Chris Guiton develops the theoretical reasoning for the struggle for cultural democracy.
It was refreshing to read David Morgan’s feature ‘Reclaiming the Future’ in the Morning Star. As David and many others recognise, there’s a pressing need for socialists to move beyond an often narrowly defined and reactive anti-austerity agenda and develop a progressive political programme on a broad front which presents a clear alternative to the neoliberal status quo.
In this regard, it’s worth reflecting further on Antonio Gramsci’s profound insight that culture is a key site of political and social struggle and that ruling class ‘hegemony’, the influence the capitalist class has over what counts as knowledge, beliefs and values in our society, is exercised through a range of civil society institutions, including the media, religion and education. This power is not always visible but is tremendously important in the manufacture of consent and conferring of legitimacy on neoliberal ideology.
The explosion of popular culture since Gramsci’s time of writing (the Prison Notebooks were written between 1929 and 1935) has reinforced the significance of his thinking. Corporate-driven popular culture - films, TV, music etc - produces bland, uniform cultural products that encourage passive, docile consumption of their anodyne pleasures; promote an individualised, competitive view of life; and discourage independent, creative, critical thinking.
Historically, there has been a tendency on the Left to under-estimate culture’s political importance. Its significance has either been downplayed, with culture seen as an act of often private and largely passive consumption, or it’s been viewed in instrumental terms as a weapon in the political struggle for socialism. But a more constructive, utopian perspective also exists, based on the understanding that there is a dynamic relationship between the cultural struggle and the political struggle, with socialism, ultimately, viewed as a weapon in the fight for an enriched and democratic human culture.
Building on the work of Gramsci, the Marxist thinker Raymond Williams was keen to promote the concept of a cultural revolution to accompany the economic and political revolutions. He understood this as a ‘long revolution’ leading to socialism through the extension and deepening of cultural and educational democratisation. He sought to articulate the ways in which we might give voice to our lived experiences, currently marginalised by an hegemonic, capitalist narrative. A fully developed campaign for cultural democracy plays a key role here, becoming a mechanism for resistance to and change of the dominant culture in all its manifestations.
Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, Courtauld Institute of Art
Challenging the appropriation and commodification of cultural activities by the ruling class starts from this understanding. The arts can take us into imagined worlds and enable us to understand how others live. They also have the potential to take on a more explicit counter-hegemonic character. Listening to the music of John Coltrane or looking at a painting by Cézanne can provide pleasure as well as help people deal with the alienation and oppression they encounter in their everyday lives. Culture can bring us together in shared, collaborative activities which are enjoyable in their own right. It can also encourage us to think critically, ask challenging questions and participate in the wider world.
At its best, culture not only has the potential to entertain and enlighten us, it can provide a broader canvas on which to understand historic, social and political issues, assert our common humanity against the divisions of class, gender and race caused by capitalism, and inspire radical change in the real world.
Similar benefits potentially flow from other cultural activities such as sport and religion. As well as being satisfying in themselves, they can provide multiple opportunities for social engagement, which reflect the fundamentally social nature of human beings, moral and emotional growth, and encourage a collective commitment to the common good.
One essential step is to reform the education system and replace the current, destructive audit and accountability culture, excessive testing and associated narrowing of the curriculum in our schools with an approach to education which is holistic, provides space for culture, and encourages children to think critically, questioning everything, nurturing enthusiasm for learning and intellectual curiosity.
More broadly, we need to think about ways of facilitating and encouraging grassroots cultural formations and activities. There are some very good examples of people working together at various forms of cultural activity - whether learning to play a musical instrument, paint, write poetry, cook, play football or make films - for enjoyment, education or the value generated by doing things in a social environment. These activities may not be explicitly political, linked to any defined progressive thinking or located in the trade union and labour movement. But by providing platforms for people to share their work and ideas, and by encouraging people to do things socially and collaboratively, they build confidence, promote learning and open the doors to deeper levels of cultural and political engagement.
Think of the explosive anti-establishment energy unleashed by punk in the late 1970s, the DIY cultural ethic at its best. Or the way grassroots fan clubs have sought to challenge corporate control of the bigger football clubs and then gone on to build interest in more explicitly political campaigns against, for example, racism, sexism or homophobia.
