Chris Guiton

Chris Guiton

Chris Guiton is a project manager, writer and Co-managing editor of Culture Matters.

The Mouse and the Milk
Tuesday, 05 December 2017 10:51

The Mouse and the Milk

Published in Our Publications

The Mouse and the Milk – by Mike Quille, with illustrations by John Gordon

£8.00 (plus £1.50 p&p). ISBN978-1-907464-29-4

Culture Matters, an imprint of Manifesto Press, has published a new version of a classic folk-tale from Sardinia, The Mouse and the Milk.

The story was written down in 1931 by Antonio Gramsci, the Marxist philosopher and political activist, in a letter to his children. The letter was smuggled out of one of Mussolini’s prisons, where Gramsci had been imprisoned ‘to stop his brain from functioning’. (In fact, as we know, his brain functioned all the more powerfully!) The story was later re-told by John Berger.

Mike Quille said, “Folk-tales are, by their very nature, metaphorical. They can be re-shaped for a contemporary audience and show the children of today how we can we make the world a better place by working collectively and respecting the environment.

“The Mouse and the Milk is a simple but very profound story. In just a few pages it expresses how practising natural human generosity and caring for the world around us leads not only to material abundance but a kinder, more just and peaceful society. At a time of growing child poverty and threats to the environment, this message could not be more relevant.”

 

JD Meatyard
Wednesday, 15 November 2017 09:15

JD Meatyard

Published in Music

Chris Guiton interviews jd meatyard, who describes himself as a left field artist much favoured in his Levellers 5 and Calvin Party days by the late great John Peel, with albums such as ‘Lies Lies & Government’ and songs such as ‘Tell Me About Poverty’. June 2017 saw the release of ‘Collectivise’ the 4th album in his current guise as jd meatyard - featured on BBC 6 Music’s Gideon Coe show. 

CG. Can you tell us something about your new album, Collectivise, and how it builds on your previous albums?

JD. Collectivise is a return to guitar, bass, drums…lo fi as a production bonus. The previous album ‘ Taking The Asylum’ was influenced by ‘songwriters’…like Cale’s ‘Paris 1919’… Jonathan Richman…Elliot Smith. For Collectivise the mood was different, darker, christ just walk out in the streets and see the despair…and the recording of the new album coincided with a family bad thing, a dreadful loss…with the personal and political in such a state the ‘tone’ of the recording added much to the songs themselves…‘songs I’d play everyday with songs painful to listen to even though I share the politics’ says one. So all in all, the songs on Collectivise reflect of course the crazy place we are now in - the horror show that is the every day for so many people… and the personal to, as ever. I couldn’t have an album with such a narrative lightened around the edges with mandolins and such - ergo guitar, bass, drums.

CG. You celebrate a diverse range of influences. Can you tell us a bit about how your music has evolved over the years?

JD. Well, with Levellers 5 (NOT Levellers!) back in the early John Peel days it was just pretty much a manic rant at times, 'like drunk kids let loose in a music store' said the MNE (true, as in we were like drunk kids…) held together by a great band. Then with Calvin Party we played the indie style of big guitars n' stuff…hey, all in all a pile of Peelie sessions n album releases, it was all a life to live. I headed over to live in Holland and packed in the ‘band thing’ as I wanted to just write songs - not songs for a band, just songs, any which way they came. So started jd meatyard…Ralph Eugene Meatyard was a photographer whose work I liked, interesting stuff for sure, and I needed a ‘name’ to be a solo singer songwriter sort of guy. It worked, we formed a 3 piece in Rotterdam, me and Johan and Nina, sparse - two guitars, a floor tom and snare…but what it opened up was the variety of song - the light n' shade maybe, loud quiet loud. It’s worked well on the albums, the eponymously titled sort of nervous solo debut, then ‘Northern Songs’ with the much demanded ‘Jesse James’ song on through to the new release…we got many indie radio show's support, and plays from Gideon Coe on BBC 6 Music…the new Peelie, which really helps!

CG. Brecht famously said, 'Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.' How relevant do you think this is now as we face a continued neoliberal assault on the 'cultural
commons', those elements of art and culture that rightly belong to all of us?

JD. ‘Art is all’, I used to believe. Problem is ‘culture’ is now a tool that we’re controlled by, there’s no argument to this…Edward Bernays pioneered such control of the masses at the behest of the New York/U.S elites early 20th Century. 'The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society'… keep us all in the mall whilst they go about screwing the planet. I do think that there is hope, the dumbing down of all culture, the collapse of the popular into little more than corporate funding is I think coming to an end…gotta say, social media has had a big part in this loosening of the reins, there is now an emerging culture of radical attack, of questioning, of challenging that hasn't been around for a long time…social media, the great channel for leaks that they can no longer control…the other day with the Paradise Papers tax stuff…no wonder they’re so frightened of Jeremy Corbyn! 

That I get hammered, and I do, for my tiny contribution - songs for Palestine, ‘4 Kids on a Gaza Beach’, for the left, ‘Jesse James’, ‘Blow it Out yr Arse’, 'St Peter at The Gate’, ’Collectivise’… people in Sheffield walking out of the show, others rolling their eyes ‘oh not more politics’, underlines the problem…the attacks I get are pretty severe at times.

CG. What are your thoughts generally about politics at the moment, in particular the hope offered by Jeremy Corbyn and the dramatic shift in the position of the Labour Party?

