James Crossley reflects on the dangers and possibilities of the Covid-19 crisis. Image: Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Albrecht Durer, 1497-8
Towards the end of March, it was reported that an English hiker returned from a five-day trek in the New Zealand wilds and was surprised to see “three hooded figures, wearing masks and hi-vis jackets.”
His journey coincided with the coronavirus lockdown and his response was that the three figures were like a “post-apocalyptic survivor squad.” Despite his atypical situation, he was not alone in framing these unusual times in such language.
With the rapid public awareness of coronavirus came the ubiquitous language of apocalypticism and End Times, even in an increasingly irreligious Britain. Such language is used ironically, as few really believe that the End Times are upon us or that an era of Walking Dead survivalism is at hand—this is not the US, after all. But hopes of a transformation in the way we live after the crisis are taken more seriously. It seems people overwhelmingly do not want to go back to the way things were before the lockdown. It seems they do prefer cleaner air, a feeling of community and keeping in touch with family members.
There is good reason why people have framed the pandemic in terms of apocalypticism because such language and concepts run deep in our culture. In the US, such ideas are associated with the Christian right. In this country, however, they are much more closely aligned with the left and have a long history. John Ball, the great priest of the 1381 English uprising, employed end-times language from the Bible to understand the predicament of peasants in particular and how a dramatic, violent transformation would be needed before all things would be held in common.
Apocalypticism was an important way for people like Ball to express their discontents in a pre-capitalist society. Socialist and communist movements later provided a different type of opposition to capitalism and absorbed and transformed such language and ideas.
Like other socialists of his time, William Morris worked with the idea of a “religion of socialism.” God may be out of the equation but socialism needed to retain what was important in religion and this included ideas about changing the current social order while being prepared to face defeats and sacrifices. Morris’s reading of Marx also meant he could take seriously the idea that John Ball was a prophet before his time. In A Dream of John Ball, Morris showed that there will always be failures but the message of past struggles must not be lost in new situations. Ball’s vision of a transformed world, Morris argued, was more likely with the rise of socialism but it now needed the example of determined people like Ball to help bring it about.
The darker side of apocalypticism became prominent in the 20th century, with two world wars and the threat of nuclear and then environmental annihilation. But the left did not lose sight of the possibilities for a better world. After VE Day and the rubble of World War II, socialists looked to build a New Jerusalem as the Labour Party created the NHS and developed a welfare state as part of their “new war on hunger, ignorance and want,” as the 1945 manifesto put it.
These ideas have persisted. After decades of leftist defeatism, Rojava showed the possibilities for transformation again. Volunteers could talk about inheriting the earth and bringing about a new world after the ruins. From socialists and communists in the region, as well as the brutal realities of war, volunteers knew the cost of fighting for revolutionary change and the importance of memorialising martyrs. The death of volunteers like Anna Campbell brought this home to a country not used to thinking much beyond the romance of revolution.
It is for good reason that liberals get queasy about the language of dramatic change. Maintaining, or gently tweaking, the status quo is in their interests. But their interests are not workers’ interests. The Financial Times last month gave the game away with an analogy from the 14th century. Its editorial noted that the Black Death has been credited with “transforming labour relations in Europe” as peasants “could bargain for better terms and conditions.” However, it added, “a thankfully much lower mortality rate means such a transformation is unlikely to follow coronavirus.”
Unfortunate wording? Perhaps. The main concern in the FT editorial may have been about high unemployment but clearly the transformation of labour relations after the lockdown is not what the bosses want. Our interests are the opposite and popular. Workers once taken for granted are now widely appreciated during this pandemic, as they clear away our rubbish, make sure we have food and treat patients in testing circumstances—even to the point of putting their lives on the line.
Their importance and the contrasting uselessness of the likes of Richard Branson have been exposed for us all to see. To paraphrase the popular piece of graffiti, the next battleground will involve making the rich pay for Covid-19. If the aftermath of 2008 and the Corbyn project taught us anything, this is not going to be easy. The government has made noises about paying back what’s owed and we know who will and who won’t bear the brunt of this and who will and won’t be made redundant.