The challenge is how to build on these foundations in a way which promotes the potential for all types of art and culture to provide opportunities for the articulation of alternatives to dominant views of society, which breaks down the barriers between ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’ of culture, and which underpins the development of a politics of radical social and political change. Whatever solutions emerge, the process must facilitate and encourage the formation of new collaborative networks at local, regional and national levels which are democratic, participative and empowering.
To return to someone we started with, Gramsci famously said:
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
We are living in very dangerous times as the crisis of capitalism deepens, reactionary forces in society resort to increasingly desperate measures to cling onto power, right-wing extremism is on the rise and the smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party plumbs new depths. We are at a critical juncture in the struggle and it is essential that the labour movement seizes the opportunity to move the political and cultural battle forwards and make the case for a genuine socialist alternative.
For consideration of what a culture policy for the labour movement might look like, see here.
Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt offers a critique of the section in the 2017 Labour Manifesto on Culture for All, and some suggestions for promoting creativity for everyone, to benefit our health, well-being, and our capacity for political thinking and collective working.
The current Labour leadership is characterised by its openness to ideas relevant to national policy. This analysis is offered in a constructive spirit by someone with more than a decade of professional experience in the cultural field and an equivalent history of researching the cultural policy of both late capitalism and Marxist humanism. It begins with an analysis of the Culture for All section of the 2017 manifesto, For the Many Not the Few, before suggesting some additional areas for action.
Culture, which forms the subject of the Culture for All section of the manifesto, is notoriously difficult to define. In 1958, Raymond Williams usefully described culture as both a whole way of life (in the anthropological sense) and the arts and learning (taking specific account of human creativity). The Culture for All section begins:
Britain’s creative industries are the envy of the world, a source of national pride, a driver of inward investment and tourism, and a symbol of the kind of country we are now and aspire to be in the future. As Britain leaves the EU, we will put our world-class creative sector at the heart of our negotiations and future industrial strategy. We need to do more to open up the arts and creative industries to everyone.
The creative industries sit awkwardly with definitions of culture in the public sphere. They are the brainchild of New Labour, and they involve conceptions of creativity as an instrument of wealth generation. While the creative industries may be described as a ‘driver of inward investment and tourism’, it tends to be the arts and learning which are a ‘source of national pride’ and culture in the anthropological sense which provides a ‘symbol of the kind of country we are now and aspire to be in the future’. And, while the creative industries might be placed at the heart of Brexit negotiations and future industrial strategy, this only makes sense for culture conceived in commercial terms. A socialist cultural policy needs to foreground cultural and creative activity aside from the market. The final sentence in this section is a non sequitur, but a vital one: under socialism, the arts and culture should be for everyone as both spectators and creators.
We will introduce a £1 billion Cultural Capital Fund to upgrade our existing cultural and creative infrastructure to be ready for the digital age and invest in creative clusters across the country, based on a similar model to enterprise zones. Administered by the Arts Council, the fund will be available over a five-year period. It will be among the biggest arts infrastructure funds ever, transforming the country’s cultural landscape.
It is admirable that £1bn would be invested in our cultural and creative infrastructure by a Labour government, but why limit it to the digital? It may be that some parts of the infrastructure would benefit from good old-fashioned analogue improvements. A fund like this could begin to enable access to cultural and creative activity in the furthest-flung parts of the country, which would make a substantial contribution to improving the health and wellbeing of the nation (more on this later). By contrast, creative clusters are a largely discredited concept imported from creative industries (creative class, creative cities) rhetoric.
Labour will maintain free entry to museums and invest in our museums and heritage sector. Conservative cuts to the Arts Council and local authorities have created a very tough financial climate for museums, with some closing or reducing their services, and others starting to charge entry fees. The Cultural Capital Fund will have a particular focus on projects that could increase museums’ and galleries’ income and viability.
It is admirable for Labour to ensure that there are no barriers to accessing our cultural patrimony and absolutely correct to highlight the damaging impact of recent governmental cuts. Since Thatcher, cultural organisations have been expected not to rely solely on public subsidy and to supplement diminishing grants with corporate sponsorship or, more recently, private philanthropy. For several years, Arts Council England has taken the generation of external income to be an indicator of success. This will need to be re-examined if we are to attain a properly socialist cultural policy. Added to which, it will be important to recognise the impact of the cuts not only on the museum and gallery sector but also on the many thousands of artists underpinning this sector, who earn an average of £10,000 per year from their work.
