Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (63)

The Power of Poetry in Dark Times
Thursday, 22 June 2017 20:13

The Power of Poetry in Dark Times

Written by

Sandy Grant proposes that in times like these, it is poets who speak the most serious words of them all. Her article is followed by a poem by Chris Norris.

‘Tell us that line again, the thing about the dark times’. So begins the most recent of many ‘dark times’ poems written since Bertolt Brecht uttered the words. His poem ‘To Those Born Later’ was written from exile during the early years of the Third Reich. And he used the metaphor ‘dark times’ to evoke a problem about speaking when obscuring language abounds. It is a language that conceals, and by which people acquiesce in injustice. And it need not be by lies, but also by the mundane ways of talking used in everyday life. ‘Dark times’ subsequently became a recurring metaphor. But what does a poet do by using it?

This latest use of the phrase comes from Marilyn Hacker in ‘Ghazal: The Dark Times’, but a month ago. She begins as though recounting a familiar tale, repeating the now customary recourse to such speech at times like these. But nothing about the poem comes off as reassuring. Indeed there is a bitter ennui to it. Perhaps you can hear it in her recognition of some stolid, time-worn figures of speech:

The traditional fears, the habitual tropes of exclusion

Like ominous menhirs, close into their ring about the dark times

Like ‘menhirs’, which are standing-stones, the idiom of the past returns to the fore.  But it is almost as though the words ‘dark times’ might be impotent, become exhausted in their iteration down the years.

This alone is worthy of notice, for poets are those alert to the complacent use of words. What then of these ones? For even the most pithy of phrases can become platitudes, bandied about until dull and spoken heedlessly. ‘Dark times’ could be one such, a worn-out metaphor. So can these words, ‘dark times’, still do something amid the obscuring language of our day?

The question invites us to consider what kind of speech acts poems accomplish. This is to propose that poetic speech is ‘performative’, that the poet utters words by which she does something. And it is to take on the philosopher J.L. Austin. In How to Do Things with Words he notoriously claimed that poetry cannot be ‘serious.’ There is a somewhat weak species of reply to him, which holds that actually some poetry can be serious. Such an approach tries to make poetic speech conform to Austin’s picture of how users of ordinary speech achieve that mundane way of doing things with words.

But this kind of response to Austin rather eviscerates the provocation of poetry, and belies its special way with words. So is it possible to say something more audacious? I think so. Perhaps in times like these we can see that poetry is where the action is, and this by the making of extraordinary speech acts. For if poets do something with words, they do so in some special way. They use extraordinary speech. About that Austin was right. But he erred in thinking that the special nature of poetic speech means that it cannot accomplish speech acts.

Brecht’s poem is a cracking example. For in saying ‘Truly, I live in dark times’, Brecht is doing something. But what is it? What does he do? The very first word, ‘truly’, emphatically marks the commitment to attempt serious speaking. And it is immediately followed by a metaphorical assertion, ‘I live in dark times.’ And Brecht does not merely back up that assertion, but raises the stakes of making it. If you can excuse for a moment my own rather dull prose, I will explain my view that he is both asserting, and questioning whether he can assert.

What I take Brecht to be doing is this: he sees that what speech there is, is darkening, and refuses to repeat it, but worries that speaking otherwise cannot be heard. So he tells us that he declines the old shibboleths, those uttered in order to lay claim to virtue despite the suffering of others. ‘I would gladly be wise’, he says, living a life of indifferent virtue. But this he cannot do. ‘I cannot heed this’, he says. He is asserting that he lives amid obscuring language, and that he- at least- will not acquiesce in it.

But this is not all that his words do. In virtue of its title, ‘To Those Born Later’, Brecht addresses us, and others in posterity. He says that in his time to speak as he does is folly, and so he must speak to those yet unborn. The subsequent ‘dark times’ poems make these kind of metaphorical assertions about the obscurity of everyday speech, and question whether they can be heard as doing so. And, as I have mentioned, they do this by an extraordinary way with words. These poems call attention to their constituent speech acts, using words by which their speakers do something and ask us to attend to it. To put it bluntly, there is both asserting and questioning whether one can assert anything.

Poetry seems an apt way to pose that quandary, for poetic speech is a way of using words that draws attention to itself as such. And it is precisely in this manner that the poet undertakes a commitment to the use of serious speech. This may be seen in Ingeborg Bachmann’s poem ‘Keine Delikatessen’ (No Delicacies). In this, her last poem, Bachmann declares her refusal to use beautiful adornment, to ‘dress a metaphor with an almond blossom’, or ‘crucify syntax on a trick of light’. Instead we are shown a struggle within speaking, as she stretches out across the page words ordinarily left unspoken:

‘hunger

                                    disgrace

                                                                        tears

and

                                                                                                            darkness’

The eyes must rove all the way across the page before they can reach that last word, ‘darkness.’ It is a long, long way down, there right at the edge of the speaking. And the depth of the metaphor, ‘darkness’, does not preclude the force of the utterance, its power to both assert and to question whether one can assert. Instead, it heightens it. It stands out against the obscure speech that she is contending with. It calls for attention, and in a remarkable way. So the poet does something differently, something rather extraordinary, when she speaks in metaphors and references ‘dark times.’ She is struggling to break out of her immersion in the extant practices of speaking.

But the use of metaphoric utterances also invites hearers to see that they too are participants in the work done by words. This feature of what is done by ‘dark times’ poems is crucial. For the poet is trying to speak in a way that can be heard as serious by others. The special usages of poetic speech have some special power to ask hearers to recognise themselves as the addressees of these speech acts. For hearers are involved with the poet in the possibility of achieving serious speech. So yes, what is done in speech acts is done in an extraordinary way. But, contra Austin, this does not provide that no speech act is accomplished through poetry.

If the poet speaking of ‘dark times’ does something extraordinary, she also something strikingly serious. Suppose that our mundane acts of speaking foreclose attention to what we are doing in our use of words, that they obscure to us the very form of talk that we are using as we go about our everyday life. This would be a carelessness in talking, as to how one is talking. Suppose that it routinely happens in ordinary speech, although we don’t see that we are doing it. A good example would be parroting speech, in which a person merely repeats what is said, rather than making assertions that are genuinely their own. Glaring examples might be parroting political or advertising slogans. But suppose that we see parroting more generally in everyday speech.

The obscuring character of parroting comes from how it merely apes speech acts of assertion. What you do in asserting something is to put yourself behind what you say, to sort of personally guarantee its truth and ask the hearer to accept what you say on the basis of your say-so. In parroting however, you don’t do that. You just repeat what is being said.  Speaking thus would involve an indifference as to one’s proper role as backer of one’s assertions. They would be uttered because they are what is said, and not because one believes them. Suppose then that as indifferent utterances, others don’t hear them as genuinely our own, or believe them on that basis. But nevertheless they repeat them, for after all they are what is said, what ‘everybody’ in one’s group is saying. So you get utterances that look like assertions, but do assert. Instead, they merely parrot. In fine, our everyday talk would be an irresponsible way of using words.