The odds aren’t favourable, with a long-weakened union movement and a Starmer-led Labour Party. But this is not the time for technocratic politics or a gentle tweaking of the system which will only further line the pockets of corporations at the expense of workers. The demands for a new world are getting ever more urgent in the face of climate change. Serious, sustained change will only come through the power of mass collective action with workers’ interests at heart and a vision of what kind of world we want.
Are we up for it? Bob Crow famously said: “If you fight you won't always win. But if you don't fight you will always lose.” That saying turned up in Rojava and it is just as relevant in northern Syria as it will be once this so-called apocalypse ends and the next one hits us hard.
Jenny Farrell celebrates 100 years of Bauhaus, the German art school started in 1919
Inspired by Germany’s November 1918 Revolution, which was ultimately crushed by the Social Democratic Party leadership and the military, artists and intellectuals, anti-militarists and pacifists hoped for a new society for the common good. Many however had no clear political orientation or a full understanding of the causes of the war. Yet, despite this lack of clarity, socialist visions of the future were formulated, oriented to a more just society.
During its short existence (1919-33), a number of designers and architects emerged from the Bauhaus whose work lastingly influenced 20th century visual arts. Their philosophy was that everyday objects achieve beauty through simple form, material and colour.
At the initiative of Bruno Taut, Walter Gropius, Adolf Behne and others, the Workers’ Council for Art – named after the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils – set itself the goal of bringing current developments in architecture and art closer to the people: “Art and people must form a unity. Art should no longer be the pleasure of a few, but serve the happiness and life of the many.” In Gropius’ words: “the more their class pride grows, the more the people will despise imitating the rich and independently invent their own style of living. This understanding by the people is the fertile ground for the art to come.”
What was new about the school was its attempt to integrate art and craft, to bridge the gap between art and industry. The unity of arts had of course been a central tenet of the late 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris and influenced Gropius’s planning for the school. Nevertheless, the Bauhaus was different to the Arts and Crafts movement in fundamental ways. Its emphasis was urban and technological, and it embraced 20th-century machine culture.
The Bauhaus began in Weimar in 1919 as a state school for art and architecture. The guiding principles in the Bauhaus Manifesto were community, unity of art, practical education, cooperation between craft and industry, and a sense of belonging to the people. All artistic disciplines were to be reunited under the leadership of a new architectural art.
The name Bauhaus plays on the German word Bauhütte (construction/ building hut) – the workshop, where the builders of the great medieval cathedrals worked together: quarrymen, plasterers, mortar-makers, stone-cutters, masons, and others. Here, there were no strict dividing lines between artists and craftsmen, and the builders were both in one. This was an important concept for the Bauhaus school. As the word Hütte means hut, the term was modernised to Haus (house). In this way, the term Bauhaus refers to a workshop, the sense of community and the equality of art and craft under the guidance of architecture, as cultivated in medieval cathedral workshops. Painting, sculpture, applied art, music and dance were to combine in the building of the future.
With this commonality of craft and art in medieval cathedral construction in mind, the “Cathedral of Socialism” was understood as a utopian building and embodiment of a future social structure, intended to overcome the consequences of alienation, the causes of which were seen more in the division of labour than in wage labour.
Walter Gropius added this woodcut by Lyonel Feininger to the founding manifesto of the Bauhaus in 1919 as the title page. A triad surrounds the cathedral spire: the three arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture, their rays flowing into each other. The choice of cathedral references the Bauhütte and underlines the centrality of architecture. The old-fashioned woodcutting technique combines with a futuristic cubist design.
At the Bauhaus, painting and sculpture stimulated architecture, applied art and environmental design. In the visual arts, a certain affinity for the world of technology developed, while industry demanded a species-specific design of its products. The artists broke away from traditional forms; industry presented challenges with a multitude of new materials, products and devices. Form was to follow function, materials were to reveal the true nature of objects and buildings. Features of an object or building’s construction, such as steel or a beam, were to be highlighted rather than hidden as an integral part of the design, as part of its beauty.
