Bring the Rising Home! Poems by Mike Jenkins, with paintings by Gustavius Payne
£9 (plus £1.50 p&p) ISBN 978-1-907464-22-5.
Culture Matters has published a new collection of poetry by the Welsh socialist poet Mike Jenkins. The poems are accompanied by full colour paintings by Gustavius Payne.
In May 1831, miners and others took to the streets of Merthyr Tydfil, protesting against wage cuts and unemployment generally. The protest spread and soon the whole area was in rebellion – the red flag was flown as a symbol of workers' revolt for the first time. The social and economic conditions which sparked the Merthyr Rising are never far from Mike Jenkins’s poetic imagination, but there are also poems here about drunks, jailbirds, footballers, a mining disaster, and Northern Ireland.
Weaving through both poems and images are themes of individual isolation and alienation, and the urgent need for collective action to change the conditions of working people. Mike Jenkins’s vivid, lyrical poems are accompanied by full colour paintings by the Welsh socialist painter Gustavius Payne, whose bold, striking, and deeply sympathetic paintings complement the poems perfectly.
The message is clear: isolated, people are powerless, but together they are strong. They need to organise into trade unions, join a socialist party and challenge the ruling class. Here is a poetic and painterly union of two socialist Welsh artists who, in their own brilliant, artistic way, are bringing the Rising home.
This section of Culture Matters is about architecture, including its role in shaping our collective future. Chris Guiton offers a foundation essay on achitecture and socialism.
Architecture is an expression and a reflection of human society. It has evolved over human history in response to our changing needs, innovation in building technology and design, and changes in the way we view the world around us. Part response to society’s functional needs and part creative expression, it offers the scope to shape our environment for either better or worse.
The practice of architecture provides us with a built environment where buildings function as places of work, as homes and as public spaces. The need for shelter from the elements in early human society took on greater significance as nomadic existence was replaced by a more settled, urban society. The simple requirement for shelter evolved into something that might be a place of work as well as a home, with different rooms developing specialist functions, and where people developed relationships with their family and community.
Hagia Sophia Church
We can trace architecture’s lineaments through human history as it provides us with a way of looking at and understanding the past. Monumental structures such as the Giza pyramids, the Parthenon, Athens, the Hagia Sophia basilica and mosque in Istanbul, Il Duomo in Florence, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Chrysler Building in New York all tell a story about the economic and social forces that produced them. And about how that society wished to project its image into the future. This process is also represented in the more ordinary dwellings that were built for people and work, as well as in the public spaces and infrastructure that underpinned the development of cities, and in the very design and layout of those urban spaces.
As a profession, architecture has provided many socialists and progressives with the opportunity to help construct a better future. William Morris, the great designer, novelist and socialist activist, was very conscious of the role of architecture in society. As he put it: "the untouched surface of ancient architecture bears witness to the development of man's ideas, to the continuity of history, and, so doing, affords never-ceasing instruction, nay education, to the passing generations, not only telling us what were the aspirations of men passed away, but also what we may hope for in the time to come."
He appreciated the importance of simple beauty in things, where architecture was an expression of handicraft as well as “a work of cooperation. The very designer, be he never so original, pays his debt to this necessity in being in some form or another under the influence of tradition; dead men guide his hand even when he forgets that they ever existed. But, furthermore, he must get his ideas carried out by other men; no man can build a building with his own hands”. In other words, it isn’t just about the building of a house, but also, at a fundamental level, about the act of construction itself.
The German architect Walter Gropius, inspired by William Morris, but also by the emerging modernism school, established the Bauhaus in Weimar in Germany in 1919. The movement was hugely influential on modern design, with its simplified forms, harmony between an object or building’s function and its design, and focus on mass production. During its relatively short ascendency it produced some remarkable housing, schools and other buildings. Gropius, claimed it was apolitical but also said that his aim was to "to create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist."
His Marxist successor, Hannes Meyer, felt that the Bauhaus had lost its purpose and sought to move away from aesthetic considerations towards building designs based on the “life processes” of its future users. His new slogan was: “The people’s needs instead of the need for luxury!” Unfortunately, his politics led to his expulsion and he moved to the Soviet Union, but not before he had designed (with Hans Wittwer) one of the finest examples of functional architecture, the school of the ADGB (Federation of German Trade Unions) in Bernau near Berlin.
