Street art, Bristol
Wednesday, 19 December 2018 05:48

Caught Doing Social Work? - socially engaged art and the dangers of becoming social workers

Published in Cultural Commentary

Stephen Pritchard offers some provocations on themes around instrumentalism of the arts and artists, gentrification and artwashing in the age of neoliberal capitalism.

Many people in the artworld believe that art can deliver social change. Many are following yet another artworld trend – that of socially engaged art. This is perhaps best represented by Assemble winning the 2015 Turner Prize. An important moment in the turn (or perhaps return) towards “Useful Art”.

assemblegroup

Assemble group photo, 2014

Many more see socially engaged art as a way of instrumentalising artistic practices in the name of state, corporate and other agendas. The English state, for example, instrumentalises art as a means of “improving” the economy, health and wellbeing, social ills, education, the environment, urban places, crime rates, unemployment, on and on and on. Art can, some argue, offer salvation to all our ills: Panacea Art.

Cultural policies around the globe are being honed to embed art and culture as a way of supporting and delivering the agendas of almost every government department and non-government organisation; harnessed by big businesses to unleash the false fog of corporate social responsibility.

In this sense, socially engaged art becomes yet another tool employed to support the target-driven, cost-benefit values of the dominant neoliberal ideology that is strangling our lives in the noose of individualism and strapping us into the straitjacket of uncaring personal gain.

A humanistic, socialist cultural democracy

The problem with this perspective is, for me, three-fold. Firstly, and most importantly, the type of social change being sought here is always state-led and thereby powered by political and economic agendas, meaning the arts will always be instrumental. Beautifully crafted, state-funded tools impose the soft power that’s so important to neoliberalism.

Secondly, there is the question of what is social change? Arguably anything: Good or bad; emancipatory or totalitarian; always ideological; never likely to result in paradigm-shifts. Recycling household waste is social change; but then so is Nazism.

Thirdly, people who not part of the artworld are not usually listened to. Their words, thoughts, ideas, wishes, dreams, hopes, fears are ignored or sanitised. Most people are disenfranchised by cultural policies “done to them”, not by, with and for them. This isn’t social justice. This isn’t democracy.

I believe in the radically political project (or perhaps projects) of cultural democracy. People-powered participatory democracy. Humanistic and socialist democracy. The arts have been used very effectively to implement all sorts of state agendas for time immemorial, but they have also been equally effective in opposing the state, opposing capitalism. So, does our work support neoliberal ideology or contest and oppose it?

 Missionaries, Mercenaries, Mediators and Mobilisers

We all learn and experience and express ourselves through cultural activities (whether “high” art or “popular” cultures and subcultures). Our creativity leads us to everyday revolutions that change our ways of being and living in our everyday cultures.

So why do we privilege artists to “engage” people in projects or “work” with people in ill-defined and misunderstood “social” spaces or places?

Are we, as artists working in “the social”, working as Missionaries preaching the Western European, white, middle-class, male, able-bodied gospel of the neoliberal creative industries and Creative Class?

Are we working as Mercenaries, engaging “disadvantaged” people and people in “difficult” places and communities somehow deemed to be in some way lacking in culture, for the sole reason that we need to make a living, a career, to make money?

Are we working as privileged Mediators capable of listening to people who are not listened to – who are ignored – with the sole purpose of helping amplify their frustrations, their anger, their fears, their hopes, their ideas, their demands for rights?

Are we working as Mobilisers – as political activists?

I ask, then, which side are you on?

Who Pays the Piper?

We are privileged. It’s how we use that privilege that matters. We must recognise that our practices are powerful and that we are influential. We must use our influence positively to bring about real and lasting change – radical change.

This is not the time to be instrumentalised by the state, by local authorities, by corporations, by NGOs, by those with vested interests in developing or profiting from our present neoliberal hegemony and the dominance of a neo-colonial Western culture propped-up by art, and proliferated using the slow violence of socially engaged art.

We must not be mercenaries or missionaries.

We can be mediators only if we recognise the privileged position of being able to mediate, and only if we do this with humility and when we do this ethically.

We can be mobilisers working as part of a broad movement of movements for radical social and political and economic change.

We can help bring down the citadels.

We can be part of the demand for the Right to the City.

We can be part of the movement to take back the city.

We can challenge status quos.

We can call for the decolonisation of our racist Western culture.

We can call out those who proliferate inequity, selfish individualism and greed.

We can stand together with those who are denied the privilege given to us.

Are we, then, truly using our privilege to help bring about truly radical acts?

A Revolution of Everyday Life?

We must never help governments and developers displace people.

We must say no to those who want to use us to deliver their neoliberal agendas.

We must never work as NGO artists, subtly instilling Western culture and language and ways of living on different people from different places.

We are not social workers or community workers or community developers or doctors or nurses or psychotherapists or teachers or preachers or community consultants.

We are not foot soldiers of capitalism.

We are not place-makers.

We are not the servants of the neoliberal Creative Industries ideal.

We must never be story-harvesters.

And we are not social cleansers.

Human relationships, radical action and democratic grassroots participation must happen in our everyday lives.

We need a Revolution of Everyday Life: revolutions of everyday lives.

As artists, we can help bring about a revolution of our everyday lives, of everyone’s lives and ways of being and living.

We can help people self-organise, cooperate and reignite our understanding of ourselves as individuals who are stronger collectively.

But we must never get caught doing social work.

Have you been caught doing social work?

Disturbing the Dust on a Bowl of Rose-Leaves

Cultural policy, like fortune, has always favoured the rich and powerful. But it has never before been harnessed so nefariously in the name of “social work”.

We must say NO! We must remember our roots; revisit our histories. We must understand how and why our arts and cultures have been separated from our everyday lives.

We must be wary of those who seek to enforce their values upon our creativity or denounce it as inferior to other cultural activities.

The qualities of radical acts exist in the form of aesthetic experiences not shallow, monolithic Kantian aesthetics.

Our everyday acts and our everyday cultures transcend instrumentalism.

Our everyday lives take must not be determined by institutions – artworld or otherwise.

We are to them like dandelions. We are weeds.

Yet, whilst they regard themselves as fragrant roses, safe within their walled gardens, we know that old roses, old cultivars, grow weak with age. We know that, as dandelions, as wildflowers, we are vigorous and hardy and that we can grow anywhere – whether inside or outside the false boundaries of their garden.

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.

- T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, 1935. (From The Four Quartets, 1941.)

Stephen Pritchard blogs here. 

Culture for the many, not the few
Wednesday, 19 December 2018 05:48

Culture for the many, not the few

Published in Cultural Commentary

Mike Quille presents some principles and practical policies to implement cultural democracy.

This article is a contribution to debates around cultural democracy in the socialist left, the labour movement and academia. It includes discussion of:

- What culture means and why it is so important
- The links between cultural activities and politics, and current examples of the way cultural activities function in class-divided societies like our own
- Why we need a democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities, going beyond the narrow, elitist and top-down approach of Arts Council England
- Specific measures which might form part of a programme for an incoming Labour government

The real meaning of culture

Culture matters to the many, not just the few. For a large part of our lives, particularly in our leisure time, we make choices – or choices are made for us – on what to do with our time. Whether to watch television, and if so what to watch. Whether to surf the internet, go on Facebook, or read a newspaper or magazine. Whether to visit an art gallery or concert hall, go to the pub or out for a meal, listen to some music, buy some clothes, make some clothes, play an instrument, go to the opera, play football, watch football, go to church, sing in a choir, paint a picture or play computer games.

