Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (44)

Minding the depth and breadth: a round-up of books for the Left
Friday, 21 September 2018 08:53

Minding the depth and breadth: a round-up of books for the Left

Written by

As Labour gathers for its annual conference Mark Perryman welcomes the variety of thinking a range of authors, new and old, are offering the Left at this vital time

It has taken a while but the past few months have seen a near avalanche of books seeking to explain, from a broadly sympathetic point of view, the phenomenon that is Corbynism. Liam Young’s Rise is certainly sympathetic – Liam is an unashamed enthusiast and activist for the cause. Yet in seeking to understand the youthquake that underpinned Labour’s vote surge in 2017 he is hard-headed enough to recognise that this is the beginning, not the end of the story.

The Socialist Challenge Today by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin comes from a different generation – Liam is twentysomething, whilst they are of pensionable age. This isn’t to pit the generations of the Left against one another, rather to point to an old legacy on which Corbynism builds and a new audience to which it appeals . This short book helps to bridge the gap with an argument that makes all the right connections.

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Culture Wars performs such a role in a different way. First published in 2005 at the height of Blair’s ascendancy, the authors, James Curran, Ivor Gaber and Julian Petley have added new chapters for this second edition, to bring their discursive analysis of the vexed relationship between Labour and the media bang up to date.

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An outbreak of fresh thinking on what Labour might become is also hugely welcome. Chantal Mouffe’s For a Left Populism develops the ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy ‘analysis she first pioneered with co-thinker Ernesto Laclau for an era dominated by the rise of a populist Right, countered by what she believes should be a progressive Populist Left .

Could Corbynism turn Labour into such a party? A New Politics from the Left by veteran activist and thinker Hilary Wainwright argues for a not dissimilar project though rooted more in the forms and practice of social movements. Described as a ‘ toolkit for revolution’ in The Shock Doctrine of the Left, author Graham Jones fuses this radical thinking legacy with the dynamics of new generation activism.

It will be crucial to its enduring impact that the Momentum-led Labour left doesn’t isolate itself from such extra-parliamentary thinking. For a regular injection of just such bridge-building the journal Renewal is an essential read. The latest, a pre Labour Conference edition, features an outstanding contribution by former Momentum National Organisers Adam Klug and Emma Rees on Labour as a social movement, free to download here.

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For an insight into the political practice of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, and in particular during the 2017 General Election campaign there’s nothing that comes close to Steve Howell's Game Changer. Steve is not only acute politically on how Jeremy transformed the political landscape, in and beyond Labour , but also during the course of the eight weeks of the 2017 General Election campaign he was a key member of the leadership’s strategy group. Now out in paperback with a new postscript to account for the political fallout since 2017, it is an unrivalled read for Labour Conference, and after.

A politics rooted in the current vitality of the Labour Party requires a broad perspective on issues that matter, and few are more important than an understanding of changing class relations, a subject brilliantly covered in Charles Umney’s Class Matters.

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A failure to address such changes produces a trade union sectionalism which defends jobs at any price, ignoring issues such as socially useful production. The first and best example of a more progressive kind of trade unionism was The Lucas Plan as written up by Dave Elliott and Hilary Wainwright and now re-issued – and it simply couldn’t be more timely. One small gripe: compared to the 1982 original, both page and font size have been shrunk, making it more difficult to read than it needed to be.

Another challenge to sectionalism is to lift our horizons beyond the national, which has always been the ambition of the annual Socialist Register collection. The 2019 Socialist Register ‘ A World Turned Upside Down’ considers globalisation, in the era of Trump vs the rise, and rise of China.

The 2008 financial crash led to a revival of Marxism. Pre-crash, Michael Kidron was one of the finest practitioners of such thinking, and his wide-ranging writing has now been collected together in a new volume Capitalism and Theory.

Kidron’s writings are mainly drawn from the 1960s and 1970s. Bringing Marxism bang up to date, the much–acclaimed Mike Davis and his new book Old Gods, New Enigmas which deals with two key themes, the agency of change and the solution to a mounting environmental crisis.

The latter may not have featured strongly in the original, though Martin Rowson’s superbly illustrated Communist Manifesto adaptation is perhaps one of the best ways of finding out what insights it does still provide. 

Of course reducing the politics of radical critique simply to the lexicon of Marxism is no longer enough, if it ever was. My favourite dose of theory is therefore provided by a huge volume of the late Mark Fisher’s writings K-Punk. Brutal oppositionalism combined with a razor-sharp wit, broken down into easy to digest chapter chunks, makes for critical thinking that is a joy and pleasure to read.  

Ways and means of understanding the resurgence of a racist populism in America and elsewhere couldn’t be more urgent. Sarah Churchwell’s historical account of what lies behind it in Behold, America is both hugely informative and absolutely terrifying. Sarah’s book focuses mainly on the neo-Nazi 'America First' movement of the interwar years.

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Alt-America by David Neiwert provides more recent post-9/11 background and how that period was marked by the revival and eventual triumph of the American Radical Right. As an accompaniment, Mike Wendling in Alt-Right provides an unrivalled digest of the various groups and ideas which peddle their ways and wares in and around Trumpism.

However, the best single read on this most unwelcome of subjects is Lawrence Grossberg’s Under the Cover of Chaos. Why? Because in one tightly-packed read Lawrence unpicks the conjuncture that produced this ugliness, not as an inevitable product of circumstance, rather an avoidable curse, and how.

More than anything else Bernie Sanders’ bid to be the Democratic Party Presidential candidate represents what an alternative to Trumpism might look like and in that sense Crashing The Party , Heather Gautney’s inside story and analysis of the Sanders campaign, is the antidote required.

If all of this seems an Atlantic faraway, two books from the increasingly impressive Repeater Books serve to remind us of both the global roots and appeal of rightwing populism. Eliane Glaser’s Anti-Politics expertly situates this most unwelcome of phenomena in a long-term project to demonise ideology, the authority of ideas and the role of the state. Joe Kennedy covers not entirely dissimilar ground in his new book Authentocrats via a wonderfully abrasive dissection of the false promise of ‘real people ‘ delivering ‘commonsense politics’ that populism depends upon for its appeal.

Criss-crossing these various manifestations of the Populist Right is an unabated racism, and thus the resistance must likewise be characterised by an unrestrained anti-racism. The provocatively titled Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge has in the past year become pretty much a primer – and deservedly so, for a politics concerned with how privilege is highly racialised. Back to Black by Kehinde Andrews takes as its starting point what a modern and radical Black politics might look like. Be warned, Kehinde’s argument is that this demands a withering critique of previous models of radicalism.

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, the party’s claim to be an anti-racist party has come under sustained assault, with critics describing it as institutionally anti-semitic, and thus racist. The debate – such as it is – confuses legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-semitism. What this ignores is the rising opposition to the Israeli government within Israel itself, the global Jewish community and Western progressives including, but beyond too, the organised Left, all expertly described by Ben White in his book Cracks in the Wall.

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A very different, though complementary, approach is taken by Jamie Stern-Weiner in his edited collection Moment of Truth. Expertly guiding the reader through what he describes as the ‘toughest questions’ affecting the Israel-Palestine relationship, Jamie has assembled a range of authors to respond to each question in turn. A complex format but it works brilliantly.

How can Labour re-engage with the tasks of being a party of anti-racism following the summer’s impasse over anti-semitism? By rooting its politics in a sense of place, that’s how. Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) is a vital starting point on that difficult but necessary journey of understanding. This is a book that fulfils the mantra of ‘the personal is political’ to illuminate both the challenges of, and oppositions to, racism.  

Akala’s Natives achieves something similar via a series of essays, some personal, others political, yet one never divorced from the other. Space, the nation, is of course a contested place, none more so than the histories that frame our present. Kill All the Gentlemen is the chilling title not of a murderous thriller, but Martin Empson’s rather excellent history of the sometimes violent class struggle that has shaped the English countryside, a classic of the ‘hidden from history’ genre.

