Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (108)

In defence of the cultivated imagination: An appreciation of Tommy Jackson
Saturday, 15 May 2021 12:46

In defence of the cultivated imagination: An appreciation of Tommy Jackson

Written by

Mike Sanders presents an appreciation of Tommy Jackson

Thomas Alfred “Tommy” Jackson (1879 – 1955) has been described as “the most brilliant proletarian intellectual to come out of the British Communist Party”. Born into a working-class family in London, he followed his father into the printing trade, but after completing his apprenticeship as a compositor he became increasingly involved with the socialist movement. In 1900 he joined the Social Democratic Federation, in 1904 he was one of the founder members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (serving briefly as its General Secretary in 1906), but in 1909 he joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) for whom he became a paid speaker until 1911, when he left the ILP to become a paid lecturer for the National Secular Society and then a freelance lecturer.

In 1917 he joined the Socialist Labour Party and also became a lecturer for the North East Labour College Committee. In 1920 he was a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), a delegate to the Comintern, a member of the Central Committee from 1924 to 1929 and editor of The Communist and The Sunday Worker. Jackson opposed the ‘Bolshevisation’ of the CPGB in 1924 and was a leading critic of the ‘class-against-class’ strategy and this led to his removal from the Party’s leadership. However, it is important to note that despite his disagreements with the Party’s leadership, Jackson never became a renegade and continued to work as a journalist for the Daily Worker and after the Second World War as a lecturer for the Party’s Education Department. In addition, to his journalism, Jackson published a number of important works of Marxist theory, criticism and history including: Dialectics: The Logic of Marxism and its critics (1936), Charles Dickens: The Progress of a Radical (1938), Ireland Her Own (1946), as well as a collection of his literary journalism for the Daily Worker entitled, Old Friends to Keep: Studies of English Novels and Novelists (1950) and his autobiography, Solo Trumpet (1953).

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In his introductory essay to Old Friends to Keep, Jackson writes of his “unshakeable conviction of the indispensability of a cultivated imagination as a condition precedent for revolutionary class struggle, and of the high worth of classic fiction as a means of stimulating and developing that imagination.” Jackson returns to this themes in his closing pages where he writes, “I regard the systematic cultivation of the imagination – especially among the militant vanguard of working-class struggle – as the most fundamentally revolutionary work that there is to be done.” In effect, Jackson insists on the importance of “a cultivated imagination”, identifies “classic fiction” as one of the best means of producing such an imagination and, finally, contends that such an imagination is an ‘indispensable’ precondition for “revolutionary class-struggle”. These are large claims indeed; but as they are made by a Marxist after fifty years of practical experience of the class struggle, perhaps we would do well to take them seriously.

Certain aspects of Jackson’s thinking, for example his defence of literature both as an enlargement and enrichment of life and as a repository of trans-historical value, can be located within an emerging Marxist tradition of cultural theory. A more distinctive element in Jackson’s thought is his insistence on the immediate, practical value of literature as literature (i.e. not as propaganda) to the working-class movement. The crucial questions, identified by Jackson, are these; how precisely does the engagement with literature assist the “systematic cultivation of the imagination” and why is this of value to “the militant vanguard’?

Jackson provides the following answer to the first question:

The more profoundly the imagination penetrates into the essence of social reality, the more surely the artist reveals that most universal of truths – that motion is the essential characteristic of reality. “Things have just this value – they are transitory.” Fixity, immobility, finality, static indifference – these are attributes of the veil of illusion it is the function of great art to strip away. That which abides eternally is and can be nothing but motion; and the function of art is to so quicken feeling that it sets the intelligence searching and urges the will to action (OFTK 19-20)

Literature, therefore, promotes heuristic activity on the part of both the author and the reader. In this formulation, the author does not convey truth to a passive reader, rather the result of the author’s active enquiry into social reality provokes a corresponding enquiry on the part of the reader. In short, literature teaches a particular mode of thinking and promotes a particular form of consciousness, both of which are recognisably ‘dialectical’. In short, it is not that a given work of literature instructs its reader what to think, rather it teaches its reader how to think. It is also worth noting the sequence identified by Jackson, first feeling, then thought and, finally, conscious action.

Jackson’s focus on the active, empowering potential of literature is a valuable and necessary corrective to those forms of cultural theory (frequently originating in post-structuralism) which emphasise the difficulty (even the impossibility) of thinking outside existing social forms. These have given rise to pernicious forms of cultural criticism in which no cultural artefact is ever good enough because it is ‘always-already’ compromised by, or implicated in, various extant forms of oppression. Adorno was alert to this problem in the 1940s warning, in Minima Moralia, that the danger of denying the affirmative potential of art helps to “bring about directly the barbarism that culture is reproached with furthering indirectly”.

He also argues that the function of literature is to “quicken feeling”, prompt intellectual enquiry and motivate action. As Marx’s final thesis on Feuerbach reminds us, this is the vital stage. However, as Tommy Jackson knew from his own experience, the passage between the three stages is neither inevitable or necessary. In some cases excessive sensation precludes thought, while in others the combination of sensation and thought negates the need for action. In both cases, it might be argued that action is prevented or negated by an excess of identification – with “sensuous form” on the one hand and with “rational content” on the other.

This, perhaps, provides us with a clue as to the nature of the “cultivated imagination” which is the lynch-pin of Jackson’s theoretical model. The “cultivated imagination” signifies not only the optimum combination of feeling and thought, but more importantly, suggests the need to move beyond an ‘aesthetics of identification’. In this respect, Jackson resembles the great Marxist playwright Brecht, who also sought to theorise and develop an artistic practice capable of jolting its audience into real historical consciousness.

