Profound new visions of a better world: why we need cultural education
Wednesday, 23 October 2019 20:49

Profound new visions of a better world: why we need cultural education

Published in Cultural Commentary

Chris Guiton explains why it is essential that the labour movement uses a variety of political and cultural educational programmes to make the case for socialism

Antonio Gramsci’s profound insight that culture is a key site of political and social struggle remains as valid today as it was in the 1930s. Most of us on the Left understand that ruling-class ‘hegemony’ – the influence the capitalist class has over what counts as knowledge, beliefs and values in our society – is exercised through a range of civil society institutions, including the media, the arts, religion and education. And we recognise that while this power is not always visible, it is tremendously important in the manufacture of consent and conferral of legitimacy on capitalism and its current neoliberal manifestation.

So, it’s really encouraging to see senior figures in the labour and trade union movement talking about the need to reinvigorate political education. It has a crucial role to play in giving ordinary people the tools they need to analyse our current economic and political system and empower them to fight for a socialist alternative. But why is the cultural sphere so often neglected or sidelined in these discussions?

plebs league

It might appear odd that this is even an issue. After all, the labour movement has a rich history of working-class self-education, delivered through trade unions, political parties, libraries, the Plebs League, the Workers’ Educational Association and other institutions, most of which engaged with culture in its various forms. But most of this activity started to decline in the 1980s as trade union education was depoliticised by its reliance on Government funding, adult and further education provision experienced a class-based assault on its very being given its association with working-class politics and emancipation, and the Labour Party neglected its roots and lost its political compass.

There is an urgent need to revive this tradition of working-class education, restore infrastructure and funding, and rediscover an understanding of its democratising potential. This is an essential step if we are to ensure that a campaigning Labour Party can both win and retain political power. It will help people challenge the neoliberal narrative that ‘there is no alternative’ to the capitalist status quo by fostering a counter-hegemonic understanding of how capitalism operates, why political struggle has always been required to secure democratic rights, and the challenges we face in confronting a system which is clearly rigged against ordinary people.

What is cultural education?

But why does cultural education matter? What is it exactly and how does it relate to political education?

The explosion of popular culture since Gramsci’s time of writing (the Prison Notebooks were written between 1929 and 1935) has reinforced the significance of his thinking. Corporate-driven popular culture – films, TV, music etc – produces bland, uniform cultural products that encourage passive, docile consumption of their anodyne pleasures; promotes an individualised, competitive view of life; and discourages independent, creative, critical thinking.

Historically, there has been a tendency on the Left to underestimate culture’s political importance. Its significance has either been downplayed, with culture seen as an act of often private and largely passive consumption, or it has been viewed in instrumental terms as a weapon in the political struggle for socialism. But a more constructive, utopian perspective also exists, based on the understanding that there is a dynamic relationship between the cultural struggle and the political struggle. As the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein once said, “The revolution introduced me to art, and art, in its own turn, brought me to the revolution.” Socialism, then, can ultimately be viewed as a weapon in the fight for an enriched and democratic human culture.

Building on the work of Gramsci, the Marxist theorist and critic Raymond Williams was keen to promote the concept of a cultural revolution to accompany the economic and political revolutions. He understood this as a ‘long revolution’ leading to socialism through the extension and deepening of cultural and educational democratisation. He sought to articulate the ways in which we might give voice to our lived experiences, currently marginalised by a hegemonic, capitalist narrative. A fully developed campaign for cultural democracy plays a key role here, becoming a mechanism for resistance to and change of the dominant culture in all its manifestations.

Challenging the appropriation and commodification of cultural activities by the ruling class starts from this understanding. The arts can take us into imagined worlds and enable us to understand how others live. Listening to the music of John Coltrane, reading the novels of Angela Carter or looking at a painting by Cézanne can provide pleasure as well as help people deal with the alienation and oppression they encounter in their everyday lives. Culture can bring us together in shared, collaborative activities which are enjoyable in their own right.

paul robeson

It can also take on a more explicit counter-hegemonic character, encouraging us to think critically, ask challenging questions and participate in the wider world. Watching the film of Paul Robeson singing “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” to a group of Scottish miners in an Edinburgh colliery canteen in 1949 brings into sharp relief the emancipatory potential of linking culture to politics. At its best, culture not only has the potential to entertain and enlighten us, but can act as a liberating force, providing a broader canvas on which to understand historic, social and political issues, assert our common humanity against the divisions of class, gender and race caused by capitalism, and inspire radical change in the real world.