Bauhaus Dessau, built from 1925 to 1926 according to plans by Walter Gropius as a school building for the School of Art, Design and Architecture
The rectangular shape of the building, glass-curtain walls, and a distinctive vertical logo express the modern vision of the school. Glass walls create a bright interior and facilitate a view into the building’s inner purposes, transporting transparency and openness. These aspects, among others, reflect Gropius's vision of a more equal society.
At the heart of the Bauhaus philosophy was social living. A house should have a smooth, elementary form, as if it were industrially manufactured. The rectangular system and the Bauhaus signature flat roof were deemed equal surfaces with windows and doors. The aim was to achieve equality between front and rear, top and bottom, right and left. Every element of the building should be both supportive and supported. Architectural ideas reflected social perspectives - a society of equals.
One example of this is the Horseshoe Estate in Berlin. The Horseshoe Estate housed 3,000 members of a trade union building society set up in 1924. Bauhaus architect Bruno Taut, a committed socialist was asked to plan an affordable estate. The result were unpretentious, brick-built modernist flats in dramatic colours. They were then let or sold to trade unionists. The estate’s flat roofs led to a heated debate as the German right considered these un-German, “degenerate”. Indeed, in 1933, Taut fled Germany.
The suburban Horseshoe Estate expresses optimism for a new way of life and social equality. As with the school building, each part supports and is supported by the other and all look on to a green communal space around a small pool, fed by ice-age groundwater.
The Hufeisensiedlung (Horseshoe Estate) and its colourful doors
Soviet artists provided inspiration for the Bauhaus: Malevich oriented his suprematist architects towards new architectural ideas of space, Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International illustrated the synthesis between the “technical and the artistic”, and El Lissitzky’s Proun series (pronounced pro-oon), an acronym for “project for the affirmation of the new” in Russian) was conceived as “a transfer from painting to architecture”.
The Thuringian Weimar workers’ government (social democrats and communists) was dissolved in 1923 under pressure from the military. Following a decision by the new government, the Bauhaus in Weimar finally closed in 1924 with the declaration that Gropius had “designed it one-sidedly communist-expressionist”.
The school moved to Dessau in 1925 and against the votes of the right-wing parties there. Following the NSDAP’s success in Dessau’s local elections of 1931, the German fascists subjected the institution to reprisals such as raids, and the arrest of students, thus forcing it to dissolve in 1932. Its move to Berlin was short-lived and ended in 1933.
The Bauhaus produced an incredible range of disciplines including theatre design, typography, painting, furniture, architecture, household goods, stained glass and experimental film, photography, music and dance. Many significant 20th century artists, designers and architects studied and taught there including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Breuer and Lyonel Feininger - who designed the cover for Gropius's Bauhaus manifesto.
Marcel Breuer: Wassily chair
Its influence has been enormous: Herbert Bayer's sans serif typefaces, Gunta Stolzl's weaving and fabric designs and Marcel Breuer's famous tubular steel chair, to name a few iconic designs.
Beginning with the Weimar Republic, women in Germany gained the right to vote and the freedom to teach. When Walter Gropius opened the State Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919, he announced in his programme: “Every person of good repute is accepted as an apprentice, regardless of age and gender, whose talent and previous training is considered sufficient by the Master Council”.
But Gropius soon feared that the large number of women would damage the reputation of the school. He recommended that “no more unnecessary experiments” be undertaken, and demanded, “sharp segregation immediately after admission, especially in the case of the number of women who were too strongly represented”.
The fear was that female students would take valuable workshop places away from male students. Some women nevertheless conquered places in male domains, for example Dörte Helm and Lou Scheper in mural painting, while weaving was declared a “women’s class” from 1920.
