Towards a mindful cultural commons
Sunday, 16 December 2018 11:18

Towards a mindful cultural commons

Published in Religion

Peter Doran points to the way buddhist concepts are being corrupted by the commodifying pressures of capitalist culture, and outlines the ways in which true mindfulness practices can help us resist the growing demands of the 'attention economy'.

Neoliberal capitalism is an advanced form of symbolic and material power. We are living through a totalitarian moment in the history of dominant capitalism characterized by the unprecedented targeting of our bodies and our attention. This neoliberal moment is calling forth new forms of resistance as individuals and communities seek to roll back the latest stages in the historic processes of enclosure, by embracing the languages of the commons and commoning.

Resistance, appropriate to the productive forms of contemporary power that moves through and is productive of our bodies, minds and places, is no longer limited to the realms of institutional control and ownership but includes the challenge of restoring the mindful commons, free from the colonisation of our attention. Mindfulness, linked to critical engagement and ethics, can embody a phenomenology of the commons.

The rise of the commons and commoning as a series of practices of resistance – involved in reclaiming ecology as a practice of liberation, reclaiming the urban commons, and extending radical democratic control to the realms of the economy – is emerging alongside popular engagement with practices of mindfulness and other forms of mind-body practices such as yoga. These movements are emerging in complex and sometimes antagonistic ways.

Some secular mindfulness practices such as Cognitive Based Mindfulness Therapies, for example, are also being absorbed into neoliberal consumerist and institutional logics, stripped of their ethical liberating teachings. Corporations, educational institutions, and governments are absorbing mindfulness techniques into their logics of productivity, resilience and adaptation to unacceptable power structures that conceal their own roles in producing suffering and exploitation. Mindfulness, reduced to an individual therapeutic response to societal or structural sources of exploitation, can serve the neoliberal agenda of devolving responsibility down to the individual.

Both movements – commoning and critical mindfulness practices – are calling forth a new individual and cultural awakening, a making visible that which has been actively concealed and placed at the margins of our attention by acts of cultural and economic enclosure, dis-embedding (market making), dislocation and colonisation (of forests, lands, bodies and subjectivities). These processes have accelerated under the influence of dominant capital or capitalization, which, given its universality, cohesion, expandability, intensity and flexibility – is best understood as a ‘symbolic architecture of social power’.

The attention economy is the new enclosure

Our human capacity for directing our attention, which is a form of productive energy, is emerging as an arena of intense conflict – signalled by the debates about political engagement, fake news, and attempts by corporate and political power to capture our loyalty using online technology and social media. It is also visible in concerns about loneliness, disconnection, depression and mental health, and addiction. These issues are not unrelated to the conditions created in our societies by rampant consumerism, invasive screen-based technologies, and their value systems built around hyper-individualism and the insertion of the profit-oriented market as the chief arbiter of social outcomes. The debate has just begun.

The dawn of the ‘attention economy’ – an era of corporate and political targeting of our attention energy to feed the global processes of capitalization – is invoking new forms of resistance, including critically engaged forms of mindfulness practices – re-embedded in ethical and radical teachings drawing from the Buddhist tradition. Buddhist teachings remain a potential and critical resource to throw new light on Western experience and support a transition to sustainable forms of society and prosperity.

Our bodies and our attention are the new realms of enclosure. Modern-day capitalism and its worldwide complex of production and consumption is the primary and most important source of human subjectivity, because subjectivity conditions and participates in the production of all other commodities. We are the product. Subjectivity has become a key commodity – an achievement of a global media, information and entertainment complex – the nature of which is conceived, developed and manufactured as systematically and predictably as the Apple iPhone or any other commodity.

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Mindful and non-violent conscious living are no longer options limited to those with the means to embrace alternative lifestyles, but are moving to the centre of debates about the conditions of a new kind of freedom in an ecologically and socially constrained world: a world where freedom and limits must be reconciled alongside mind and nature.