Labour will end cuts to local authority budgets to support the provision of libraries, museums and galleries. We will take steps to widen the reach of the Government Art Collection so that more people can enjoy it. We will continue to mark the ongoing centenary of the First World War, and the sacrifice of all those who died during it. Labour remains committed to honouring the role of all who have served our country, including the Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish soldiers who fought for Britain.
It is laudable and necessary for Labour to not only end cuts to local authority budgets but also restore them to their pre-austerity levels, adjusted for inflation. This will have an immediate impact not only on the culture sector but also on the public’s health and wellbeing. Properly funded museums, galleries and libraries need to play a much more active part in the lives of their communities, providing a place for creative activity and social connection and being accountable to their publics. With studies showing that accessing culture leads to longer lives better lived, extending the reach of the Government Art Collection will follow in the footsteps of the British Council collection by touring, and hopefully also continuing to acquire, artworks for the nation. Commemoration of WWI and those who fought in it refers to culture in the anthropological sense, and a socialist cultural policy might focus on peace and reconciliation rather than nationalism.
Our thriving creative sector, from the games industry to fashion, needs a strong pipeline of skilled talent to sustain its growth.
This sentence seems entirely geared to the creative industries. We haven’t yet heard much about the non-commercial arts.
Labour will introduce an arts pupil premium to every primary school in England – a £160 million annual per year boost for schools to invest in projects that will support cultural activities for schools over the longer term. We will put creativity back at the heart of the curriculum, reviewing the EBacc performance measure to make sure arts are not sidelined from secondary education.
Restoring creativity to the curriculum is essential to the future of our culture in the widest sense, but this should not just be a logical consequence of the preceding one-sentence paragraph, supplying a pipeline of skilled ‘talent’ to sustain the growth of the creative industries. Recognition needs to be made of the value of creativity to the physical, cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional development of children and the part played by cultural learning in ironing out the inequalities in educational attainment, employment opportunities and health that arise from poverty. This would best be addressed not only within the curriculum but also in after-school clubs and in the community, which are particularly important for children and young people excluded from school. Generations of children exploring their creativity will give rise to brilliant, unpredictable things.
Labour will launch a creative careers advice campaign in schools to demonstrate the range of careers and opportunities available, and the skills required in the creative industries, from the tech sector to theatre production.
Again, this refers only to the creative industries, specifically the technical areas in which it is possible to forge a career. School advisors would be equally well placed to extol the virtues of creativity in maintaining emotional health and wellbeing through self-expression.
Being a performer is a great career. But too often the culture of low or no pay means it isn’t an option for those without well-off families to support them. We will work with trade unions and employers to agree sector-specific advice and guidelines on pay and employment standards that will make the sector more accessible to all.
With research showing a lack of social mobility in the creative industries, it is appropriate that the class-based nature of a career in the performing arts is acknowledged. With depression being three times higher among professional performers than in the general population, it is also appropriate that the precarious nature of a career in the performing arts is acknowledged. Welcome advice and guidance on pay and employment standards could be extended to the visual arts, in partnership with Artists’ Union England. In recognition of the vast non-commercial arts sector, it would be preferable to see creativity being referred to less as a career (or a lifestyle choice as the Conservatives are wont to do) and more as an activity this is socially useful and remunerated appropriately.
We will improve diversity on and off-screen, working with the film industry and public service and commercial broadcasters to find rapid solutions to improve diversity.
This is another crucial step and one that could be extended into all branches of the arts, particularly at leadership level.
We recognise the serious concern about the ‘value gap’ between producers of creative content and the digital services that profit from its use, and we will work with all sides to review the way that innovators and artists are rewarded for their work in the digital age.
The large number of people engaging creatively through digital means provides a route for broadening the category of ‘innovators and artists’. While it is inappropriate for digital services to profit from this, creative content needn’t necessarily be subjected to commercial considerations.
Music venues play a vital role in supporting the music industry’s infrastructure and ensuring a healthy music industry continues in Britain. Labour will review extending the £1,000 pub relief business rates scheme to small music venues.