Great (sic) Britain is of course made of many different places, and nations too. We are increasingly familiar with the tensions of a single unitary state containing four nations within one Union. Patrick Barkham further enriches the issues with Islander, his incredibly engaging trip around just some of the offshore islands and their communities which reveal this island as an archipelago.

Such islander stories, criss-crossed with anti-racism and a rediscovery of the radicalism buried in those histories, is a good starting point for a Left politics that matters. But the Left has a history of its own too that needs accounting for. Phil Cohen’s Archive That, Comrade is an affectionate and highly personalised, trawl through what that past can mean as we come to terms with the present, and the future too.

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For those lacking the kind of collection of artefacts Phil can boast, a subscription to the journal Twentieth Century Communism will more than suffice. Unearthing in fascinating detail all manner of aspects of the legacy, the latest issue surveys how the centenary of 1917 was celebrated in places ranging from Belarus to Portugal. That was last year of course, 2018’s big Left anniversary was the 50th of ’68 though my impression is that it hasn’t been celebrated as widely as the 40th in 2008.

The books however have been impressively thoughtful, including the republication of the original 1968 Mayday Manifesto. The Manifesto was a product of the British ’68; Mitchell Abidor’s May Made Me is an oral history of the infinitely more famous May events in France. But the appeal of ’68 as an historical moment was that it was everywhere, an impact powerfully recorded by George Katsiaficas in The Global Imagination of 1968.

Of course like all histories ’68 is contested, sometimes bitterly so. Richard Vinen skilfully navigates that contest in his The Long ’68, and the one thing he leaves readers certain of is that it was a year that mattered.

What made ’68 of such lasting significance was the seamless fusion of the political and the cultural. It is a mix the Left has always struggled to achieve yet when it does the possibilities are unlimited. Few writers come close to George Orwell in providing such a mix, writings that deserve to be visited and revisited over and over again. John Newsinger’s Hope Lies in the Proles is a critical but sympathetic account of Orwell’s politics and lasting significance, while being peerless in its deconstruction of the weaknesses and contradictions therein.

Orwell would often use the device of a kind of travelogue to frame his political writing, and of contemporary authors Owen Hatherley is the outstanding exponent of this style. He combines his journeys of political exploration uniquely with incredibly well-informed explanations of the social construction of the architecture of the places he visits.

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Owen’s two latest books are Trans-Europe Express, which applies his writing mix to Europe in this precarious pre-Brexit moment, while The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post-Soviet Age has him traipsing across Russia to find the lived-in remnants of a bygone era and what has happened to them.

My favourite writer of the political-culture mix of the current era however is Mike Marqusee, who so tragically passed away in 2015, the year his friend and longstanding comrade Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party. There is absolutely no doubt Mike would have contributed hugely to the changes that then erupted in and around the Labour Party. It is enormously welcome therefore that a collection of Mike’s essays, Definable Traces in the Atmosphere has been published, perfect to remind those of us who knew him what we miss so much, but perhaps more importantly for new, younger, audiences to discover his magnificent prose and acute political insight.

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Of course such a political-cultural fusion can never be reduced simply to the written word, however well-written. The two latest titles in the excellent Four Corners ‘Irregulars’ series, Poster Workshop 1978-81 and Leeds Postcards illustrate the contribution the visual arts can make, superbly. The former catalogues the anarcho/agit-prop look of a strand of the libertarian Left which sought to flypost its way out of the nightmare of Thatcherism with graphic intent. The latter was slightly less ‘in your face’ but no less subversive, turning the humble postcard into a propaganda weapon. It’s a very English version of cultural resistance, with lots of humour thrown in to good effect.

As for a soundtrack to all this dissent, while there are plenty of contemporary contenders I remain a tad old school and still hanker after the music that helped to propel me into politics in the first place. How welcome therefore to read Jim Dooley’s Red Set, not only for the definitive history of The Gang of Four, but along the way explains why their music meant so much for the embryonic left-wing ideas of their dedicated followers, my younger self included.

For such a culture of radical intent we need poetry too, yes please. One of the finest practitioners of this purpose over the past 30 years or so, Benjamin Zephaniah, tells the story of how and why in his sparkling biography The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah . Reinventing this tradition for the present is the absolutely outstanding Potent Whisper, live he is electrifying, his collection The Rhyming Guide to Grenfell Britain a pocket-sized spoken word chronicle of our modern times. Poetry has both a very contemporary voice via Potent Whisper’s spoken word style and roots in our radical past.

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arise! by Paul Summers, a celebration of the Durham Miners Gala, is also testament to all that. It is one of a stream of new, beautifully illustrated radical political poetry books coming off the presses of Culture Matters.

There’s also been some great new fiction, a literary form which is key to expanding the political imagination. In recent years there have been few better at that than the sublime Anthony Cartwright. His latest The Cut manages to fulfil the criteria of the fast-growing sub-genre ‘the Brexit novel’ with enough excitement, thrills and spills to produce a ready-made page-turner.

But perhaps the most subversive way to transform the body politic is through what we cook for ourselves. Anybody who needs convincing of the potency of cookery as a political force should take a read of Yasmin Khan’s Zaitoun, a beautifully produced book combining both stories and recipes from a Palestinian kitchen. For younger readers, Clive Gifford and Jacqueline Meldrum’s Living on the Veg explains the politics and morality of vegetarianism for children accompanied by dishes to cook, their strawberry cheesecake a mouthwatering favourite of mine already.

Which brings me rather neatly to childhood. My philosophy is simple, judge the progressiveness of any party or movement via the way it treats their children. If it can’t be bothered with children, then why trust it on how it will treat others? It is the application of that excellent socialist-feminist maxim, ‘the personal is political’.

The prime exponent of this genre, however, remains Michael Rosen. His latest book How To Make Children Laugh provides theory, practice and some very, very funny jokes. And for adolescent boys jealous of the girls and their Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls there is now a kind of companion volume by Ben Brooks called Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different, which wears its values on the cover via the lovely strap-line ‘true tales of amazing boys who changed the world without killing dragons.’

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Siobhan Curham has written an absolute gem for young adult readers Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow combines music, football, refugees and my hometown Lewes in East Sussex. First on the list for teen readers reading to stretch their horizons.

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And my book of the quarter, the perfect Labour Party Conference, and afters read? I am never one to diss theorising, the historical, the cultural and more, but as someone else once noted ‘the point is to change it.’ In the search for practical outcomes from all this reading, and the ensuing fervour of debate Michael Segalov explores the art of making that change possible in his brilliant debut book Resist! How to be an Activist in the Age of Defiance. A practical how-to-guide for campaigners, stylishly illustrated, easy-to-follow and not so hard to put into practice either. Read it, act upon it, the Tories won’t know what’s hit them.

Now that’s what I call a good read!

Mark Perryman is the editor of The Corbyn Effect and co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football.

The Labour Manifesto and cultural democracy
Sunday, 16 September 2018 21:31

The Labour Manifesto and cultural democracy

Written by

Mike Quille outlines what should go into a democratic, socialist Labour manifesto for the next election

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

Those words are from the Labour Party Manifesto of 1945 (see above). What does culture mean to us now, and what should the next Labour Manifesto say about it?

Culture matters to everyone. We all develop and flourish as social, human beings through engaging in cultural activities. We play sport, watch television and films, go to pubs and restaurants, listen to music, meet together for religious or spiritual purposes, and communicate using social media.

We get all kinds of exercise, entertainment, and enlightenment from cultural activities. They make life meaningful and enjoyable, and are essential for us to live the ‘full, happy, healthy lives’ that the 1945 Manifesto promised.

But corporate capitalism, with its restless search for private profit, stops us accessing and enjoying culture fully. Just as private ownership and control of the means of production prevents the enjoyment of the full fruits of our labour, so private ownership and control of the means of cultural satisfaction prevents the full and equal enjoyment of culture by everyone.

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'Culture is BAE Systems Britain', appropriated Government overseas advertising image, Stephen Pritchard, 2018.