At the level of the individual, practices of self-regulation aligned with freedom and liberation will be akin to the freedom that accompanies virtuosity, as in excellence in yoga, meditation or forms of discipline in jazz and improvisation that are associated with alternative notions of human joy, accomplishment, and satisfaction.

Two movements have enjoyed a popular surge of interest and participation over the past decade or two. One is the mainly secular mindfulness movement, with roots in Buddhist teachings, which often involves a therapeutic response to the mental pressures associated with modern lifestyles at work, in the market place or at home. The other is the commons or commoning movement.

Another more mindful world is possible

From the point of view of mindfulness-based paths to enhanced awareness, human beings are not trapped forever in the abstract attitude: another world is possible and it will be accompanied by another set of possible dispositions, characterized by a greater sense of intimacy, compassion and continuity with all beings.

The dissociation of mind from body, of awareness from experience, is the result of habituation – personal and institutional – that can be interrupted and broken through meditative technologies or practices that suspend the flow of discursive thought, can tame the inherent restlessness of the mind, and lead to calm and enhanced awareness or presence.

For those who choose to do so, locating mindfulness practice within an ‘engaged’ Buddhist philosophy or community of practice can uncover both practice-based and conceptual resources for radical critique and revolutionary praxis, peace, and both social and environmental justice.

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Prompted by a political and economic system where the prospects of living fully and in full awareness are limited, mindfulness practitioners, potentially and actually, are reclaiming our right to well-being. As Michel Foucault commented in the spring of 1978, at the conclusion of a period of Zen meditation practice in the Seionji temple in Japan:

if a philosophy of the future exists, it must be born outside of Europe, or equally, born in consequence of meetings and impacts between Europe and non-Europe

Mindfulness-based practices, especially those located in or reconnected with their engaged Buddhist origins, can help us reflect on the deep structural or societal causes of dis-ease that have accompanied individuals with the rise of modernity, neoliberal capitalism and life as it is increasingly defined by the extrinsic values of the market place. We are invited and persuaded to internalize a radical and isolated responsibility for our larger fate, and our sense of agency retreats to the realms of ‘self-help’ solutions in the realms of the psyche and the body.

We are the commons

 The second movement involves activist and academic champions of the commons who have begun to respond to neoliberal capitalism and consumerism with a series of critical counter-practices, piloting a radical alternative to the prevailing hyper-individualist and consumerist ethos that recycles biological necessity into commercial capital.

A commons has a number of important characteristics:

- it is a social system with some self-organizing capacity and a commitment to preserving and sharing a local resource and working together with shared values and identity.
- access to the protected resource is organized on an inclusive and equitable basis.
- a commons is often identified with the particular resource that it has evolved to safeguard, use and preserve. In fact, a commons is always more-than-a-resource. It is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values and norms devised by the community to manage its resources.
- finally, there is no commons without commoning or the practices that embody the social practices and norms for managing a resource for collective benefit.

As Ugo Mattei explains:

A phenomenological understanding of the commons forces us to move beyond the reductionist opposition of ‘subject–object,’ which produces the commodification of both. It helps us understand that, unlike private and public goods, commons are not commodities and cannot be reduced to the language of ownership … It would be reductive to say that we have a common good. We should rather see to what extent we are the commons.

There are a number of core beliefs that seem to be intrinsic to the practice of commoning and the organization of the commons, including:

- for rivalrous resources there is enough for all through sharing (the atmosphere);
- while for non-rivalrous resources, there is abundance (solar energy);
- humans are primarily cooperative;
- knowledge is produced through peer-to-peer networking or collaboration;
- and the vision of society foregrounds a conviction that one’s personal unfolding is a condition for the development of others.

A feature of this contemporary commoning movement is the shift from a view of the commons as a ‘thing’ or even as a set of arrangements to a phenomenological emphasis on the active promotion of commoning as a way of being, doing and seeing the world.

Commoning has been described as an attempt to redefine our very understanding of ‘the economy’, to challenge a dominant understanding that has championed rationality over subjectivity, material wealth over human fulfilment, and the system’s abstract necessities (growth, capital accumulation) over human needs.