JD. JC has done something that I’d completely given up on, he’s energised so many people - people that had given up hope - many on the left/humanists that had walked away following Blair's band of closet neo-libs…the feeling now that there is a real possibility of success for a centre left government is astonishing given recent history. We now have a Labour Party fit for the name, a leader that matches many of us in historical choices - aye, we did play anti-apartheid shows, and shows for the miners and he/we never wore ‘Hang Mandela’ T shirts like some of the tory toffs. Yes, there is a wee political frisson about now with JC attracting crowds like never before…just as the Tories are chewing themselves up with the tax dodging and abuse charges ripping round the ether - good times…hopefully great, honest, progressive times on the way. There needs to be big changes globally. The corporate governance of the planet, profit is ALL, has worked for the elites but it has, no doubt, fkd the planet. The poor and the immigrants haven't fkd the planet the rich have.

CG. There’s a lot of heartfelt anger and honesty in your music. How do you combine the personal and the political in your songwriting?

JD. Thanks. Its easy, no? What’s the old one - ‘the personal is poltical’? I don't know how songwriters can avoid being political! Of course I get it, Ed Sheeren and the like are ‘business’ artists - they write flatlining songs for a flatlining audience - formulaic, high production and a marketing plan to suit. We don't expect anything from such artists…however, I am surprised that so few ‘serious’ artists that have the opportunity to comment don’t bother to do so - each to their own. However, for Morrissey, Radiohead and the rest who play the ‘non political’ card as an excuse to pocket the Netanyahu $$$…well, what can you say, sick. It’s my naivety I guess, I expect more from artists. For me, what else is there? The pain, the tragedies, the loves and losses…fk, it's all there in the everyday of life, to seperate politics from personal is to artificially divide reality. So, for me, there’s no contrivance, it's life.

CG. At Culture Matters we are very interested in what an incoming Labour Government would do to develop arts and culture policies that reverse the impact of austerity, make the link between progressive art and progressive politics, and support culture for the many not the few (to coin a phrase!). What are your thoughts on what a socialist arts and culture policy should offer us?

JD. Financial backing for creatives, right now there’s little or no support unless you’re already making $$$…I beg PRS now and again for support - nada, nothing, nunca. We need targeted support for those with a catalogue of, let's say, meaningful music. Sad thing is that in music particularly there’s a real dumbed down practice - the mainstream now is the aural equivilent of Enid Blyton, kids read EB, no probs, however adults listen to the aural equivalent. Little from the left field gets through…Sleaford Mods bravo. Support for ‘alt’ venues would help, this would include ‘hands on’ support in terms of creating a culture of arts/music clubs aimed at that very real alternative audience…funding for progressive ideas is what we need.

CG. What's it like working in the music scene at the moment? How has it changed over your life? What do you think of other bands and musicians these days?

JD. See above, ha. Since John Peel left us its been a struggle for many bands, JDM is lucky. I get support from many independent radio shows and Gideon Coe on BBC 6 Music has played songs from all my albums as JDM. But when Peel was around it made a difference with others who used him as a marker - so we’d get better gigs then and plays from other network DJs - it's noticeable how so may doors shut when the great man died.

CG. The DIY culture that emerged with punk still appears to be going strong. A grassroots approach to music is a great way of empowering people who might otherwise feel excluded. What are your thoughts on this, and how might the labour movement best support this?

JD. Like many, music was my door to everything else. The house as a kid revolved around C & W, played on the record player and also live by my ma n' da, brother and sister …great singalongs until the dreaded introduction of Lanliq - those days ‘buckie’. Then dub and reggae got me asking how come so many Scottish names…slave history and nasty empires entered my vocab, Lou and the Velvets blew open my eternal love of New York, and introduced me to Warhol and 3 hour long screenings of looking at the Empire State Building - the very notion of ‘alternative’ in the arts and of course in life too. Punk was such a break, the sheer bravado and ‘fk you’ attitude was so liberating and yes, empowering, as it blew away so much deadwood in music and beyond, for a moment it terrified the establishment. This is what I mentioned before - the government can, if it wants to, fund street level creativity through music and the arts by encouraging people with ideas to create spaces, small venues with real spirit, progressive places that encourage participation with artists and the public. Such activity is critical in fostering a ‘knowing’ public rather than a shopping mall mass taught only to, well, shop and little else. We need a mass of people with a critical, intelligent mindset if we are to break the corporate ruling of our lives, our world. The arts, music is central to the creation of a better future for us all - nearly said ‘for the many, not the few’ - phew! Painting, music, photography, all creatives have a critical role to play in saving the world from a
toxic culture that will see this planet drained to an empty shell - as long as they make $$$$$$…we can change the everyday from one of banal consumption at best to something more vital, a life worth living.

CG. I see you’re about to tour the Netherlands, and also live abroad part of the time. How do you find foreign audiences react to your music and does spending time abroad give you a different perspective on life?

JD. Aye, back to Rrrrrrrotterdam, what a place. I never realised the toughness of the Dutch until we moved there for a couple of years and Rotterdam, port city n' all is as tough as it comes. Holland was cool for the music, my music. They got the punk thing, shared like most northern European countries a liking for ‘alt’ stuff - so you get such acts touring these places…unlike Spain, Malaga city where the kids are into either 80s Bronx beats or the most insipid pop you’ve ever heard - ‘rock’ ground to a halt here with Duran Duran, punk never happened down this way…I get back to the UK for recording and gigs, see family. I love being back for the first few days…Pogues Irish bar in Liverool, up to Glasgow to see a game..recently discovered the wonder that is Bristol, recording the new album there...what a great city, now there’s a place that seems to be getting good culture to the centre of  things. But after the first few days I’m sort of looking for my return flight…different perspective, for sure, back to the calm of El Palo.