That’s why the Labour Party needs to present radical and comprehensive culture policies in its next Manifesto. It needs to commit to cultural democracy – to democratic management and social ownership of all the cultural activities that working people need.

Massive problems currently flow from the unequal and undemocratic ownership and control of culture.

In sport, owners and management bodies are failing to make sport accessible and affordable for everyone, through sky-high ticket prices, undemocratic regulatory authorities, and subsidies for elite sport at the expense of school sports and grassroots sports. Commercialisation of most major sports causes regular scandals involving drug-taking, cheating and corruption.

In the media, private ownership of large swathes of the means of human communication by gigantic corporations like Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook prevent us enjoying human communication without being watched, manipulated and influenced by commercial, capitalist interests.

Our daily activities of eating and drinking are also cultural activities. We eat and drink in company, with family and friends, for pleasure and to express and enhance our common and social natures. Yet corporations produce and sell us food and drink loaded with too much sugar, salt and fat, and unhealthy amounts of alcohol. Their profits depend on obesity and drunkenness.

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In the arts, there are long-standing problems of inaccessibility, irrelevance and inequality, which ACE is spectacularly failing to solve. Imagine the outcry if there were far more hospitals per person in the London area than elsewhere, or far more schools for the better off than for the poor, everywhere. Yet money from taxes and Lottery tickets funds massively unequal cultural provision for residents and tourists in the London area, and for the better off everywhere.

It’s harder to become an arts practitioner – actor, writer or musician – or to get your work published, performed or filmed, if you’re from a working class background. There are no legal barriers to class-based discrimination in the arts – or any other cultural activity, for that matter.

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Finally, the Tories’ failed policies of economic austerity have also led to libraries, museums and other cheap or free cultural facilities being cut back across the country.

So what should the next Labour Manifesto commit to? What would be the modern equivalent of its 1945 Manifesto?

Firstly, it should cover all the cultural activities which matter to working people, not just the arts. An inclusive approach to culture is essential if we want to transform the world for the benefit of the many, not the few.

Secondly, it should enable social ownership and democratic control of all the institutions and agencies which fund, manage and deliver cultural activities.

Detailed commitments in the Manifesto should include:

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

– Embedding cultural education (both appreciation and practice) into the national curriculum

– Reclaiming the media (newspapers, online platforms, TV and radio) by reforming its funding, ownership and control, and providing space for working class voices and community-based providers.

– Shifting public spending on the arts and sport towards more support for grassroots participation, more support for working class communities, and more support outside London

– Increasing the representation of the working class in all cultural institutions (especially the arts, sports, religion, and the media) in terms of content, audiences and practitioners

– Regulating, taxing, and democratising relevant cultural institutions, including food and drink corporations, media and broadcasting corporations, arts facilities, sports clubs etc.

– Applying more democratic and accountable social ownership models to cultural institutions including ownership by the state, local authorities, and local community co-operatives

Cultural democracy was promised in 1945, and is long overdue. Now is the time for the Labour Party to present a democratic and socialist culture policy in the next Manifesto – because culture matters to the many, not the few.

Why the cultural struggle matters
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 10 September 2018 13:12

Why the cultural struggle matters

Written by

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.

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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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. 

Culture for the many, not the few: notes towards a socialist culture policy
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Saturday, 28 July 2018 08:19

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

Written by

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

Introduction

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

- What culture means and why it is so important

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

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

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

What culture means and why it is important

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

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

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

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

Culture, politics and class

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

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

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

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

Current Cultural Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General principles for a culture policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specific Policy Proposals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sport and Leisure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Cultural nationalism: Brexit and the rise of nostalgia identity
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 11 July 2018 09:02

Cultural nationalism: Brexit and the rise of nostalgia identity

Written by

With the current chaos of a Conservative government tearing itself apart over the incoherence of Brexit, Stuart Cartland critiques 'heritage culture' and argues that the time is ripe for Corbyn’s Labour to step in and throw its weight behind the expression of a more radical, egalitarian national cultural identity.

The recent release of British nostalgia flick The Book Shop is the latest in a long line of relentless, seemingly endless cultural representations of a backward looking gaze into a mythical sense of nation and place. What we have witnessed over recent years is a nostalgia blitz (pun fully intended), a prevalence and immense popularity of television series and films set within this largely rural and historical traditional utopia. These cultural texts provide a medium through which a crisis of identity based upon the challenges of the present are mediated. In many ways this can be viewed as national escapism on one hand and a form of cultural legitimation on the other.

When the future (or even the present) is uncertain and unclear it can be very comforting to escape into a sense of constructed familiarity. The past is often a place that we create or is created for us, free from the chaos and uncertainty of the real lived experience, one that is also in many ways an ideological creation, one where we airbrush out the inconvenient or unpleasing elements, and create a type of social and cultural utopia far from any sense of reality. Such fantasy fiction set within historical periods play upon, and legitimise, created concepts of the past which in turn inform our understanding of the present, one where nostalgia and sentimentality inform a collective national imagining.

However such an exercise, particularly for the English in a post-Brexit reality, is arguably built upon repetition and melancholy, a longing for a lost age of national exceptionalism, independence and greatness. As pointed out by Mark Easton in a recent BBC/YouGov poll, “there is more than a hint of nostalgia about people’s sense of Englishness. Almost three times as many of its residents think England was ‘better in the past’ than believe its best years lie in the future”. Therefore it can be no surprise to witness this expressed in popular television series and movies in recent years. Period dramas are a national industry in the UK, yet we have witnessed a tidal wave of cultural nostalgia set within a context of political chaos, economic uncertainty and the crushing reality of austerity fraying the very fabric of British society.

The unprecedented popularity of Downton Abbey, Indian Summers, Call the Midwife, the Crown, Victoria and Poldark are all set in a (largely pre-industrial) bucolic space populated by virtuous citizens, where the working class and women knew their place, and the power and position of the status quo is unquestioned. This can be viewed as a propaganda cult of ideologically constructed national memory and image, where the viewer is transplanted to an age free from supposed political-correctness-gone-mad, gay marriage, health and safety regulations, national decline, multiculturalism and open border immigration.

The construction and use of nostalgia is nothing new, yet the current national situation of a perennial state of anxiety and crisis arguably perpetuates an obsessive gaze back, even to past times of national crisis. Crisis can then be seen as a tool of defensive representation, exceptionalism, and a wilful delve into ideologically constructed notions of the past and perceived ‘golden eras’. The good-old-days and the blitz-spirit is intertwined with Brexit anxiety, and helps perpetuate a surge among the English (in particular) of a sense of defensive and backward looking Englishness and a wave of popular nostalgia. It is a distinctively top-down, traditional and conservative interpretation of history that utilises the use of Churchillian rhetoric and a triumphant and uncritical interpretation of history that has become a dominant conservative narrative of contemporary renewal within a context of disengagement.

One only needs to look at the most popular British films over recent years to see this also played out in the cinema - Churchill, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk are all based upon this recurring theme. whilst other popular British movies continue the more general clamour for nostalgia and sentimentality such as Another Mother's Son, Murder on the Orient Express and Phantom Thread. There is nothing inherently conservative about these historical periods, however they have been stripped of any radical possibilities and have been re-situated within a longing for a national space set with the past.

This historicised national narrative built upon reconstituted social consensus certainly helped legitimise and justify many to vote ‘leave’ - the Leave campaign was built upon nostalgic pastiche and myth - but also in terms of anxiety of how we cope when we leave. The dominant narrative being that we are in fact the factual evidence of Shakespeare’s ‘sceptred isle’ adrift in the north Atlantic, supremely detached from European politics and problems. These sentiments have always conjured strong mythical images of splendid isolation, that we are a breed apart from those meddling Europeans, that we are not or have never really been European, that we are certainly separate, distinct and of course superior. Again, the symbolic re-purposing of a nation alone, choosing its own destiny yet couched within a language of austerity and images of war fetishism, feed into the symbolic imagery of a national space.