All these activities, and many more, have a cultural dimension. They entertain, educate and enlighten us, and help us to enjoy life by giving it meaning, purpose and value. And the choices we make are socially determined. Their accessibility, cost and their very meanings are conditioned and constrained by the choices made by the owners, controllers, and gatekeepers of culture – the rich and the powerful, the politically dominant social classes in capitalist societies. We make our own culture, but we do not make it as we please, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. 

So culture is essential to being human. Culture is ordinary and culture is everything, a whole way of life, and it is closely linked to society, to the economy, and to politics. Let's unpack these ideas in more detail.

 

As Raymond Williams said: “Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start”. So culture includes not just the arts, but all those learned human activities which give our lives meaning and enjoyment. To restrict the term, and political discussion of it, to a selected menu of arts-based activities is to devalue and exclude the majority of cultural activities as practised by the majority of the population. As well as the arts, culture includes sport, TV and the media generally, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, education, religion and many other popular activities. This makes for a looser and more varied set of concerns to think about, integrate into political manifestos and campaign about. But it is fairer, more inclusive and is far more relevant and appealing to the labour movement and most working people.

Fundamentally, human cultural activities are social, unifying and egalitarian. They tend to express and assert our common humanity and solidarity against divisions of class, gender, race and other social divisions caused by unequal economic arrangements such as the capitalist system. And cultural activities such as art, music and religion can directly inspire and support radical change in the real world, both personally and politically.

Taking part in this wide range of cultural activities, as consumers and as performers/actors, is not some optional extra for us. It sustains our health, well-being and happiness, promotes our freedom from oppressive political systems and exploitative economic arrangements, and is absolutely necessary to our development, liberation and flourishing as human beings. Culture is therefore essential to the socialist project of transforming society for the benefit of working people – the many.

As workers, we’re well aware of the economic struggle, the struggle for a fair return for our labour and for food, shelter, and other material necessities. In these days of austerity economics and flatlining wages, it’s a constant struggle to make ends meet on low incomes and inadequate benefits. The chaos and cruelty around the introduction of Universal Credit is the worst but not the only example of deliberate attacks on the poor by the Tory Government.

As voters and political activists, we’re also aware of the political struggle. This is the struggle to change the terms and conditions of our existence for the better – to liberate our social selves and prioritise social justice and the common good across all areas of state power and policy. So we struggle for various forms of social rather than private ownership of the land, farms, factories, offices, shops, utilities and banks. And we struggle to gain democratic control of social institutions, so that we all have an equal say in what happens in our lives.

Socialists, however, have always recognised that there is another struggle, which accompanies, expresses and supports the economic and political struggles. This is the cultural struggle, the struggle for cultural democracy, to apply fundamental socialist principles of shared ownership and democratic control to everyday and ordinary cultural activities.

How is class linked to culture?

Class-based divisions in society, based on unequal property ownership, constrain or prevent the full and free enjoyment of culture. Cultural activities may be fundamentally liberating and social, but in societies divided by class they are limited, appropriated and privatised.

Throughout history, tiny minorities of dominant social classes have tried – often successfully – to turn cultural activities into circuses, to go with the breadcrumbs thrown from the tables of the rich and powerful. In these class-divided societies, culture tends to become inaccessible, costly, irrelevant and of poor quality. It tends to be owned and organised in undemocratic ways. It tends to legitimise, conceal or ignore the ongoing, systematic oppression and exploitation of working people. And it is used to promote diversionary and reactionary political messages and values, in order to prevent the development of radical, anti-capitalist ideas such as cultural democracy.

So a continual struggle goes on to develop and sustain a cultural commons for the many, not the few. We face a cultural struggle against the co-option, misuse and appropriation of cultural activities, just like our economic and political struggles for better wages and for ownership and control of essential goods and services like our schools, our railways and our health service.

Just as neoliberal capitalism has shown itself to be incapable of providing adequate public services in these areas, so too it cannot sustain cultural production, delivery and consumption. We are witnessing the insidious and often hidden growth of corporate influence and control over cultural institutions – not only institutions like Arts Council England, but also social media platforms, broadcasters, sports clubs, pubs and clubs, and supermarkets.

These cultural institutions, which are of such importance to the everyday lives of so many people, present a major challenge for a socialist cultural policy seeking to implement shared ownership and democratic accountability into the cultural landscape.

What’s wrong with current popular cultural activities?

For the many, massive problems flow from the unequal and undemocratic ownership and control of cultural activities.

In sport, owners and management bodies are failing to make sport accessible, affordable and enjoyable for everyone, through sky-high ticket prices, undemocratic, ineffective regulatory authorities, and subsidies for elite sport at the expense of school sports and grassroots sports. Commercial pressures mean that capitalist ideologies of individual excellence and competitiveness – rather than the social and co-operative nature of most sport which is its most essential and appealing characteristic – cause regular scandals in most sports, involving drug-taking, cheating and corruption.

In the media, private ownership of large swathes of the means of communication by gigantic corporations like Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook prevent us enjoying human interaction without being watched, manipulated and influenced by commercial capitalist interests. We face privately owned media companies like Sky, Netflix, Disney and Fox, dedicated to making profits rather than meeting human need. And we face state-controlled media like the BBC, designed to support and legitimise the economic and political status quo, and institutionally biased against radical politicians, newspapers and ideas.

Our daily activities of eating and drinking are also cultural activities, as well as biological necessities. We do so in company with family and friends, for pleasure and to express and enhance our common and social natures. Yet corporations produce and sell us food and drink loaded with too much sugar, salt, and fat, and we are pressurised into consuming unhealthy amounts and types of of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Children and other vulnerable, poorer members of society are particularly at risk in a system where corporate profits depend on obesity and drunkenness.

Religious institutions own and control huge resources - land, buildings, capital - which do not always meet and serve the needs of many people for collective gatherings to express and strengthen shared beliefs and a commitment to the common good, and for refreshment, comfort and inspiration. Most religions have a powerful strand of concern for the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed and exploited, yet their vicars, priests, bishops and other leaders often fail to call for and to practise social justice.

In the arts, the situation is not much better than when Raymond Williams said, in a Guardian Lecture in 1985:

The central socialist case, in matters of culture is that the lives of the great majority of people have been, and still are, almost wholly disregarded by almost all arts.

What’s wrong with the arts, and Arts Council England’s ‘Cultural Democracy in Practice’?

Problems with cultural institutions mean that we face inaccessibility, obscurity, and vapid spectacle, as does the fact that state funding is so unequal. Money that comes from our taxes and our Lottery tickets is overwhelmingly focused on cultural provision in the London area, which benefits mainly the already well off, and tourists.

MQ pi 04 2016 map

The continuing, monumental failure of Arts Council England to develop and sustain fair allocation of the massive increase in resources it has received from the taxpayer and from Lottery funds over the last 20 years or so is truly appalling. Imagine the outcry if there were far more hospitals per person in the London area than elsewhere, or far more schools for the better off than for the poor, everywhere. Yet this is broadly the situation in the arts, and one which ACE is not even planning to tackle.

Clearly fearful of the true implications of implementing cultural democracy in a class-based, unequal society, which would obviously involve replacing their current structure, funding and mission to subsidise culture for the rich, ACE have attempted to co-opt the language and the concepts in the recent report which it commissioned on ‘Cultural Democracy in Practice’. This document has come under heavy criticism, including this statement from the Movement for Cultural Democracy:

We are agreed that the Arts Council report has almost nothing to say about Cultural Democracy – in practice, in principle or as public policy. It is a crude, historically whitewashed and politically inept attempt to co-opt to its own cause a long standing and now re-emerging strand of radical cultural debate, policy and practice that fundamentally challenges its record and its structure – particularly its use of lottery funding.

The MCD has now published a new statement on rebalancing funding of the arts.