 “Some People is an epic track – If there was still a Peel Festive 50 it would be in the Top Ten this year”, Louder Than War. For more info and to buy his CDs go to jd meatyard

The Bread and Roses Songwriting and Spoken Word Award
Friday, 10 November 2017 11:27

The Bread and Roses Songwriting and Spoken Word Award

Published in Music

Closing date extended to 23 February 2018

The Communication Workers Union (CWU) and Culture Matters are pleased to announce a new Songwriting and Spoken Word Award.

The Award is now open for submissions. The purpose of the new Award is to encourage songwriters and spoken word performers to write material meaningful to working class people and communities, and to encourage those communities to engage more with songwriting and spoken word. There is a £100 cash prize for each of the top five entries. The judges will be from CWU and Culture Matters.

Dave Ward, General Secretary of the CWU, said,

I welcome this new partnership with Culture Matters. The arts and culture generally are vital to the labour movement, and working class communities across the country. Good access to the arts, sports and other cultural activities are part of the social wage. State support needs to be re-balanced so that working people everywhere can enjoy cheap, accessible and good quality provision. 

We are sponsoring this Award because we want to encourage our members in the CWU, and working people everywhere, to express themselves creatively on themes that matter to them as workers.

So get writing and get performing, and send your entries in!

Submission Guidelines and Award Rules

Entry is open to all, regardless of trade union membership. The submission guidelines are as follows:

- Entries should broadly deal with any aspect of working class life, communities and culture and show commitment to the common people, the common good and the common language of music and the spoken word.

- Entries are restricted to original material, in English, by solo or duo artists/performers.

- Entries must be submitted as audio or video files (MP3/4 format, YouTube link or similar), via e-mail.

- Entrants must be resident in the United Kingdom.

- Entrants may submit up to three songs/performances.

- The organisers accept no responsibility for entries that are incorrectly submitted or not delivered due to technical faults.

- By entering the Award, entrants agree to accept and be bound by the rules of the Award and the decisions of the judges.

- Entries should be sent via email to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. The deadline for receipt of submissions is midnight on 23 February 2018. When emailing submissions please provide your full name, postal address and phone number.

The winners will be invited to perform at the CWU annual conference in Bournemouth in April 2018. All entries remain the copyright of the entrant but CWU and Culture Matters will have the right to publish them online and in other media.

On Fighting On - An Anthology of Poems from the Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2017
Tuesday, 07 November 2017 11:09

On Fighting On - An Anthology of Poems from the Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2017

Published in Our Publications

On Fighting On - An Anthology of Poems from the Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2017

£5 (plus £1.50 p&p) ISBN 978-1-907464-24-9.

Culture Matters, an imprint of Manifesto Press, has published a new anthology of poems from the Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2017, sponsored by Unite.

The purpose of the new Award is to encourage poets to focus on themes which are meaningful to workin g class people and communities and to encourage those communities to engage more with poetry. Entrants were given the opportunity to deal broadly with any aspect of working class life and culture and show commitment to the common people, the common good and the common music of poetry.

Mike Quille, the Editor of the anthology, said, “We wanted to encourage Unite members and working people more widely to engage with poetry and the arts generally. And encourage the mainstream poetry world to lift its eyes beyond the narrow poetry ‘bubble’ and be more attentive to the labour movement. The poems in this collection reflect a broad range of themes and moods. They show very clearly the collective strength of writing by working people.”

The Award was kindly supported by Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union. Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, said, “We sponsored the first Bread and Roses Poetry Award because we believe that our members, and working people generally, have an equal right to join in and enjoy all the arts, and other cultural activities. We believe we should be able to afford them, get to them, and enjoy them, and that art should seek to engage with all sections of the community. Working-class people face a continual cultural struggle to defend our cultural commons, to keep cultural activities open to the many, not the few.”

The booklet is priced at £5 (plus £1.50 p&p), and is available from manifestopress.org.uk, culturematters.org.uk and the usual outlets. ISBN 978-1-907464-24-9.

 

Muses and Bruises
Monday, 06 November 2017 16:10

Muses and Bruises

Published in Our Publications

Muses and Bruises - Poems by Fran Lock, Collages by Steev Burgess

 £8 (plus £1.50 p&p) ISBN9781907464256.

Culture Matters, an imprint of Manifesto Press, has published a new collection of poetry by Fran Lock. The poems are accompanied by collages by Steev Burgess.

Fran lock is an activist, writer and illustrator, and one of the finest political poets around. Like John Clare, Lock evokes the troubling, often agonising effects of capitalist society on personal and social identity. Her feminist and socialist poetry weaves psychological insight and social awareness into themes of poverty, mental health problems, sexual abuse, domestic violence and political struggle. Vivid, lavish and punchy, it combines a deep sense of anger and injustice with vulnerable empathy and compassion.

The poems in this collection revel in richness and in strangeness. They are about the unlikely places where working class women find beauty and meaning, and the unlikely materials from which they are composed. The fragmented yet coherent collages of Steev Burgess complement and enhance those meanings perfectly. The images dance with the poems, singing together about muses and bruises, fantasy and reality – grind and grime with a lick of glitter.

 

Mike Jenkins
Wednesday, 06 September 2017 17:24

Bring the Rising Home!

Published in Our Publications

Bring the Rising Home! Poems by Mike Jenkins, with paintings by Gustavius Payne

£9 (plus £1.50 p&p) ISBN 978-1-907464-22-5.