Such a way of speaking would not be ‘serious’ in Austin’s sense of that word, but spoken anyway, and as a matter of course. In claiming that it is poetic speech that is not serious, Austin said that performatives, utterances that constitute acts, are ‘hollow or void’ if introduced in a poem. But what if it is ordinary speech that is ‘hollow or void’, and poetry that is deadly serious? Perhaps it is in everyday living that we find speech like that deemed non-serious by Austin. And perhaps it is the poets who are the serious ones.

And perhaps it takes poems, with their extraordinary ways of speaking that call attention to themselves as speech acts, to confront us with this? For poets can expose these hollow ways of using language. Consider Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘Poem’, from The Speed of Darkness. There is the opening assertion about one’s own times. This is followed by the evocation of an irresponsible way of speaking, which the poet wishes to oppose:

I lived in the first century of world wars

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,

The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,

The news would pour out of various devices

Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen…

And here comes the appeal to absent addressees again:

Slowly I would get to pen and paper,

Make my poems for others unseen and unborn…

Rukeyser juxtaposes her use of speech to the ‘careless’ words that issue from the authorized ‘devices’. But she also writes of her struggle to grasp her immersion in the extant practices of speaking.

..We would try by

any means

To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,

To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

In that last line, a personal struggle is evoked by ‘these wars’. And it is one, it seems, that is germane to the world wars amid which she lives.

By the kind of speech acts that they venture these poems do not inform, report or describe. They assert, and they question. ‘I am trying to say this… can you hear me?’ They involve struggles to speak other than irresponsibly. And they evince a quest to be heard, for a speech act does not succeed absent uptake from its hearers. The hearers must attend to the speech act, actively taking notice of it. And they must comprehend it as the kind of speech act that it is. They needn’t agree with what is being said. But they must attend to it, and grasp what the speaker is trying to do: to assert, and to question whether such an act is even possible now.

Perhaps it is this possibility, of reaching those who might notice and comprehend, of finding co-participants in serious speech, that arises amid such poems? Consider then ‘What Kind of Times Are These’, from Dark Fields of the Republic. In that poem Adrienne Rich asks ‘why do I tell you anything?’ And her only answer is ‘because you still listen’. But perhaps the conjunction, ‘because’, is a sort of summons to be attentive. In any case, to understand what it is that these poems do we can see them as efforts on the part of poets to speak responsibly. But beyond the speaker’s commitment we might also see them as a call to listen. In this sense they issue a request to participate in the accomplishment of serious speech.

Achieving serious speech in these times is raised as a possibility, but a fraught and risky one, in these poems. And the extraordinary character of poetic speech lends this a piquant urgency. For here the poets are those who plumb the prospects of serious speech. Contra Austin’s claim that in poetry we see only ‘the etiolations of language’, the effort to undertake serious speech acts is heightened in these poems. But they utter, and quite properly, something of a faltering appeal. The poets, like the rest of us, are mired in the difficulties of undertaking serious speech. So perhaps in times like these it is poets who speak the most serious words of them all.

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The Provocations of Philosophy: Bert Brecht’s message for the age of Trump

by Christopher Norris

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. This tutelage is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’- that is the motto of enlightenment. - Immanuel Kant, ‘An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?’

The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participate in political events. He doesn’t know that the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of shoes and of medicine, all depend on political decisions . . . . From his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupt flunky of the national and multinational companies - Bertolt Brecht

Before it happened you were in no doubt.
'Unthinkable' you said, and then,
Lest they suspect you'd not quite ruled it out,
'Just inconceivable', again.

'Again', I wrote, but let's not be too quick:
Those words 'think' and 'conceive' don't mean
The same thing, and we're apt to miss a trick
By suturing the gap between.

Of course you'll say it's just semantic stuff,
All this, and the last thing we need
When you've real-world catastrophes enough
For 'act, then think' to be your creed.

Yet ask yourself: which line's the one to take
When those wise-after-the-event
Types say: 'It's happened, so you'd better make
Think-room for how things really went'.

Well, you can either field it with a flat
Though feeble apologia: 'got
Things wrong that time, alas!', or try to bat
It back with a semantic shot.

Then you might say: yes, sure enough, 'conceive'
Trump president I can and must
Since it's a claim that's true, that I believe,
And that has duly earned my trust.

That's knowledge as it figures on the view
Proposed with sundry minor tweaks
From Plato down, though lately just a few
Have differed with the ancient Greek’s

Account of it. Still, you lot have no choice
But to conceive the man as now
Your sworn-in president despite the voice
Inside you that just won't allow

The thought. For thinking brings a sharpened sense
Of that rock-bottom line below
Which politics can't sink lest it dispense
With all the semblances that go

To keep the folk on board. That's why I say
You needn't feel the wise-guy's won
Or pipe down when the hindsight-seers play
Their cynic games by making fun

Of you for thinking it 'unthinkable' that such
A bunch of rogues and fools should come
To occupy high office. There's a much
More hopeful way than acting dumb

And that's to say that lots of things we thought
Or think could never happen did
Or do, which means reality falls short
Or fails to match our starting bid

By throwing up some Bullingdon buffoon
As Foreign Secretary, or fool
Like Donald Trump as fittest to fine-tune
The harmony of states. Then you'll

Do best to keep in mind the point that 'think'
And 'know' are words that come apart
Most truth-revealingly when any link
Between them's always apt to start

A thought-rebellion as it twists and snaps
Under the strain. If you apply
Yourself you’ll find out the truth-value gaps
That show up where the facts defy

All presentations that would have them square
With thought’s demand, or all the best
State-sponsored tricks and ruses to repair
Those tell-tale cracks. Then every test

For truth that's thinkable as well as borne
Out by appealing to some fact
Or other is the surest way to warn
The populace that what they've lacked

Thus far is means or motive to enquire
Why crooks and fools so often reach
High office. Then they'll see how things conspire
So often as if meant to teach

A crash-course in the need for you to steer
Not only by the guiding lights
Of factual truth but by what first comes clear
When knowledge of that sort unites

With thought's refusal ever to accept
A bad reality as all
There is of truth. It's by that lie we're kept
From seeing how far short they fall,

Those villains of this latter age whose sole
Distinction is to far surpass
All previous contenders for the role
Of most corrupt or else outclass

The Borgias and the Krays in every vice
That flesh is heir to. Still they tend
To fester worst, as Trump and Co. suffice
To show, most often through the blend

Of those twin motives, greed for power and lust
For all its cash-back benefits,
That make the turn to politics a must
For any billionaire whose fortune hits

A satisfaction-ceiling. Then he feels
A growing need to exercise
The kind of power that brooks no vain appeals
To business-law but just relies

On getting cronies into place who’ll fix
The rules through a Supreme Court that’s
Itself so packed with cronies (politics
And wealth checked out: all plutocrats)

That your incumbent Pres need entertain
No fear that rule of law might thwart
His family business in its plans to gain
More wealth with their confirmed support.

