Culture for the many, not the few: notes towards a socialist culture policy
Saturday, 20 October 2018 19:24

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

Published in Cultural Commentary

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

Introduction

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

- What culture means and why it is so important

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

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

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

What culture means and why it is important

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

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

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

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

Culture, politics and class

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

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

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

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

Current Cultural Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General principles for a culture policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specific Policy Proposals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sport and Leisure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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