Culture Matters has published a new collection of poetry by the Welsh socialist poet Mike Jenkins. The poems are accompanied by full colour paintings by Gustavius Payne.

In May 1831, miners and others took to the streets of Merthyr Tydfil, protesting against wage cuts and unemployment generally. The protest spread and soon the whole area was in rebellion – the red flag was flown as a symbol of workers' revolt for the first time. The social and economic conditions which sparked the Merthyr Rising are never far from Mike Jenkins’s poetic imagination, but there are also poems here about drunks, jailbirds, footballers, a mining disaster, and Northern Ireland.

Weaving through both poems and images are themes of individual isolation and alienation, and the urgent need for collective action to change the conditions of working people. Mike Jenkins’s vivid, lyrical poems are accompanied by full colour paintings by the Welsh socialist painter Gustavius Payne, whose bold, striking, and deeply sympathetic paintings complement the poems perfectly.

The message is clear: isolated, people are powerless, but together they are strong. They need to organise into trade unions, join a socialist party and challenge the ruling class. Here is a poetic and painterly union of two socialist Welsh artists who, in their own brilliant, artistic way, are bringing the Rising home.

 

Lugalbanda
Thursday, 17 August 2017 06:27

Lugalbanda: Lover of the seed

Published in Our Publications

Lugalbanda: Lover of the seed

£4.99 (plus £1.00 p&p) ISBN978-1-907464-23-2 

A new version by Doug Nicholls, this book is a fundraiser for the Free Ocalan campaign. It brings to the attention of modern readers a poem written 5,000 years ago but still with incredible relevance to us today.

The imprisoned political leader Abdullah Ocalan draws attention to the first Sumerian civilisation built between the Tigris and Euphrates, in the troubled lands today covered by Iraq and Syria. This civilisation was forgotten for over 2,000 years, buried under sands, but when it was rediscovered it was realised that the Sumerians had brought to humanity agriculture, architecture, the first writing, the first schools, the first written poetry, the first laws and many other notable inventions.

This delightful and surprising story of the exploits of Lugalbanda and what powers he chooses as a reward for looking after the chick of a monstrous bird in the mountains is a joy to read, so distant yet so near. It also compels us to think about some profound truths in our own world.

A fantastic read for young and old and whether you have read poetry before or not. The author’s notes on the poem will surprise and challenge you as they extract layers of meaning from the poem.

 

Oscar Niemeyer's futuristic civic buildings in Brasilia
Thursday, 13 April 2017 15:01

Architecture and socialism

Published in Architecture

This section of Culture Matters is about architecture, including its role in shaping our collective future. Chris Guiton offers a foundation essay on achitecture and socialism.

Architecture is an expression and a reflection of human society. It has evolved over human history in response to our changing needs, innovation in building technology and design, and changes in the way we view the world around us. Part response to society’s functional needs and part creative expression, it offers the scope to shape our environment for either better or worse.

The practice of architecture provides us with a built environment where buildings function as places of work, as homes and as public spaces. The need for shelter from the elements in early human society took on greater significance as nomadic existence was replaced by a more settled, urban society. The simple requirement for shelter evolved into something that might be a place of work as well as a home, with different rooms developing specialist functions, and where people developed relationships with their family and community.

Hagia Sophia Church

Hagia Sophia Church

We can trace architecture’s lineaments through human history as it provides us with a way of looking at and understanding the past. Monumental structures such as the Giza pyramids, the Parthenon, Athens, the Hagia Sophia basilica and mosque in Istanbul, Il Duomo in Florence, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Chrysler Building in New York all tell a story about the economic and social forces that produced them. And about how that society wished to project its image into the future. This process is also represented in the more ordinary dwellings that were built for people and work, as well as in the public spaces and infrastructure that underpinned the development of cities, and in the very design and layout of those urban spaces.

As a profession, architecture has provided many socialists and progressives with the opportunity to help construct a better future. William Morris, the great designer, novelist and socialist activist, was very conscious of the role of architecture in society. As he put it: "the untouched surface of ancient architecture bears witness to the development of man's ideas, to the continuity of history, and, so doing, affords never-ceasing instruction, nay education, to the passing generations, not only telling us what were the aspirations of men passed away, but also what we may hope for in the time to come."

He appreciated the importance of simple beauty in things, where architecture was an expression of handicraft as well as “a work of cooperation. The very designer, be he never so original, pays his debt to this necessity in being in some form or another under the influence of tradition; dead men guide his hand even when he forgets that they ever existed. But, furthermore, he must get his ideas carried out by other men; no man can build a building with his own hands”. In other words, it isn’t just about the building of a house, but also, at a fundamental level, about the act of construction itself.

The German architect Walter Gropius, inspired by William Morris, but also by the emerging modernism school, established the Bauhaus in Weimar in Germany in 1919. The movement was hugely influential on modern design, with its simplified forms, harmony between an object or building’s function and its design, and focus on mass production. During its relatively short ascendency it produced some remarkable housing, schools and other buildings. Gropius, claimed it was apolitical but also said that his aim was to "to create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist."

His Marxist successor, Hannes Meyer, felt that the Bauhaus had lost its purpose and sought to move away from aesthetic considerations towards building designs based on the “life processes” of its future users. His new slogan was: “The people’s needs instead of the need for luxury!” Unfortunately, his politics led to his expulsion and he moved to the Soviet Union, but not before he had designed (with Hans Wittwer) one of the finest examples of functional architecture, the school of the ADGB (Federation of German Trade Unions) in Bernau near Berlin.