These narratives of crisis and longing for images of a green and pleasant rustic past are not just located on the small or big screen. The recycling of cultural and historical sites, figures, language and myth which have produced such a depth of cultural pastiche and revivalism have been symbolically repackaged within our everyday lives, a process which Owen Hatherley describes as ‘heritage culture’. Imagery of artisan, handcrafted, bespoke, boutique, rustic and vintage have become culturally homogenous as the cozy appeal of the safety blanket of nostalgia and an imaginary social and cultural utopia is spread over us within an over-riding sense of benevolent manufactured nostalgia through the prism of social and cultural conserv-atism. 

The contested meaning of being English in an increasingly globalised world, with a nation trying to come to terms with devolution, EU integration and large scale immigration is clearly problematic but also rich with radical opportunity. However, the England sold to the world (and more importantly to itself) through a cultural obsession with tradition and nostalgia is reinforced through nostalgic paraphernalia such as calendars and tea towels, the cosy, comforting cultural security of the National Trust, Waitrose and farmers' markets. TV banality such as Midsomer Murders, the Great British Bake Off and Location, Location, Location. While movies such as the Iron Lady, Atonement, the King’s Speech, the Queen et al represent an ever present, and social aesthetically pleasing England, one viewed through the gaze of the middle or upper classes, set in rural idyllic English locations and often located within ideologically triumphant historical ‘golden eras’.

Examples such as these point toward a politically and culturally specific construction of nation and heritage, laden with cultural meaning and identity that purposely exclude those who do not fit the traditionalist images or values of the nation. It is a predominantly mythical representation that has no relevance to the majority of the population and one that most could never experience - yet it represents a well-established national, cultural and historical narrative, cleansed of social and cultural relevance. “The danger”, as Kazuo Ishiguro pointed out when discussing his novel Remains of the Day, “lies not only in the fact that politicians would sell this image to their electorate but also that the electorate might buy it”.

However, it is a cultural construction rich with radical possibilities, one which hopefully Mike Leigh’s forthcoming movie on the Peterloo massacre can help redress. Indeed, dominant, hegemonic cultural constructions have been challenged over recent years. Mike Leigh’s Spirit of ’45 being the most obvious example on the big screen, but also on the small screen examples such as Michael Sheen’s retelling of the 1839 Newport Chartist uprising in Valley Rebellion all point to radical alternatives.

Again, there is nothing inherent or or natural to support the claim that historical or rural representations need to be conservative. Indeed, there is a wealth of rich examples that can be utilised to represent and support a more radical and left leaning cultural identity, be it the Levellers or Diggers from the 1640s through to the campaign for the right to roam culminating in the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the 1930s.

With the current and ongoing chaos of a Conservative government tearing itself apart over the incoherence of Brexit the time is ripe for Corbyn’s Labour to step in and throw its weight behind a national cultural identity based upon England’s rich cultural heritage of egalitarianism and radicalism and offer a way beyond the anxiety, conflict and crisis which the current Conservative-dominated narrative behind Brexit represents.

Detail from a painting of Christopher Caudwell by Caoimhghin O Croidheain
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 02 May 2018 13:27

A brief and breathtakingly brilliant life: Christopher Caudwell, activist and intellectual

Written by

Helena Sheehan reviews the life and work of Christopher Caudwell.

caudwell 188x300 pluto

Christopher Caudwell
Culture as Politics: Selected Writings of Christopher Caudwell

Edited by David Margolies, Pluto, London, 2018. 192pp., £17.99 pb
ISBN 9780745337227

 caudwell MR 195x300 mrp

Christopher Caudwell
Culture as Politics: Selected Writings of Christopher Caudwell

Edited by David Margolies, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2018. 192pp., $25 pb
ISBN 9781583676868

Christopher Caudwell was a brief and breathtakingly brilliant presence in the world. Born Christopher St John Sprigg in London in 1907, he published prolifically and died fighting in the Spanish civil war in 1937, before he even reached the age of 30.

He left school at the age of 15 and began his working life as a cub reporter at the Yorkshire Observer, where his father was literary editor, and then as editor of British Malaya. Upon returning to London, he ran an aeronautics publishing company with his brother, edited one of its technical journals and designed gears for motorcars. In addition, he wrote reams of poetry, plays, short stories, detective novels, and aeronautics textbooks. He even edited a volume of ghost stories.

On top of all this, he read voluminously in philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology, history, politics, linguistics, mathematics, economics, physics, biology, neurology, literature and literary criticism and much more besides. He did so, not as a dilettante, but as one striving to come to terms with the knowledge of the centuries and to comprehend what it meant for himself and his own age. Despite his lack of a university education, he became a person of very considerable learning.

In 1934, at the age of 27, Caudwell became interested in Marxism and began to study it with extraordinary intensity, discovering quickly that it provided the key to the synthesis he was seeking. In the summer of 1935, he wrote his first Marxist book, originally called Verse and Mathematics, but sent off and accepted for publication by Macmillan as Illusion and Reality.

Upon the completion of this book, he moved to the east end of London and joined the Poplar branch of the Communist Party. He threw himself into all the routine party tasks, fly-posting, street-corner speaking, selling The Daily Worker, as well as joining battle with blackshirts, bravely facing consequent batterings and even arrest.

During this period of intense activism, he also wrote feverishly, producing a body of theoretical manuscripts posthumously published as Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture, The Crisis in Physics, Heredity and Development, Romance and Realism and Poems. Previous selections from his work have been published as The Concept of Freedom and Scenes and Actions. Verso has recently brought out a new edition of The Crisis in Physics.

This new collection called Culture as Politics is a welcome addition to the history of Caudwell publication. It is edited by David Margolies, who wrote The Function of Literature: A Study of Christopher Caudwell’s Aesthetics, the first book on Caudwell, who played a key role in bringing the work of Caudwell to his own generation, the so-called sixties generation. In bringing out this collection, he is continuing his sustained work on Caudwell and bringing his work to the attention of yet another generation.

He has selected passages from Illusion and Reality, Studies in a Dying Culture and Heredity and Development. Although they might not have been the same selections as someone else might have made, they have been chosen carefully and do provide a good introduction to the work of Caudwell that will hopefully lead readers to seek out more from Caudwell’s whole body of work.

Margolies also provides introductions to each section, which locates these selections within the context of Caudwell’s whole body of work as well as the circumstances of his life. Margolies has a thorough knowledge of Caudwell’s work, both published and unpublished, and is currently the executor of the Caudwell literary estate. Among many interesting features of his commentary is his identification of proto-Marxist dimensions in Caudwell’s pre-Marxist fiction.

For Caudwell, culture (in the broadest sense of the word, including science, technology, philosophy, etc) was shaped by the socio-economic conditions of its time. His work was infused with the explanatory force of historical materialism. He saw the dynamic not as a passive one, but as an active interaction in which culture in turn played a role in shaping the socio-economic milieu. He developed his ideas with a sweeping sense of history and his distinctive interpretation of past eras, such as ancient Greece and modern Britain, are really striking. The breadth of his knowledge and depth of his thinking are still remarkable and memorable.

What Caudwell was doing in whatever he wrote, whether it was about literature or anthropology or psychology or biology, was reaching out to conceptualise the world and nothing less than the world. He was determined to work over the whole inheritance of human knowledge from a new point of view. Philosophy, in the sense of an integrating Weltanschauung, was what gathered up all else. No matter what he was addressing, from poetry to politics to physics, he wanted to penetrate to the very core of it, to illuminate it within its full field of forces, to highlight it within its the network of interconnections, to see it within the whole. He sought to identify the world’s most basic patterns, to take the pulse of the world’s most basic rhythms.

Looking to the culture of his time, he saw that there was something at the very core of the social order that inhibited this impulse to integrality, that obstructed the search for synthesis. Everywhere he turned, it was fragmentation that prevailed. He asked why. He remarked: “Either the devil has come among us having great power or there is a causal explanation for a disease common to economics, science and art?”

