of group singing and group games like dominoes and darts has gradually been replaced by drinking standing up amidst loud music; brass bands and other forms of communal music are dying out.

    Fiction, usually undemanding fiction, accounts for almost all the books in public libraries; the history sections consists almost wholly of military history.

    6 million people log on each day to the Daily Mail website, millions read the same stories in the same newspapers and see the same TV programmes, all dedicated to the lowest common denominator of taste and to maintaining low levels of political literacy ( see my thread on the Pointless Guide to Political Illiteracy).

    Before this, there was a working class culture closely interrelated with education – a few years ago I visited a workers’ library in South Wales, built and stocked with educational books by local trade union branches. My grandfather used to build early radios – crystal sets – on the kitchen table. This was, according to Hoggart, ‘the earnest minority ‘ within the working class, the ones who organised things in working class communities – the section that was ripped from the physical presence of the rest of the working class by Thatcher’s sale of Council houses. Neighbourhoods no longer organise trips to the seaside or countryside – on the estate where I grew up we once hired an entire train to take a thousand of us to Blackpool. Mid-century Grammar School boys and girls like me physically left the working class for jobs requiring degrees. According to Hoggart, the working class lost many of its most critically minded people at the same time as mass culture became trivialised and de-politicised – the double whammy.

    Hoggart’s main complaint against this trivialisation is that it stops people not from acquiring ‘high culture’ but from becoming wise in their own way, less likely to arrive at a wisdom derived from an inner, felt discrimination and their own experience. Irresponsible pleasure, cultural classlessness, moral evasiveness and social conservatism all characterise modern culture.

    All of this shows that we are dealing with long-term cultural damage to the working class which long pre-dates neoliberalism, let alone austerity. We are part of this culture and even the most aware of us is probably only dimly aware of the extent and depth of this damage. In order to be able to build a culture that can strengthen and nurture independent political organisation within the working class, we need to delve back to the time before mass commercialised culture took hold and to the 1950s transition that Hoggart identified, in order to tease out the main principles from that context and think big enough to be capable of drawing people away from escapist culture – back to the future!

    We won’t get any grants for this so I think campaigning for a tax on advertising is as much a dead duck as the Rob Hood Tax campaign. We need to first agree on the broad forms of independent and participatory cultural activities we want to nurture in the 21st century and then find ways of engaging with communities to take them forward. My experience says we start with community newsletters.

    • Michael Wayne says:

      Thanks John for that really interesting post. Just to say that the main point of the article was not to launch a campaign to tax advertising but start up a debate about the role of culture in relation to class and social change. The idea of the IPCs is really to provide some sort of vision of a possible future to start a debate about culture and politics now and most importantly, build that into branch and party activity. That said it can’t harm to have definite ideas for institutional change and although the Tobin tax has yet to be implemented it did demonstrate that alternatives are possible but they will be opposed by powerful vested interests.

  2. John Tummon says:

    Chris, I can’t see a movement of any size getting behind demands to take these industries into common ownership. We can produce campaigning information exposing how they operate now, though, until such a time that your idea gets some traction outside the few of us interested in this.

    Working on a local basis with communites to set up community newsletters, progressive social events such as film showings (‘Spirit of ’45 & other more accessible leftwing stuff), agitprop theatre that is not too didactic, ‘free mike’ music nights and discussions on local issues, is more my preferred starting point on cultural politics, or else it will not be properly rooted. There used to be a Workers Film Association in Manchester pledged to helping communities make their own films, which is worth reviving, and there are some leftwing musicians who can help young people master contemporary music and recording technology so that self-expression and collective expression is something that can come from within working class communities. Writing workshops are another idea which links well to community newsleetters.

    The key point for me for cultural politics and every other strand of LU activity is that it must be taken forward in partnership with working class communites and organisations if it to get rooted and not be some substitutionist activity.

  3. John says:

    Very thoughtful article. Another facet of this debate is the lack of opportunities for creative activities given to working class people,particularly youth – an example being the marginalisation of Arts subjects in schools under the Gove Curriculum proposals and the decimation of the Youth Service that gave kids a chance to follow interests in music and art outside of school. Why- apart from serving the austerity agenda? As Mike says, such activities develop autonomy and critical engagement – I would also add confidence and self development ; all of which are anathema to the Right as they want compliant, X Factor watching folk!