Less well known internationally, but no less significant, was the Vkhutemas, the Russian state art and technical school founded by Lenin in 1920. Both it and the Bauhaus were remarkably similar in their focus on modernising design and architectural education to reflect modern needs, under state sponsorship, merging craft traditions with modern technology. Unsurprisingly, the major artistic influences on the Vkhutemas were the constructivist and suprematist movements. Vladimir Tatlin's superb Monument to the Third International is a testament to their vision, with its futuristic ethos and revolutionary symbolism setting the tone for later projects.

CL Tatlins Tower 1919

Tatlin, Monument to the Third International

In the USSR, the ideological drive to forge a new socialist society, allied with rapid industrial development and accompanying migration from the countryside to the cities, combined to create a synthesis between radical art and architecture. The Constructivist movement created a number of highly innovative, large-scale housing developments, public buildings, leisure facilities and power stations, which were designed to create new forms of communal living, with shared spaces for eating and recreation.

A classic example is the Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow, built in 1930, which actually combined self-contained flats and integrated shared living spaces, reflecting the transitional nature of the times. It’s astonishing to reflect on how Constructivist architects created a new visual language in the face of material shortages, under-developed technology and a rapidly evolving political environment. Eventually, Constuctivism and similar experiments were abandoned when they were considered too advanced for the conditions that prevailed at the time. But this shouldn’t detract from the very real sense of energy and innovation that these movements expressed.

CG architecture image002

ADGB Trade Union School

What became known as Modernism synthesised many of these traditions at an international level and is the single most important new approach to architecture and design of the 20th century. It offered an analytical approach to function, innovation in structure and the elimination of ornament. It has produced many visually striking, and diverse, buildings, ranging from Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, beautifully integrated with the surrounding forest; Mies van der Rohe’s wonderful Barcelona Pavilion; Oscar Niemeyer’s futuristic civic buildings in Brasilia, which aimed to contribute to a new sense of collective identity and hope for the Brazilian people; Le Corbusier's government buildings in Chandigarh, India; the artistic complex developed over two decades on the south bank of the Thames, the Royal Festival Hall, Hayward Gallery and National Theatre; and Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton’s delightful Penguin Pool, London Zoo.

But if these buildings were realised in capitalist societies, what might architecture look like in a future socialist or communist society? Karl Marx was part of a western European cultural tradition which reflected a general optimism in the future of mankind, a belief in progress and the scope to build a better world. However, he said little about the actual shape such a society would take. He did not offer a coherent theory of architecture. But his writings reflect his understanding of the relationship between the country and the city and the effects of industrial urbanisation:

It [the bourgeoisie] has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put into the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades. The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society…The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cites, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and thus rescued a considerable part of the population from rural idiocy. - The Communist Manifesto.

The development of human society is inextricably linked with the development of the built environment. Walter Benjamin famously wrote in the The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:
"Buildings have been man’s companions since primeval times. Many art forms have developed and perished . . . [But] architecture has never been idle. Its history is more ancient than that of any art, and its claim to being a living force has significance in every attempt to comprehend the relationship of the masses to art."

In one his conversations with Brecht, Benjamin said, “As a system of connectivity, the metropolis is formed by a boundless maze of indirect relationships, complex mutual dependencies and compartmentations.” The individual’s dialectical relationship with the society around him means that we have to understand modernism, and subsequent developments in architecture, not just in terms of the emergent materials and technologies which enable new forms of architectural expression, for example, reinforced concrete, steel frames and strengthened glass, but also with regard to the rapid urbanisation of populations across the world, which is one of the driving forces of capitalism. This suggest that architects have a clear responsibility to consider how the performance of their role impacts upon the structure and operation of future society.

In his Memoirs, Oscar Niemeyer, a key figure in modern architecture and a lifelong member of the Brazilian Communist Party, said, “Our concern is political too – to change the world...Architecture is my work, and I've spent my whole life at a drawing board, but life is more important than architecture. What matters is to improve human beings." The string of major works he produced over a long and productive life demonstrate how a progressive political vision can be combined with architectural boldness and radical urban planning.

We all have a fundamental right to urban spaces that work for our interests rather than against them. This includes efficient and low cost public transport; access to decent schools and hospitals; plenty of public spaces for recreation; effective distribution of good quality food and other necessaries; andaffordable, good quality housing. To deliver this means taking control over our lives, reclaiming cities for ourselves and implementing radical political changes which enable ordinary people to influence the shape of their urban environment.

This battle for ‘urban space’ is, of course, itself a product of economic and historical circumstances. Self-evidently, this is a class struggle as working class communities find themselves pitched against rapacious landlords and developers. Well-intentioned but often authoritarian and paternalistic attempts to clear slums and create model communities bump up against working class communities’ fight to assert their democratic rights and define urban space according to their needs. The continual search for profit and the capture of land value leads to ‘social cleansing’ as lower income communities are forced out of cities by the ongoing process of capital accumulation. Cities are explicitly redesigned in response to the threat of revolution, as in the rebuilding of Paris by Haussmann, or according to the demands of planners, bureaucrats and architects representing the interests of capital.