Just think of this, then think how much it hurts,
That sense of a reality at odds
Not only with what counts as ‘just deserts’
Or once was deemed to please the gods

But with each latest thought-affront that tells
Us, in reflective mode, that there’s
More to reality than that which spells
Out what’s the case yet hardly bears

Such dwelling on. For if it once became
Your habit to keep well in mind
And each time thinkingly review what shame
Those home-truths of a factual kind

Had brought upon you citizens who let
The perpetrators bring it off,
That veritable coup d'état, and get
Themselves safely in place to scoff

At you poor suckers then the chances are
The thought would either drive you mad
With the injustice of it all or jar
On any remnant faith you had

In their ‘democracy’. Then you’d resolve
To pass from thought to act and strive
To square the two, although this might involve
No end of failures to arrive

At other life-goals that required no loss
Of those life-chances premised on
Your up-to-now unwillingness to cross
A certain line. So you’d have gone

Along with conscience and its sudden urge
To strive at last against the old
Conformist drive that recommends we merge
Our purposes with what we’re sold

As virtue by some gang of thieves installed
In the White House or other seats
Of power world-wide. Time, then, to do what’s called
Thought-crime by them and say it meets

The needs of truth and justice only if
Its counter-push against the pull
Of habit and self-interest’s not a tiff
In thought alone but takes the bull

Straight by the horns and vows to overturn
All those unthinkably bad states
Of factual circumstance. From which you learn
What kind of action best translates

Your outrage into something Marx would count
As truly setting out to change
The world, not spinning ideas that amount
To just one tick-box in the range

Of world-interpretations. These then serve
Most usefully to help deflect
More thought-brigades from working up the nerve
To think with practical effect,

Reject the given, emphasize the rift
Between plain fact and thought’s demand,
And so bring better times within the gift
Of you who seek to understand

More adequately how you’ve all been screwed
By those in power. It’s this that made
So many give up fighting and conclude
That there’s too high a price that’s paid,

By their sort mostly, when the facts confront
A counterfactual realm of hope
Renewed. Let’s grant, you’d better make a blunt
Assessment of how far its scope

For action’s always subject to the check
Of a shrewd reckoning that takes
Due stock of stubborn facts that might just wreck
Its long-term project. Where the stakes

Are highest is where commonsense insists
Most loudly, since with all the force
Of thought repressed, that only fabulists
Or crazed ideologues endorse

The notion that mere mindfulness might bring
A switch of some world-aspect as
It strikes the thinker, then new hopes that spring
In quick response, and then what has

The power of energizing thought and will
To act in their pursuit. So don't
Give up that word 'unthinkable', or drill
Yourself in fact-routines that won't,

Since close-patrolled, allow for thought's revolt
Against contingent evils. Keep
In mind how thinkers sometimes need a jolt
To wake them from the placid sleep

Of reason or of propositions framed
In forms that perfectly accord
With logic’s rule. Thus Aristotle named
Them ‘practical’, those smorgasbord-

Type syllogisms that were rightly classed
Among the licit kinds despite
Their purely formal defects since they passed,
In rational if not in tight-

Linked logical array, from certain facts
About the world to certain ways
In which to view and justify such acts
As follow when we reappraise

The case more thoughtfully. Again, this goes
To make my point: that facts which rank
Below what’s thinkable – concerning those,
Let’s say, who ultimately bank

On moneyed interest and on sheer extent
Of public ignorance to hide
Their guilt – are facts that amplify dissent,
Or should, until the rising tide

Of outrage brings the barrage to a head
Of pressure fit to blow the top
Clean off their lie-machine. If what I’ve said
Strikes you as misconceived, just stop

And think: what might it take to power the jump
Of thought that comes to find it down-
Right flat unthinkable, the fact of Trump
As president, or such a clown,

Crook, liar, narcissist, and imbecile
As placed to launch the nukes and wipe
Us all out should he some day wake and feel
That way inclined. If you’re the type

Who says ‘That’s how things are – just learn to live
With it’, then I’ve no further bone
To pick with you or argument to give,
Beyond what I’ve already shown,

As ample grounds for rising up against
This monster and his entourage
Of conspecifics. But if you’re incensed
To think of it, then let this charge

Your anger-levels up until the stress
Arrives at breaking-point and thus
Makes way for actions that alone express
Thoughts once too painful to discuss.

The corruption of art and culture by corporate capital
Thursday, 18 May 2017 14:21

The corruption of art and culture by corporate capital

Written by

Mike Quille traces the links between corporate sponsorship and the distortion of history and art, in two recent exhibitions.

How do the ruling classes manipulate art and culture to secure political consent for oppression and exploitation? Two exhibitions on the 1917 Revolution in Russia go some way to providing an answer.

Most historians of Russian history in 1917 accept that both the February and October Revolutions in 1917 were both clear improvements on the Tsarist autocracy that preceded them.

Most cultural historians also recognise the explosion of creativity and the widespread democratisation of culture which followed the October Revolution. Art and cultural activities suddenly became exciting, accessible and relevant to many ordinary Russians.

But these are uncomfortable facts for our current rulers, who must crush any hopes for political or cultural progress if they are to stay on top. And there are two ways they can undermine those facts and hopes. One is to construct a biased and misleading narrative which ignores historical evidence and downplays artists’ support for the Revolution. This is the strategy which was followed in the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy, in its openly one-sided and distorted presentation of the politics and art of the Revolution.

The second way is to create a monumental fudge which obscures the real historical and cultural achievements of 1917, through a kind of chaotic eclecticism. This is the strategy followed by the British Library in its current exhibition of ‘a wide range of objects’ and in the mistaken, banal and often meaningless ‘guided tour’ offered by its curator in the Morning Star recently.

Let me take three examples from the curator’s article. The first is this statement:

‘Today, people are not so much concerned about the faults of capitalist society but are trying to find their way through the new challenges of the global world.’

How on earth anyone can write this in the middle of an election campaign in which the Labour Party are quite clearly trying to address the faults of a capitalist society which concern us all, is beyond belief.