The handloom was the only department managed by a woman, Anni Albers. The weaving mill soon became one of the most productive workshops. The ideas and innovations that the women weavers unleashed there were anything but traditional and led to a surge in development in industrial design and an artistic re-evaluation of textile art. In addition, they had such great commercial success that they became representative of the entire Bauhaus. When Bauhaus architect Meyer asked Albers to produce a wall covering for a new trade union lecture hall he was designing, she created an innovative hanging that joined the new material cellophane with cotton on either side respectively, to produce a surface that absorbed sound and reflected light at the same time.
The second largest area in which women excelled at the Bauhaus was photography. This modern medium offered artistically ambitious women not only opportunities to earn a living but also a field of experimentation for exploring themselves and their time. In their photographic works, these avant-garde photographers dealt with the “New Woman” and the images of women of their time.
In 1933, the Nazis banned many of the Bauhaus students from working. They were persecuted by the fascists because they were political, or they came from political “enemy territory”, or because of their Jewish origin. Their works were classified as “degenerate art”. They left Germany and spread their ideas around the world. When the Nazis built Buchenwald concentration camp, they required the former Bauhaus student and communist inmate Franz Ehrlich to designed the notorious camp’s gate, displaying the motto ‘Jedem das Seine’ (to each what he deserves) in Bauhaus typeface, in gruesome irony.
One of the most famous of the women students was Marianne Brandt, née Liebe. László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) became her mentor and teacher. On his advice, she joined the male-dominated metal workshop. There she gradually gained recognition and designed the first lighting fixtures for the Bauhaus building in Dessau. In 1928, she became head of the metal workshop – and made history as a Bauhaus designer. Moholy-Nagy called her his “best and most brilliant student” and said that she was the source of “90 percent of all Bauhaus models”.
MT 49 tea extract jug
She became famous for the tiny tea infuser, the “MT 49 tea extract jug” made of silver and ebony, which is still an icon of Bauhaus decoration today - just like her lamp models. Brandt's infuser is distinctively Bauhaus. Rather like the infuser used with the samovar, it holds a concentrated extract, which may be combined with hot water to produce tea of any desired strength. Brandt recast the characteristics of a teapot as abstract geometric forms. The body hemisphere rests on crossbars. A tall ebony knob tops its asymmetrical round lid. The D-shaped ebony handle contrasts vertically to the pot's otherwise principally horizontal lines.
Marianne Brandt Photomontage
Following their principle “No day without a search”, Brandt also discovered photography. She experimented with perspectives and light and devoted herself to photomontage. She captured themes such as big cities, film and expressive dance. She critically examined war and militarism and asked how much room for manoeuvre a “women’s movement” had in her time. Before the Nazis defamed her works as “degenerate”, she was known throughout Europe as a designer, and renowned companies produced her designs in series.
The artistic avant-garde assembled at the Bauhaus hoped to be a force that would change society and shape a modern human environment. It was an important counter-force to conformity, Prussianism and militarism.
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
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.
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.
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.
Chris Guiton analyses and discusses the importance of the concept of the cultural commons.
In the 21st century we are witnessing the rapid encroachment by capitalism on what is often referred to as the ‘cultural commons’. These are the shared resources in the cultural sphere which belong to all of us rather than a wealthy or privileged minority. This goes beyond specific works of art to the broader cultural sphere identified by Raymond Williams, the Marxist writer and academic, as our “whole way of life - the common meanings…the arts and learning – the special processes of discovery and creative effort” (Moving from High Culture to Ordinary Culture). For Williams, “culture is ordinary”. It is not the preserve of a cultural elite, but a democratic right for everyone.
In recent decades, however, the cultural hegemony of neoliberal capitalism has expanded and deepened its economic, political and intellectual control over us. In Britain, this process has been sharpened by the deployment of the 2008 recession to justify austerity policies designed to erode public services, cut wages and deepen inequality. These policies are not only having an unequal, and adverse, economic effect on the less well-off and working people generally, they are having an unequal effect on arts and cultural provision. The consequence of this process is a poorer public realm, stunted human development and the diminution of the common good.