It seems sensible not to penalise small music venues through excessive business rates. At the same time, attention needs to be paid to the role of small venues within the wider infrastructure of the music industry and the notion of ‘deferred value’, whereby artists nurtured in small venues go on to achieve widespread popular acclaim. The same principle may be applied to small visual and performing arts venues developing non-commercial work that is taken up by larger, sometimes international, venues and the commercial sector. In such cases, public subsidy might be made more directly than through rates reductions. It is also important to acknowledge that, in a socialist society, culture can thrive at a grassroots level, freed from spurious notions of career progression.
And we will introduce an ‘agent of change’ principle in planning law, to ensure that new housing developments can coexist with existing music venues.
This will need careful consideration to ensure that the arts are not used as a foil for gentrification, which is increasingly being thought of as a form of social cleansing.
We all need to work harder to keep children safe online. Labour will ensure that tech companies are obliged to take measures that further protect children and tackle online abuse. We will ensure that young people understand and are able to easily remove any content they shared on the internet before they turned 18.
This seems prudent and refers to culture in a broad sense. In addition to the thoughts outlined above, there are many areas that could be looked at as part of a socialist cultural policy. A handful of ideas follow, which could be supplemented through widespread consultation in the cultural sector.
Some ideas for consultation
Extended consideration needs to be given to the non-commercial arts, taking account of the hundreds of creative practitioners graduating around the country every year. With the GLA predicting that 30 percent of artists in the capital will lose their workspaces by 2019, attention needs to be paid to studio provision in London and beyond. Grants to cover the cost of materials also need to be thought about, drawing on precedents from the Netherlands to the Nordic countries. If we are to avoid our major cities becoming like San Francisco, where creative communities have been priced out of the major downtown areas, artists’ living costs need to be given careful consideration, possibly leading to their inclusion within the category of key workers eligible for genuinely affordable housing in urban areas at the same time as the housing market is regulated.
There needs to be a restoration of practitioner expertise to Arts Council England, with the grant-giving process benefiting from peer review, and there needs to be an end to public-sector subsidy of the art market through grants to commercial operations and through interest-free loans to collectors.
Creativity can: stimulate imagination and reflection; encourage dialogue with the deeper self and enable expression; change perspectives; contribute to the construction of identity; provoke cathartic release; provide a place of safety and freedom from judgement; increase control over life circumstances; inspire change and growth; engender a sense of belonging; prompt political thinking and collective working. In socialist society, the aspiration must be that everyone has access to their own creativity. There is a long and proud history of community arts in this country. This history should be built upon, with Arts Council England supporting the relevant organisations and local authorities being encouraged to make space and resources available to ensure that creative activity is both available and accessible in urban and rural locations.
From James Bond to Benefits Street, film and television reflect the values of a society. While governments are understandably reluctant to entangle themselves in the prescription or proscription of creative content, a new initiative is needed that could oversee productions which expose iniquities and offer an alternative vision. This could range from serialisation of literary works such as The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to commissioning biopics about great revolutionaries and social reformers. Documentaries, such as Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle (2017), or artists’ films, such as Estate, A Reverie (2015), could be broadcast on national television. Ken Loach, a staunch supporter of the current Labour leadership, could be consulted on this initiative.
A wealth of evidence demonstrates the beneficial impact of creative and cultural activity on the conditions in which we are born, grow, work, live, age and die (the so-called social determinants of health). The arts and culture can make a signification contribution to tackling the social determinants of health by influencing perinatal mental health and childhood development; shaping educational and employment opportunities and tackling chronic distress; enabling self-expression and empowerment and overcoming social isolation. By making health and wellbeing a cross-governmental priority (as has been done in Scotland and Wales), policy in all areas could be orientated towards the elimination of health inequalities, with culture playing its part.
Campesinos creating folk art: detail from Rivera's Pan American Unity mural, 1940. Both photos courtesy of Mark Vallen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Derek Wall introduces the life and work of Raymond Williams, and presents a review of a recent book about his politics and writings.
Raymond Williams, born in Pandy in Monmouthshire in 1921, was a working class Welshman who became one of Britain's greatest socialist intellectuals. A grammar school boy he read English at Cambridge, became a professor and wrote a series of books on Marxism and culture. He sold 750,000 copies of books like Culture and Society, Keywords, The Long Revolution and Marxism and Literature. He has shaped the left we have today. Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood likes to quote Williams' description of what it means to be politically engaged on the left: 'To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing'.