The second is the individualistic focus on the ‘personal stories’ of those involved, and reliance on the ‘individual interpretations’ of visitors to the exhibition, rather than providing a broader historically-based understanding of Russian history, which is left for ‘academics to analyse’. Frankly, this is a cop-out, because curatorial practice, including the type of contextual and supporting material supplied, is bound to influence visitors’ perceptions.

It is also disingenuous, because the curators do have a message. They believe that the exhibition ‘can convey a simple idea that violence can only create more violence in response’. This is sloppy and simplistic thinking.

History is full of instances where individuals and classes have violently seized control of commonly held resources, and have been unwilling to give them up peacefully. They have had to be challenged, defeated and restrained by force as well as by peaceful argument, in order that most people can have a fair share of the earth’s resources. Of course peaceful persuasion is best, but what alternative is there to force if that doesn’t work to end exploitation? Would slaves, peasants and serfs have ever been freed without their violent, illegal rebellions?

The ‘violence breeds violence’ message conceals a defeatist political agenda. When the law itself is nothing more than a codification of unjust and oppressive social and economic relationships, it has to be challenged and changed by every means at our disposal.

Coincidentally – or perhaps not so coincidentally – both exhibitions have been sponsored by the Blavatnik Foundation. This foundation is the beneficiary of Britain’s second richest man, Leonard Blavatnik, who made a huge fortune after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the accompanying legalised robbery by private individuals and corporations of the wealth built up by the Russian people since 1917.

So money stolen from the Russian people is used to fund cultural exhibitions which – guess what? – distort the truth about Russian history. That is how dominant classes manipulate art and culture to secure consent for exploitation and oppression.

Have there ever been more obvious examples of the increasing corruption of our cultural institutions by corporate capital, masquerading as philanthropic or charitable foundations? A key demand of any progressive arts and culture policy must now be the complete abolition of private sponsorship of our common culture and heritage.

This article is also published in the Morning Star.

Proletkult banner
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 26 April 2017 21:23

'Culture is not a luxury!': the Proletkult in revolutionary Russia

Written by

 Lynn Mally tells the story of Proletkult, the experimental Soviet artistic institution which was in the vanguard of Russia's cultural revolution in 1917.

Two years after the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, Petrograd, home of the revolution, was a devastated city.  Severe food shortages had prompted the exodus of large parts of the population.  A general opposing the new regime began an assault on the city, bringing his troops to the suburbs.  But this did not stop a respected theater director from holding a lecture series on the history of art in an organization called the Proletkult, even though the audience changed constantly because of military mobilizations.  At the same time, the Proletkult theatre was preparing a performance for the second anniversary of the revolution written by a Red Army soldier.

LM play

Members of the Petrograd drama studio performing a collective reading of Walt Whitman’s poem, “Europe,” in 1918.

Revolutions invariably challenge the cultural foundations of society, whether the participants consciously acknowledge this or not. Many Russian revolutionaries, like their Jacobin predecessors, welcomed the challenge.  They were not willing to limit their goals to the establishment of a new political and social order.  They hoped to create a new cultural order as well.  But how?  All the key elements were open to dispute—the meaning of culture, the revolution’s power to change it, and the consequences that such change would have for the new social order taking shape.

In the early years of the revolution, the Proletkult (an acronym for Proletarian cultural-educational organizations) stood at the center of these debates.  It began just before the October Revolution of 1917, starting as a loose coalition of clubs, factory committees, workers’ theaters, and educational societies.  By 1918 it had expanded into a national movement with a much more ambitious purpose: to define a uniquely proletarian culture that would inform and inspire the new society.  At its peak in 1920 the national leadership claimed some four hundred thousand members, organized in three hundred groups distributed all across Soviet territory. 

The Proletkult’s vocal advocates believed that rapid and radical cultural transformation was crucial to the survival of the revolution.  The leadership also insisted that the state support independent artist, scientific, and social programs that would express the values and principles of the victorious working class.  While skilled artists and intellectuals could help in the process, one of the organization’s core values was autonomous creation.  The ideas about art, science, and daily life should emerge from workers themselves.  Another bedrock principle was institutional autonomy, a demand that would soon put the organization on a collision course with the Communist Party.

LM presidium

First Presidium of the national Proletkult organization, 1918. The poster in the background says “Proletkult.”

Although created by the revolution, the Proletkult drew on preexisting programs designed to educate and inspire the Russian working classes. The most radical was articulated by the Bolshevik intellectual, Alexander Bogdanov, who had been an outspoken opponent of Lenin after the revolution of 1905. He believed that it was essential to educate a proletarian intelligentsia that would be prepared to take over a guiding role once the socialist revolution came.  Bogdanov and his allies formed several small exile schools in Western Europe where they trained gifted workers in science and cultural history.  Several of these students became national Proletkult leaders after the revolution.

Factory committees and unions formed another faction with a large stake in the new organization.  Legalized in the wake of the Revolution of 1905, these workers’ groups quickly became involved in cultural activities.  They sponsored clubs, lecture series, artistic classes, and small theatres.  They also opened up libraries stocked with the Russian classics and socialist literature.  Newspapers and fliers came out of this milieu, where aspiring writers published their first poems filled with imagery about life in the factory.  Groups like these formed a natural base for the new organization.

Participants in adult education classes and open universities also flocked to the Proletkult.  Founded by charity groups and educational societies long before the revolution, these groups offered literacy courses and lectures in science and the arts for a broad audience.  They were staffed by artists and intellectuals sympathetic to mass educational projects.  For them, the Proletkult appeared to be a continuation of their original goals.

LM banner

Created for the first celebration of the October Revolution, the banner reads “Proletkult—Proletarian Creation Guarantees the World Commune.”

The first Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment (or Minister of Culture) was Anatolii Lunacharskii, an ally of Bogdanov.  He gave the Proletkult an independent budget to begin work.  That money went first to the national organization, which set up a rudimentary bureaucracy and started a journal called Proletarian Culture (Proletarskaia kul’tura).  As the new government took over the possessions of the old ruling class, the Proletkult claimed part of the spoils.  When the Soviet government moved to Moscow, the central Proletkult took over a large mansion on the city’s main boulevard.  This process was repeated in the provinces, where local circles occupied public buildings and manor houses for their operations. 

During the years of the Russian Civil War, from 1918-1920, the Proletkult expanded in a chaotic fashion across the country.  Bolshevik power was tenuous, and the shape of the new state hardly fixed.  This contributed to a kind of free-for-all, where local participants decided who would join and what their group would do.  Proletkult organizations drew in seasoned workers, peasants, and office employees. Some directed outreach programs to housewives. The Tula organization even opened a short-lived children’s group, led by a teenager, whose stated aim was to free children from the petty-bourgeois family structure. In its early years the Proletkult was more plebeian than proletarian. 