At Culture Matters we want to help defend and enhance the cultural commons and make as much art and culture available, as cheaply as possible, to as many ordinary working people as possible. But let’s take a bit of time to look at how the concept of the ‘commons’ evolved and what it offers to us today. Early humanity lived in a state of primitive communism, characterised by shared ownership of all but a limited number of individual possessions. Art, music and story- telling in primitive communist times were almost certainly public, shared activities, which had the effect of developing and maintaining a sense of social solidarity.
With the development of class society, first slave society, followed by feudalism and then capitalism, came the appearance of private property based on an increasingly systematic appropriation of the means of production. The term ‘commons’ developed as a way of referring to those natural resources – for example, land and water – where people in class-based societies either have common rights to access and use those resources or where the land is communally owned and controlled rather than held in private ownership. The rights were available to defined groups of people in a particular community, under commonly understood arrangements that reflected customary use. As such, they reflected the society they were located within and its material conditions at a given historical point.
The experience of a tenant in 14th century feudal England would be rather different from that of a herder in the Mongolian grasslands in the 16th century or a Maine lobster fisherman in the 19th century. Many readers will be familiar with the feudal system that applied in England. Commons arrangements, including things like grazing rights, fishing rights and the right to collect firewood, developed to allow tenants access to manorial lands to help meet their reproductive needs. While this provided people with access to much-needed resources, it existed within the framework of a rigidly hierarchical society. A society’s structure clearly limits the benefits of common-pool property rights. In addition, these rights are often based on closed groups which themselves limit access. But what they demonstrate is both the opportunities and the constraints offered by the commons concept as an inherently political perspective, subject to historical processes as well as providing oppositional space to create new ways of living.
The economic pressures faced by the commons were exemplified by the enclosures that took place in England, as feudalism was replaced by first nascent then more assertive capitalism. These started to rise dramatically in the Tudor period as open-field, arable land was fenced off and converted to pastureland for sheep grazing by the landowners as they sought to increase the profits that could be derived from the rapid growth in the cloth trade. This inevitably meant the loss of common rights, created significant unemployment and led to the displacement of now impoverished rural labourers. This resulted in considerable social unrest, riots and a series of revolts across the country, typified by Kett's Rebellion in 1549, as the rural populace fought back and sought to restore the stability of the traditional commons system.
The process of enclosure was given a significant boost in the 18th and 19th centuries as Parliament, via a series of Inclosure Acts, enforced consolidation of strips in the open field system into larger, unitary landholdings. Commons rights were extinguished, much of the remaining pasture commons lost and people who had previously subsisted on the land became part of the new, rapidly growing urban proletariat. By the early 19th century, the medieval peasant community had been virtually destroyed. As E. P. Thompson noted in The Making of the English Working Class, “Enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery.”
But what are the implications of all this for us now? The late 20th and early 21st centuries are providing multiple examples of the very modern forms that enclosure takes today. It is seen to worrying effect, for example, in the corporate encroachment on the internet commons.
The internet was originally based on an open architecture system of communication, publicly available to all, developed over a period of years by collaboration and information sharing amongst scientists and engineers, and, crucially, developed with government support for the significant public investment required to make it happen. It offered an open forum for ideas and allowed innovation to flourish. But since its launch, it has fallen prey to a corporate ‘landgrab’ as the major computer software and services corporations sought to replace open technical standards for the web with closed, proprietary standards for browsers and operating systems, securing huge profits in the process. In the meantime, online media corporations have asserted virtual monopoly control over TV and high speed internet access, as they have grown, and merged, and fight to limit subscribers to their own services.
In the United States, this process has inevitably been accompanied by a decline in public interest broadcasting as time allotted to public affairs and local programming has declined, and opportunities for political bias in programming and advertising have increased. This is reflected in the UK which has seen a significant drop in recent years in spending on news, current affairs and children's television. The original BBC mandate to "inform, educate and entertain", whatever its original limitations given the elitism and authoritarianism implicit in its approach to mass education (and the fascist sympathies of its first Director-General, John Reith), looks increasingly fragile as commercial funding structures are introduced or threatened, overt political interference grows and pressure increases from commercial rivals.