There are other problems apart from funding. For working-class people wishing to have an arts career, it is getting harder to become a musician or actor or writer without rich relatives to support you. As Jeremy Corbyn has said:

There is a poet, author, singer, pianist, actor, playwright, and artist in every single person.

But cuts and curriculum changes in education mean our children are being deprived of the chance to learn how to appreciate and participate in artistic, sporting and other cultural activities at both primary and secondary school stages, as well as facing exclusion and discrimination when they attempt a career as writer, performer, musician, actor or artist.

The Government’s politically-driven austerity policies have led to huge cuts in cultural facilities, including libraries, community centres, youth facilities and sports facilities. These cuts are set to continue for years to come, and have been knowingly targeted at the least well-off sections of society.

MQ library closures

We also face the possibility of an expansion in leisure time in the next few decades, as labour-saving technology generates more unemployment, under-employment and free time. Again, this will impact more on the working class generally, and on less skilled workers, younger people trying to build careers, and people who are already socially excluded and discriminated against for various reasons. Over time there will thus be an increasing need for accessible, relevant cultural activities for large numbers of people who are currently excluded from participation

What would a better culture policy look like?

To tackle these problems, what should be the general principles for a Labour government’s culture policy, a policy to implement genuine cultural democracy?

Firstly, acceptance that culture is ordinary and everyday, and that it is essential and not marginal to working people’s lives. Both spectatorship and engagement in cultural production and consumption are fundamental to human fulfilment and flourishing, and therefore central to any progressive political programme. It is not just an aid to ‘economic regeneration’, still less a sticking plaster to mask the deindustrialisation, decay and worsening health of many working-class communities, particularly in the North.

Secondly, we need a more inclusive approach to culture and culture policy, covering cultural activities which matter to most working people, and which can attract the support of the labour movement. We need to start promoting culture as part of the ‘social wage’ for everyone, like health, education and welfare benefits, not an exclusive extra for the better off. We need to break down long-established hierarchies between different kinds of cultural activities and practices, which often reflect and perpetuate class divisions, and which again point to the importance of integrating the economic, political and cultural struggles in our attempts to build Blake's new Jerusalem, a classless society.

Thirdly, we need to develop democratic, inclusive and bottom-up cultural policies in which communities of practitioners and audiences are empowered, through various structures of shared, social ownership and democratic control, to direct culture towards their own defined ends. Those ends should be self-determined, and could be entertainment, personal fulfilment, self-expression or as a contribution to the struggle for a better world.

More broadly, we need to think about ways of facilitating and encouraging grassroots cultural formations and activities. There are some very good examples of people working together at various forms of cultural activity – whether learning to play a musical instrument, paint, write poetry, cook, play football or make films – for enjoyment, education or the value generated by doing things in a social environment. These activities may not be explicitly political, linked to any defined progressive thinking or located in the trade union and labour movement. But by providing platforms for people to share their work and ideas, and by encouraging people to do things socially and collaboratively, they build confidence, promote learning and open the doors to deeper levels of cultural and political engagement.

Specific policy proposals – some examples

It would be inappropriate to construct a detailed blueprint for culture policies, as there is a prior need to consult, discuss, and democratically decide on priorities. But there would surely be a consensus on the left about the following priorities for an incoming Labour government:

- Dismantling the barriers of class, cost and geography that stop working people from accessing culture, as consumers and as practitioners;

- Embedding cultural education – both appreciation and practice – into the national curriculum;

- Reclaiming the media – newspapers, online platforms, TV and radio – by reforming its funding, ownership and control and providing space for working-class voices and truly diverse, community-based providers. Facebook, Google, Amazon, broadcasters and newspaper publishers all require radical reformation, taxation and regulation, to lessen and ultimately abolish the influence of billionaire private owners;

- Radical shifting of public spending on the arts and sport, towards more support for grassroots participation, working-class communities and provision outside London;

- Increasing the representation of the working class in all cultural institutions, especially the arts, sports, and the media, in terms of content, audiences and practitioners;

- Developing partnerships between secular and religious authorities, so that as congregations dwindle and resources lie unused, local communities - particularly the poorest and most oppressed sections of those communities - can be empowered to access and benefit from their material and non-material resources;

- Regulating, taxing, and democratising other relevant cultural institutions, including food and drink corporations, breweries and pubs, supermarkets, arts facilities and sports clubs. All these institutions have potential to be specialist hubs in a common socialist project to meet need (rather than make profit) across the whole span of cultural activities. Various kinds of social ownership models and democratic management arrangements need to be applied to cultural institutions including ownership by the state, local authorities and local community co-operatives.

Conclusion

Cultural activities often reflect and serve the needs of the dominant class, in a class-divided society such as ours. At the same time they can also provide the space to resist the status quo and overcome alienation and oppression. They can help people envision better, fairer ways of organising our society, as well as promoting our physical, mental and spiritual well-being. To help culture works its magic on the many, not just the few, we need to imagine a world in which we have a stake in all the cultural activities available to us, and they are organised and delivered to meet our needs as human beings and not to make profit or to reflect and legitimise a set of exploitative and oppressive econmic and political institutions.

Demo

The Labour manifesto of 1945 contained these words:

We desire to assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this nation.

Cultural democracy was promised in 1945 and is long overdue. Now is the time for the Labour Party to present a new democratic and socialist culture policy in the next manifesto, and to develop local, co-ordinated campaigns involving CLPs, trade unions, and activists, across all the cultural areas. Why? Because culture matters to the many, not the few.

This article is an extended version of an article first published in New Socialist. With thanks to Roland Boer, Theresa Easton, Chris Guiton, Sophie Hope, and Jack Newsinger for their inspiration, assistance, comments and contributions to this article. Further contributions from writers, activists and artists on the detail of a socialist culture policy, are welcome, please send them to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience
Wednesday, 19 December 2018 05:48

Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience

Published in Visual Arts

Mike Quille reviews Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience, and interviews the editor, Paul Sng.

Paul Sng’s films – Sleaford Mods, and Dispossession: The Great Housing Swindle – have explored the lives of working-class people who have been ignored, marginalised or demonised by mainstream media, and who are protesting and challenging the status quo in some way.

In this new book of documentary photographs, the portraits and accompanying text tell the untold, invisible stories of people who have been targeted by austerity economics, left behind by cuts to public services and excluded from mainstream media narratives.

PS Corinne by Jenny Lewis resized

Corinne, by Jenny Lewis

The subjects look out at us in a dignified, equal way. They’re not case studies of despair to grit up a superficial TV drama, nor are they illustrations of some story about benefit scroungers. They are sensitive, revealing and empathic portraits – some inspiring, some heartbreaking – of ordinary people with stories to tell us.

PS Carl by J A Mortram resized

Carl, by J. S. Mottram

Their stories are about their setbacks and suffering, and the various ways they persist in fighting back. Not just through political campaigning, but through voluntary caring work with prostitutes, disabled people, ex-offenders, drug users, and other poor, oppressed and exploited groups in modern capitalist society.

These people have all experienced suffering, exploitation and discrimination, against themselves and those they care about. But their determination, resilience and sense of solidarity shine through both their portraits and their stories. It is striking how much their experiences and values have made them politically aware, quite conscious of the punishment handed out to them by a rigged economic and political system.

PS Karen by Jon Tonks resized

Karen, by Jon Tonks

The value, beauty and power of this book lies in its creation of an alternative narrative that challenges all the stigmas and stereotypes that have been generated by the de-industrialisation, discrimination and class conflict of the last few decades of neoliberal capitalism. It is a fine example of the art of photography being used not to fool us with glossy photoshopped adverts of skinny models and shiny cars, but to tell the plain truth of people’s lives these days, and to stimulate our compassion, empathy and desire for radical change.