Less well known internationally, but no less significant, was the Vkhutemas, the Russian state art and technical school founded by Lenin in 1920. Both it and the Bauhaus were remarkably similar in their focus on modernising design and architectural education to reflect modern needs, under state sponsorship, merging craft traditions with modern technology. Unsurprisingly, the major artistic influences on the Vkhutemas were the constructivist and suprematist movements. Vladimir Tatlin's superb Monument to the Third International is a testament to their vision, with its futuristic ethos and revolutionary symbolism setting the tone for later projects.
Tatlin, Monument to the Third International
In the USSR, the ideological drive to forge a new socialist society, allied with rapid industrial development and accompanying migration from the countryside to the cities, combined to create a synthesis between radical art and architecture. The Constructivist movement created a number of highly innovative, large-scale housing developments, public buildings, leisure facilities and power stations, which were designed to create new forms of communal living, with shared spaces for eating and recreation.
A classic example is the Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow, built in 1930, which actually combined self-contained flats and integrated shared living spaces, reflecting the transitional nature of the times. It’s astonishing to reflect on how Constructivist architects created a new visual language in the face of material shortages, under-developed technology and a rapidly evolving political environment. Eventually, Constuctivism and similar experiments were abandoned when they were considered too advanced for the conditions that prevailed at the time. But this shouldn’t detract from the very real sense of energy and innovation that these movements expressed.
ADGB Trade Union School
What became known as Modernism synthesised many of these traditions at an international level and is the single most important new approach to architecture and design of the 20th century. It offered an analytical approach to function, innovation in structure and the elimination of ornament. It has produced many visually striking, and diverse, buildings, ranging from Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, beautifully integrated with the surrounding forest; Mies van der Rohe’s wonderful Barcelona Pavilion; Oscar Niemeyer’s futuristic civic buildings in Brasilia, which aimed to contribute to a new sense of collective identity and hope for the Brazilian people; Le Corbusier's government buildings in Chandigarh, India; the artistic complex developed over two decades on the south bank of the Thames, the Royal Festival Hall, Hayward Gallery and National Theatre; and Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton’s delightful Penguin Pool, London Zoo.
But if these buildings were realised in capitalist societies, what might architecture look like in a future socialist or communist society? Karl Marx was part of a western European cultural tradition which reflected a general optimism in the future of mankind, a belief in progress and the scope to build a better world. However, he said little about the actual shape such a society would take. He did not offer a coherent theory of architecture. But his writings reflect his understanding of the relationship between the country and the city and the effects of industrial urbanisation:
It [the bourgeoisie] has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put into the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades. The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society…The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cites, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and thus rescued a considerable part of the population from rural idiocy. - The Communist Manifesto.
The development of human society is inextricably linked with the development of the built environment. Walter Benjamin famously wrote in the The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: "Buildings have been man’s companions since primeval times. Many art forms have developed and perished . . . [But] architecture has never been idle. Its history is more ancient than that of any art, and its claim to being a living force has significance in every attempt to comprehend the relationship of the masses to art."
In one his conversations with Brecht, Benjamin said, “As a system of connectivity, the metropolis is formed by a boundless maze of indirect relationships, complex mutual dependencies and compartmentations.” The individual’s dialectical relationship with the society around him means that we have to understand modernism, and subsequent developments in architecture, not just in terms of the emergent materials and technologies which enable new forms of architectural expression, for example, reinforced concrete, steel frames and strengthened glass, but also with regard to the rapid urbanisation of populations across the world, which is one of the driving forces of capitalism. This suggest that architects have a clear responsibility to consider how the performance of their role impacts upon the structure and operation of future society.
In his Memoirs, Oscar Niemeyer, a key figure in modern architecture and a lifelong member of the Brazilian Communist Party, said, “Our concern is political too – to change the world...Architecture is my work, and I've spent my whole life at a drawing board, but life is more important than architecture. What matters is to improve human beings." The string of major works he produced over a long and productive life demonstrate how a progressive political vision can be combined with architectural boldness and radical urban planning.
We all have a fundamental right to urban spaces that work for our interests rather than against them. This includes efficient and low cost public transport; access to decent schools and hospitals; plenty of public spaces for recreation; effective distribution of good quality food and other necessaries; andaffordable, good quality housing. To deliver this means taking control over our lives, reclaiming cities for ourselves and implementing radical political changes which enable ordinary people to influence the shape of their urban environment.