Commoning shatters these dualisms and reconfigures the role of participants so that we are not simply reduced to the roles of producers or consumers but regarded as participants in a physical and meaningful exchange with multiple material, social and sense-making needs. Commoners realize that their household needs and livelihoods are entangled with the specific place and habitat where they live, and with the earth as a living entity. The recovery of the commons is a collective act of restorative memory and remembering, practice, and a rendering visible of new possibilities for economic forms in the face of a failed attempt by champions of capitalist power to impose a false arrest on the historical evolution of economic ideas. It involves reviving and re-embedding slow practices in an ethos that is local or situated, entangled in relationships that are human and non-human, and that command an ethics of care, reciprocity and interbeing.

Commoning, then, denotes the continuous making and remaking of the commons through shared practice. At the heart of this relational, situated interdependence of humans and non-humans is not an impoverished world of ‘niggardly nature’, nor an infinitely malleable world of ‘techno-culture’, but a more-than-human commons that navigates between limits and possibilities as they arise.

Pay attention to mindful resistance

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The subject of this article is a call for a political economy of attention: a mindful commons. Its cultivation will demand a network of new conversations and practices, some of them embodied in the technologies of meditation and related mind–body practices. This is an opening contribution about the ground upon which these two movements can meet and how that ground can be cultivated to deepen our critical and collective understanding of the ‘attention economy’ and what’s at stake.

Only what we pay attention to seems real to us. While what we ignore seems to fade into insignificance until, perhaps, we are blindsided and events suddenly call out for attention. He adds: ‘Each of us chooses, by our ways of attending to things, the universe we inhabit and the people we encounter. But for most of us, this “choice” is unconscious, so it’s not really a choice at all.’ Which raises interesting questions about freedom.

While we hold to our beliefs about free will, we are equally conscious of our struggles to direct our attention. As Wallace observes:

We may believe in free will, but we can hardly be called ‘free’ if we can’t direct our own attention. No philosopher or cognitive scientist needs to inform us that our behaviour isn’t always guided by free will – it becomes obvious as soon as we try to hold our attention on a chosen object.

Attention is now regarded as an essential part of practices of consumption, entertainment and media culture, as it has become intensely valued both as capital and as a scarce commodity. That innate tendency towards ‘absence’ from our moment-to-moment experience has become an open door for a highly sophisticated series of social and corporate technologies designed to target and capitalize our attention energy. Indeed, in the context of post-industrial society, attention is now regarded as a currency with greater value than that which circulates in our banks, one that is now the single most important determinant of business success.

Attention has a profound impact on character and ethical behaviour, and our capacity to voluntarily bring back wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgement, character and will. While a gift for sustained attention can be seen as a fixed deposit, a capacity one inherited or not, the contemporary mindfulness movement and associated spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, are associated with forms of training to enhance the capacity for attention in attempts to interrupt patterns of conditioned behaviour and cultivate a genuine quality of freedom and spaciousness around our capacity to see, our capacity for awareness. There are great similarities between the practices and dispositions of commoning and the mindfulness movement, especially for those who wish to inform their activism and powers of resistance to contemporary capitalist culture.

Peter Doran is the author of A Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Consumerism: reclaiming the mindful commons, 2017, Routledge.

The cultural commons belongs to all of us
Sunday, 16 December 2018 11:18

The cultural commons belongs to all of us

Published in Cultural Commentary

Chris Guiton analyses and discusses the importance of the concept of the cultural commons.

In the 21st century we are witnessing the rapid encroachment by capitalism on what is often referred to as the ‘cultural commons’. These are the shared resources in the cultural sphere which belong to all of us rather than a wealthy or privileged minority. This goes beyond specific works of art to the broader cultural sphere identified by Raymond Williams, the Marxist writer and academic, as our “whole way of life - the common meanings…the arts and learning – the special processes of discovery and creative effort” (Moving from High Culture to Ordinary Culture). For Williams, “culture is ordinary”. It is not the preserve of a cultural elite, but a democratic right for everyone.