Ken Loach has said this about the book:

This book illustrates a truth we cannot ignore. Class conflict is at the heart of our society, the inevitable consequence of this economic system. This should be the first principle of our politics. Paul Sng also shows another eternal truth: in the end, people always fight back. Our task is to ensure that their resistance is not in vain.

It is indeed a vivid and truthful account of contemporary class conflict and struggle. But as well as its value as a document, it is also itself part of the cultural struggle – a protest and an inspiration to us all to join and help achieve a better life for the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed – and ourselves.

Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience is published by Policy Press on 1 November. Editor Paul Sng will be touring the book with a series of Q&As and screenings of the film (reviewed here) that helped inspire the book, Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain, from 1-10 November. Dates and details via www.invisiblebritain.com  

The Interview

Q. Can you tell us about your films -- Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain and Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle?

I fell into filmmaking at the age of 38. Until then I'd worked in a series of office jobs, and before that in bars and shops. I was inspired to make my first documentary after interviewing the band Sleaford Mods in October 2014. They mentioned that they were going to be doing a tour of small venues around the UK in places where a lot of bands don't usually go, some of which were in deindustrialised areas like Barnsley and Stockton-on-Tees, and inner cities that had suffered heavily from government cuts to public services.

It was one of those lightbulb moments. I thought, 'That would make a great documentary'. The idea was developed to be part band doc, part state of the nation film. In each place we visited, we met with people in the local community to ask them how austerity and other unpopular government policies had affected them. The film was shot in the run-up to the 2015 General Election and came out in cinemas in October 2015. 11 months from concept to theatrical release, self-distributed. It's very raw, and perhaps too polemical, but it got noticed and gave me a new career as a filmmaker.

I made my second documentary, Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle, in 2016/17. I made it to examine the neglect and mismanagement of social housing over the past few decades, and how this had affected residents in various areas and council estates in London, Nottingham, and Glasgow.

It came out on 8 June 2017, the day of the last General Election. Five days later, the Grenfell Tower fire happened, which made the film even more relevant. We ran a campaign in tandem with a nationwide tour of Q&A screenings to try and raise awareness about the issues, which was well received.

PS Nadine by Nicola Muirhead resized

Nadine, by Nicola Muirhead

Q. What have been your main political and artistic influences?

I've not really thought about political influences before. If I'm influenced by politics it comes through in the issues my work has focused on: austerity, deindustrialisation, housing. Grassroots campaigns inspire me more than politicians, people like Focus E15 and The United Voice of the World union. Artistically, as a documentary maker, my work is influenced by Patrick Keiller, Michael Grigsby and Julien Temple.

Q. What was the background to your move to documentary photography, and this book?

I was in touch with Alison Shaw from Policy Press via Twitter and she mentioned that she'd be interested if I ever had an idea for a book, so I pitched the concept behind Invisible Britain, which is essentially a book of stories and portraits from people who we don't often hear from directly in the arts and media. I then met Laura Dicken, who curated and project managed the book, and we set about finding photographers and people who were up for sharing their stories. I didn't take any photos for the book, as I'm not at that standard yet.

The ethos behind the book was to amplify unheard voices and provide a means for people to speak in their own words about a specific issue or something that had impacted on their life. Direct testimony, with only minimal editing for length. Everyone got to approve the text before it was published. I enjoyed the challenge of working with the photographers – to capture someone's character or an element of their story or personality in a single image shows incredible artistry.

Reiss by Jo Metson Scott

Q. The book seems to be a good example itself of cultural democracy. Many of the photographers are relative newcomers; the focus is on ordinary working-class subjects and their lives; there is a clear egalitarian ethos in the portraits; and the images and text together represent a clear protest against capitalist economics and a longing for a fairer society. What are your views on class, politics and culture generally, particularly in the visual arts?

I think the arts has become too middle-class, and too nepotistic. I see so many examples of people who have very little ability, but very good connections. There's not enough inclusion, and that's across both social class and ethnic background. A lot of organisations have diversity quotas, but I think there's a danger that it becomes a box-ticking exercise.

The book is intended to be the first step towards setting up an Invisible Britain platform that will work with underrepresented individuals and communities to amplify their voices and help enable them to tell their stories in the arts and media. We would also run creative workshops in various areas of filmmaking and a training and mentorship scheme, as well as offering paid work placements on film and television productions. It's in very early development, but I'm hopeful we can do something to make the arts and media more inclusive of people whose voices aren't heard often enough.

PS Sé by Cian Oba Smith resized

Sé, by Cian Oba-Smith

Q. What would be your advice to an incoming Labour government on its priorities to address the issues raised by this book and your work generally? What would a socialist culture policy look like?

I think the priority for any new government should be much greater investment in areas of the UK that don't have any facilities for the arts. More funding for libraries should also be a priority. Labour councils in London are closing libraries by the dozen, which is terrible. More funding for the BFI to build more regional hubs in rural and remote areas. State funding for arts and culture has shrunk over the past decade, and entry to these industries is becoming more and more off limits to working class people. I'd like to see more paid scholarships for exceptional students from disadvantaged backgrounds of all ages to study creative arts courses. There also needs to be greater scrutiny of how and where the funding is spent, to prevent nepotism.

 

Culture for the many, not the few: notes towards a socialist culture policy
Wednesday, 19 December 2018 05:48

Culture for the many, not the few: notes towards a socialist culture policy

Published in Cultural Commentary

Chris Guiton and Mike Quille present an analysis of what culture means, and what a democratic and socialist approach to culture policy might look like.

Introduction

The mission of Culture Matters Co-Operative Ltd is to promote cultural democracy, which we understand to be a more democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities (including the arts). These notes set out our contribution to the current debates around cultural democracy. They set out our thoughts on

- What culture means and why it is so important

- The links between cultural activities and politics, and current examples of the way cultural activities function in class-divided societies like our own

- The general principles of a democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities

- Details and illustrative examples of specific measures which might form part of a programme for an incoming Labour government.

What culture means and why it is important

What is culture? ‘Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start’ said Raymond Williams. This means that culture includes not just the arts, but much, much more. It includes all those learned human activities which give life purpose, meaning and value, and which human beings engage in for enjoyment, entertainment and enlightenment.

So as well as the arts, culture includes sport, religion, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, education, the media and many other popular activities.

What does culture mean to us? Fundamentally, cultural activities are social, unifying and egalitarian. They assert our common humanity and solidarity against divisions of class, gender, race and other social divisions caused by capitalism. And cultural activities, especially art, can directly inspire and support radical change in the real world.

Taking part in cultural activities, as consumers and as producers, is not some optional extra for us. It is absolutely essential to our development as humans. It sustains our health, well-being and happiness, including our freedom from oppressive political systems and exploitative economic arrangements.

Culture, politics and class

Class-based divisions in society, based on unequal property ownership, constrain or prevent our enjoyment of culture. Cultural activities may be fundamentally liberating and social activities, but in societies divided by class they are limited, appropriated and privatised by ruling elites.

Throughout history, tiny minorities of dominant social classes have tried – and often succeeded – in turning culture into circuses, to go with the breadcrumbs thrown from the tables of the rich and powerful. In these societies, cultural activities become inaccessible, costly, irrelevant, and even an instrument of oppression. It tends to be owned, organised and delivered in undemocratic ways. It legitimises, conceals or ignores oppression and exploitation. And it is often used to promote diversionary and reactionary political messages and values.