Despite the magnificent achievements that he saw in his time – relativity, quantum mechanics, genetics, psychology, anthropology, art, aeronautics – it was nevertheless an epoch of confusion and dissension. Why, he asked, did each new discovery come as a Midas touch that brought new disappointment? Why did this strange doom hang over bourgeois culture in such a way that progress seemed only to hasten decline? Why was it that the search for a common truth, a common faith, brought only the proliferation of partial, myopic and contradictory views of reality?

At the heart of it all, he argued, was the subject-object dichotomy, that had its basis in the social division of labour, in the separation of the class that generated theory from the class that engaged actively with nature. This dichotomy distorted all realms of thought and activity, and indeed all social relations. It was a disease endemic to class society that had become more acute with its higher development. Only an integrated world view grounded in a vision of a new social order could bring to a higher synthesis what had been severed, to what had grown pathologically far apart.

As he looked around him, he concluded that many theories and many activities were rooted in the basic bourgeois illusion: that man was born free but was crippled through social organisation. In his illusory separation of individual consciousness from the natural and social matrix of its existence, the bourgeois had brought to a new level the dualism inherent in class society, generating in philosophy an ever sharper separation of individual from society, of mind from matter, of freedom from necessity, of history from nature, of emotion from rationality, making the fundamental subject-object relation increasingly insoluble. Instead, he stood in his own light, imagining that he could direct the social process without being directed by it, to determine without being determined, able to conceive only of self-determined mind in a one-way relation to its determined environment, an active subject contemplating a passive object, oblivious to the nexus of natural forces and social relations determining both.

Looking to the philosophical landscape of his time, Caudwell mapped the terrain and characterised the forces contesting the terrain. He took the pulse of the various players and detected the pounding beat of the tensions tearing at all efforts to comprehend. He knew that the history of philosophy throbbed to the rhythm of a wider, deeper process, even if philosophers themselves were oblivious of it.

He traced the history of modern philosophy in terms of the development of the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie. The first stage, that of bourgeois revolt against feudal restriction, had sparked a great crescendo into the environment, with the voyages of exploration, astronomy, geometry, gravity, with mechanistic materialism its climactic philosophy. The next stage, as capitalism consolidated, its materialism turned into its opposite, mentalism, turning away from the object toward the subject, reproducing the dualism of subject and object from the opposite direction. The rebirth of idealism came as the philosophy of a ruling class whose distance from its environment was increasing with the growing differentiation of labour.

He analysed the opposite philosophies of mechanism and idealism, as both dichotomising the world into inert matter and creative spirit. Then came positivism, marking the passing of the bourgeoisie from a progressive class to a reactionary one. If mechanism had sacrificed subject to object and idealism had sacrificed object to subject, positivism sacrificed both. Both matter and mind became elusive and unknowable.

Philosophy became increasingly impoverished with escalating and esoteric dualisms. Philosophy, instead of being an integrating force, became a divisive one. In every way, theory was flying apart from practice. Philosophy, even philosophy of science, was becoming increasingly remote from science. Art was drifting away from experience. Theory and practice were sundered in consciousness, because they were divided in social reality.

No longer able to discern the rhythms of the historical process, the bourgeois distorted whatever he beheld. It was not possible to break through the intellectual dissolution, to connect the parts to the whole, without addressing its social matrix and he could not connect the parts to the whole without querying his whole modus vivendi.

Consciousness tended to gather at one pole and activity at the other, causing distortion of both. This played out, not only in the distance between the pursuit of knowledge and other aspects of the labour process, but even within areas of knowledge. Even the sciences were subject to this rupture, bringing a morass of contradictions, both within and between sciences, with much scientific practice becoming more empirical, narrow, fractured and with theory becoming more remote, diffuse, disconnected. Experiment was generating a growing body of empirical knowledge that could not be fit into a theoretical framework. Without such a framework, scientists fell back on eclecticism, reductionism or mysticism. This process has escalated since his time.

Caudwell’s epistemological position was a critical realism grounded in socio-historical interactionism. Knowledge is generated in a social process, in an interaction between subject and object, which come into being simultaneously. They are mutually constituting and therefore inseparable. We can never know a thing apart from our knowing of it. Breaking with the illusion of the detached observer, he saw knowledge as an active relation, the product of social labour past and present.

The weight of his attention in his various studies in a dying culture was to the mentality of the bourgeois, the dominant ideology of his time and ours. He was, as E P Thompson noted, a superb anatomist of ideologies. He also looked to alternative ideological positions, to outsiders to the dominant world view, primarily the proletariat, but also women and oppressed races and nationalities. His anticipation of feminist consciousness and the dynamics of moving from oppression to liberation through various stages of exclusion, inclusion, critique, rebellion, was most advanced for a male Marxist of his era. As to the proletariat, his view of their active engagement with nature, capacity for critical consciousness and revolutionary transformation may seem idealised now, but it is not hard to see how it seemed to him then. Such optimism does not come so easily to us now.

We live in another time. The dying culture has not died. Indeed, in its way it thrives on a scale beyond anything he could have imagined. Yet his critique of it stands. Its decadence is manifest everywhere, overpowering whatever else struggles for life.

Looking at the philosophical landscape since he vacated the terrain, the battle of ideas for some decades intensified. Universities in the 1960s, 1970s, even into the 1980s, were full of conflicting ideas, contending paradigms, debates that went to the theoretical foundations of all disciplines. Along the same lines as his studies, all these debates in diverse areas ran along parallel lines and expressed deeper lines of cleavage. What has happened since is that this has died down, but without any of the problems raised by these debates being solved.

Theory has flown yet farther from practice in that now theory itself is repressed. The global system functions in such a way that it needs a higher level of education, but education aligned to the precise needs of the market and not oriented to conceptualising the system, let alone contesting it. Theory and theoretical debate is not thriving in this milieu. Unreflective particularity prevails. Where there is theory, it is much debased, mired in every sort of confused dualism, lazy eclecticism, ungrounded and mystified holism. The search for synthesis is more subverted than ever.

It is impossible not to wonder what Caudwell would have written about all this, about all that has unfolded since he died. What insights might he have had into the trajectory from positivism through neo-positivism to post-positivism, into existentialism, phenomenology and postmodernism, into the accelerating commodification of culture and knowledge? What studies might he have produced of film, television and cyberculture? What might he have done during the turmoil in the communist movement in 1956, 1968, 1989? What would he have made of the Moscow trials, the 20th Party Congress, the new left, third world liberation movements, new social movements, Marxism Today, perestroika, the end of the USSR?

We cannot be sure. Various commentators have had their say. When I was first reading Caudwell, I bought the 1971 edition of Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture with an introduction by Sol Yurick, who speculated that he might have become either a bitter cold warrior or a numbed apparatchik. In the margins I wrote: no and no.

His life would have been very different if he had returned. He would have become a major party and public intellectual. His thinking would have been challenged, not least by his own reflections on the world as it unfolded. Whether he would have left the party at some stage, I do not know, but I do believe firmly that, whatever he did, he would have lived by the views and values that he evolved in the last years of his life. Of course, any of us who have ever thought that we got him think that he would have thought what we think. Still, I believe that I am right about this at least.

I have lived now many years longer than he had the opportunity to live. I have looked at the world he never saw with eyes that saw in the way that they did shaped by the way that he saw. It has been no substitute for what the world lost when it lost him, but it has carried him on in the world. He wrote of the half-life of the dead in what they leave behind when they die. In reading him today, he lives on. I commend Pluto, Verso and Monthly Review for publishing these new editions and bringing Caudwell to the attention of new audiences.

This article is republished from Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.

‘Dreams to live on’: The Acting Class and working-class diversity in the arts
Wednesday, 25 April 2018 18:30

‘Dreams to live on’: The Acting Class and working-class diversity in the arts

Written by

Jack Newsinger reviews the documentary film The Acting Class, by Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne, which gives voice to the struggles of actors of working-class origin as they try to make it in an increasingly middle-class profession.