In recent decades, however, the cultural hegemony of neoliberal capitalism has expanded and deepened its economic, political and intellectual control over us. In Britain, this process has been sharpened by the deployment of the 2008 recession to justify austerity policies designed to erode public services, cut wages and deepen inequality. These policies are not only having an unequal, and adverse, economic effect on the less well-off and working people generally, they are having an unequal effect on arts and cultural provision. The consequence of this process is a poorer public realm, stunted human development and the diminution of the common good.

At Culture Matters we want to help defend and enhance the cultural commons and make as much art and culture available, as cheaply as possible, to as many ordinary working people as possible.
But let’s take a bit of time to look at how the concept of the ‘commons’ evolved and what it offers to us today. Early humanity lived in a state of primitive communism, characterised by shared ownership of all but a limited number of individual possessions. Art, music and story- telling in primitive communist times were almost certainly public, shared activities, which had the effect of developing and maintaining a sense of social solidarity.

With the development of class society, first slave society, followed by feudalism and then capitalism, came the appearance of private property based on an increasingly systematic appropriation of the means of production. The term ‘commons’ developed as a way of referring to those natural resources – for example, land and water – where people in class-based societies either have common rights to access and use those resources or where the land is communally owned and controlled rather than held in private ownership. The rights were available to defined groups of people in a particular community, under commonly understood arrangements that reflected customary use. As such, they reflected the society they were located within and its material conditions at a given historical point.

The experience of a tenant in 14th century feudal England would be rather different from that of a herder in the Mongolian grasslands in the 16th century or a Maine lobster fisherman in the 19th century. Many readers will be familiar with the feudal system that applied in England. Commons arrangements, including things like grazing rights, fishing rights and the right to collect firewood, developed to allow tenants access to manorial lands to help meet their reproductive needs. While this provided people with access to much-needed resources, it existed within the framework of a rigidly hierarchical society. A society’s structure clearly limits the benefits of common-pool property rights. In addition, these rights are often based on closed groups which themselves limit access. But what they demonstrate is both the opportunities and the constraints offered by the commons concept as an inherently political perspective, subject to historical processes as well as providing oppositional space to create new ways of living.

The economic pressures faced by the commons were exemplified by the enclosures that took place in England, as feudalism was replaced by first nascent then more assertive capitalism. These started to rise dramatically in the Tudor period as open-field, arable land was fenced off and converted to pastureland for sheep grazing by the landowners as they sought to increase the profits that could be derived from the rapid growth in the cloth trade. This inevitably meant the loss of common rights, created significant unemployment and led to the displacement of now impoverished rural labourers. This resulted in considerable social unrest, riots and a series of revolts across the country, typified by Kett's Rebellion in 1549, as the rural populace fought back and sought to restore the stability of the traditional commons system.

Cultural commons

The process of enclosure was given a significant boost in the 18th and 19th centuries as Parliament, via a series of Inclosure Acts, enforced consolidation of strips in the open field system into larger, unitary landholdings. Commons rights were extinguished, much of the remaining pasture commons lost and people who had previously subsisted on the land became part of the new, rapidly growing urban proletariat. By the early 19th century, the medieval peasant community had been virtually destroyed. As E. P. Thompson noted in The Making of the English Working Class, “Enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery.”

But what are the implications of all this for us now? The late 20th and early 21st centuries are providing multiple examples of the very modern forms that enclosure takes today. It is seen to worrying effect, for example, in the corporate encroachment on the internet commons.

The internet was originally based on an open architecture system of communication, publicly available to all, developed over a period of years by collaboration and information sharing amongst scientists and engineers, and, crucially, developed with government support for the significant public investment required to make it happen. It offered an open forum for ideas and allowed innovation to flourish. But since its launch, it has fallen prey to a corporate ‘landgrab’ as the major computer software and services corporations sought to replace open technical standards for the web with closed, proprietary standards for browsers and operating systems, securing huge profits in the process. In the meantime, online media corporations have asserted virtual monopoly control over TV and high speed internet access, as they have grown, and merged, and fight to limit subscribers to their own services.