Similar benefits flow from other cultural activities such as playing or participating in sport, working on an allotment and socialising in pubs, cafés and restaurants. As well as being satisfying in themselves, they can provide multiple opportunities for engagement with others, which reflect the fundamentally social nature of human beings, emotional growth, and the encouragement of a collective commitment to the common good. This is based on an understanding that culture comes in many shapes and forms.

However, it’s all too common for discussions on culture to become a vehicle for the delivery of elitist perspectives on the relative values of its different manifestations. The frequently expressed division between so-called ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture’ conveniently ignores the barriers created by the Industrial Revolution to the production and enjoyment of culture by ordinary people.

It is clearly designed to exclude the working class from appreciation of a broad range of cultural pursuits, and disempower them by dismissing typical working-class cultural activities as having less intrinsic value than their upper-class counterparts. It is also an expression of snobbery, which says more about the person uttering it than the subject to hand. These are important points. Kurt Weill, the German composer and Bertolt Brecht collaborator, really nailed it with his comment, “I have never acknowledged the difference between serious music and light music. There is only good music and bad music.”

Let's return to Raymond Williams, who famously noted that ‘culture is ordinary’. His genius was to focus on the importance of people’s lived experience, as he explained, using ‘the word culture in two senses: to mean a whole way of life – the common meanings; [as well as] to mean the arts and learning – the special processes of discovery and creative effort.’ And to insist on the importance of both senses, in conjunction.

As the Left mobilises, and the struggle against neoliberalism intensifies, we’re presented with a fantastic opportunity to promote and reclaim working-class culture, rediscover the value of culture generally as a means of individual and collective empowerment, and learn how to use art and culture in the battle for hearts and minds that is crucial to effective political organising, campaigning and education. While class and capitalism shape our culture, the scope to develop an independent and potentially resistant working-class culture remains very much in front of us, as ordinary people continue to resist capitalist norms and create their own meanings.

The link between culture and education

How does the link between culture and education manifest itself? The Russian psychologist and teacher, Lev Vygotsky, was fascinated by the connection between them. As a Marxist, he believed that human concepts are rooted in social activity as humans are, fundamentally, social beings. A person’s understanding of the world is inextricably rooted in social relations, with individuals constructing meaning from their social experiences, and then acting upon them accordingly. Participation in cultural activity provides a means of knowledge construction, involving the shared transformation of meaning constructed with others, leading to further development and learning.

Panel Paulo Freire by Luiz Carlos Cappellano. CEFORTEPE Center for Training Technoloresized

Paulo Freire by Luiz Carlos Cappellano

In a similar vein, the great Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, developed an educational method and approach particularly suited to labour movement and trade union education, because of its informal and people-centred approach, its emphasis on dialogue and its concern for liberating the oppressed. Freire’s critical pedagogy is based upon the core concept of ‘praxis’, defined as the unification of reflection and action. The aim is to create a pedagogy that enables both teachers and students to critically reflect upon reality, take transformative action to change that reality and work to create a better world.

Crucially, it is a dialogue of equals, where informal education takes place on a dialogical (or conversational) basis rather than centred on a formal curriculum, located in the lived experience of participants if it is to have meaning for them and to help generate new ways of acting in the world. There is a clear focus on building a ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’, working with those who do not have a voice to develop an in-depth understanding of the world and the social and political contradictions that characterise capitalist society.

Inevitably, there are many people who find it difficult to make the connection between culture and politics. In the wake of Thatcherism, and the embrace of neoliberalism by the entire political establishment and much of the media, there are several generations of people who have grown up without the experience of political and cultural struggle.

This is often expressed as ‘what’s politics got to do with football’ or ‘I don’t understand modern art’. This means starting from an understanding of where people are and leading them towards a better grasp of how politics defines everything we do, including our access to, and participation in, art and culture, how much it costs and how it is organised. It means challenging the ‘pedagogy of repression’, where people are conditioned to think that they have no democratic rights, no agency and no power to fight for social change. Which, of course, explains why the Government fights so hard against anything resembling a critical pedagogy in our education system – because it emphasises critical reflection, bridging the gap between everyday life and learning, and underlining the link between power and knowledge.

Why we need a broad-based programme of political and cultural education

Clearly, the development and application of political and cultural education isn’t a simple hierarchical, top-down process. Ideas must come from below as well as above. If the Labour Party and other labour movement institutions are to engage with a broad cross-section of people and develop a genuine social movement, they need to recognise the power of grassroots activism and encourage debate, participation and collaborative working.           

Trade unions, the Labour Party and other labour movement organisations such as Momentum, need to develop comprehensive programmes of political and cultural education which are accessible, flexible and relevant. Online learning can play an important part in this. But nothing beats getting together in a shared environment to develop an understanding of the politics of resistance.