Green Party leader Natalie Bennett gave the Raymond Williams Foundation lecture in 2015. Jeremy Corbyn also seems to sound a lot like Raymond Williams, with his desire for a democratic, ecological and deep seated socialism.
Williams is best known for his work on culture. He argued that culture is ordinary and not elite, calling for a democratic approach to the arts. His most important piece of writing is in fact entitled 'Culture is Ordinary' published in 1958, remains worth reading today in the 21st century. 'Culture is Ordinary' is part a critique of T.S.Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. The poet famous for both The Wasteland and the musical Cats was interested in how we understand this slippery word and its wide implications. Notes Towards the Definition of Culture has some strengths. Eliot sees culture as a wide and multiple concepts including both artistic achievement and a description of a whole way of life. His examples of British culture are rather charming ranging from cheese to sporting events:
Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.
However, Eliot pursues a right wing elitist perspective. He argues that culture can be high or low, that only a minority fully engage with high culture, that culture is essential to prevent social disintegration. Ultimately only a kind of cultural elite can preserve and maintain the culture necessary for a civilised society to exist.
Raymond Williams in contrast argues that although distinctions are possible, citing the excesses of the media which even before tabloids like the Sun was crude and prejudice, culture is not the preserve of a tiny minority. In 'Culture is Ordinary' Williams argues that, 'An interest in learning or the arts is simple, pleasant and natural.'
Williams further noted that by becoming a student at Cambridge he didn't lose the working class Welsh culture that he had been brought up with. However, he had come to look at culture using two sets of academic perspectives. At Cambridge he became a follow of two cultural prophets, Karl Marx and the literary critic F.R.Leavis. He attended Leavis' lectures and was deeply influenced by him.
Leavis taught that literature was important because of its moral effects and its impact on everyday life. Williams agreed with him that formal artistic culture, such as a novel or poem or song, rather than being separate object was influenced by and influenced wider social life. Williams concept of the 'structure of feelings' also seems inspired by Leavis. However, Leavis was a cultural pessimist and, like Eliot, an elitist. He feared that culture was debased by industrial society, and feared the effect of mass American culture.
Williams learnt a lot from the Cambridge Marxists, but also came to reject some of their cultural analyses. He noted that the Marxists taught him several things: 'First, they said that a culture must be finally intrepreted in relation to its underlying system of production.'
Thus culture was if not totally determined by production was however strongly influenced by economics. A capitalist society shapes us with a capitalist culture. Also, the Marxists argued that education and access to culture was restricted by social class. Williams noted that with his working class background he was keenly aware that access to education was restricted. However, Williams also thought that Cambridge Marxism was also – paradoxically - elitist. While class and capitalism shaped culture, he thought there was also an independent and potentially resistant working class culture. Workers did not simply absorb capitalist norms, but created their own meanings. Williams also saw the Marxism of the 1930s as too prescriptive and dogmatic.
Williams took from the Marxism of his student days an assumption that culture was bound up with economics and class. He developed the concept of cultural materialism, arguing that culture had a material effect. He also argued that Marxism can be prescriptive about any form of culture, and argued that as well as socialism requiring the collective ownership of production, it also need collective, rather than elite, ownership of the means of communication. Diversity and real democracy were necessary for a vibrant socialist culture. State ownership was not sufficient, and one group's perception of the meaning of culture would always be restrictive.
Towards the end of his life he argued that new electronic communication would transfer culture. Raymond Williams is an important thinker if we seek a socialist culture and we defend the idea that culture is ordinary by which he meant culture was for all of us not simply an elite. Those of us on the left should study is words with care: culture helps shape society, so we need to learn how to shape culture.
Book review of Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review, by Raymond Williams, Verso, London, 2015.
Raymond Williams (1921-1988) was a self-described ‘Welsh European’, whose academic work as a literary theorist and activism, as variously a member of the Communist Party, Labour Party and Plaid Cymru, shaped the post-World War II British left. This recently reissued book provides a survey of Raymond Williams’ life and works. It is a novel and exciting project. Raymond Williams was interviewed about each of his most important books as well as his early biography and political essays. His opinions are subjected to detailed critique with a special attention from the interviewers on contradictions and silences in his work. This makes fascinating but often somewhat brutal reading.