In 2014 Julie Walters worried that "Soon the only actors are going to be privileged kids whose parents can afford to send them to drama school. That’s not right. It feels like we are going backwards.” The response from some was less than positive. Lewis star Laurence Fox, for example, said that Julie Walters should “shut up”. Fox was educated at Harrow public school, as was Benedict Cumberbatch. Damien Lewis, Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston and Dominic West all went to Eton. The 'poshification' of acting has been a topic of public debate, alongside movements to improve BAME and gender representation in the cultural and creative industries, for a number of years. These issues have been forced high onto the agendas of some of our leading cultural institutions such as Arts Council England and the British Film Institute, and many now have official policies and guidelines designed to address the clear unfairness of access to different jobs in the cultural sector. But these initiatives, while potentially signalling a change in the mindset and practices of cultural institutions, are often top-down. There is little to suggest that there has been a transformation (so far) in the social composition of the people who make the decisions about what culture we get to see and hear.

That’s where films like The Acting Class come in. Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne’s documentary follows Tom Stocks as he builds a campaign to improve the opportunities for working class actors. Actor Awareness started online in 2015 and grew like a snowball into a fully-fledged movement, highlighting the difficulties and barriers faced by actors from working-class backgrounds as they enter the profession and providing support and solidarity. The film uses this platform to take a broad look at the barriers built into the system such as the prohibitive costs of drama school education, the scandal of audition fees, the expectations of working for free to build a career, the typecasting that working-class actors suffer, particularly those of colour. (If you wanted to build a system that kept working-class people out, it would be hard to think of a better one.) O’Neill and Wayne have put together a powerful film that represents the experiences of working-class actors at all stages of their careers, from new talent like Andrew Ellis and Amy Stout to well-established stars including Julie Hesmondhalgh, Maxine Peake and Christopher Ecclestone, to dissect the problems, common across much of the cultural sector, that prevent genuine working-class participation.

The stories of raising money for travel to London and audition fees, the feelings of insecurity engendered by entering the rarefied middle-class environment of the London cultural elite, the thrill of being offered a place, then all for nothing as the realisation that drama school is simply unaffordable to those who don’t have parents with enough money to pay for it (around £13,000 per year) are genuinely heart breaking. Dreams dashed. Tom Stocks himself had to twice turn down a place through lack of money. Andrew Ellis describes being recognised for his role in Shane Meadows’ film This is England while working on the check-out at Asda. Presumably this never happened to Fox.

Why is it important that working-class people become actors? As well as an issue of basic fairness – why should the upper-middle classes be able to buy their children a place at the front of the queue for all the exciting opportunities? – the problem is well articulated by Hesmondhalgh: ‘if art is coming from one very narrow part of society, then the stories and the conversations are only going to be coming from that place and they are only going to be about that place.’ Art and self-expression are as important to working-class people as they are to middle-class people. Perhaps more important. As Scott Berry, Artistic Director of Salford Arts Theatre says, ‘when you’ve got nothing else, dreams are what you live on.’

And this is the real power of the film: working-class people telling their own stories, in their own accents. The decision to mix together those at the beginning of their careers with the established stars, to show that working-class people have something worth saying and it can’t be dismissed as a few diamonds in the rough. The Acting Class is as good a dissection of the profound class inequality that we have in the cultural sector as any industry or academic report. And I say that as someone who has worked on a few.

You can find a screening of The Acting Class here. Follow Actor Awareness here.

No Them Only Us
Thursday, 05 April 2018 18:39

Their walls are our stones

Written by

What would a radical, socialist culture policy look like?

Last September I reported on The World Transformed festival, organised by Momentum alongside the Labour Party conference in Brighton. It included several workshops on culture, looking at what the elements of a radical culture policy might be, building on the commitments in the 2017 Labour Manifesto.

That manifesto was a marked improvement on previous manifestos, and clearly reflected the personal vision of Jeremy Corbyn and his team. He was the only candidate in 2015 to support the role of the arts in nourishing everyday creativity, and its potential for political dissent.

The manifesto also backed policies to improve working class access to culture, both as workers in creative industries – musicians, actors, writers etc. – and as spectators and consumers of culture.

The open, participatory nature of politics which the Brighton workshops exemplified has now become the Movement for Cultural Democracy, with a new website, http://colouringinculture.org/cultural-democracy-home, and a series of planned regional events to consult on what a radical culture manifesto should look like.

Culture Matters supports this movement. We believe that culture is more than just the arts. Culture is ordinary and culture is everything, as Raymond Williams said. It includes all the cultural activities that are essential for our enjoyment, entertainment, enlightenment and exercise as fulfilled human beings.

Cultural democracy is about reclaiming and developing our artistic, intellectual, physical and spiritual commons. It’s about struggling in a democratic and socialist way to overcome the profit-driven pressures which make all kinds of cultural activities expensive, inaccessible or irrelevant. Or even worse, when they facilitate surveillance and manipulation – as in the current Facebook scandal – instead of nurturing human development and liberation.

As Len McCluskey said here a few months ago,

Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union, believes that our members, and working people generally, have an equal right to join in and enjoy all the arts and cultural activities. We believe we should be able to afford them, be near to them, and be able to enjoy them.
 
Most of all, we believe artists and leaders of cultural institutions – not only theatres, art galleries, concert halls and poetry publishers, but sports clubs, churches, and broadcasting and media corporations – should seek to engage with all sections of the community, particularly the least well off.

These radical calls for the democratisation and socialisation of culture should be at the heart of a new culture policy.

Our profit-driven capitalist economy seeks to destroy or co-opt the potential of the arts to express dissent and imagine alternatives. And it shrinks from the spectre of everyday, emerging communism, which is generated naturally when people get together in generous solidarity to enjoy the arts, sport, science, eating and drinking, and so much else. It throws up barriers between social classes, genders, ethnic groups, building divisive walls based on the private ownership of property.

We need to break down those walls. We need to reclaim and renew our artistic, physical, intellectual and spiritual commons. We need to democratise and socialise our cultural institutions – the art gallery, the football club, the newspaper, the church and the laboratory, as well as the economic and political ones – the factory, the corporation, the council, Whitehall and Westminster.

Their walls are our stones.

 

Reading Marx
Saturday, 31 March 2018 13:52

Reading Marx

Written by

David Betteridge gives a personal account of reading Marx, with drawings by Bob Starrett.

Fifty years ago, when I was training to be a teacher at Neville’s Cross College of Education in Durham, I had the good fortune to be tutored in Sociology and supervised on school practice by Maurice Levitas (or, to give him his Hebrew patronymic, which he sometimes used, Moishe ben Hillel). Here was a veteran of Cable Street and the Spanish Civil War, a stalwart of the CPGB and the Connolly Column of the International Brigade, a former furniture-polisher and upholsterer, a plumber, a latrine-digger (with the Royal Army Medical Corps in India and Burma), a teacher of English (with plenty of Drama, in secondary schools in London and Louth), and now, in his middle age, a teacher-trainer appointed to the staff of the college where I was a student! He was just what we needed.

Seeing how green I was, with my head full of Red, Black, and Green ideas, and also some plain daft ones, loosely cobbled together, if cobbled at all, Morry (as he was widely nick-named) felt moved to educate me, and to educate me in more than Education.

He told me, I remember, in one of our tutorials, to question the Registrar-General’s designation of some workers - those in Social Class V - as “unskilled”. No, said Morry, all Labour requires skill, including mental skill. Try using a pick without knowing what you’re about, or a scythe! He himself had an impressively wide skill-set, acquired in his wide experience of work. He took pride in all of it, keeping into old age, for example, his curved needles (some semi-circular) from his time as an upholsterer, and losing none of his ability in sewing.

He told me also to be wary of the claims of psychometrics. Certain forms of it, he argued, were based on bad science, and served bad politics. Labelling some people sheep and others goats on the evidence of spurious tests was pernicious. He spoke with a mix of academic rigour and passionate engagement, referring me, I recall, to Brian Simon’s critique of Cyril Burt’s famous (or infamous) work on Intelligence, while at the same time citing personal experience. As a prisoner-of war in Spain, in one of Franco’s camps, Morry had been subjected to batteries of tests by visiting Nazis, keen to use him (and others) to further their racist, specifically anti-Semitic anthropology.