This battle for ‘urban space’ is, of course, itself a product of economic and historical circumstances. Self-evidently, this is a class struggle as working class communities find themselves pitched against rapacious landlords and developers. Well-intentioned but often authoritarian and paternalistic attempts to clear slums and create model communities bump up against working class communities’ fight to assert their democratic rights and define urban space according to their needs. The continual search for profit and the capture of land value leads to ‘social cleansing’ as lower income communities are forced out of cities by the ongoing process of capital accumulation. Cities are explicitly redesigned in response to the threat of revolution, as in the rebuilding of Paris by Haussmann, or according to the demands of planners, bureaucrats and architects representing the interests of capital.
Marxist intellectuals and geographers such as Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey, have made a significant contribution to the discussion of the relationship between capitalism and urban space. Lefebvre coined the term, ‘the right to the city’ in 1968. He summarised it as a "demand...[for] a transformed and renewed access to urban life", where people exercise collective power to re-shape the very process of urbanisation in a way that underpins self-determination, the appropriation of social and physical spaces and the establishment of meaningful social relationships. For Lefebvre there was a dialectical relationship between urban reality and everyday activity (eg work, leisure, education and housing). By contrast with what are sometimes considered to be rather cold, modernist urban visions represented by architects and urban planners like Le Corbusier, his thinking offers a bottom-up approach based on the lived experiences of individuals which offers some useful pointers for the way forwards. As David Cunningham and Jon Goodbun say in ‘’Marx, architecture and modernity’:
It is useful, therefore, to consider briefly what might be described as the three distinct tasks placed upon architectural knowledge in capitalist modernity. The first is to act as technicians of spatial development. Under capitalism, this is primarily the task of commodifying space. This is what the vast majority of architects spend the vast majority of their time involved in. The second task is a ‘poetic’ or artistic one, and is to do with somehow dealing with, expressing, intensifying or ameliorating the spatial experience of modernity. The third task is an utopian or avant-garde one, and is to do with imagining alternative socio-spatial futures. Although all three are always present in each other to some degree, there have been moments in the struggle over social space and its modes of production where the third task, imagining alternative socio-spatial futures, becomes an urgent part of defining the first task—the work to be done by everyday technicians of spatial development.
In a nutshell, aesthetics married to functionality has to be the cornerstone of a future architecture, where building for human needs and use, in harmony with the earth and not for profit, is the main objective. So, as we seek to advance the struggle for socialism, this leaves us with the following questions. How does architecture respond to global challenges such as population growth, climate change, growing inequality and environmental degradation? How can it embrace social activism and help tackle poverty in the urban environment? How do we ensure that it is not misused by the wealthy and the powerful to erect structures unrelated to the built environment and the social needs of the community as they seek to build monuments, and create icons, to their power?
We hope this article will stimulate further articles on architecture and socialism.
Chris Guiton presents a foundation essay for the education section, sketching out some of the links between education, culture and capitalism.
The purpose of this introductory article is to sketch out the background to some issues around links between education and the general ‘cultural struggle’ which Culture Matters is aiming to support and promote. Education is itself a cultural activity, and is also the main gateway for most people to engage with art and cultural activities, and so education and culture are inextricably linked in the struggle for a better world.
Most people recognise that education plays a crucial role in society, providing people with the skills they need to understand and navigate the world around them as they grow and develop, constructing knowledge in a social context. As John Dewey, the 19th century American progressive educationalist put it, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” But while education can be viewed as a force for positive social change, which encourages children to think critically and challenge authority, it can also be a mechanism for reinforcing the prevailing ideology and strengthening the capitalist status quo. And this is where things start to get interesting.
Mainstream pedagogues (educational theorists who look at the method and practice of teaching) have traditionally taken a ‘functionalist’ view of education, arguing that it performs a number of important functions: promoting social solidarity, encouraging cooperation and developing essential skills such as literacy and numeracy. Progressive and Marxist pedagogues, on the other hand, refute the functionalist view that industrial capitalist societies are meritocracies and that an individual’s position in society is based on talent and hard work. The central challenge articulated by progressive pedagogues for many years is how to make education relevant to everyone, not just a select minority and, how to give it a critical and emancipatory quality that contributes to overturning capitalism, ending exploitation and developing a fairer world.
Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist and one of the leading ‘functionalists’, considered the major function of education as the transmission of society’s core norms and values, binding individual members of society together, creating social unity and using the hierarchies and rules that exist within schools (seen as society in miniature) to encourage conformity and train people to fulfil particular roles in the workplace. Developing this functionalist perspective, Talcott Parsons, an American sociologist, believed that schools act as a bridge between the family and society, representing the main agency of socialisation, preparing children for the adult world and underpinning the division of labour. He argued that schools operate on meritocratic principles, based on equality of opportunity, and where people are rewarded by society for their hard work.
This belief fails to tackle the criticism that the values of an education system are those of the ruling elite, or that equality of opportunity is an illusion in an unequal society where wealth and privilege, and access to education, are more important than individual merit. Karl Marx pointed out in The German Ideology:
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.
Ideas are presented as universal, politically neutral concepts when in fact they represent the interests of the ruling class. Marx explained that “each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, simply in order to achieve its aims, to represent its interest as the common interest of all members of society i.e. to give its ideas the form of universality and to represent them as the only rational and universally valid ones”. Concepts such as ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘liberty’ are defined and deployed by politicians and the media as if they are uncontentious and common-sense expressions rather than ideological constructs which serve particular social interests and which are designed to support the current political order.
There was, of course, no universal state education when Marx was writing. To understand how education can be used for reactionary ends, it’s helpful to look at later Marxist thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci who coined the phrase ‘cultural hegemony’ to describe the influence the ruling class has over what counts as knowledge. He understood that culture is a key site of political and social struggle and that this hegemony is exercised through a range of civil society institutions, including the media, religion and education, using them to ‘manufacture consent’ and confer legitimacy on the status quo. For Gramsci, education is not part of a conspiracy by the ruling class but one way in which what we count as knowledge is socially constructed.
Its power lies in its invisibility. The ideology of democracy and liberty, along with beliefs about individual freedom, the role of free markets and competition under capitalism are generated historically by the mode of production through the agency of the dominant class. The dominant class controls the subject class not with force but with ideas, concealing the true source of their power and the nature of the exploitation.
A very visible example of this is seen in Britain and other countries today, with the significant shift of political gravity to the right since the 1970s as neo-liberalism, with its evocation of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ and assault on the state, public services and collective provision, became the dominant ideology. As we know to our cost, even social democratic parties lost theirraison d'être and subscribed to the new faith in the individual, markets and privatisation. As a result, we are now faced with the spectacle of working class voters not only deserting the Labour Party because it lost sight of working class interests, but failing to recognise the leftward shift represented by Jeremy Corbyn’s election as party leader. A poisonous combination of internal and external challenges are preventing the message getting across, including: a nakedly hostile media; damaging attacks by the Blairite undead; growing voter apathy; and the disjunction at an individual level between immediate, personal concerns and broader, public concerns which inhibits understanding of the fundamental source of their exploitation. If ever, we needed a Gramscian ‘war of position’ to develop a counter-hegemonic challenge to the neo-liberal status quo, it is now!
Adding his own perspective on how ideological control functions, Louis Althusser, the Marxist philosopher, viewed state education as part of what he called the broader ‘Ideological State Apparatus’ designed to convey the ideology of the ruling class. In this instance, the aim was to socialise working class children into accepting their subordinate status in capitalist society and produce an efficient and obedient work force, submissive to authority.
In their study, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life, which is equally applicable to the British context, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis built on Althusser’s ideas and argued that, “Work casts a long shadow over the education system; education is subservient to the needs of those who control the workforce, the owners of the factors of production.” They believed this happened through the operation of the ‘hidden curriculum’ in schools, which, by replicating the world of work, justifies and reinforces existing social inequalities. This takes place via a number of mechanisms, including:
- Giving privileges to older students, encouraging respect for elders in later life.
- Using school rules, prizes as well as punishments, to encourage conformity to the rules of society.
- Emphasising the importance of regular attendance and punctuality, in preparation for the workplace.
- Division in male and female education, for example via the subtle encouragement of different subject preferences, underpinning the sexual division of labour.
- Requiring automatic respect for teachers, and forcing students to understand that they have limited autonomy, helping children learn respect for those in authority in the workplace.