So, the fact that the annual The World Transformed festival, which runs alongside Labour Party Conference, is being replicated in a series of events around the country is welcome. There is a marvellous opportunity here to reach out beyond traditional forms of political engagement and initiate a dialogue with people about what we want from society, the contribution that culture can make to the development of a better world, and how we radicalise everyday life and develop effective political strategies that deliver systemic change and fundamental shifts in power.

What might a typical programme of cultural education, nested in a larger political education framework, actually look like? There’s no uniform template for such a programme. But, building on existing good practice, it might include consideration of topics such as:

- How radical poetry, theatre, music and other forms of culture can help us understand issues around exclusion, poverty and inequality, give voice to the voiceless, promote community engagement and develop deeper levels of political consciousness.

- How art and culture can be used to understand and challenge existing power structures and create the space for radical change.

- How we balance what Marx called ‘necessary labour time’ with the free time to enjoy social and cultural activities that bring us together and allow us to develop our individual creativity.

- How pubs, clubs, cafes, community centres, theatres and other venues play an important social role, acting as the ‘glue’ that holds communities together, contributing to people’s happiness and wellbeing, and to social cohesion.

- How the commodification of sports such as football, which provide entertainment and emotional engagement for millions of people, is a classic example of the way neoliberalism erodes not just the social origins of the game, but potentially destroys it by subjecting everything to the search for corporate profit.

- How to develop local campaigns which bring politics and culture together and which rediscover, protect and develop working-class culture.

- How to challenge the negative role that the mass media (TV, radio, social media etc) plays in modern culture, bombarding us with a range of messages which promote competitive individualism, mindless consumerism and passive consumption of a culture designed to discourage dissent.

- How the systematic distortion of the news displayed by our largely right-wing newspapers and other media helps ‘manufacture consent’ for a reactionary political agenda.

More broadly, we need to think about ways of facilitating and encouraging a broad range of grassroots cultural formations and activities, which have the potential to link to political activism. The explosive anti-establishment energy unleashed by punk in the late 1970s was the DIY cultural ethic at its best. More recently, grassroots football fan clubs have made heroic efforts to challenge corporate control of the bigger football clubs and then gone on to build interest in more explicitly political campaigns against, for example, racism, sexism or homophobia.

There are multiple examples up and down the country of organisations delivering events which make the link between politics and culture explicit, in social clubs, festivals and political meetings. The challenge is to broaden and deepen this activity and develop approaches that liberate us from traditional, bureaucratic forms of political engagement, deploy innovative organising techniques appropriate to a 21st century environment, and which embrace a collectivist ethic whilst encouraging a diversity of approaches.

There are also many examples of organisations working effectively at various forms of cultural activity which don’t have an explicitly political flavour – 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 are also clearly valuable. 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.

By establishing learning spaces that are outward-looking, creative and empowering, art and culture can do things that political information by itself can’t. It can help build the social movement vital to the success of socialism.

The challenge is how to build on these foundations in a way which promotes the potential for all types of art and culture to provide opportunities for the articulation of alternatives to dominant views of society, which breaks down the barriers between ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’ of culture, and which underpins the development of a politics of radical social and political change. Whatever solutions emerge, the process must facilitate and encourage the formation of new collaborative networks at local, regional and national levels which are democratic, participative and empowering. And which help develop a self-sustaining ecosystem of socialist and progressive groups working towards the common goal of a fairer society.

To return to someone we started with, Gramsci famously said, ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’

We are living in very dangerous times as the crisis of capitalism deepens, reactionary forces in society resort to increasingly desperate measures to cling onto power, right-wing extremism is on the rise and the smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party plumbs new depths. We are at a critical juncture in the struggle and the battle of ideas will only intensify. Poets, musicians, artists and others can shed light on the problems faced by society, offer profound new visions of a better world and act as harbingers of change. It is therefore essential that the labour movement seizes the opportunity to use a variety of political and cultural educational programmes to make the case for socialism.

Why the cultural struggle matters
Wednesday, 23 October 2019 20:49

Why the cultural struggle matters

Published in Cultural Commentary

Chris Guiton develops the theoretical reasoning for the struggle for cultural democracy.

It was refreshing to read David Morgan’s feature ‘Reclaiming the Future’ in the Morning Star. As David and many others recognise, there’s a pressing need for socialists to move beyond an often narrowly defined and reactive anti-austerity agenda and develop a progressive political programme on a broad front which presents a clear alternative to the neoliberal status quo.