The detrimental impact of corporate moves to control previously accessible resources is also seen very clearly in the intellectual property rights and copyright field covering literature, film and music, where the law is steadily being extended in duration and scope. Originally intended to balance the creators’ rights to control their artistic outputs with the public right to access once the copyright term had expired, we are now witnessing a surge in efforts by major corporations to protect and monetise ‘their’ property. These efforts focus on the supposed originality of an artistic creation while neglecting its foundation in general culture, a common property of all of us, from which it was derived.
An obvious example here is Disney’s success in securing a trademark for the name ‘Snow White’, from a story first published by the Brothers Grimm but based on a much older folk tale. The trademark covers all live and recorded movie, television, radio, stage, computer, internet, news, and photographic entertainment uses, except literature works of fiction and nonfiction. So, while even Disney understand that extending their ownership to literature would be a step too far, they clearly see no problem with asserting a broad-based proprietary ownership of a name considerably older than them – and in doing this are backed by the law.
Copyright provisions have been steadily extended over time and, in the UK, now stand at ‘life plus 70 years’ for most works (in the United States it was recently extended to 95 years from publication date as a result of extensive corporate lobbying). Unsurprisingly, the beneficiaries are usually not the authors, long since departed from this world, but the corporations who often own the copyright.
There is a fundamental contradiction between the enabling power of new internet-based technologies, creating the potential for a publicly available archive of all the art and culture ever produced and distributed publicly, and the application of an increasingly restrictive copyright law which seeks to control and monetise ‘creative property’, and which acts as a barrier to free expression.
Lawrence Lessig, a American professor of law, has written extensively on the subject, demonstrating how cultural monopolists seek to shrink the public domain of ideas, with the big media and technology corporations using technology and the digitisation of culture to control people’s access to it and what can we do with it. As he puts it in his book Free Culture:
We live in a “cut and paste” culture enabled by technology…Using the Internet and its archives, musicians are able to string together mixes of sound never before imagined; filmmakers are able to build movies out of clips on computers around the world. An extraordinary site in Sweden takes images of politicians and blends them with music to create biting political commentary…All of these creations are technically illegal. Even if the creators wanted to be “legal,” the cost of complying with the law is impossibly high. Therefore, for the law-abiding sorts, a wealth of creativity is never made. And for that part that is made, if it doesn’t follow the clearance rules, it doesn’t get released.
This is a sad but inevitable consequence of the turbo-charged capitalism that dominates the world today and which seeks to commodify everything it can, including culture.
Another field in which the theft of the cultural commons is very visible is sport. Sports such as football provide entertainment and emotional engagement for millions of people. But the steady commodification of such sports is plumbing new depths. Grossly inflated player wages and transfer fees; increasingly unaffordable ticket prices; the increased role of advertising and sponsorship; the money earned by the Premier League through selling airtime (linked to the formation of the Premier League itself); the growth of merchandising; and top clubs’ preference for buying players on the international transfer market rather than nurturing home-grown talent are all contributing to the degradation of the sport itself as a game played for reasons other than the pursuit of profit. The result is a poorer experience for the consumer as the quality of the game declines, particularly at a national level, barriers grow for aspiring players, and a ‘winner takes all’ culture develops for the top players and the enrichment of a small group of clubs and their (often billionaire) owners.
The same processes are happening in all fields of culture, very obviously in the visual arts, which are scarred by elitism and commodification. Works by major artists, promoted by a self-serving network of art dealers engaged in what is effectively price-fixing, sell for astronomical sums to the super-rich, unable to think of anything socially useful to spend their ill-gotten gains on. They then often disappear from public view but are used as a mechanism to demonstrate the distance between the financial and social elite and ordinary people. The artwork may have little genuine artistic merit but this is almost irrelevant as self-referential emptiness and banality replaces any effort to mirror and interrogate the world around us. This bizarre process has reached its apogee in the work of Damien Hirst, where his brand identity has become the commodity, supplanting the artwork itself.