Educational failure was another topic that Morry opened up for discussion. When pupils fail an exam, he asked, is it their own failure alone? Could it also be the failure of hostile teachers, or careless schools, or impoverished homes, or an unjust society dedicated to maintaining its class distinctions?

I did not know then that Morry was busy putting his insights and knowledge and combative spirit into a book. This was published in 1974, with the title Marxist Perspectives in the Sociology of Education.

Supplementary to my college curriculum, and just as important, were the demos that Morry took me on, and the lists of public meetings that he said I must attend, and the books on political theory that I must read (and read systematically), starting with Marx’s early MSS dating from 1844 (The Paris Notebooks) and his Theses on Feuerbach from the following year. He thought it best that I start my journey-of-ideas there, where Marx started his.

DB marx cartoon 2. jpg

See how the young humanist stood Hegel’s idealist philosophy on its head, making it materialist, Morry explained; see how he went beyond Feuerbach, committing himself to changing the world, not just interpreting it; see how he identified the deep structures and movements of history, class against class; see how he laid bare the alienation that workers experience under Capitalism, as they lose control of the products of their labour, and even lose contact with their own true selves.

This programme of accelerated learning that Morry set in train coincided with the crisis days of 1968, when the “evenements” in Paris (and beyond) shook Capitalism, and shook Socialism, too. Morry was charged with a great energy by these events, as if they spoke directly to him. He saw in the students’ movement a proto-revolutionary situation that cried out to be joined, and widened, especially through working class solidarity. I heard him argue this case again and again wherever people would listen, cheerfully rebutting the charge made by others in the CP that he was suffering from a rush of ultra-Leftism to the head. He was mistaking Paris for Barcelona, they said, and 1968 for 1936. Unabashed, he himself looked further back, to 1848, and directed me to read The Communist Manifesto and Marx’s other writings from and about that year of revolutions. Reading them was a revelation.

It was as if I had been given a three-dimensional model showing the layers of rock lying beneath a large and complex landscape, and giving it its shape. How swiftly the Manifesto opened up new understandings for me, and established new connections between things I had previously only half-known! How gleefully I embraced its use of strong metaphors, from a “spectre haunting Europe” early on in the book (that is to say, Communism), through “heavy artillery” (commodities being traded overseas), “fetters” (the constraints of the Feudal System), a “robe of cobwebs” (false consciousness), ending with “grave-diggers” (the forces of organised Labour burying Capitalism at some future date).

Before I left college, I was inspired to have a go at crystallising what I had learned so far from Marx and Morry, in the form of a short poem. I did not have the confidence to show it to my tutor, but here it is (below) for Culture Matters readers. Note: the “old mole” motto-text was added later:

Open Sesame

Well grubbed, old mole!

- Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Under the furrows of old Europe lay
the ruin and the saving
of its steady, backward way: coal,
coal upon coal.

In banks’ vaults,
as if an ocean underground,
full-fed by trade and the world’s toil,
a second Flood backed up, and broke,
of brutal gold.

Empowered,
the anarch Progress forced its change,
all-consumingly on every land
and every suffering folk
that came within the rampage
of its rule of smoke.

Breaching all norms and bonds,
the iron masters and their human tools
exhausted Europe,
then went on to wreak their marvel
on the other continents of plundered Earth.

Their legacy to us:
they redefined and laid to rest
the past that they inherited,
and brought our doomed dystopia
to the titan fury of its birth.

Getting to grips with Marx’s later works took me longer. I approached them by a zig-zagging route of theory and practice, practice and theory, over a period of several years.

DB marx cartoon

In the case of Capital, I made the initial mistake of trying to speed things up by reading other people’s summaries of Marx’s conclusions, without working through the real-life evidence and explanations and interpretations that Marx himself required, and provided in great quantity in his book. Only after campaigning on issues of economic justice in Scunthorpe, where I went to teach, and helping to organise a cross-party, cross-union Left Action Group, only then did I begin to build up the key-concepts and, just as importantly, the structures of feeling that Capital demanded.

A crucial stage in that process of building-up was attending a WEA class organised by John Grayson, and tutored by Michael Barratt Brown. Michael adopted a quite brilliant teaching strategy. He asked the steelworker members of our class to provide him with information relating to a pay claim then being negotiated with the employers. He showed exactly how certain costs and profits that were essential to a full social and economic audit never found their way into any published annual report. The employers’ so-called “balance sheets” were not balanced. Michael’s book What Economics Is About served as a primer for our class-work. Here was Economics, not as a ”dismal science”, as Thomas Carlyle called it - he should have known better, given the great contemporaries of his who were working in that field - but as a weapon in the struggle.

What a broth of a book Capital proved to be, when I came at last to immerse myself in its heights and depths and great length i.e. the teeming volume of Volume One. I found that it was, in some places, to some extent, exactly as Francis Wheen described it in his celebratory Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography. It was “a vast Gothic novel... a Victorian melodrama... a black farce... a Greek tragedy... [and] a satirical utopia”. These ingredients were mixed together in profusion, and richly interspersed with hundreds of quotations from (and allusions to) works of World Literature, factory inspectors’ reports, trade statistics, etc. How many square miles of printed matter did Marx have to scan, how many years of sitting and making notes did he have to put in, how many headaches and heartaches did he have to go through, before this epic and epoch-making piece of “congealed labour” was ready for publication?

Wheen reminds us that Marx was a failed poet, a failed dramatist, and a failed novelist, all these failures being accomplished before the end of his student years at Berlin University. “All my creations crumbled into nothing,” Marx wrote; but his literary ambitions did not crumble. He redirected them. The work in which they came to most vigorous life was Capital.

A good example of Marx in novelistic mode is his deployment in Capital of a large and varied cast of characters, reminiscent of Dickens. Here is one, a juvenile worker in the Potteries:

J. Murray, 12 years of age, says: “I turn jigger, and run moulds. I come at 6. Sometimes I come at 4. I worked all night last night, till 6 o’clock this morning. I have not been in bed since the night before last. There were eight or nine other boys working last night. All but one have come this morning. I get 3 shillings and sixpence. I do not get any more for working at night. I worked two nights last week.”

Regarding this wretched way of life and place of work, a local doctor, quoted by Marx, observed: “Each successive generation of potters is more dwarfed and less robust than the preceding one.”

Turning to Marx in dramatic mode, we can cite his use of a device similar to that deployed by Dante in his Purgatorio.

Let us leave the noisy region of the market, Marx wrote, casting himself in the same role as Vergil in Canto 5 of Dante’s epic. We shall follow the owner of the money and the owner of labour-power into the hidden foci of production... Here we shall discover, not only how Capital produces, but also how it is itself produced. We shall at last discover the secret of making surplus value.

Just as Dante did before him, Marx summoned up a succession of witnesses, in his case witnesses for the prosecution, from these “hidden foci of production”. His guiding principle was borrowed from Dante: Let the people speak. And speak they did, as in the case of J. Murray (above) and many more. (What a good template we have here, by the way, for readers of Culture Matters to use, by which to present your own present-day selection of witnesses for new prosecutions.)

And what of Marx’s exercise of his poet’s craft in the writing of Capital? We find no shortage of examples of metaphors here, and other forms of poetic imagery. Metaphysical poets of any era would be proud to have used them so creatively. Here is one: vampires. Marx wrote: Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.

It does not matter if the vampires, imagined or real, feed on others’ blood or others’ labour, the phenomenon is the same: it is a ceaseless and exponential series of acts of taking, of expropriation, and sometimes of killing cruelty. We see it in the busts and booms of the markets, in the losses that many suffer that others might profit, in the recurrent immiseration of whole sections of a country’s population, sometimes of whole populations, while the elites and their darlings flourish, and we see it bloodiest of all in the almost permanent state of war that so unstable an economic order (or disorder, rather) gives rise to. Marx’s metaphor is precise and complete. It conveys the essential motive force that rages at the heart of Capital.