In this regard, it’s worth reflecting further on Antonio Gramsci’s profound insight that culture is a key site of political and social struggle and that ruling class ‘hegemony’, the influence the capitalist class has over what counts as knowledge, beliefs and values in our society, is exercised through a range of civil society institutions, including the media, religion and education. This power is not always visible but is tremendously important in the manufacture of consent and conferring of legitimacy on neoliberal ideology.

CG Antonio Gramsci

The explosion of popular culture since Gramsci’s time of writing (the Prison Notebooks were written between 1929 and 1935) has reinforced the significance of his thinking. Corporate-driven popular culture - films, TV, music etc - produces bland, uniform cultural products that encourage passive, docile consumption of their anodyne pleasures; promote an individualised, competitive view of life; and discourage independent, creative, critical thinking.

Historically, there has been a tendency on the Left to under-estimate culture’s political importance. Its significance has either been downplayed, with culture seen as an act of often private and largely passive consumption, or it’s been viewed in instrumental terms as a weapon in the political struggle for socialism. But a more constructive, utopian perspective also exists, based on the understanding that there is a dynamic relationship between the cultural struggle and the political struggle, with socialism, ultimately, viewed as a weapon in the fight for an enriched and democratic human culture.

Building on the work of Gramsci, the Marxist thinker Raymond Williams was keen to promote the concept of a cultural revolution to accompany the economic and political revolutions. He understood this as a ‘long revolution’ leading to socialism through the extension and deepening of cultural and educational democratisation. He sought to articulate the ways in which we might give voice to our lived experiences, currently marginalised by an hegemonic, capitalist narrative. A fully developed campaign for cultural democracy plays a key role here, becoming a mechanism for resistance to and change of the dominant culture in all its manifestations.  

1024px Paul Cézanne 1892 95 Les joueurs de carte The Card Players 60 x 73 cm oil on canvas Courtauld Institute of Art London

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, Courtauld Institute of Art

Challenging the appropriation and commodification of cultural activities by the ruling class starts from this understanding. The arts can take us into imagined worlds and enable us to understand how others live. They also have the potential to take on a more explicit counter-hegemonic character. Listening to the music of John Coltrane or looking at a painting by Cézanne can provide pleasure as well as help people deal with the alienation and oppression they encounter in their everyday lives. Culture can bring us together in shared, collaborative activities which are enjoyable in their own right. It can also encourage us to think critically, ask challenging questions and participate in the wider world.

At its best, culture not only has the potential to entertain and enlighten us, it can provide a broader canvas on which to understand historic, social and political issues, assert our common humanity against the divisions of class, gender and race caused by capitalism, and inspire radical change in the real world.

Similar benefits potentially flow from other cultural activities such as sport and religion. As well as being satisfying in themselves, they can provide multiple opportunities for social engagement, which reflect the fundamentally social nature of human beings, moral and emotional growth, and encourage a collective commitment to the common good.

One essential step is to reform the education system and replace the current, destructive audit and accountability culture, excessive testing and associated narrowing of the curriculum in our schools with an approach to education which is holistic, provides space for culture, and encourages children to think critically, questioning everything, nurturing enthusiasm for learning and intellectual curiosity.

CG culture camp images

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.

CG clapton fc

Think of the explosive anti-establishment energy unleashed by punk in the late 1970s, the DIY cultural ethic at its best. Or the way grassroots fan clubs have sought to challenge corporate control of the bigger football clubs and then gone on to build interest in more explicitly political campaigns against, for example, racism, sexism or homophobia.        

The challenge is how to build on these foundations in a way which promotes the potential for all types of art and culture to provide opportunities for the articulation of alternatives to dominant views of society, which breaks down the barriers between ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’ of culture, and which underpins the development of a politics of radical social and political change. Whatever solutions emerge, the process must facilitate and encourage the formation of new collaborative networks at local, regional and national levels which are democratic, participative and empowering.

To return to someone we started with, Gramsci famously said:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

We are living in very dangerous times as the crisis of capitalism deepens, reactionary forces in society resort to increasingly desperate measures to cling onto power, right-wing extremism is on the rise and the smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party plumbs new depths. We are at a critical juncture in the struggle and it is essential that the labour movement seizes the opportunity to move the political and cultural battle forwards and make the case for a genuine socialist alternative.

For consideration of what a culture policy for the labour movement might look like, see here. 

The cultural commons belongs to all of us
Wednesday, 23 October 2019 20:49

The cultural commons belongs to all of us

Published in Cultural Commentary

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.

Cultural commons

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.

snow white

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.

sandinista the clash

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.