In the United States, this process has inevitably been accompanied by a decline in public interest broadcasting as time allotted to public affairs and local programming has declined, and opportunities for political bias in programming and advertising have increased. This is reflected in the UK which has seen a significant drop in recent years in spending on news, current affairs and children's television. The original BBC mandate to "inform, educate and entertain", whatever its original limitations given the elitism and authoritarianism implicit in its approach to mass education (and the fascist sympathies of its first Director-General, John Reith), looks increasingly fragile as commercial funding structures are introduced or threatened, overt political interference grows and pressure increases from commercial rivals.

The detrimental impact of corporate moves to control previously accessible resources is also seen very clearly in the intellectual property rights and copyright field covering literature, film and music, where the law is steadily being extended in duration and scope. Originally intended to balance the creators’ rights to control their artistic outputs with the public right to access once the copyright term had expired, we are now witnessing a surge in efforts by major corporations to protect and monetise ‘their’ property. These efforts focus on the supposed originality of an artistic creation while neglecting its foundation in general culture, a common property of all of us, from which it was derived.

snow white

An obvious example here is Disney’s success in securing a trademark for the name ‘Snow White’, from a story first published by the Brothers Grimm but based on a much older folk tale. The trademark covers all live and recorded movie, television, radio, stage, computer, internet, news, and photographic entertainment uses, except literature works of fiction and nonfiction. So, while even Disney understand that extending their ownership to literature would be a step too far, they clearly see no problem with asserting a broad-based proprietary ownership of a name considerably older than them – and in doing this are backed by the law.

Copyright provisions have been steadily extended over time and, in the UK, now stand at ‘life plus 70 years’ for most works (in the United States it was recently extended to 95 years from publication date as a result of extensive corporate lobbying). Unsurprisingly, the beneficiaries are usually not the authors, long since departed from this world, but the corporations who often own the copyright.

There is a fundamental contradiction between the enabling power of new internet-based technologies, creating the potential for a publicly available archive of all the art and culture ever produced and distributed publicly, and the application of an increasingly restrictive copyright law which seeks to control and monetise ‘creative property’, and which acts as a barrier to free expression.

Lawrence Lessig, a American professor of law, has written extensively on the subject, demonstrating how cultural monopolists seek to shrink the public domain of ideas, with the big media and technology corporations using technology and the digitisation of culture to control people’s access to it and what can we do with it. As he puts it in his book Free Culture:

We live in a “cut and paste” culture enabled by technology…Using the Internet and its archives, musicians are able to string together mixes of sound never before imagined; filmmakers are able to build movies out of clips on computers around the world. An extraordinary site in Sweden takes images of politicians and blends them with music to create biting political commentary…All of these creations are technically illegal. Even if the creators wanted to be “legal,” the cost of complying with the law is impossibly high. Therefore, for the law-abiding sorts, a wealth of creativity is never made. And for that part that is made, if it doesn’t follow the clearance rules, it doesn’t get released.

This is a sad but inevitable consequence of the turbo-charged capitalism that dominates the world today and which seeks to commodify everything it can, including culture.

Another field in which the theft of the cultural commons is very visible is sport. Sports such as football provide entertainment and emotional engagement for millions of people. But the steady commodification of such sports is plumbing new depths. Grossly inflated player wages and transfer fees; increasingly unaffordable ticket prices; the increased role of advertising and sponsorship; the money earned by the Premier League through selling airtime (linked to the formation of the Premier League itself); the growth of merchandising; and top clubs’ preference for buying players on the international transfer market rather than nurturing home-grown talent are all contributing to the degradation of the sport itself as a game played for reasons other than the pursuit of profit.
The result is a poorer experience for the consumer as the quality of the game declines, particularly at a national level, barriers grow for aspiring players, and a ‘winner takes all’ culture develops for the top players and the enrichment of a small group of clubs and their (often billionaire) owners.