So struggles develop against these tendencies to privatise and undermine culture, and to develop and sustain a cultural commons for the many, not the few. We, the many, face a cultural struggle against the co-option, misuse and appropriation of cultural activities. This struggle to regain enjoyable, meaningful and accessible cultural activities is like our economic and political struggles for fairer wages, for ownership and control of essential social goods and services like the railways, the utility companies and the National Health Service.

Just as commercial markets and the profit motive have shown themselves unable to provide adequate public services in areas such as health, energy and transport, so they are also unable to provide accessible culture. The aggressive inroads of neoliberal capitalism, bringing profit-making motives into cultural production, delivery and consumption, and privately owned, corporate influence and control over culture, are major challenges for a socialist cultural policy.

Current Cultural Issues

It is well understood on the Left why we need to win state power and implement political and economic policies to tackle austerity, the assault on our public services, growing poverty and inequality and the lack of political and economic democracy in Britain. What is less well understood is why and how we need to develop cultural policies, which are often perceived as being of secondary importance to political and economic issues.

Here are some examples of the issues we face, which show the need for an inclusive culture policy which can implement cultural democracy:

- in sport, we face high ticket prices for football games which exclude families on tight budgets from attending together. There is the growth of corporate boxes at events, and undemocratic ownership and control of clubs and the way that sport is organised. There is too much funding for elite sport, and not enough at grassroots level. There are the spoiling and corrupting pressures of drugs and cheating in many sports, which inevitably follow from stressing the capitalist values of competitive individualism.

- in the media, we face the private ownership of the means of human communication by gigantic media monopolies like Google, and by companies like Facebook, which appropriate information about us in order to practice surveillance and influence our commercial and political choices. We face privately owned media companies like Sky, Netflix, Disney and Fox, dedicated to making profits rather than meeting human need. And we face state-owned media like the BBC, designed to support and legitimise the economic and political status quo, and which are institutionally biased against radical politicians and newspapers.

- in our social cultures of eating and drinking, we face the terrible effects of profit-seeking capitalist corporations, loading our food and drink with sugar, salt and fats, and causing immense and increasing mental and physical health problems.

-‘There is a poet, author, singer, pianist, actor, playwright, artist in every single person’ said Jeremy Corbyn, but for working class people wishing to have an arts career, it is getting harder to become a musician or actor or writer without rich relatives to support you. Cuts and curriculum changes in education mean our children are being deprived of the chance to learn how to appreciate and participate in artistic, sporting and other cultural educational activities, at both primary and secondary school stages.

- we also face inaccessibility, obscurity, and vapid spectacle, and the fact that state funding is so unequal. Money that comes from our taxes and our Lottery tickets is overwhelmingly focused on cultural provision in the London area, which benefits mainly the already well off, and tourists.

- the massive expansion of the ‘creative industries’ and of cultural activities generally in the last few years means many more people are working in jobs linked to culture. Also, virtually everyone in the labour movement enjoys some form of cultural activity, as a consumer if not as a creator or performer. Creativity is seen as a major factor in the future economy, and a significant component of many kinds of work, both in the traditional cultural sectors and the wider ‘knowledge economy’. But the growth of the creative industries has failed to deliver on its meritocratic promise. Far from offering non-alienated labour, the chance for creative fulfilment, and post-industrial economic regeneration, young people entering the labour market today are being forced to accept poor pay and conditions, chronic job insecurity, and a lack of hard-won basic rights such as sick pay, maternity pay, and pensions. Cultural and creative labour markets are increasingly informal and closed to ‘outsiders’, operating outside equal opportunities and equality legislation and not reflecting the social and demographic make-up of contemporary society.

- the downgrading and exclusion of arts subjects from the educational curriculum of schools, combined with the marketisation of higher education away from the arts and humanities and the gutting of further and adult education, all combine to significantly reduce the opportunities for cultural and creative fulfilment of young people, and have a disproportionate effect on already marginalised groups. The opportunity for the best possible cultural and creative education, as consumers and as producers, should be available for all children, not just those of the wealthy.

- the Government’s politically-driven austerity policies, which have led to huge cuts in cultural facilities, eg libraries, community centres, youth facilities and sports facilities. These cuts are set to continue for years to come; and have been deliberately targeted at the least well-off, geographically and demographically.

- the possibilities of a vast expansion in leisure time in the next 10, 20 and 30 years, as labour-saving technology generates even more unemployment, under-employment and spare time. Again, this will impact more on the working class generally, and on less skilled workers, younger people trying to build careers, and people who are already socially excluded and discriminated against on the grounds of gender, ethnic origin, disability etc. Engagement in fulfilling cultural activities is set to become more and more important in most people's lives.

General principles for a culture policy

In general, a culture policy to implement cultural democracy would need to recognise:

- that culture is fundamental, not marginal. The creative activity embodied in culture is a form of social production, with humanity’s happiness and well-being as its end product. Spectatorship and engagement in cultural production and consumption, widely defined, are essential to human fulfilment and well-being.

- that an inclusive approach to culture is essential if we genuinely want to transform the world for the benefit of working people. Culture policy must cover cultural activities which matter to working people, and which can attract the support of the labour movement, so that culture is seen as part of the social wage for everyone. This means breaking down long-established hierarchies between different kinds of cultural activities and practices – which often reflect class distinctions – and reaffirming the legitimacy of cultural institutions and public funding based upon participatory, democratic and egalitarian principles.

- that we must challenge the narrow, centrally-dictated instrumentalism which has become so central to cultural policy and administration over the last thirty years, accompanied by oppressive monitoring and evaluation requirements, without maintaining an idealist, elitist position eg by focusing solely on the arts and excluding popular cultural activities. A genuinely socialist approach should be based on the understanding that culture, including art, belong to everyone, as creators, performers, and consumers.

- that we need to develop democratic, inclusive and bottom-up cultural policies in which communities of practitioners and audiences are empowered to direct culture towards ends that they define, whether that be entertainment, personal fulfilment, self-expression or as a contribution to the struggle for a better world, and avoiding value judgements on how and why people engage in culture. These might learn from and build on existing examples of successful 'DIY culture' in music, art, poetry and other fields, and large, public examples of working class culture such as the Durham Miners’ Gala.

- that we need to learn, through democratic, grassroots policy-making, how to develop policies and processes which can be used to encourage, enable and facilitate people to participate in cultural activities. These policy-making processes need to tackle concrete issues of accessibility, in terms of cost, geography and content; ownership and control of the institutions that fund, organise, deliver and regulate cultural activities; recognition of the fundamental need to embrace diversity of gender, race, nationality, sexuality, class, religion etc in the production and consumption of culture; and consideration of how to decolonise culture, and challenge the dualism of cultural ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’.

Specific Policy Proposals

The following examples of specific policy proposals reflect and build on many of the good ideas that have already been proposed as a contribution to the culture policy of an incoming Labour government. It is not an exhaustive list, further work is needed to clarify and develop the details, but we offer them in a constructive spirit to stimulate discussion:

- Require government policy makers (national, regional and local) to test proposed policy objectives against an over-arching objective of the promotion of a cultural democracy which works for the common good. Review whether relevant institutions and processes are fit for that purpose, and closely monitor implementation of such a radical policy in order to ensure that it is not captured by sectional interests.

- Dismantle the barriers that constrain or prevent ordinary people from accessing culture, particularly that which is publicly funded, based on cost, geography, class and social exclusion. Ensure that people generally have an equal opportunity to join in and enjoy all the arts and cultural activities.

- End the corporate capture of the Arts Council and other publicly funded arts bodies, exemplified by the recent appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch to the National Council of Arts Council England. Ensure that cultural funding is distributed equally, regionally and demographically, with regional, local and community participation to ensure that cultural spending empowers the communities that elect those representatives. Champion investment in people over large-scale vanity projects which benefit a narrow elite.