Marxist intellectuals and geographers such as Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey, have made a significant contribution to the discussion of the relationship between capitalism and urban space. Lefebvre coined the term, ‘the right to the city’ in 1968. He summarised it as a "demand...[for] a transformed and renewed access to urban life", where people exercise collective power to re-shape the very process of urbanisation in a way that underpins self-determination, the appropriation of social and physical spaces and the establishment of meaningful social relationships. For Lefebvre there was a dialectical relationship between urban reality and everyday activity (eg work, leisure, education and housing). By contrast with what are sometimes considered to be rather cold, modernist urban visions represented by architects and urban planners like Le Corbusier, his thinking offers a bottom-up approach based on the lived experiences of individuals which offers some useful pointers for the way forwards.
As David Cunningham and Jon Goodbun say in ‘’Marx, architecture and modernity’:

It is useful, therefore, to consider briefly what might be described as the three distinct tasks placed upon architectural knowledge in capitalist modernity. The first is to act as technicians of spatial development. Under capitalism, this is primarily the task of commodifying space. This is what the vast majority of architects spend the vast majority of their time involved in. The second task is a ‘poetic’ or artistic one, and is to do with somehow dealing with, expressing, intensifying or ameliorating the spatial experience of modernity. The third task is an utopian or avant-garde one, and is to do with imagining alternative socio-spatial futures. Although all three are always present in each other to some degree, there have been moments in the struggle over social space and its modes of production where the third task, imagining alternative socio-spatial futures, becomes an urgent part of defining the first task—the work to be done by everyday technicians of spatial development.

In a nutshell, aesthetics married to functionality has to be the cornerstone of a future architecture, where building for human needs and use, in harmony with the earth and not for profit, is the main objective. So, as we seek to advance the struggle for socialism, this leaves us with the following questions. How does architecture respond to global challenges such as population growth, climate change, growing inequality and environmental degradation? How can it embrace social activism and help tackle poverty in the urban environment? How do we ensure that it is not misused by the wealthy and the powerful to erect structures unrelated to the built environment and the social needs of the community as they seek to build monuments, and create icons, to their power?

We hope this article will stimulate further articles on architecture and socialism.

Education, Culture and Capitalism
Saturday, 04 March 2017 19:53

Education, Culture and Capitalism

Published in Education

Chris Guiton presents a foundation essay for the education section, sketching out some of the links between education, culture and capitalism.

The purpose of this introductory article is to sketch out the background to some issues around links between education and the general ‘cultural struggle’ which Culture Matters is aiming to support and promote. Education is itself a cultural activity, and is also the main gateway for most people to engage with art and cultural activities, and so education and culture are inextricably linked in the struggle for a better world.

Most people recognise that education plays a crucial role in society, providing people with the skills they need to understand and navigate the world around them as they grow and develop, constructing knowledge in a social context. As John Dewey, the 19th century American progressive educationalist put it, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” But while education can be viewed as a force for positive social change, which encourages children to think critically and challenge authority, it can also be a mechanism for reinforcing the prevailing ideology and strengthening the capitalist status quo. And this is where things start to get interesting.

Mainstream pedagogues (educational theorists who look at the method and practice of teaching) have traditionally taken a ‘functionalist’ view of education, arguing that it performs a number of important functions: promoting social solidarity, encouraging cooperation and developing essential skills such as literacy and numeracy. Progressive and Marxist pedagogues, on the other hand, refute the functionalist view that industrial capitalist societies are meritocracies and that an individual’s position in society is based on talent and hard work. The central challenge articulated by progressive pedagogues for many years is how to make education relevant to everyone, not just a select minority and, how to give it a critical and emancipatory quality that contributes to overturning capitalism, ending exploitation and developing a fairer world.

Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist and one of the leading ‘functionalists’, considered the major function of education as the transmission of society’s core norms and values, binding individual members of society together, creating social unity and using the hierarchies and rules that exist within schools (seen as society in miniature) to encourage conformity and train people to fulfil particular roles in the workplace. Developing this functionalist perspective, Talcott Parsons, an American sociologist, believed that schools act as a bridge between the family and society, representing the main agency of socialisation, preparing children for the adult world and underpinning the division of labour. He argued that schools operate on meritocratic principles, based on equality of opportunity, and where people are rewarded by society for their hard work.

This belief fails to tackle the criticism that the values of an education system are those of the ruling elite, or that equality of opportunity is an illusion in an unequal society where wealth and privilege, and access to education, are more important than individual merit. Karl Marx pointed out in The German Ideology:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.

Ideas are presented as universal, politically neutral concepts when in fact they represent the interests of the ruling class. Marx explained that “each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, simply in order to achieve its aims, to represent its interest as the common interest of all members of society i.e. to give its ideas the form of universality and to represent them as the only rational and universally valid ones”.  Concepts such as ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘liberty’ are defined and deployed by politicians and the media as if they are uncontentious and common-sense expressions rather than ideological constructs which serve particular social interests and which are designed to support the current political order.

There was, of course, no universal state education when Marx was writing. To understand how education can be used for reactionary ends, it’s helpful to look at later Marxist thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci who coined the phrase ‘cultural hegemony’ to describe the influence the ruling class has over what counts as knowledge. He understood that culture is a key site of political and social struggle and that this hegemony is exercised through a range of civil society institutions, including the media, religion and education, using them to ‘manufacture consent’ and confer legitimacy on the status quo. For Gramsci, education is not part of a conspiracy by the ruling class but one way in which what we count as knowledge is socially constructed.

Its power lies in its invisibility. The ideology of democracy and liberty, along with beliefs about individual freedom, the role of free markets and competition under capitalism are generated historically by the mode of production through the agency of the dominant class. The dominant class controls the subject class not with force but with ideas, concealing the true source of their power and the nature of the exploitation.