The same processes are happening in all fields of culture, very obviously in the visual arts, which are scarred by elitism and commodification. Works by major artists, promoted by a self-serving network of art dealers engaged in what is effectively price-fixing, sell for astronomical sums to the super-rich, unable to think of anything socially useful to spend their ill-gotten gains on. They then often disappear from public view but are used as a mechanism to demonstrate the distance between the financial and social elite and ordinary people. The artwork may have little genuine artistic merit but this is almost irrelevant as self-referential emptiness and banality replaces any effort to mirror and interrogate the world around us. This bizarre process has reached its apogee in the work of Damien Hirst, where his brand identity has become the commodity, supplanting the artwork itself.

How have political parties in Britain reacted to this process? In his recent book Cultural Capital, Robert Hewison offered a well-pitched critique of culture policy under New Labour. He describes how a significant increase in funding for art and cultures was accompanied by the marketization and monetisation of culture. Funding became contingent on alignment with Government policy objectives, target-driven and reduced to a short-sighted instrumentalism. This led to the disastrous decision to build the much-mocked Millenium Dome. Since then, of course, in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, funding has been significantly reduced by successive governments. Crucially, Hewison notes that the New Labour objective of widening social access to the arts did not succeed. Audience levels barely increased at all. And the demographic make-up of those regularly enjoying the arts remained largely white, better educated and elderly.

The limited access that most working class people have to art and culture is a real issue for anyone interested in the struggle for a fairer, more just society. Enjoyment of the arts and cultural activities, as both producer and consumer, is an essential part of the ‘social wage’ for all workers. By social wage, we mean the amenities and services provided within a society from public funds. All members of society are as entitled to fair, equal and adequate ‘terms and conditions’ for culture as they are for their labour. Promoting recognition and understanding in the labour movement of the central contribution made by the struggle for a better ‘cultural commons’ to the quality of life of everyone is a core objective of Culture Matters.

Elinor Ostrom, the American political economist, has done a lot of valuable work on the role of the commons in providing an alternative to market economics and government intervention. She defined it as a general concept that refers to a resource shared by a group of people, built on principles of self-governance, community and local action. David Bollier, a noted writer and activist in this field, has identified the scope for the commons concept to provide “a new paradigm of economics, politics and culture.” He defines the commons as:

A social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity. It is a self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State. The wealth that we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children. Our collective wealth includes the gifts of nature, civic infrastructure, cultural works and traditions, and knowledge.

He goes on to say that,

There is no commons without commoning – the social practices and norms for managing a resource for collective benefit. Forms of commoning naturally vary from one commons to another because humanity itself is so varied. And so there is no “standard template” for commons; merely “fractal affinities” or shared patterns and principles among commons. The commons must be understood, then, as a verb as much as a noun. A commons must be animated by bottom-up participation, personal responsibility, transparency and self-policing accountability.

This relates directly to our aspirations at Culture Matters to provide a broad-based platform which arts and culture producers and consumers can use for their benefit, sharing knowledge, ideas and resources, and creating an open – and oppositional - space which challenges the dispossession and commodification of our cultural resources. Which reclaims these resources for us all, and facilitates opportunities for collaborative artistic and cultural expression.

sandinista the clash

Encouragingly, there are always people ready to fight back and demonstrate the essentially social nature of culture. Think of performance poetry delivered in pubs, cafes and at festivals around the country rather than unnecessarily obscure poetry produced for the page and for the edification of a small elite readership. Think of the visceral power of punk rock as an anti-authoritarian rejection of mainstream music and stadium rock. Or the impact of FC United of Manchester, a club established and owned by its fans, which deliberately sets out to build strong links with the local community and democratise access.

