Culture for the Many, not the Few
The world transformed! Quite a heady claim, isn’t it? But a few weeks ago in Brighton, there were some glimpses of a new and better world: a new and better approach to art and culture.
The World Transformed festival is run by volunteers from Momentum, the political movement formed after the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. In 2016 they staged their first event alongside the Labour Party conference, a four day festival of politics, art, theatre, music and cultural workshops.
It was hugely successful and this year The World Transformed came to the Labour Party conference in Brighton, bigger and better than last year. Over 5,000 people attended 100 events, run in 10 venues across Brighton – churches, theatres, cafes, meeting rooms – from late morning to late evening. Big names like Ken Loach and Peter Kennard spoke alongside less well known but equally inspiring grassroots and local voices, such as Becka Hudson and Kemmi Morgan from Grime4Corbyn.
The excitement, the buzz, the sense of anticipation and determination, were palpable. Long queues for places at the events snaked round the streets, and most events were full up. All the events I attended were efficiently run but also relaxed, informal, and very inclusive.
The arts and culture generally were treated in an accessible and democratic fashion. There is often an elitist and metropolitan drift in definitions, discussions and events about culture, which ignores or downplays the activities valued and enjoyed by large sections of the population.
Activities such as sport, religion, watching TV, clothing and fashion etc. get little attention compared to what goes on in art galleries, concert halls and theatres.
But as Raymond Williams said, ‘culture is ordinary’ and here, a wider definition of culture was being put into practice.
An outstanding example of this approach was an event called ‘Football from Below’. This workshop was run by Mark Perryman, a regular writer for Culture Matters and co-founder of Philosophy Football, together with several others including Suzy Wrack from the Guardian Weekly and Kadeem Simmonds from the Morning Star. Not to mention Attila the Stockbroker, veteran punk poet and musician and Brighton’s most famous football fan.
Together, they focused on the need to reclaim the game from capitalist culture – from the corporate, commercialising forces which are threatening to corrupt and kill it off as an accessible, affordable entertainment and activity for legions of fans and players.
Contributors spoke of the groups of militantly anti-racist fans organised as ultras in many clubs, and the rise in community ownership across all the League’s divisions. Attila used spoken word to describe the fifteen year fan-led campaign to keep their local football club playing in Brighton, which has now culminated in the club joining the Premier League.
Above all, contributors pointed to the growth of the women’s game, and the need to challenge entrenched gender bias. Why can’t more clubs, they asked, follow the example of Lewes FC in allocating equal budgets for women and men players?
The workshop was entertaining and inclusive, involving open discussion as well as poetry, visuals and song. It was itself a model of the kind of grassroots cultural activity being presented and promoted.
Clearly, football can be viewed as a political metaphor for capitalism. The unequal relations of ownership; the grotesque contrast between players’ wages and those of cleaning staff; the commodification and branding of the club’s identity; the price of tickets; the corporate sponsorship and privileged seating; the culture of celebrity; the use of drugs; the over-emphasis on winning and losing rather than the quality of the game played – all these corrupting and antisocial developments are a consequence of capitalist economic relations, and reflect and express capitalist culture. They contradict and undermine the genuine, playful and communal spirit of the game, both for players and viewers.
But here’s the main point which came out of the workshop and indeed the whole festival. All of our cultural activities, all of the topics covered by Culture Matters – poetry, film, theatre, visual art, religion, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, the media – show the same kinds of contradictions.
Consider how institutional religion – not only Christianity, but Judaism, Islam and Buddhism – has served the interests of ruling classes throughout history, by muting or silencing essentially revolutionary philosophies.
Religions have a tremendous capacity to present moral, spiritual and political challenges to all class-divided societies, including capitalist ones like our own. This is precisely why they have been suborned by ruling elites, made to focus on individual sin rather than structural injustice, and on the hereafter rather than the here and now. Christian religious beliefs and practices, originally developed to help liberate the poor, have become ways of generating submissiveness, obedience, and resignation amongst the exploited and oppressed.
Consider how all of the arts are, in one way or another, inaccessible through cost and geographical location, and incomprehensible to large sections of the population who are increasingly denied an education which would help them understand the arts, an education which is barely enough to prepare them for a lifetime of exploitation under capitalism. And how they can be used – for example in most Hollywood movies – to express reactionary, sexist and anti-socialist values which maintain consent for an exploitative, class-divided society.
All these cultural activities and many more should be wonderfully liberating, enjoyable and developmentally valuable to us as social human beings. Yet we are witnessing the growing privatisation of the cultural commons – those cultural activities and expressions that belong to all of us – by capitalism.
We need to resist the commercialisation and ideological manipulation of the arts. We need to democratise the access, affordability and content of all our arts and cultural activities, and show how a bottom up, DIY ethos can work. We need to reclaim our common cultural heritage from the few, for the many.
Next year, let’s hope The World Transformed festival in Liverpool is even more ambitious. Momentum can reach out even further and help us understand, develop and put into practice the socialist ideas of the Labour leadership across a range of cultural topics.
Progressive forces in the labour movement need to start local cultural struggles to transform the world outside Parliament, outside local councils, and outside the workplace. We need to challenge the authorities and the institutions – sports clubs, churches, supermarkets, pubs, and broadcasters, as well as art galleries, opera houses and concert venues – that legitimise capitalist exploitation and throw up barriers to us enjoying cultural activities that help us develop and enjoy our lives as fully human, social beings.
That’s how to achieve a world transformed, and a culture for the many, not the few.
Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and chief editor of Culture Matters.