A very visible example of this is seen in Britain and other countries today, with the significant shift of political gravity to the right since the 1970s as neo-liberalism, with its evocation of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ and assault on the state, public services and collective provision, became the dominant ideology. As we know to our cost, even social democratic parties lost their raison d'être and subscribed to the new faith in the individual, markets and privatisation. As a result, we are now faced with the spectacle of working class voters not only deserting the Labour Party because it lost sight of working class interests, but failing to recognise the leftward shift represented by Jeremy Corbyn’s election as party leader. A poisonous combination of internal and external challenges are preventing the message getting across, including: a nakedly hostile media; damaging attacks by the Blairite undead; growing voter apathy; and the disjunction at an individual level between immediate, personal concerns and broader, public concerns which inhibits understanding of the fundamental source of their exploitation. If ever, we needed a Gramscian ‘war of position’ to develop a counter-hegemonic challenge to the neo-liberal status quo, it is now!

Adding his own perspective on how ideological control functions, Louis Althusser, the Marxist philosopher, viewed state education as part of what he called the broader ‘Ideological State Apparatus’ designed to convey the ideology of the ruling class. In this instance, the aim was to socialise working class children into accepting their subordinate status in capitalist society and produce an efficient and obedient work force, submissive to authority.

In their study, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life, which is equally applicable to the British context, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis built on Althusser’s ideas and argued that, “Work casts a long shadow over the education system; education is subservient to the needs of those who control the workforce, the owners of the factors of production.” They believed this happened through the operation of the ‘hidden curriculum’ in schools, which, by replicating the world of work, justifies and reinforces existing social inequalities. This takes place via a number of mechanisms, including: 

  •        - Giving privileges to older students, encouraging respect for elders in later life.
  •        - Using school rules, prizes as well as punishments, to encourage conformity to the rules of society.
  •        - Emphasising the importance of regular attendance and punctuality, in preparation for the workplace.
  •        - Division in male and female education, for example via the subtle encouragement of different subject preferences, underpinning the sexual division of labour.
  •        - Requiring automatic respect for teachers, and forcing students to understand that they have limited autonomy, helping children learn respect for those in authority in the workplace.
  •        - Underlining the importance of completing schoolwork, whether or not it’s boring, preparing children for the essentially dull, repetitive tasks that characterise many  jobs.
  •        - Encouraging competition between pupils, instilling acceptance of later competition for the best jobs
  •        - Using school uniforms and dress codes to teach the importance of looking smart in the workplace.

Of course, many children learn to push back and challenge the norms that schools seek to impose on them by failing to take an interest in lessons, ‘messing about’ while at school or going truant. Ironically, this prepares them for low paid, unskilled jobs in later life as this rejection of the prevailing learning culture becomes a way of coping with the tedium of the workplace. Unfortunately, this implicit rejection of the ideology of individualism and meritocracy does not usually translate into a genuine understanding of the nature of capitalist exploitation or encourage political engagement.

But all is not lost. As Bowles and Gintis understood, the educational system reflects the contradiction between the needs of accumulation and the needs of reproduction. To accumulate profits and develop the means of production, capitalists have recognised that the workforce needs to be trained to cope with the ever-changing demands of technology and capitalist production. This requires people who can think for themselves. But there’s an inherent conflict between so-called ‘democracy’ in the political realm and the hierarchical and authoritarian nature of the workplace. If people have the opportunity to think critically, it is not difficult for them to recognise that the illusion of equality and democratic participation via the electoral system is in stark contrast to the lack of democratic control that ordinary people exert over the economy, ie. what is produced and how it is distributed.

By grouping future workers together, the education system provides the potential for people to use the educational tools they are supplied with against the system itself. Teaching literacy opens the door to books that challenge the status quo. And you cannot encourage creative thinking and understanding of sophisticated intellectual concepts without encouraging people to question the prevailing ideology. This contradiction between what schools promise and what they really deliver, between ideology and the way society actually works, has the potential to radicalise people and spur them into action.

This is the significance of Paulo Freire’s theory of education that goes beyond traditional Marxist thinking and links radical critical theory and the imperatives of progressive struggle, linked to an understanding of the dynamics of domination and oppression and the constraints as well as the possibilities that generates.

Freire was a Brazilian pedagogue and critic of conventional teaching methods. In the Pedagogy of the Oppressed he characterised these as the ‘banking method’ which he saw mirroring and re-enforcing an oppressive society. Under this model of teaching the teacher is viewed as knowing everything and the student nothing. The teacher talks and the student listens. The teacher (or the rather the government!) determines what is taught and how is it is taught. Students are empty vessels and their role is to store the knowledge bestowed on them. Above all, they are not required or expected as a result of their education to change the world by reflection and action (ie. praxis).  Freire recognised that students may come to reject the education fed them and achieve praxis anyway, but what he describes as the humanist, revolutionary educator will adopt another approach: problem posing education based on dialogue between teacher and student in which both become responsible for a process in which they both grow. Their aim: to become critical thinkers, questioning and challenging what they encounter in the learning process.

But if state education puts obstacles in the way of the development of critical thinking - driven as it is by the demands of capitalist ‘rationality’, marketisation and endless testing - then we need to rediscover a radical pedagogy that embraces, as Freire puts it, “Liberation [as] a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.” The critical pedagogy proposed by Freire and others in this field such as Henry Giroux offers a route for young people to develop a social awareness of cultural and political alternatives, enabling them to connect their experiences with classroom learning and understand that with knowledge comes power.  