- Underlining the importance of completing schoolwork, whether or not it’s boring, preparing children for the essentially dull, repetitive tasks that characterise many jobs.
- Encouraging competition between pupils, instilling acceptance of later competition for the best jobs
- Using school uniforms and dress codes to teach the importance of looking smart in the workplace.
Of course, many children learn to push back and challenge the norms that schools seek to impose on them by failing to take an interest in lessons, ‘messing about’ while at school or going truant. Ironically, this prepares them for low paid, unskilled jobs in later life as this rejection of the prevailing learning culture becomes a way of coping with the tedium of the workplace. Unfortunately, this implicit rejection of the ideology of individualism and meritocracy does not usually translate into a genuine understanding of the nature of capitalist exploitation or encourage political engagement.
But all is not lost. As Bowles and Gintis understood, the educational system reflects the contradiction between the needs of accumulation and the needs of reproduction. To accumulate profits and develop the means of production, capitalists have recognised that the workforce needs to be trained to cope with the ever-changing demands of technology and capitalist production. This requires people who can think for themselves. But there’s an inherent conflict between so-called ‘democracy’ in the political realm and the hierarchical and authoritarian nature of the workplace. If people have the opportunity to think critically, it is not difficult for them to recognise that the illusion of equality and democratic participation via the electoral system is in stark contrast to the lack of democratic control that ordinary people exert over the economy, ie. what is produced and how it is distributed.
By grouping future workers together, the education system provides the potential for people to use the educational tools they are supplied with against the system itself. Teaching literacy opens the door to books that challenge the status quo. And you cannot encourage creative thinking and understanding of sophisticated intellectual concepts without encouraging people to question the prevailing ideology. This contradiction between what schools promise and what they really deliver, between ideology and the way society actually works, has the potential to radicalise people and spur them into action.
This is the significance of Paulo Freire’s theory of education that goes beyond traditional Marxist thinking and links radical critical theory and the imperatives of progressive struggle, linked to an understanding of the dynamics of domination and oppression and the constraints as well as the possibilities that generates.
Freire was a Brazilian pedagogue and critic of conventional teaching methods. In the Pedagogy of the Oppressed he characterised these as the ‘banking method’ which he saw mirroring and re-enforcing an oppressive society. Under this model of teaching the teacher is viewed as knowing everything and the student nothing. The teacher talks and the student listens. The teacher (or the rather the government!) determines what is taught and how is it is taught. Students are empty vessels and their role is to store the knowledge bestowed on them. Above all, they are not required or expected as a result of their education to change the world by reflection and action (ie. praxis). Freire recognised that students may come to reject the education fed them and achieve praxis anyway, but what he describes as the humanist, revolutionary educator will adopt another approach: problem posing education based on dialogue between teacher and student in which both become responsible for a process in which they both grow. Their aim: to become critical thinkers, questioning and challenging what they encounter in the learning process.
But if state education puts obstacles in the way of the development of critical thinking - driven as it is by the demands of capitalist ‘rationality’, marketisation and endless testing - then we need to rediscover a radical pedagogy that embraces, as Freire puts it, “Liberation [as] a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.” The critical pedagogy proposed by Freire and others in this field such as Henry Giroux offers a route for young people to develop a social awareness of cultural and political alternatives, enabling them to connect their experiences with classroom learning and understand that with knowledge comes power.
This is why reactionary politicians of all major parties have sought to marginalise such teaching methods as a deeply harmful distraction belonging to “trendy, 1960s progressive educationalists” and of no relevance in a modern education system. Three examples of how this threat has been addressed by governments in recent years bring this into sharp relief and underline the nature of the struggle in today’s education system: the prescriptive method of teaching young children to read using phonics, reducing the narrative content in reading and undermining the development of ‘reading for pleasure’; the attempts to shift teacher training away from universities and teacher training colleges and into schools where, it is hoped, such contaminating ideas as those of Freire won’t be picked up; and the increasingly narrow specification of the curriculum that the Government is forcing through, marginalising the arts and humanities.
But, as Gramsci recognised, no culture is completely hegemonic. Even the most sophisticated political systems will face pockets of ‘counter-hegemonic’ cultures: perspectives on society that challenge the dominant ideology, and which have revolutionary potential if they can be identified and supported. These might be located in the traditional beliefs held by older people, the shop-floor culture of industrial workers, youth sub-cultures or other groups in society.