How have political parties in Britain reacted to this process? In his recent book Cultural Capital, Robert Hewison offered a well-pitched critique of culture policy under New Labour. He describes how a significant increase in funding for art and cultures was accompanied by the marketization and monetisation of culture. Funding became contingent on alignment with Government policy objectives, target-driven and reduced to a short-sighted instrumentalism. This led to the disastrous decision to build the much-mocked Millenium Dome. Since then, of course, in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, funding has been significantly reduced by successive governments. Crucially, Hewison notes that the New Labour objective of widening social access to the arts did not succeed. Audience levels barely increased at all. And the demographic make-up of those regularly enjoying the arts remained largely white, better educated and elderly.
The limited access that most working class people have to art and culture is a real issue for anyone interested in the struggle for a fairer, more just society. Enjoyment of the arts and cultural activities, as both producer and consumer, is an essential part of the ‘social wage’ for all workers. By social wage, we mean the amenities and services provided within a society from public funds. All members of society are as entitled to fair, equal and adequate ‘terms and conditions’ for culture as they are for their labour. Promoting recognition and understanding in the labour movement of the central contribution made by the struggle for a better ‘cultural commons’ to the quality of life of everyone is a core objective of Culture Matters.
Elinor Ostrom, the American political economist, has done a lot of valuable work on the role of the commons in providing an alternative to market economics and government intervention. She defined it as a general concept that refers to a resource shared by a group of people, built on principles of self-governance, community and local action. David Bollier, a noted writer and activist in this field, has identified the scope for the commons concept to provide “a new paradigm of economics, politics and culture.” He defines the commons as:
A social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity. It is a self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State. The wealth that we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children. Our collective wealth includes the gifts of nature, civic infrastructure, cultural works and traditions, and knowledge.
He goes on to say that,
There is no commons without commoning – the social practices and norms for managing a resource for collective benefit. Forms of commoning naturally vary from one commons to another because humanity itself is so varied. And so there is no “standard template” for commons; merely “fractal affinities” or shared patterns and principles among commons. The commons must be understood, then, as a verb as much as a noun. A commons must be animated by bottom-up participation, personal responsibility, transparency and self-policing accountability.
This relates directly to our aspirations at Culture Matters to provide a broad-based platform which arts and culture producers and consumers can use for their benefit, sharing knowledge, ideas and resources, and creating an open – and oppositional - space which challenges the dispossession and commodification of our cultural resources. Which reclaims these resources for us all, and facilitates opportunities for collaborative artistic and cultural expression.
Encouragingly, there are always people ready to fight back and demonstrate the essentially social nature of culture. Think of performance poetry delivered in pubs, cafes and at festivals around the country rather than unnecessarily obscure poetry produced for the page and for the edification of a small elite readership. Think of the visceral power of punk rock as an anti-authoritarian rejection of mainstream music and stadium rock. Or the impact of FC United of Manchester, a club established and owned by its fans, which deliberately sets out to build strong links with the local community and democratise access.
What links these cultural expressions, consciously or unconsciously, is the legitimate desire people have to do things for themselves, make culture real, work within their communities and challenge the status quo. As we know, capitalism is very good at co-opting dissent, by turning radical images and ideas into marketable commodities. But this is all the more reason to develop a counter-culture which, as Antonio Gramsci described in his Prison Notebooks, seeks to create a new hegemony, presenting new ideas and new forces which challenge and disrupt capitalism’s dominant definition of what is ‘normal’ and ‘legitimate’.
We aim to develop Culture Matters as a countervailing force to the profit-centred, neo-liberal, market paradigm that developed under capitalism, challenging assumptions, articulating new visions and encouraging and promoting oppositional cultural perspectives and activities. This means identifying new ways of working and new structures that cut across traditional boundaries and, in effect, helps create a socialist and progressive cultural ecosystem, which develops new networks and new inter-actions between people. Let’s join William Morris, who declared in Art, Wealth and Riches:
All who assert public rights against private greed are helping us; every foil given to common-stealers, or railway-Philistines, or smoke-nuisance-breeders, is a victory scored to us.