Both the form and the content of this collection of interviews with the New Left Review (NLR) mark this as an important volume. Williams saw the book as a new and disturbing piece of literature. Three members of the NLR editorial board subjected Williams’ work to detailed scrutiny. Many of his major books and significant essays are examined. Such analysis was perhaps especially rigorous because the NLR editors knew his work in some detail, and believed his contributions were essential to the construction of Marxism in a UK context.
It is common to subject thinkers we disagree with to criticism, how much more painful but instructive to examine those with whom we sympathize with sharp analytical tools. Williams seems to have been plunged into personal crisis by taking part in the volume which, running to over 400 pages, took several months of interviews to complete. While this form may have been difficult for Williams, at times, it is an excellent overview of his work up until 1980 and provides a model for critical materialist scholarship. It would be good to see this form extend to other thinkers; it produces impressive results.
The contents, as well as the form, have considerable merit. A major intellectual figure from the 1950s to his death in 1988, Williams often seems forgotten, and even at his height of popularity seems to have been largely unnoticed outside the UK. There are a number of reasons why his considerable output remains important nearly thirty years after his death.
He challenged the Marxism that he encountered in the 1940s, as naïve, and embarked on a quest to make Marxist ideas both more sophisticated and accessible. While Britain is seen as distant from varied forms of Western Marxism some of the questions examined by thinkers as varied as Sartre, Althusser, Gramsci and the Frankfurt School were also addressed by Williams.
Equally, his experience as a working class socialist who gained access to an elite academic institution are instructive. He can be seen as a key thinker in the development of ecosocialism. His essay ‘Ecology and Socialism’ helped inspire socialists to embrace an ecological dimension in their politics and for greens to look to a socialist commitment in their environmental analysis.
The early chapters of the book, which are biographical, are perhaps the least challenging but most enjoyable. Raymond Williams discusses how he was born the son of a railway signalman in the Welsh border town of Pandy in Monmouth. He shone at grammar school. Without his knowledge, his headmaster and father successfully applied for him to read English at Cambridge. His father was an active member of the Labour Party and memories of the 1926 General Strike were strong in Williams’ community as he grew up. His left wing commitment deepened at Cambridge and he joined the Communist Party. He wrote Communist Party pamphlets with Eric Hobsbawm but drifted out of the party. During the Second World War he joined an anti-tank unit and fought in Normandy. His intellectual trajectory saw him developing theoretical insights from the literary critic F.R. Leavis as well as Marx and Engels.
The early chapters provide some of Williams' most charming and vibrant prose, but the remainder of the book is more instructive and, for Williams, often challenging. He was, for much of the postwar period, Britain's key left wing intellectual. He sold hundreds of thousands of books, which given their theoretical nature is impressive, and he appeared in numerous BBC television programmes.
His contention that 'culture is ordinary' was used to challenge elitist notions of culture, specifically T.S. Eliot’s notion that a kind of secular priesthood was needed to protect and promote culture. Williams engaged with Western Marxist approaches to literature and language, helping to introduce thinkers such as Gramsci, Althusser and Lucien Goldman to British audiences. His work helped promote the creation of a Marxist influenced form of cultural studies in the UK.
Raymond Williams is most important as a thinker who intervened and challenged both elite literary theory and the often simplistic and deterministic form of Marxism that dominated in the 1940s and 1950s. The suggestion in Politics and Letters is that, despite this, he was not always a rigorous and consistent theorist.
His first major work Culture and Society, published in 1958, is treated to extensive discussion in Politics and Letters. As far as I can tell Culture and Society argues that culture, rather than being ‘organic’ and fixed, is a product of social change. Williams describes the output of a number of key English commentators on culture from around 18th century onwards with an emphasis on the influence of the industrial revolution. Williams moves from Burke via William Blake to Carlyle and Arnold on to the interesting Marxist literary theorist Christopher Caudwell.
The barrage begins. Williams’ interviewers argued that he provides too little criticism of right wing thinkers under examination such as Edmund Burke, who was motivated by antipathy to the French Revolution. They also hint that Williams is too Anglocentric in the book, even failing to discuss the contribution of Marx and Engels who, of course, lived in exile in Britain during the period under study.