- End the distorting impact of corporate sponsorship and private philanthropy on the freedom and independence of cultural institutions.

- Ensure that leaders of cultural institutions – not only theatres, art galleries, concert halls and poetry publishers, but sports clubs, churches, and broadcasting and media corporations – seek to engage with all sections of the community, particularly the least well off and the least powerful.

- Explore ways to recover working class history and culture at a national, regional and community level, and restore the democratic and humanist cultural traditions that have been eroded by neoliberalism. This might build on the examples of local ‘people’s museums’ which have been set up in parts of the country, using community facilities and contributions by local people to build a picture of the locality.

- Recognise and support the important community role played by small music, visual and performing arts venues, many of which are facing closure as a result of commercial pressures or removal of grants or local funding. These play a vital role in developing creative ability and should be supported via business rates relief, direct subsidy and protection from commercial or residential development.

- Build on our rich history of community arts and sports by extending support, via regional culture councils and other relevant organisations and local authorities, to make space and resources available, so that creative and recreational activity is both available and accessible in urban and rural locations.

- Ensure that the cultural sector sets the standard in terms of workers’ rights, guaranteeing at least the UK Real Living Wage for all its employees, including artists and interns, management, technicians, cleaners and security staff. Introduce trades union representation into the governance arrangements of every public cultural institution.

- Rediscover the value of employer-supported workplace activities to facilitate sports and other forms of cultural participation.

- Provide proper funding for museums, galleries and libraries, to ensure that they play a much more active part in the lives of their communities, providing a place for creative activity and social connection and ensuring accountability to their publics. Museums and galleries should maintain free entry as a general principle, and offer genuine concessionary rates and free entry to low income groups to special events and exhibitions.

- Investigate and remove the barriers that exist in all cultural sectors towards equality of access to cultural and creative work by tackling the educational, financial, employment, career progression and management obstacles that prevent these sectors from reflecting the diversity of our population, particularly at leadership levels.

- Tackle the absence of significant working class representation in all cultural institutions (including the arts, sports, religion, the media, science and technology etc.) in terms of its content, audiences and practitioners.

- Amend the Equality Act to add consideration of class, social exclusion, poverty and inequality to the current policy framework, in parallel with the standard definitions of diversity, with their role factored in to all considerations of access, funding, participation etc.

- Empower and encourage local authorities to facilitate re-municipalisation at a local level, supporting social ownership for all cultural activities through co-operative and other forms of accountable, democratic self-organisation, where wealth is embedded and shared among communities rather than extracted for private gain.

- End the accelerating process of gentrification taking place in many of our cities, which first exploits and then drives out artists from local neighbourhoods. Encourage the recognition of artists as people who contribute to and enrich local communities. Consider options to set up a system of grants to provide living and material costs for artists working in community-based settings.

- Ensure art and culture are integral to the education system, free at the point of use, embedding arts education into the national curriculum so that all children in Britain, from primary school up, have the opportunity to access the best cultural and creative education, recognising the value it plays in the development of social, cognitive, emotional and physical skills and promoting lifelong arts learning.

- End the destructive audit and accountability culture, excessive testing and associated narrowing of the curriculum in our schools. Replace it with an approach to education which is holistic, enables children to live their lives to the full, and which addresses mental and physical health and wellbeing; encouraging students to think critically, questioning everything, nurturing enthusiasm for learning and intellectual curiosity.

 The media
 
- Reclaim the media (newspapers, online platforms, TV and radio) for the people by reforming its funding, ownership and control. Promote democratic accountability and pluralism in order to prevent market dominance by a small, powerful group of monopolistic interests, and create space for progressive and alternative providers capable of criticising and holding power to account.

- Reform and democratise the BBC to enable it to genuinely fulfil its public service broadcasting obligations and make a positive contribution to society, fully representative of its diverse audiences. Give adequate space and time to publicising and encouraging grassroots, DIY culture, and film and TV productions which offer a progressive or socialist vision of a fairer society

- Tackle the corporate capture of the web by monopolistic advertising platforms such as Google and Facebook via the introduction of effective regulation and taxation. Consider options for forms of social ownership of privately owned social media platforms. Facilitate the creation of decentralized social media networks, owned and controlled by the people.

- Introduce a statutory duty of care for the larger social media services, covering the key harms seen on social media platforms (harassment, misuse of personal data, hate crime, intimidation etc), backed by effective enforcement.

Sport and Leisure

- Challenge the commodification of football and other sports by using regulation and taxation to restrict corporate exploitation of clubs, players and spectators, and facilitate a return to the social and community origins of our national sports.

- As part of this new approach, tackle the chronic under-investment in football by enforcing a five per cent levy on Premier League broadcasting rights to be ploughed back into the grassroots game to improve pitches, facilities and training opportunities. Explore options to extend this policy to other sports such as cricket and rugby, which are similarly disfigured by corporate funding.

- Facilitate a shift of public spending on recreation and sport from high profile, elite sports to a greater range of community sports, encouraging a more inclusive and egalitarian ethos in sports institutions and activities, with full community participation in their governance, design and delivery.

- Improve the democratic accountability of sports clubs by giving supporters a greater say in how their clubs are run, at board level, including decisions regarding ownership changes and property sales.

- Require sports authorities to make significant improvements on provisions for fans with disabilities.

- Make the protection of public parks, playgrounds and leisure centres by local authorities and other bodies a legal requirement, prohibit privatisation and outsourcing, and provide proper funding to ensure they are properly maintained and remain free to use.

Conclusion

The arts and other cultural activities are often co-opted to reflect and serve the needs of the dominant class, in a class-divided society such as ours. At the same time, though, they can also provide the space to resist the status quo, to overcome alienation and oppression, and bring enjoyment and meaning into our lives. They can help people envision better, fairer ways of organising our society, as well as promoting our physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

These notes are intended to stimulate debate about the shape and content of a radical and comprehensive culture policy that a future Labour Government might be encouraged to adopt. Clearly, they are not the final word on the subject. Much work needs to be done to test ideas, develop detail and fill gaps. But, hopefully, they provide food for thought and offer a platform for further discussion. Readers are invited to submit general pieces (critical or creative) to our website, to help further the debate. They may also wish to consider joining the Movement for Cultural Democracy, which is a new campaign to drive a radical and transformative cultural programme in the UK.

Now is the time to seize the opportunity to create a comprehensive package of culture polices for the many, not the few.

With thanks to Theresa Easton, Sophie Hope, Jack Newsinger, John Storey and many others, for their valuable comments and contributions to this article.

England expects........the World Cup, anti-racism, and Corbyn's Labour Party
Wednesday, 19 December 2018 05:48

England expects........the World Cup, anti-racism, and Corbyn's Labour Party

Published in Sport

As England prepare to take on Colombia tonight, Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman outlines what we can look forward to. He discusses the potential of modern football for communicating anti-racist messages, and offers some advice to Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party about developing a cultural struggle to run alongside the labour movement's political and economic struggles. This involves adopting a political practice which is rooted in popular culture, where ideas are formed – and changed.

The last time England got to this stage at a World Cup there was no happy ending. A 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany at South Africa 2010. Well at least we know that isn’t going to happen, Auf Wiedersehen before the postcards, ouch!

Though it might not do to be too cocky. England have a decent record in the last sixteen, when not up against a top tier football nation. Beating Ecuador at World Cup 2006, Denmark in 2002, Belgium in 1990, Paraguay in 1986. But out of that lot the only time we then made it past the quarters to the semis was when at Italia’90 after beating Belgium in the last 16 we faced Cameroon, rather than a higher-ranked team.