The organization’s activities were as diverse as the membership.  Several circles were simply renamed people’s universities, where the same teachers continued their classes with little interruption. While some art studios made posters to support the Bolshevik cause in the Civil War, others focused on color theory.  In many literature workshops, participants tried their hands at worker-centered poems and stories, recounting their experiences in the factory.  In others, they learned to recite the Russian classics.  While most music groups attempted to put new, revolutionary words to familiar melodies, a Moscow circle became attached to the musical avant-garde and began to experiment with a seventeen note scale.  Rather than serving as a catalyst for a new revolutionary culture, the Proletkult was a mirror reflecting the heterogeneous cultural world of the early Soviet years. 

This period of exuberant expansion came to an end with the conclusion of the Russian Civil War. With the Bolsheviks now firmly in charge, the central government began a sober evaluation of how best to spend its scarce funds.  The Proletkult was particularly vulnerable. Associated with an opponent of Lenin, it appeared to have oppositional tendencies. Its initial demand for complete independence underscored that view.  Lenin personally took on the organization, denouncing its leadership and its goals.  He chose to focus on the very small part of the organization’s work that tended toward the experimental and avant-garde. All of this was petty bourgeois nonsense, Lenin claimed.

The attack on the Proletkult was part of a massive policy shift by the Communist Party.  The working class was always a small minority in Russia, and the government now had to find a way to reach out to the peasant majority.  The new state program begun in 1921, the New Economic Policy, was designed to do just that.  Organizations like the Proletkult that aimed (at least in theory) to serve the proletariat alone were out of step with the changing direction.  The government slashed the Proletkult’s budget. Any activities that could be accomplished through regular educational channels disappeared from the curriculum.  Groups that operated in areas where there were few or no industrial workers closed. Very quickly the network of hundreds shrunk to a handful.

The Proletkult now had to strike a new direction.  It turned to work in clubs, and focused especially theatrical work as a way of instilling pro-Soviet messages. Ironically some groups that survived tended towards avant-garde experimentation.  That was particularly the case in Moscow, where film director Sergei Eisenstein led theater workshops in Moscow.  The group there also took part in musical experiments, like a concert of factory whistles.  Art circles gave up easel painting and began designing posters, book jackets, and union emblems.  Many other more visible associations claiming to articulate a distinctly proletarian culture sprang up during the 1920s.  They used Lenin’s critique to elbow the Proletkult to the sidelines.

In its reduced form, the Proletkult lasted until 1932.  In that year the government disbanded all independent cultural organizations, particularly those that claimed to represent the proletariat.  Instead it planned large cultural unions and began to formulate an official Soviet aesthetic, “socialist realism.” The new aesthetic was presented as the expressions of a more advanced state of historical development, a move toward a classless society.  The state’s adoption of this new direction turned proletarian culture, supposedly the harbinger of the future, into the culture of the past. Through these new organizations the doctrine of socialist realism would take shape.

“Culture is not a luxury” might serve as the motto of the Proletkult organization.  Participants’ ideas on cultural creation were expansive and participatory, different from the emerging Soviet state program favoring basic education and labor discipline. The Proletkult embodied the euphoric optimism of the early years of the revolution, an optimism that fostered the belief that any cook could run the state, any union could manage the economy, and any worker could write a sonnet. 

Currently, the U.S. government is preparing to rescind funding from local theatres, orchestras, and news outlets that are trying to formulate their own paths to cultural participation. In the UK, the Tory government’s policy of austerity economics, combined with the massively unequal funding for arts and culture in the London area compared to the rest of the country, continue to make the arts and culture generally more and more inaccessible to most of the population. In these reactionary times, Proletkult is a brave and shining example of participatory and emancipatory cultural democracy for working people.

The cultural commons belongs to all of us
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 30 January 2017 16:40

The cultural commons belongs to all of us

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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
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 30 January 2017 15:24

Bread, roses and the cultural commons

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‘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.

Decoding the Culture of Capitalism
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 12 December 2016 16:07

Decoding the Culture of Capitalism

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Nick Wright reviews Neoliberal Culture, edited by Jeremy Gilbert, a challenging collection of essays which exposes the ideological and cultural project behind neoliberalism.

Capitalist realism is a useful concept. It allows an investigation of the ways in which the dominant ideas in contemporary capitalist society possess the power to order the actions and thoughts of working people, even as life and work compels a rejection of those ideas. In exploring this terrain, Neoliberal Culture assembles essays that trace connections between neoliberalism as specific set of ideological and social practices and discrete areas of social life — literary texts and technology, ideologies of consumption and food journalism and pornography and the projection of modes of sexual activity expressive of neoliberal culture. Valuable stuff, and other sections takes us some way towards a fuller critique of contemporary capitalism.

Editor Jeremy Gilbert interrogates Mark Fisher, author of the influential text Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? to map out the ground on which an Anglophone array of cultural theorists consider the relationship between the distinctive features of contemporary capitalism and the cultural practices that characterise it. “The hegemonic field which capitalist realism secures and intensifies is one in which politics has been ‘disappeared’,” Fisher argues. “What capitalist realism consolidates is the idea that we are in the era of the post-political, that the big ideological conflicts are over, and the issues that remain largely concern who is to administer the new consensus.”

The highly provisional nature of such insights is illustrated by the speed at which the politics of capitalist crisis has moved. His suggestion — that the notion of the post-political isn’t just an ideological ruse and that membership of political parties really is declining — is a conclusion subverted by the rapid rise of the new political formations that have emerged in contexts as far apart as the Sanders/Trump polarity in the US, Podemos and its alliance with United Left in Spain and, in Britain, the massive irruption of new forces into Labour politics.

Nevertheless, the problems he identifies must concern the working-class movement and Fisher draws on the experience of Blairism as the paradigmatic example of a “formerly left-wing party surrendering to capitalist realism.” This, he argues, isn’t a wholehearted embrace of neoliberal ideology but rather the acceptance that this is the way of the world, that there is no alternative.

We can argue with some of the terms in which this argument is pitched. Class collaboration, rather than representing a latter-day capitulation to capitalist realism, is itself in the political DNA of social democracy and is, historically, what has distinguished its theoretical apparatus and political practice from an explicitly socialist approach. Indeed, it is precisely social democracy’s failure to challenge the neoliberal narrative — exemplified by Labour’s failure to contest the trope that Britain’s present crisis is due to profligate public spending rather than the salvage of the banking system — that underpins the pervasiveness of the neoliberal mindset.

Cultural studies, as an academic discipline, has gained a reputation for harbouring the notion that the connection between transformations in the economic base of society have nothing but a highly attenuated relationship with developments in the cultural superstructure. In a departure from this tradition, the virtue of this book lies in its scope and in the well-grounded nature of its studies. Paul Gilroy’s examination of the ways in which the aspirational discourses of black entrepreneurship work to capture the imagination is characteristically rich in concrete examples which refer back to religious traditions, transatlantic experiences, musical genres and notions of masculinity.