This is why reactionary politicians of all major parties have sought to marginalise such teaching methods as a deeply harmful distraction belonging to “trendy, 1960s progressive educationalists” and of no relevance in a modern education system. Three examples of how this threat has been addressed by governments in recent years bring this into sharp relief and underline the nature of the struggle in today’s education system: the prescriptive method of teaching young children to read using phonics, reducing the narrative content in reading and undermining the development of ‘reading for pleasure’; the attempts to shift teacher training away from universities and teacher training colleges and into schools where, it is hoped, such contaminating ideas as those of Freire won’t be picked up; and the increasingly narrow specification of the curriculum that the Government is forcing through, marginalising the arts and humanities.    

But, as Gramsci recognised, no culture is completely hegemonic. Even the most sophisticated political systems will face pockets of ‘counter-hegemonic’ cultures: perspectives on society that challenge the dominant ideology, and which have revolutionary potential if they can be identified and supported. These might be located in the traditional beliefs held by older people, the shop-floor culture of industrial workers, youth sub-cultures or other groups in society.

In The Long Revolution Raymond Williams defined culture “as a whole way of life”, thereby dissolving the boundary between everyday culture and ‘high culture’. A fully developed cultural education implies opening up our society by means of art and culture. The dialectic between education and culture at a general level - the beliefs, norms and values that condition society - as radical education becomes a mechanism for resistance to and change of a dominant culture in all its manifestations, also applies directly to the more specific area of the arts and humanities. Cultural education in this sense is an indispensable part of the broader education system, and is not a luxury that can be added when other educational goals have been delivered.

Learning is a creative process, and what we learn depends on how we learn. It is well understood that studying the arts opens up spheres of experience and development in people that go beyond the immediate subject studied, developing levels of cognition and emotion that feed into people’s ability to understand the world around them and cope with everyday life and social situations.

The education system plays a decisive role in awakening and encouraging creative potential in people. It has the capacity to develop empathic as well as political engagement. The arts take us into imagined worlds created by different minds and enable us to understand how others live. In addition to giving us aesthetic pleasure, they provide a broader canvas on which to understand historic, social and political issues.

By awakening our imagination, art intensifies and complements our own experience. Art represents people, cultures, values, and perspectives on living, but it does much more. While bringing us pleasure, art also teaches us about life. While reading a poem, listening to music or looking at a painting we are encouraged to look outside ourselves, ask challenging questions and participate in the wider world. 

Similar benefits flow from other cultural activities such as sport and religion. As well as being satisfying in themselves, they provide multiple opportunities for social engagement, emotional growth and development of cognitive skills, encouraging a commitment to the common good.

Clearly, schools aren’t the only site of struggle. Seeking to change schools without seeking to change wider society is a recipe for frustration and eventual failure. But education as one of the forces for radical change, which goes beyond schools, colleges and universities into a lifelong commitment which reflects the dialectic between an individual and the society around them, and which is delivered via trade unions, local authorities, Further Education colleges, the Workers’ Education Association and other institutions, is clearly a prize worth fighting for.

We hope this article stimulates further contributions on the subject of education and culture.

Purchase progressive political poetry!
Saturday, 04 March 2017 19:22

Purchase progressive political poetry!

Published in Poetry

Interested in progressive poetry? You might like to try one of our new titles, published jointly with Manifesto Press:

MP KH

The Minister for Poetry Has Decreed is political poetry of the highest order, telling truth to power and poking fun at it at the same time, artistically deploying a profoundly moral sense of justice and truth to expose lies, evasions, greed and sheer stupidity. Kevin Higgins, like Bertolt Brecht, has a gift for exposing the hypocrisies and deceits which are inevitably generated by a political culture which ignores, denies or seeks to legitimise the legalised robbery that passes for capitalist economic arrangements. And like Brecht he does it in a wickedly simple, accessible, entertaining style.

MP FV

Everyone can see the growing inequality, the precarious and low paid nature of employment, the housing crisis in our cities, the divisions and inequalities between social classes, the problems of obesity, drink and drugs, and the sheer everyday struggle to pay the bills for many working people. In this situation, Fred Voss is like a prophet. He is warning us of the consequences of the way we live, he is telling truth to power, and he is inspiring us with a positive vision of a possible – and desirable – socialist future. 

- Len McCluskey, General Secretary, Unite the Union.

MP DB

Slave Songs and Symphonies is an ambitious, beautifully crafted collection of poems, images and epigraphs. It's about human history, progressive art and music, campaigns for political freedom, social justice and peace. Above all it's about the class and cultural struggle of workers 'by hand and by brain’ to regain control and ownership of the fruits of their labour. David Betteridge’s poems are leftist, lyrical, and learned, infused with sadness and compassion for the sufferings of our class, the working class. They are also inspired by visionary hope, and a strong belief that our class-divided society and culture can be transformed by radical politics and good art – and by radical art and good politics. Bob Starrett’s drawings are much more than illustrations. They dance with the poems, commenting on them as well as illustrating them. They are like Goya’s drawings in their dark, ink-black truthfulness and their intimate knowledge of suffering and Blake’s 'mental fight'. Like the poems, they express and resolve the struggles they depict. Slave Songs and Symphonies tells the story of how slave songs become symphonies – and helps makes it happen. It is not just about class and cultural struggle – it is class and cultural struggle.

Each booklet is priced at £5.99 (plus £1.50 p&p). Or you can buy all three for £15. They are available from: manifestopress.org.uk

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