To sum up: Marx and Morry: two warriors, both engaged in their own times, but aware of all times, past and future; both embattled thinkers as well as thoughtful activists; both possessing a warm-heartedness as well as a hard-headed realism; both exponents of an integrative vision, in which no aspect of human enquiry or interest is deemed alien; internationalists; dialecticians; passionate wordsmiths... Getting to know the former warrior through the good offices of the latter was the best part of my student years.

 DB ML

 Maurice Levitas, Irish academic and communist.

 

 

 

The interplay between base and superstructure
Tuesday, 27 March 2018 13:53

Marx and culture

Written by

Professor John Storey outlines Marx and Engels' theoretical contributions to cultural theory.

Although Karl Marx did not have a fully developed theory of culture, it is possible to discover the basis of one in his understanding of history and politics. What this understanding points to is the insistence that if we are to critically comprehend a cultural text or practice, we have to locate it historically in relation to its conditions of production. What makes this methodology different from other ‘historical’ approaches to culture is Marx’s conception of history, contained in the now famous (and often deliberately misunderstood) ‘base/superstructure’ model of historical development.

Marx argues that each significant period in history is constructed around a particular ‘mode of production’: that is, the way in which a society is organized (i.e. slave, feudal, capitalist, etc.) to produce the material necessaries of life – food, shelter, etc. In general terms, each mode of production produces: (i) specific ways of obtaining the necessaries of life; (ii) specific social relationships between workers and those who control the mode of production, and (iii) specific social institutions (including cultural ones). At the heart of this analysis is the claim that how a society produces its means of existence ultimately determines the political, social and cultural shape of that society and its possible future development. As Marx explains, ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general’. This claim is based on certain assumptions about the relationship between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’. It is on this relationship – between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ – that Marx’s account of culture rests.

The ‘base’ consists of a combination of the ‘forces of production’ and the ‘relations of production’. The forces of production refer to the raw materials, the tools, the technology, the workers and their skills, etc. The relations of production refer to the class relations of those engaged in production. That is, each mode of production, besides being different, say, in terms of its basis in agrarian or industrial production, is also different in that it produces certain fundamental relations of production (not the only ones, but those from which others develop): the slave mode produces master/slave relations; the feudal mode produces lord/peasant relations; the capitalist mode produces bourgeois/proletariat relations. It is in this sense that one’s class position is determined by one’s relationship to the mode of production.

RC article

The Pyramid of Capitalist System, American cartoon caricature published in Industrial Worker, 1911

The superstructure consists of institutions (political, legal, educational, cultural, etc.), and what Marx calls ‘definite forms of social consciousness’ (political, religious, ethical, philosophical, aesthetic, cultural, etc.) generated by these institutions. The base ‘conditions’ or ‘determines’ the content and form of the superstructure. The relationship involves the setting of limits; the providing of a specific framework in which some developments are probable and others unlikely. Regardless of how we view the relationship, we will not fully understand it if we reduce the base to an economic monolith (a static economic institution) and forget that for Marx the base also includes social relations and class antagonisms and these also find expression in the superstructure. This means we should not think of the superstructure as a series of institutions that produce ways of thinking and acting that simply legitimate the activities of the base.

For example, capitalism is the only mode of production to introduce mass education. This is because capitalism is the first mode of production to require an educated workforce. However, while mass education is a requirement of the system, and it is organised as if it had no other purpose than to prepare people for work, it can also be a threat to the system: workers can be ‘educated’ into active and organised opposition to the exploitative demands of capitalism. In this example, and many others, we can see the superstructure as a terrain of both incorporation and resistance (‘class struggle’). Culture plays a significant role in this drama of legitimation and challenge.

Sometimes, as I have already suggested, the relations between base and superstructure are seen as a mechanical relationship of cause and effect (‘economic determinism’): what happens in the superstructure is a passive reflection of what is happening in the base. This often results in a vulgar ‘reflection theory’ of culture, in which the politics of a text or practice are read off from, or reduced to, the material conditions of its production (‘It’s Hollywood, so what do you expect?’). After Marx’s death in 1883, Frederick Engels, friend and collaborator, found himself having to explain, through a series of letters, many of the subtleties of Marxism to younger socialists who, in their revolutionary enthusiasm, threatened to reduce it to a form of economic determinism. Here is part of his famous letter to Joseph Bloch:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever asserted more than this. Therefore, if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various components of the superstructure . . . also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine their form.

What Engels is pointing to is that the base produces the superstructural terrain (this terrain and not that), but that the form of activity that takes place there is determined not just by the fact that the terrain was produced and is reproduced by the base (although this clearly sets limits and influences outcomes), but by the interaction of the institutions and the participants as they occupy the terrain. What Engels alerts us to are the other things we need to consider when engaging critically with culture. While Marx provides a general theory of history and politics, in which it is important to locate a cultural text or practice, there will always remain questions that relate to its formal qualities and specific traditions.

To take, for example, one of Marx’s favourite writers: it would be impossible to understand the novels of Charles Dickens without paying attention to the historical moment in which they were written. What Marx provides us with is a way of understanding this historical moment; an understanding that enables us to see in the novels examples of power, oppression and exploitation, not as the playing out of an ahistorical ‘human nature’, but as the outcome, directly and indirectly, of the social changes introduced by the capitalist mode of production. A Christmas Carol, for instance, is not just a key work in the invention of the ‘traditional’ English Christmas, it also outlines an attempt to build a consensus around a middle class that is able to temporarily accommodate the wants and needs of the working class. The Christmas that was invented, an invention in which the novel plays a key ideological role, was a festival directly connected to the processes of industrialisation and urbanisation; one that was more about hegemony than it was ever about religion. To understand this, we have to do more than consider the novel’s formal qualities; we have to be also aware of its historical moment of writing, ‘conditioned’ as it is by the capitalist mode of production.

During his life in England Marx would have witnessed the emergence of two new major popular cultural forms, stage melodrama and music hall. A full analysis of stage melodrama (one of the first culture industries) would have to weave together into focus both the changes in the mode of production that made stage melodrama’s audience a possibility and the theatrical traditions that generated its form. To understand this new type of theatre we have to take seriously its textuality, while at the same time recognising that its specific form is fundamentally related to the new audience and that without the dramatic changes in the mode of production this new audience would not have existed. While it is never a matter of reducing the cultural text or practice to a simple reflection of the mode of production, we have nevertheless to see it historically before will be able to see how this history is written in its very textuality.

The same also holds true for a full analysis of music hall (another early culture industry). Although in neither instance should performance be reduced to changes in the material forces of production, what should be insisted on is that a full analysis of stage melodrama or music hall would not be possible without reference to the changes in theatre attendance brought about by changes in the mode of production. It is these changes that ultimately produced the conditions of possibility for the performance of a melodrama like Black-Eyed Susan (probably the most performed play in the nineteenth century) and for the emergence and success of a music hall performer like Marie Lloyd. Ultimately, however indirectly, there is a real and fundamental relationship between the emergence of cultural forms like stage melodrama and music hall and changes that had taken place in the capitalist mode of production.

JS Black Eyed Susan Bury St Edmunds

Black-eyed Susan, performed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmund's, 2008

To conclude, as we have seen, Marx argues that ‘the social production of existence’ is always organised around a specific mode of production and that this always provides ‘the real foundations’ on which the superstructure can develop. In other words, the mode of production provides the foundations for cultural production. To understand what Marx’s is claiming in the architectural metaphor of base/superstructure we have to know the limits of what is conditioned.

To put it simply, once foundations are laid a building can take many forms and within each of these forms a whole range of other things can happen. But without the foundations none of these forms, or what takes place within them, is possible. This is why what Marx calls ‘the real foundations’ matter when we are thinking critically about culture; they do not in any simple way determine cultural production, but they are the real foundations on which it begins or begins to be modified and as such they help frame what is culturally possible.

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