Paul Patton finds both convergences and ruptures in Foucault’s “critique” of neoliberalism and the liberal and social-democratic theories of US philosopher John Rawls. What emerges is the utility of notions, to preserve monopoly capitalism’s ideological project, of individualised competition in a market economy as the default mechanism for managing and regulating human society.

In a piece given extra relevance by the discourses around Hillary Clinton’s candidature for US president, Angela McRobbie examines the strategies employed by neoliberalism to accommodate the aspirations of contemporary feminism. Another contribution by Jo Littler looks at the ways in which notions of meritocracy serve to obscure economic and social inequalities, while Neal Curtis examines how government, as well as knowledge-producing systems like universities and the media, failed to relate the 2008 market failure of finance capital to the system’s sustaining ideologies.

The value of this collection lies in the attention it pays to concrete manifestations of neoliberalism. The weakness, which cannot solely be placed at the door of cultural studies as a discipline, lies in the inadequacy of critiques of actually existing state monopoly capitalism which do not posit a compelling alternative. Political economy is weakened if it does not enrich our understanding of the cultural and ideological superstructure. The discipline of cultural studies is impoverished if it proceeds without an adequate analysis of the economic formation.

Neoliberal Culture is published by Lawrence and Wishart, £18. This review is also published in the Morning Star.

 

Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship
Monday, 12 December 2016 14:36

Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship

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Nick Wright reviews Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, by Erdmut Wizisla.

The diverse appropriations of Walter Benjamin – the cultural theorist and critic — of his life and work, inevitably bear the marks of Cold War polarities. Liberal sentiment regards his intimacy with Bertolt Brecht as a Stalinist disfiguring of his sensibility. Gerschom Scholem's account has Benjamin more rooted in Jewish metaphysics. The not-so-New Left privileges his connections with the Frankfurt School.

Against these accounts, the great strengths of Erdmut Wizisla’s Benjamin and Brecht The Story of a Friendship rest on his exquisitely detailed scholarship and his irrefutable demonstration that the relationship between the two was not only reciprocal and creative but that it was grounded in a shared world view.

Brecht’s reputation for an unwavering political realism and his unshakable Bolshevism of a distinctive German temper is tamper-proof. Incontestably, it is marxism which anchors his aesthetic.

But Benjamin, who died on the French Spanish border by his own hand — caught between the Nazi tide and the refusal by the Spanish authorities to allow him passage to Lisbon and thus to refuge in the USA - has had the integrity of his ideological standpoint assailed from many directions.

Had Benjamin survived to join Brecht, who returned from exile in the USA to help construct the socialist order, the creative life of the German Democratic Republic would have been further enriched.

Erdmut Wizisla’s studies commenced in the GDR, he gained his doctorate with a study which is the foundation of this intricate and clear-sighted book. He heads the Bertolt Brecht Archive and since 2004 the Walter Benjamin Archives at the Academy of Arts in Berlin and is an honorary professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

The book puts a decisive end to the disputed discourse that marks our understanding of the relationship between the two giants of German culture. Its title bluntly refutes the analysis which derives from the earlier Story of a Friendship by Gershom Scholem. Whereas Scholem rooted his account in what are inevitably subjective reminiscences of his friendship with Benjamin Wizisla contests his view with a detailed account of Brecht and Benjamin’s collaboration which grounds Benjamin’s thinking in their shared politics and materialism as much as their friendship.

Thus, in notes on his Commentary on Poems by Bertolt Brecht Benjamin writes:
“The tradition of the oppressed is of concern to Brecht (Questions from a Worker Who Reads) The tradition of the oppressed is also the decisive factor in his vision of the banned poets. Brecht emphasises the basis, the background, against which ‘great princes of intellect emerge'. In bourgeois representation this background tends to be a uniform grey.”

Benjamin’s writing is marked by an exceptionally wide compass — from a deep engagement with German literature, both high culture and the popular culture of the lower orders — but also the religious and metaphysical elements in Jewish culture, fragmentary features of modern life, dialectics, the effect of montage technique and famously, the impact of mechanical reproduction on art.

The core of the book is a section which sets Benjamin’s eleven essays on Brecht’s work against the political conditions of Germany in the interwar years, drawing strongly on the cultural politics of the German left. More fragmentary evidence is available in the passages which give insights into Brecht’s attitude to Benjamin’s work. It is clear that Brecht gave practical support to Benjamin while their personal relations were deepened by shared exile in Paris and by Brecht’s hospitality in the summers of 1934, 1936 and 1938 at Skovsbostrand in Denmark. Many of the photographs that depict the two men show them playing chess during their shared sojourns.

Wizisla cites both Hannah Arendt and Adorno to support the view that Brecht regarded Benjamin both as “the most important critic of the time” and that he was Brecht’s “best critic”.

The book ends with an assembly of surviving documents that illustrate the exceptionally fruitful collaboration between Benjamin and Brecht with the participation of, among others the film and theatre critic Herbert Ihrering, philosopher Ernst Bloch and Georg Lukács in preparing the ultimately abortive project for a journal Krise und Kritik.(Crisis and criticism).

Wizisla speculates, drawing on recollections by Bloch, that the stimulus for this project may have lain in the formation of the Nazi Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (Struggle League for German Culture). Bloch’s account has as the prospective title Journal of Cultural Bolshevism.

For the specialist Benjamin and Brecht The Story of a Friendship marks a new stage in the evaluation of both the period and the personalities and the passages which bring out the intensity and fraternity entailed in their collaboration are where Wizisla’s method is most fruitful.

Wizisla calculates that in that dangerous period after the German bourgeoisie handed power to Hitler Brecht and Benjamin spent ‘a total of more than eleven months living and working in direct proximity to each other’ — a good part of it in Brecht’s house in Denmark.

This is demanding stuff. Wizisla includes the minutes of their discussions around Krise und Kritik., a valuable source and one which demonstrates the ideological convergences and synergies that result from their collaboration as well as the extraordinarily fertile character of this period in which the changes in political direction entailed in the Communist International’s highly creative response to the realisation that the Nazi regime was no passing phenomenon were reflected and refracted through prism of their shared critical thought.

While marxism’s claim to be a general theory makes it especially attractive to people working in a wide range of specialisms it is sometimes true that specialists tend towards revisionism in relation to their own discipline and dogmatism in relation to the over arching theory. It is here that both what might be termed New Left assumptions about their relationship, and more particularly Scholem’s account, which seem to suggest that Brecht’s ideological fortitude positioned Benjamin as a subject, are subverted.