  4. Michael Wayne says:

    Hi Chris,
    I think we would not want to be advocating wholesale nationalisation of the mass media – that would not solve our problems. Firstly we can think about democratising existing public service broadcasting. We can also think about developing new mass media organs that are publically owned. But I think we need above all to build up capacity for bottom up and mass participation in media and cultural activities. Media education, which is constantly attacked of course by the establishment, is also crucial in developing the critical thinking necessary to develop independence from corporate media influence.

  5. Patrick Black says:

    Very interesting article. Thanks Mike for putting it together. It generates ideas and that’s what Left Unity crucially needs, to be at the cutting edge of generating exciting fresh new and innovative ideas and approaches. The British Left has been dead for years,lacking any capacity or imagination to generate any new ideas, merely fighting rearguard actions, insanely maintaining purity of dogma in the face of the vast neo liberal offensive which has devastated this country and led us to where we are, a predominantly brainwashed pisshead violent and selfish society where people’s minds have bneen privatised.

    I do think some people, however, need to get a serious “reality check”. I dont think Left Unity will be forming a government anytime soon and so ideas of taking the media means of production into common ownership are somewhat premature and wide of the mid to say the least.

    More importantly , in my view, as is suggested in the article,we need to work form where we are, developing, improving and refining what is as resources, both people and finacial, allow.

    We need creative collective thinking, something again the Britsh Left has and is sadly lacking. The media, arts and culture commission needs to be made widely accessible and I dont think the present systems of commissions is workable or sufficiently accessible.

    If Left Unity can pull together a large number of creative thinkers.Media workers, artists,film makers, people who work in The Arts, people who care about cultire and other interested people then it would be possible to shape a core group together.

    Peterloo 2019, would in my view, be a great and unique opportunity to bring
    about a dynamic and exciting festival , on par with Tolpuddle, Diggers festivals etc involving many people using film (Ken Loach are you out there ?, popular community based theatre, song, music, poetry, photography, art, literature etc etc

  6. John Tummon says:

    Here is the definitive evidence of the degree of media manipulation and the extent to which it has distorted public perceptions of reality: http://www.reasonandreality.org/?p=2887

    This is what we have to overcome in terms of cultural. educational and agitational work over the coming years. We need to constantly draw such disparities to the attention of people.

  7. Andy Broadey says:

    A really well thought out article.

    This exhibition http://www.stedelijk.nl/en/exhibitions/populism and the accompanying reader http://www.sternberg-press.com/index.php?pageId=1111&bookId=11&l=en might be a useful reference point for the discussion.

  8. Stuart Inman says:

    I always feel a certain degree of trepidation in attempting to discuss the arts in relation to politics. While it is nice to know that there are plenty of people who do not want to reduce all the arts down to some horrible repeat of socialist realism, there is nevertheless often a tendency to wish to make the arts somehow useful, to give it a job.

    My own position on this emerges from a long involvement with surrealism. The first problem here is the frequent misunderstanding of what surrealism is, from all parts of the political spectrum. For instance, the identification of surrealism as an art movement, something it has never been. While plenty of people on the left have some understanding of this issue, many do not and even now one can find plenty of people who have some hostility to the movement.

    So, for the record, surrealism sees itself as a revolution, not in art, but if you like, in living and sees the necessity of a social revolution in order to realise that. It is not only a movement active in the arts, but in politics and philosophy, to give two examples. Another misunderstanding about surrealism is its duration, often considered by art historians to have ended with the Second World War, but it has a continuous history from the 1920s to the present day.

    However, my current purpose is not to lecture on the history of, or misunderstandings surreounding the movement, and for that you may be profoundly thankful. Rather, it is to think a little bit about how one percieves the surrealist attitude within the field it is best known, and paradoxically this brings us back to the arts.

    Poetry is seen, not as literature, but if you like, an activity of spirit (which can be understood in a materialist sense rather than an otherworldly one) and therefore makes a demand of freedom. Poetry that does not try to serve any cause can be seen to serve the greatest of causes, freedom. To profess this must, inevitably, have repercussions for how one sees such things as the funding of art and how the arts might be positioned within politics.

    To be a political person who refuses to make art that is didactically political can be in itself political. To attempt to realise inner states one might yet be making a very powerful critique of society, and in the surrealist context the films of Jan Svankmajer can be seen to do this, even if the conscious purpose of most of his work is not ostensibly political. The earlier work nevertheless criticises the old communist regime, the later work criticises capitalism and consumerism, all of it criticises the repressive mechanisms of state and capital.

    Sorry for sounding off as if lecturing, bad habit of mine, but usually only on this subject.

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