This is what makes the Russia 2018 campaign so mouth-watering a prospect. Beat Colombia and the quarter will be against Sweden or Switzerland. And with Spain dispatched England’s semi-final opponent would be Russia or Croatia. Arguably there has never been a World Cup like it for sending well-fancied former tournament winners home early, Germany now joined by the last sixteen exits of Argentina, Spain, and reigning European champions, Portugal.

But again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Since England’s last World Cup semi-final appearance 28 years ago, quite a few non top-tier football nations - Bulgaria, Sweden, Croatia, Turkey, South Korea, Portugal, who have never won the World Cup or played in a final - have made it this far. England’s world standing never moved on after 1990. In the almost three decades since then, we have fallen behind others, and in the recent past have slipped back still further. Thus Columbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Croatia and Russia can’t be taken as lightly as some might assume.

All those fancied teams going home early has certainly opened up the tournament, but something else has happened too. No African team has made it into the last 16. Pelé’s prediction that an African team would win the World Cup by 2000 looks as far away as ever. And with only Japan making it through to the last sixteen, despite their plucky performance against Belgium, their eventual defeat means the same goes for Asia too. Football is a truly global game, but the very top level remains a European-Latin American cartel, with little obvious sign of that changing.

Since the beginning, the World Cup has been won by a remarkably small number of teams. Apart from Brazil, Germany and Italy plus Uruguay’s rather ancient 1930 and 1950 tournament wins following England’s one and only triumph, newcomers Argentina have won the trophy twice, in 1978 and ’86.

Three tournaments later, host nation France lifted the trophy for the first and only time in ‘98, and another three tournaments later Spain did the same in 2010 but not again since. After the exits of Germany and Argentina, and the failure of either four-times winners Italy to qualify or Holland - who hold the unenviable record of making the most appearances in a World Cup Final without winning it - the best possible outcome from Russia 2018 would be for a nation that’s never won the World Cup to lift the trophy. Or England, of course!

World Cup winners may be more or less unchanging yet something else has changed, for European teams in particular. When England won the World Cup in 1966 the team was all white. 24 years later and the team that lined up once again to face West Germany in the ’90 semi-final included just two black players, Des Walker and Paul Parker. Another 28 years on and of the England team to face Columbia tonight more than half the line-up will be black or mixed race. And what is true of England is also true for France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Portugal too - all teams made up of a patchwork of the nation’s migrant communities .

Of course the meaning and effect of all this can be overstated. At France ’98 Zinedine Zidane led arguably the greatest multicultural team of all to World Cup triumph, and two years later the same at Euro 2000. But in 2002 Jean Marie Le Pen makes it into the final round of the French Presidential Election for the first time ever, polling almost 20% of the vote. And in 2017 Marine Le Pen achieved the same, this time attracting a third of the popular vote.

But the point is that a St. George Cross draped in the colours of multiculturalism has at least the potential for the beginnings of a journey away from racism. It has a reach and symbolism like no other, touching the parts of a nation’s soul no anti-racist placard thrust in our faces is ever going to.

This is the meaning of modern football, and when England begin to scale the heights of 2018 World Cup ambition the reach of that message is amplified still further on a scale and in a manner that ’66 could never have done, and ’90 barely began. A popular Left politics must surely connect with such episodes as metaphor, to translate what we see on the pitch into the changes beyond the touchline that we require to become a more equal and socialist society.

So here’s my advice for Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues. If Labour cannot explain the meaning of the World Cup why should I listen to what the party has to tell me on how they’re going to fix the mess the NHS is in? A World Cup provides an unrivalled opportunity to illustrate occasionally hidebound points on race, nation and globalisation that touch upon the lived experience and emotions of millions who otherwise might not give such issues a second thought at best, and who might adopt a reactionary position at worst. Corbynism has this kind of popular communicative potential but to date has scarcely even begun to make these kinds of connections.

That doesn't mean the flimsy populism of Blair, when he adopted the ‘Labour’s Coming Home’ message after England’s last tournament semi, Euro ‘96. It means a political practice rooted in popular culture, because it's in popular cultures like football, more than anywhere else, that ideas are not only formed, but also changed.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football, self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’. Their England Expects T-shirt is available from here

England Expects 2018

Towards a mindful cultural commons
Wednesday, 19 December 2018 05:48

Towards a mindful cultural commons

Published in Religion

Peter Doran points to the way buddhist concepts are being corrupted by the commodifying pressures of capitalist culture, and outlines the ways in which true mindfulness practices can help us resist the growing demands of the 'attention economy'.

Neoliberal capitalism is an advanced form of symbolic and material power. We are living through a totalitarian moment in the history of dominant capitalism characterized by the unprecedented targeting of our bodies and our attention. This neoliberal moment is calling forth new forms of resistance as individuals and communities seek to roll back the latest stages in the historic processes of enclosure, by embracing the languages of the commons and commoning.

Resistance, appropriate to the productive forms of contemporary power that moves through and is productive of our bodies, minds and places, is no longer limited to the realms of institutional control and ownership but includes the challenge of restoring the mindful commons, free from the colonisation of our attention. Mindfulness, linked to critical engagement and ethics, can embody a phenomenology of the commons.

The rise of the commons and commoning as a series of practices of resistance – involved in reclaiming ecology as a practice of liberation, reclaiming the urban commons, and extending radical democratic control to the realms of the economy – is emerging alongside popular engagement with practices of mindfulness and other forms of mind-body practices such as yoga. These movements are emerging in complex and sometimes antagonistic ways.

Some secular mindfulness practices such as Cognitive Based Mindfulness Therapies, for example, are also being absorbed into neoliberal consumerist and institutional logics, stripped of their ethical liberating teachings. Corporations, educational institutions, and governments are absorbing mindfulness techniques into their logics of productivity, resilience and adaptation to unacceptable power structures that conceal their own roles in producing suffering and exploitation. Mindfulness, reduced to an individual therapeutic response to societal or structural sources of exploitation, can serve the neoliberal agenda of devolving responsibility down to the individual.

Both movements – commoning and critical mindfulness practices – are calling forth a new individual and cultural awakening, a making visible that which has been actively concealed and placed at the margins of our attention by acts of cultural and economic enclosure, dis-embedding (market making), dislocation and colonisation (of forests, lands, bodies and subjectivities). These processes have accelerated under the influence of dominant capital or capitalization, which, given its universality, cohesion, expandability, intensity and flexibility – is best understood as a ‘symbolic architecture of social power’.

The attention economy is the new enclosure

Our human capacity for directing our attention, which is a form of productive energy, is emerging as an arena of intense conflict – signalled by the debates about political engagement, fake news, and attempts by corporate and political power to capture our loyalty using online technology and social media. It is also visible in concerns about loneliness, disconnection, depression and mental health, and addiction. These issues are not unrelated to the conditions created in our societies by rampant consumerism, invasive screen-based technologies, and their value systems built around hyper-individualism and the insertion of the profit-oriented market as the chief arbiter of social outcomes. The debate has just begun.

The dawn of the ‘attention economy’ – an era of corporate and political targeting of our attention energy to feed the global processes of capitalization – is invoking new forms of resistance, including critically engaged forms of mindfulness practices – re-embedded in ethical and radical teachings drawing from the Buddhist tradition. Buddhist teachings remain a potential and critical resource to throw new light on Western experience and support a transition to sustainable forms of society and prosperity.

Our bodies and our attention are the new realms of enclosure. Modern-day capitalism and its worldwide complex of production and consumption is the primary and most important source of human subjectivity, because subjectivity conditions and participates in the production of all other commodities. We are the product. Subjectivity has become a key commodity – an achievement of a global media, information and entertainment complex – the nature of which is conceived, developed and manufactured as systematically and predictably as the Apple iPhone or any other commodity.