Because Benjamin’s writings are so fruitful for contemporary cultural theorists — especially those engaged in a critical encounter with modern visual culture and mass media — there is a tendency to read him against contemporary political configurations rather than see him in the context of the thirties. But both Benjamin and Brecht were politically active revolutionary intellectuals in a period when the strategic turn of the world communist movement was critical for the eventual defeat of fascism — and because they were partisans of this strategic reorientation their encounter, and their collaboration, can only be read as symptomatic of their shared politics.

Benjamin’s unwavering realism: "A total absence of illusion about the age and... an unlimited commitment to it" and Brecht’s characteristic fusion of political analysis with dramatic effect both illustrate their shared commitment to the idea, as Benjamin puts it, that': ‘the politically correct tendency includes a literary tendency’.

Such partisanship in cultural production and criticism is unpalatable to some.

For the general reader or for a partisan of the left it is an exemplary demonstration of the dialectical method in biography mobilising, as it does, both a deep understanding of the conjectural factors — political and cultural — that conditioned this friendship and the interplay of their cultural production.

The book draws on a rich assembly of writings, correspondence, texts, ephemera, documentary evidence and recollections. Clarity could be lost in this rich miscellany without Wizisla’s rigorous method — dialectical materialism at work.

The translation, by Elizabeth Shuttleworth, is of great elegance and clarity — not always the case in translations from the German.

Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, by Erdmut Wizisla, ISBN: 9781784781125 Verso £16.99

Consume and create: the cultural policy of the Cuban Revolution
Tuesday, 08 November 2016 15:39

Consume and create: the cultural policy of the Cuban Revolution

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Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt traces the contours of cultural policy in Cuba since the Revolution.

On 26 July 1953, a group of young Cubans attacked two of the army barracks maintained by General Fulgencio Batista, who had retaken the country by force the previous year having earlier served as its elected president. The barracks assault ended in disaster, with many of the insurgents being killed, captured and tortured.

In his defence speech at the trial for his part in the failed attacks, Fidel Castro outlined a political programme which became something of a manifesto for the nascent 26 July Movement. This detailed five revolutionary laws and made reference to massive reforms in land, health and education, underwritten by social justice and an end to corruption. By the time of the first formal manifesto issued by the 26 July Movement in 1955, while Fidel was in exile in Mexico, education had become inextricably bound up with culture, in advocating the ‘Extension of culture, preceded by reform of all methods of teaching, to the furthest corner of the country in such a way that every Cuban has the possibility of developing their mental and physical aptitudes’. At the end of 1956, 82 men set sail for Cuba to wage an armed struggle against Batista’s dictatorship, from the Sierra Maestra mountains, which would last a little over two years.

In the early hours of 1959, Batista boarded a flight to the Dominican Republic and Fidel and his comandantes marched triumphantly upon Havana. Almost immediately, army barracks were turned into schools and those from the peasant population who had fought in the revolutionary war were taught to read and write. Before long, attention began to be paid to culture in the sense of the arts and literature, with a few early ideas coalescing that continue to determine cultural policy in Cuba to this day. The basis of the revolutionary approach is that culture:

• Belongs to everyone (as both spectators and creators) rather than being limited to an elite minority

• Should be detached from the market economy (copyright was revoked from 1967 to 1975, in a bid to provide access to the best of the world’s literature, and grants for artists were implemented from 1961)

• Is a form of social production (with humanity’s happiness as its end product)

• Stimulates not only social but also economic development (by increasing the cultural levels of the population in a country emerging from underdevelopment)

• Promotes revolutionary (and hence critical) thinking

One month after the Revolution triumphed, the National Museum of Fine Arts was reorganised, with a grant for its restoration being made a few months later. Museums and galleries were opened in every municipality, exhibiting artefacts and artworks that had previously been reserved for an elite audience.

Film was understood as an art form in its own right, partly as the result of a close connection between the revolutionary leadership and an influential group of filmmakers. The commissioning of film was initially centred on documentaries that attempted to mediate the pace of change, explaining land and housing reforms. Such educational documentaries soon gave way to more elliptical narrative adventures under the auspices of the Cuban Institute of Cinematic Arts and Industries (ICAIC). The film institute was founded just two months after revolutionary victory on the basis of ideas drawn up in 1954 by Cuba’s filmmakers, including Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Julio García Espinosa and Alfredo Guevara Valdés, the latter of whom would serve as director of ICAIC until his retirement in 2000 (with a hiatus from 1980 to 1991 while he worked for UNESCO).

ICAIC was set up not only to commission films but also to disseminate them, via 616 cinemas, 480 of which were built and restored in fixed locations, the rest of which formed part of a mobile cinema programme, being pulled by lorry, boat or beast around the island, as part of the extension of culture to its furthest corner. Consistent with the idea that culture belongs to everyone, the profit motive has been removed from the film industry, attendance costs have been kept deliberately low and going to the cinema nowadays costs roughly the same price as an egg. At the same time, silk-screen posters, which have consistently been used to promote films, capture their essence in witty and colourful visual aphorisms. In this way, the glamour and reverence that typifies Hollywood film posters has been subverted in the same way as the market economy.

Throughout these formative years, Cuba was the subject of growing hostility from across the Florida Straits. Washington inevitably reacted badly to Cuba nationalising industries in which Americans had a stake, and, in 1960, the US imposed an economic embargo which remains in place. In anticipation of the ideological blockade that was about to fall over the island, Haydée Santamaría Cuadrado – who had taken part in the 1953 barracks attacks – was charged with creating a pan-American cultural house, which became known as Casa de las Américas [House of the Americas]. The idea underwriting this institution was that not everyone on the American continent shared the ideological imperatives of the United States, and Casa de las Américas quickly became a nexus for cultural visitors from throughout Latin America and beyond, many of whom came to serve as jurors on its prestigious literary prize. Visual artists also visited from outside Cuba, donating works to the growing collection and making work in situ.

It is important to mention that cultural policy – the operational principles laid down for culture by the state – did not begin to be formulated in Cuba until after the key cultural institutions had been established. This is typically unconventional, and it is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it meant that the institutions were initially guided only by the general ideas which had been established for culture (listed above), rather than being beholden to any overarching administrative authority. Secondly, the delay in forming cultural policy meant that, when this did happen, there was scope for a more discursive approach.

A key moment for this was the First National Congress of Writers and Artists in August 1961, which, as the name suggests, was organised by the country’s writers and artists rather than being a top-down affair. The commemorative publication for this event featured a slogan that had been devised by writers and artists the previous year, firmly implicating their work in the social justice aims of the Revolution – To Defend the Revolution is to Defend Culture.