In The Long Revolution Raymond Williams defined culture “as a whole way of life”, thereby dissolving the boundary between everyday culture and ‘high culture’. A fully developed cultural education implies opening up our society by means of art and culture. The dialectic between education and culture at a general level - the beliefs, norms and values that condition society - as radical education becomes a mechanism for resistance to and change of a dominant culture in all its manifestations, also applies directly to the more specific area of the arts and humanities. Cultural education in this sense is an indispensable part of the broader education system, and is not a luxury that can be added when other educational goals have been delivered.
Learning is a creative process, and what we learn depends on how we learn. It is well understood that studying the arts opens up spheres of experience and development in people that go beyond the immediate subject studied, developing levels of cognition and emotion that feed into people’s ability to understand the world around them and cope with everyday life and social situations.
The education system plays a decisive role in awakening and encouraging creative potential in people. It has the capacity to develop empathic as well as political engagement. The arts take us into imagined worlds created by different minds and enable us to understand how others live. In addition to giving us aesthetic pleasure, they provide a broader canvas on which to understand historic, social and political issues.
By awakening our imagination, art intensifies and complements our own experience. Art represents people, cultures, values, and perspectives on living, but it does much more. While bringing us pleasure, art also teaches us about life. While reading a poem, listening to music or looking at a painting we are encouraged to look outside ourselves, ask challenging questions and participate in the wider world.
Similar benefits flow from other cultural activities such as sport and religion. As well as being satisfying in themselves, they provide multiple opportunities for social engagement, emotional growth and development of cognitive skills, encouraging a commitment to the common good.
Clearly, schools aren’t the only site of struggle. Seeking to change schools without seeking to change wider society is a recipe for frustration and eventual failure. But education as one of the forces for radical change, which goes beyond schools, colleges and universities into a lifelong commitment which reflects the dialectic between an individual and the society around them, and which is delivered via trade unions, local authorities, Further Education colleges, the Workers’ Education Association and other institutions, is clearly a prize worth fighting for.
We hope this article stimulates further contributions on the subject of education and culture.
Interested in progressive poetry? You might like to try one of our new titles, published jointly with Manifesto Press:
The Minister for Poetry Has Decreed is political poetry of the highest order, telling truth to power and poking fun at it at the same time, artistically deploying a profoundly moral sense of justice and truth to expose lies, evasions, greed and sheer stupidity. Kevin Higgins, like Bertolt Brecht, has a gift for exposing the hypocrisies and deceits which are inevitably generated by a political culture which ignores, denies or seeks to legitimise the legalised robbery that passes for capitalist economic arrangements. And like Brecht he does it in a wickedly simple, accessible, entertaining style.
Everyone can see the growing inequality, the precarious and low paid nature of employment, the housing crisis in our cities, the divisions and inequalities between social classes, the problems of obesity, drink and drugs, and the sheer everyday struggle to pay the bills for many working people. In this situation, Fred Voss is like a prophet. He is warning us of the consequences of the way we live, he is telling truth to power, and he is inspiring us with a positive vision of a possible – and desirable – socialist future.
- Len McCluskey, General Secretary, Unite the Union.
Slave Songs and Symphonies is an ambitious, beautifully crafted collection of poems, images and epigraphs. It's about human history, progressive art and music, campaigns for political freedom, social justice and peace. Above all it's about the class and cultural struggle of workers 'by hand and by brain’ to regain control and ownership of the fruits of their labour. David Betteridge’s poems are leftist, lyrical, and learned, infused with sadness and compassion for the sufferings of our class, the working class. They are also inspired by visionary hope, and a strong belief that our class-divided society and culture can be transformed by radical politics and good art – and by radical art and good politics. Bob Starrett’s drawings are much more than illustrations. They dance with the poems, commenting on them as well as illustrating them. They are like Goya’s drawings in their dark, ink-black truthfulness and their intimate knowledge of suffering and Blake’s 'mental fight'. Like the poems, they express and resolve the struggles they depict. Slave Songs and Symphonies tells the story of how slave songs become symphonies – and helps makes it happen. It is not just about class and cultural struggle – it is class and cultural struggle.
Each booklet is priced at £5.99 (plus £1.50 p&p). Or you can buy all three for £15. They are available from: manifestopress.org.uk
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.