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Mindful and non-violent conscious living are no longer options limited to those with the means to embrace alternative lifestyles, but are moving to the centre of debates about the conditions of a new kind of freedom in an ecologically and socially constrained world: a world where freedom and limits must be reconciled alongside mind and nature.

At the level of the individual, practices of self-regulation aligned with freedom and liberation will be akin to the freedom that accompanies virtuosity, as in excellence in yoga, meditation or forms of discipline in jazz and improvisation that are associated with alternative notions of human joy, accomplishment, and satisfaction.

Two movements have enjoyed a popular surge of interest and participation over the past decade or two. One is the mainly secular mindfulness movement, with roots in Buddhist teachings, which often involves a therapeutic response to the mental pressures associated with modern lifestyles at work, in the market place or at home. The other is the commons or commoning movement.

Another more mindful world is possible

From the point of view of mindfulness-based paths to enhanced awareness, human beings are not trapped forever in the abstract attitude: another world is possible and it will be accompanied by another set of possible dispositions, characterized by a greater sense of intimacy, compassion and continuity with all beings.

The dissociation of mind from body, of awareness from experience, is the result of habituation – personal and institutional – that can be interrupted and broken through meditative technologies or practices that suspend the flow of discursive thought, can tame the inherent restlessness of the mind, and lead to calm and enhanced awareness or presence.

For those who choose to do so, locating mindfulness practice within an ‘engaged’ Buddhist philosophy or community of practice can uncover both practice-based and conceptual resources for radical critique and revolutionary praxis, peace, and both social and environmental justice.

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Prompted by a political and economic system where the prospects of living fully and in full awareness are limited, mindfulness practitioners, potentially and actually, are reclaiming our right to well-being. As Michel Foucault commented in the spring of 1978, at the conclusion of a period of Zen meditation practice in the Seionji temple in Japan:

if a philosophy of the future exists, it must be born outside of Europe, or equally, born in consequence of meetings and impacts between Europe and non-Europe

Mindfulness-based practices, especially those located in or reconnected with their engaged Buddhist origins, can help us reflect on the deep structural or societal causes of dis-ease that have accompanied individuals with the rise of modernity, neoliberal capitalism and life as it is increasingly defined by the extrinsic values of the market place. We are invited and persuaded to internalize a radical and isolated responsibility for our larger fate, and our sense of agency retreats to the realms of ‘self-help’ solutions in the realms of the psyche and the body.

We are the commons

 The second movement involves activist and academic champions of the commons who have begun to respond to neoliberal capitalism and consumerism with a series of critical counter-practices, piloting a radical alternative to the prevailing hyper-individualist and consumerist ethos that recycles biological necessity into commercial capital.

A commons has a number of important characteristics:

- it is a social system with some self-organizing capacity and a commitment to preserving and sharing a local resource and working together with shared values and identity.
- access to the protected resource is organized on an inclusive and equitable basis.
- a commons is often identified with the particular resource that it has evolved to safeguard, use and preserve. In fact, a commons is always more-than-a-resource. It is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values and norms devised by the community to manage its resources.
- finally, there is no commons without commoning or the practices that embody the social practices and norms for managing a resource for collective benefit.

As Ugo Mattei explains:

A phenomenological understanding of the commons forces us to move beyond the reductionist opposition of ‘subject–object,’ which produces the commodification of both. It helps us understand that, unlike private and public goods, commons are not commodities and cannot be reduced to the language of ownership … It would be reductive to say that we have a common good. We should rather see to what extent we are the commons.

There are a number of core beliefs that seem to be intrinsic to the practice of commoning and the organization of the commons, including:

- for rivalrous resources there is enough for all through sharing (the atmosphere);
- while for non-rivalrous resources, there is abundance (solar energy);
- humans are primarily cooperative;
- knowledge is produced through peer-to-peer networking or collaboration;
- and the vision of society foregrounds a conviction that one’s personal unfolding is a condition for the development of others.

A feature of this contemporary commoning movement is the shift from a view of the commons as a ‘thing’ or even as a set of arrangements to a phenomenological emphasis on the active promotion of commoning as a way of being, doing and seeing the world.

Commoning has been described as an attempt to redefine our very understanding of ‘the economy’, to challenge a dominant understanding that has championed rationality over subjectivity, material wealth over human fulfilment, and the system’s abstract necessities (growth, capital accumulation) over human needs.

Commoning shatters these dualisms and reconfigures the role of participants so that we are not simply reduced to the roles of producers or consumers but regarded as participants in a physical and meaningful exchange with multiple material, social and sense-making needs. Commoners realize that their household needs and livelihoods are entangled with the specific place and habitat where they live, and with the earth as a living entity. The recovery of the commons is a collective act of restorative memory and remembering, practice, and a rendering visible of new possibilities for economic forms in the face of a failed attempt by champions of capitalist power to impose a false arrest on the historical evolution of economic ideas. It involves reviving and re-embedding slow practices in an ethos that is local or situated, entangled in relationships that are human and non-human, and that command an ethics of care, reciprocity and interbeing.

Commoning, then, denotes the continuous making and remaking of the commons through shared practice. At the heart of this relational, situated interdependence of humans and non-humans is not an impoverished world of ‘niggardly nature’, nor an infinitely malleable world of ‘techno-culture’, but a more-than-human commons that navigates between limits and possibilities as they arise.

Pay attention to mindful resistance

PD Mindful Woo2

The subject of this article is a call for a political economy of attention: a mindful commons. Its cultivation will demand a network of new conversations and practices, some of them embodied in the technologies of meditation and related mind–body practices. This is an opening contribution about the ground upon which these two movements can meet and how that ground can be cultivated to deepen our critical and collective understanding of the ‘attention economy’ and what’s at stake.

Only what we pay attention to seems real to us. While what we ignore seems to fade into insignificance until, perhaps, we are blindsided and events suddenly call out for attention. He adds: ‘Each of us chooses, by our ways of attending to things, the universe we inhabit and the people we encounter. But for most of us, this “choice” is unconscious, so it’s not really a choice at all.’ Which raises interesting questions about freedom.

While we hold to our beliefs about free will, we are equally conscious of our struggles to direct our attention. As Wallace observes:

We may believe in free will, but we can hardly be called ‘free’ if we can’t direct our own attention. No philosopher or cognitive scientist needs to inform us that our behaviour isn’t always guided by free will – it becomes obvious as soon as we try to hold our attention on a chosen object.

Attention is now regarded as an essential part of practices of consumption, entertainment and media culture, as it has become intensely valued both as capital and as a scarce commodity. That innate tendency towards ‘absence’ from our moment-to-moment experience has become an open door for a highly sophisticated series of social and corporate technologies designed to target and capitalize our attention energy. Indeed, in the context of post-industrial society, attention is now regarded as a currency with greater value than that which circulates in our banks, one that is now the single most important determinant of business success.

Attention has a profound impact on character and ethical behaviour, and our capacity to voluntarily bring back wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgement, character and will. While a gift for sustained attention can be seen as a fixed deposit, a capacity one inherited or not, the contemporary mindfulness movement and associated spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, are associated with forms of training to enhance the capacity for attention in attempts to interrupt patterns of conditioned behaviour and cultivate a genuine quality of freedom and spaciousness around our capacity to see, our capacity for awareness. There are great similarities between the practices and dispositions of commoning and the mindfulness movement, especially for those who wish to inform their activism and powers of resistance to contemporary capitalist culture.

Peter Doran is the author of A Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Consumerism: reclaiming the mindful commons, 2017, Routledge.