At the 1961 congress, an artists’ and writers’ union was formed, and a system of grants was set up to provide living and material costs for artists. In the same year, a literacy campaign was launched which saw quarter of a million mainly young people going into the countryside to teach the peasant population to read and write (ironing out some of the inequalities that persisted between urban and rural areas, which the Revolution was committed to overcoming). Rumour has it that, a few years later, Fidel and Che Guevara were playing golf at a requisitioned country club on the outskirts of Havana, discussing how the momentum of the literacy campaign could be carried over into the cultural field more broadly, and they hit upon the idea of building a world-renowned art school that could provide a creative education to scholarship students from Africa, Asia and Latin America. This led to the construction of the pioneering National Art Schools.

While the National Art Schools provided education to hundreds of professional artists, something even more ambitious was attempted at an amateur level. Tens of thousands of arts teachers, many of whom had taken part in the literacy campaign, were trained to disseminate creative skills to farms, factories and workplaces throughout the island, responding to what Fidel called the transition from spectators to creators. At the heyday of this programme, an estimated one million amateur artists were operating within a population of around six million. This programme continues today, centred on the Casas de Cultura [Houses of Culture] that exist in every town, and anyone can request time off work to attend the National Art Schools for a week of professional training.

The discursive, internationalist ethos of the Revolution reached its peak at the Cultural Congress of Havana in 1968, which brought more than 600 intellectuals together to discuss their role in relation to imperialism and underdevelopment. From the UK, such notable figures as CLR James, Herbert Read, Arnold Wesker and Ralph Miliband travelled to Havana to take part in these discussions, and, in some cases, found themselves lagging behind the revolutionary attitudes towards culture that were being developed there. To take just one example, CLR James argued for the abolition of the category of ‘intellectual’ at the same time as Cuba was working towards the democratisation of education and culture in a bid to ensure that everyone had the right to engage in intellectual labour. More generally, the 1968 congress provided a forum for defining the role of artists and writers in revolutionary situations, positioning intellectual work as the ideological corollary of armed struggle and situating artists and writers as the bridge between the political vanguard and the people.

A few months after the Cultural Congress of Havana, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and the story darkens. Relations between Moscow and Havana had been gradually improving since the missile crisis of 1962 revealed Cuba to be little more than a pawn in the game between the two superpowers. As Cuba was by now officially part of the international communist movement, the revolutionary government could not publicly oppose the invasion, which caused the loss of many international friends.

So far, this account has discussed the ways in which cultural institutions were set up and policy became practice, but it has said little about the various factions that had been united under the revolutionary banner. While the insurrection was being fought in the Sierra Maestra, the commitment of the Popular Socialist Party (PSP) to the mass movement caused it to oppose armed struggle until three months before the triumph of the Revolution. But, although the party played a negligible part in the insurrection, it had been developing ideas throughout the 1950s, with the leading artists, musicians and filmmakers of the day, which sowed the seeds for later cultural policy (notably the film institute).

This meant that, when the Revolution triumphed, it seemed logical to place culture in the hands of the PSP, and, in January 1961, their members were charged with running a new National Council of Culture (CNC), set up to implement the cultural policy of the revolutionary government. This created more than a little consternation in the cultural field, especially among the anti-communist factions of the avant-garde, and gave rise to some very public disputes, most memorably around the cultural supplement Lunes de Revolución, which ceased publication in November 1961.

In 1963–4, a series of heated debates took place around the kind of culture that could and should be made under the auspices of the Revolution. Generalising massively, more orthodox members of the PSP argued against films like La Dolce Vita and in favour of socialist realism while more culturally active party members and non-partisan artists and filmmakers advocated a situation in which all aesthetic tendencies could be pursued within a dialectical process of acceptance and critique. Ultimately, the latter perspective prevailed, but not before considerable disruption.

Returning to the period after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and Cuba’s diminished standing in the international community, we find tensions simmering around a Cuban poet called Heberto Padilla, whose disillusionment with Soviet-derived forms of socialism was reflected in his work. In 1971, Padilla and his wife were arrested on counterrevolutionary grounds. This prompted a letter to Fidel from many foreign intellectuals, including those, such as Jean Paul Sartre, who had previously been supportive of the Revolution. A National Congress of Education, which had been planned for April 1971, hastily had culture added to its remit, and Fidel took the opportunity of his closing speech to castigate the small minority of intellectual traitors who had criticised the Revolution from the comfortable capitals of Paris, London and Rome.

The following five years and more are universally derided – within Cuba and beyond – as the grey period. During this time, intellectuals were persecuted and deprived of money and status. Responsibility for the worst atrocities may be attributed to Luis Pavón Tamayo, a former army officer and lesser poet, who was appointed director of the CNC. In 2001, an attempt to rehabilitate Luis Pavón and his cronies on television triggered a deluge of analysis of the grey years. Central to this, the writer Ambrosio Fornet described how Pavón’s anti-intellectualism led him to denude the country’s established cultural producers of influence over the field in which they operated. Notwithstanding the overall mood of the time, institutions like Casa de las Américas provided a sanctuary for artists committed to the Bolivarian Revolution that had been ignited throughout Latin America.

The grey period officially ended with the opening of the Ministry of Culture in 1976, with the husband of Haydée Santamaría (the former Minister of Education, Armando Hart Dávalos) at its helm, which gradually restored trust between artists, writers and cultural bureaucrats. Pivotal to this development was the first congress of the governing party, which took place in December 1975 and formalised the basis for the Marxist-humanist cultural policy that thrives to this day. The congress sought to establish the most conducive atmosphere for the progress of art and literature. It also relieved artists and writers of any dogmatic expectations and recognised culture as both intrinsically valuable and inherently revolutionary.

Marxist-humanist cultural policy, as it has been uniquely formulated in Cuba, is underwritten by the conviction that those taking up mental labour might emerge from any sector of society. This democratising impulse implies that both passive spectatorship of, and active engagement in, creative production are necessary to human fulfilment. At the same time, the conception of art as a form of social production and of the artist as an integral member of society endures.

 

Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt is the author of To Defend the Revolution is to Defend Culture: The Cultural Policy of the Cuban Revolution (PM Press, 2015).

Tuesday, 11 October 2016 14:41

Defending the freedom of artists

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Andrew Warburton continues his series on art and cultural policy by interviewing Theresa Easton and Pam Foley at Artists’ Union England, the union for visual and applied artists.

Artists’ Union England is a fairly new trade union, launched on May Day 2014, representing visual and applied artists individually in the workplace and collectively at “strategic decision-making events,” according to its website. It received its Certificate of Independence earlier this year, has over 600 members and recommends fair rates of pay for new graduates and more experienced artists. The union was established to address the representational needs of artists who work as sole traders, are often self-employed and who find it difficult to make their voices heard.

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