The interviews continue with Williams defending his political engagement during the writing of the book and agreeing with some of the critical points made by the NLR editors. He notes defensively but rather pleasingly that: ‘You have to remember that I read my own books too, and that in a competition for critical readers. I shall at least be in the final list.’ (106).
This dialogue is reflected through much of the remainder of Politics and Letters. Williams often seems better on intervention than sustained analysis, which is surely a strength. For example, despite the supposed weaknesses of Culture and Society, it was a largely successful intervention that challenged the notion of an elite culture. From his early employment with the Workers Education Association to his broadcasts with the BBC, Williams promoted an approach to culture that sought to build diversity and democracy.
I also feel that, while there is a small Raymond Williams industry, his approach can be seen as a contribution to a wider network of scholarship. On the left when we speak of a particular thinker, say Marx or Brecht, we import a form of methodological individualism. But intellectual production is a collective endeavour with key thinkers acting perhaps as nodes rather than unique originators. Perhaps one of Williams’ most important contributions to challenging this notion of an individual intellectual was his book Keywords, where he introduces a method that promotes a collective endeavour to research and understand, moving us beyond an author alone.
In Keywords Williams showed that words, rather than having an essential meaning, are subject to often dramatic change. One is reminded of the Russian theorist Bakhtin’s notion that the class struggle extends to the interpretation of individual words and that meaning is dialogic and polysemic. The interviewers in Politics and Letters, of course, take a sharp line, looking at contradictions and silences in Keywords. However, they acknowledge Keywords as a vital contribution, noting:
The intellectual effect of the kind of work initiated by Keywords could be regarded as akin to that of the Marxist critique of political economy – the demonstration that ideas and categories which are deemed universal and timeless are in fact eminently changeable and timebound. […] Your strategy in Keywords is to register the changes of meaning across a whole vocabulary very pointedly indeed.
Amongst Williams’ numerous works, The City and the Country is a key text for those of us on the ecosocialist left. In it, Williams develops his ideas about nature and culture, making way for his green political orientation in his essay 'Ecology and Socialism’. The City and the Country shows that ideas of nature and environment often fail to reflect the social construction of ecological concepts and issues.
The last section of the book deals with Williams’ political essays. These could be seen as marking a successful hegemonic project, a new left thinking that has become, at least in the UK, a left common sense, to some extent. Williams dominates political discourse on the left even though his name may be forgotten. The socialist and feminist leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood, quotes Williams. The current leader of the Green Party of England and Wales gave an annual Raymond Williams Foundation lecture in 2015. The Communist Party of Britain seems closer to Raymond Williams’ approach, with formulations that link culture to class politics. This website, Culture Matters, seems also to be very much in the Williams mould. I have no idea if the new and most left-wing leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, reads Williams, but he often sounds as if he does.
Williams seems to reject both a mechanistic Marxist politics that rejects culture, and culturalist politics that forgets class and economics. While the English Marxist historian E.P.Thompson critiqued Williams’ work as being too culturalist, Williams, towards the end of his life, defined himself once again as a Marxist. Williams also puts emphasis on a democratic and participatory form of left politics. Williams was, as noted, a keen early advocate of an ecological dimension to socialism.
During the 1980s the Communist Party of Great Britain was torn apart by a conflict between Eurocommunists and more traditional members, with the Party eventually dissolving in 1991. Supporters of the Morning Star newspaper then relaunched the present Communist Party of Britain. The Communist Party has had a strong intellectual influence on the wider UK left.
Williams was not a participant in the conflict within the CPGB in the 1980s, having left the Party during the Second World War. However, his work provides an insight into the conflict. Like the Eurocommunists, Raymond Williams stressed the need to engage with culture and new social movements, although he was keen that such engagements did not replace working class solidarity and activism.
In summary, this pioneering book shows that his thinking was neither consistently rigorous or original, but that he helped challenge both a particular form of rigid Marxism and an elitist approach to culture. In doing so he opened up ideological space for the British left in 2016, which in its diversity notes both class politics and ecology as well as the importance of structural change in ownership, and includes debates around identity and intersectionality. Raymond Williams contributed to some vital changes in the left political landscape in Wales and England, and we can still gain from close study of his words.
Part Two of this article is an edited version of a review first published in Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, www.marxandphilosophy.org.uk.