What links these cultural expressions, consciously or unconsciously, is the legitimate desire people have to do things for themselves, make culture real, work within their communities and challenge the status quo. As we know, capitalism is very good at co-opting dissent, by turning radical images and ideas into marketable commodities. But this is all the more reason to develop a counter-culture which, as Antonio Gramsci described in his Prison Notebooks, seeks to create a new hegemony, presenting new ideas and new forces which challenge and disrupt capitalism’s dominant definition of what is ‘normal’ and ‘legitimate’.

We aim to develop Culture Matters as a countervailing force to the profit-centred, neo-liberal, market paradigm that developed under capitalism, challenging assumptions, articulating new visions and encouraging and promoting oppositional cultural perspectives and activities. This means identifying new ways of working and new structures that cut across traditional boundaries and, in effect, helps create a socialist and progressive cultural ecosystem, which develops new networks and new inter-actions between people. Let’s join William Morris, who declared in Art, Wealth and Riches:

All who assert public rights against private greed are helping us; every foil given to common-stealers, or railway-Philistines, or smoke-nuisance-breeders, is a victory scored to us.

Bread, roses and the cultural commons
Sunday, 16 December 2018 11:18

Bread, roses and the cultural commons

Published in Cultural Commentary

‘The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too’ said the aptly named Rose Schneiderman early in the last century. She was right, we all need bread – fair material rewards for our labour – but we also need roses. We need a popular and extensive cultural commons, including free or cheap access to cultural activities, to develop and enjoy our essentially social natures.

The Culture Matters website aims to contribute to the cultural struggle, what Blake called the ‘mental fight’ for a new Jerusalem, for a more democratic and socialist society. The struggle will be long and hard. Over time, capitalism has penetrated our culture more and more. And culture, as Raymond Williams pointed out, is not just highbrow art but consists of all our ideas, values, beliefs and customs, including all the arts but also sport, religion, eating and drinking, watching TV, etc.

It’s true that capitalism’s dynamism and innovation has helped create a massive expansion in opportunities for cultural education and enjoyment. Think of the number of TV and radio channels, books, art galleries, films, music festivals, and sports facilities there are these days. But there is also a relentless drive for profit in capitalism. Every human activity, including art and cultural activity, has to be measured by its contribution to profitability. It is also fundamentally exploitative, as demonstrated in the famous passage of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, where the Great Money Trick is explained. This transfer of value from workers to owners is divisive and unjust, so in order to lessen social conflict there has to be an ideological drive to generate a culture of submission and acceptance of exploitation.

Capitalism shapes culture, and culture expresses capitalism, in many different ways. It’s why sport is so commercialised and corrupt, why so much organised religion is so uncritical of exploitation and injustice, why we have TV programmes like The Apprentice glorifying selfishness and ruthless competitiveness, and why the supermarkets encourage a culture of overconsumption of food and drink.

And it’s why we have a huge and long-term problem of unequal funding by the state for the arts in Britain today. The inequalities are of staggering, Dickensian proportions. Vast swathes of the arts and cultural activities are virtually impossible for most ordinary people – particularly poorer people – to access and enjoy, for reasons linked to social class, geography and education.

On top of these structural problems, we’re suffering massive cutbacks to support for arts and cultural activities across the country, particularly outside London and the South East. These are happening through cuts in funding, directly and through cuts in general support for local authorities – particularly in poorer areas. Critical and creative engagement with the arts is also being shunted out of the educational curriculum.

Culture Matters seeks to expose the Great Culture Trick, the shocking inequalities in the way the arts and cultural activities are currently funded and managed. It will also campaign for more progressive policies. Because we know that the arts and cultural activities can resist, oppose and help overcome alienation and oppression. They can increase awareness, arouse indignation, and imagine alternatives. Robert Tressell’s novel is a good example of that potential. But it’s also there in sports clubs, churches, supermarkets and pubs, as well as in art galleries, concert halls and poetry readings.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which triggered one of the most significant, popular artistic and cultural explosions of the twentieth century. Let’s make 2017 the year of campaigning for bread and roses.

If you think you can help with relevant material for this section of the website, please write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This is an edited version of an article first published in the Morning Star.