Five Books for May Days
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 12 May 2021 15:46

Five Books for May Days

Written by

Mark Perryman presents five books on culture and politics for a month full of May Days

May Day was obviously this year circumscribed by all things lockdown. But in all honesty for decades now there has been precious little imagination and reinvention to preserve it, let alone grow it.

Compared to International Women’s Day, LGBT Pride or Black History Month, May Day as a much-needed celebration has ben replaced by a going-through-the-motions at best, abandonment at worst.  So to cheer myself up I went in search of some May Day reading that might have the answer to not simply revival but reinvention, because in their different ways they take culture matters (sic) seriously.   

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Mark Fisher was a writer who single-handedly expanded the intellectual horizons of an entire new generation of left thinkers, and at the core of his work  was the connection between politics and culture. The posthumous collection Post Capitalist Desire, edited by Matt Colquhoun, consists of Mark Fisher’s final lectures and provides a real insight into his contribution, and our loss. Ranging over capitalism, revolution, consciousness and Marxism, the themes may seem familiar yet Mark’s approach, using theoretical tools to interrogate the terrain of the popular, was entirely original and shines through on every page of this magnificent, if tragic, epitaph of a book. Of course he had predecessors taking culture seriously, including Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, but the difference now is that there is an ever-increasing generational urgency for this ‘taking seriously’ to become our dominant mood of thinking and acting, because the alternative is defeat and irrelevance.         

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Testament to this is  Capitalism’s Conscience, edited by Des Freedman, not quite a funeral notice on the occasion of the Guardian’s 200th anniversary, though not far short. Never mind the technological, cultural and economic challenges to all versions, but particularly newspapers, of ‘legacy media’. The argument here of the contributors, across a diverse range of themes, is that the daily house journal of the liberal left has simply failed to keep up with how those two labels,  liberal ideals combined with left-wing politics, have changed.

Again the key signifier of this is generational, what the writer Keir Milburn terms ‘Generation Left’. Being anti-Corbyn politically is perhaps forgivable, we can live with differences of opinion, or at least should be able to. But it’s not forgivable to woefully misunderstand and then purposefully misrepresent what motivated those tens of thousands who became part of the Corbyn wave and in 2017 voted for Corbyn’s Labour in their millions, the uptick in Labour’s vote the first since 1997. 

Only the most dogged defender of the paper would disagree that the paper has veered out of touch, struggling to maintain the loyalty of its core readership, failing to attract younger readers. Yet many of us cannot resist it as a daily read, a reference point for our agreement, and disagreement, although who knows whether such loyalty will be enough to sustain the paper, and for how long. A bit like the current Labour Party, eh? 

At its best the Guardian remains peerless as an investigative and campaigning newspaper.  This has absolutely been the case throughout the pandemic, day after day, edition after edition, revealing the truly horrific threat of a deadly disease, exposing the lethal and corrupt incompetence of the Tory government’s handling of the crisis, and offering a range of positively radical  routes towards a post-pandemic politics. All very necessary and most welcome, yet if politics is reduced simply to the rhetoric of condemnation and detailed policy formulation it is surely missing something – emotional literacy.

Moving, angry and idealistic

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The Right, currently, are immeasurably better at this than the Left, or to put it another way we underestimate Boris Johnson at our peril.  There’s a reason he’s Boris, and Thatcher was Maggie, in a way Sir Keir Starmer simply isn’t ‘Keir’ to most of us. For a textbook example of connecting emotional literacy to a radical political message have a read of Many Different Kinds of Love by poet, author and socialist Michael Rosen. What Michael effortlessly achieves is to mix the personal and the political, as finally we escape from  the immediacy of the disease to engage with what comes next. Written in Michael’s inimitable style, it is a book that is moving, angry and idealistic. Oh for a Labour politics we could describe in the same way!

Part of what comes next, or at least should come next, must be a renewed commitment by both governments and social movements to reverse the climate emergency. However bad the scale of the Coronavirus crisis, it pales into insignificance compared to the pain, suffering and deaths the climate crisis threatens to inflict on the globe.

What is encouraging is the breadth of informed concern and dedicated desire for change that this is provoking. Much of this exists outside the spaces of traditional left politics, or a politics of whatever tradition. Is this a strength or a weakness?  Only time will tell but all the evidence of previous social movements requiring the scale of changes the climate emergency demands is that they only succeed when they become as much a popular cultural force as a political one.

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A measure of how far the climate emergency movement has travelled in this very necessary direction already is the Teen Vogue collection No Planet B edited by the magazine’s politics editor Lucy Diavolo. No, this is not a misprint – the teenage edition of Vogue has a politics editor and has filled a book with chapters on the climate emergency. Almost all of them have been written by young women aged 10-25 years, and make the connections between the environment, migration and inequality with an imperative for action that prime minsters and party leaders – almost all male and aged 50-65 years – could well do with reading.  A book from a new generation for readers of all ages. 

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And my number one pick of five books for you to read in May Days? Jeremy Gilbert’s Twenty-First Century Socialism. Jeremy is one of those writers who seamlessly mixes the cultural and the political, refuting the very idea the two are divisible. It combines high theory with popular idiom, shamelessly polemical yet attentively open-minded.  His new book is a short read, almost a manifesto, so can be polished off in one May Day, thereby interpreting the world and leaving the rest of the month to change it. It covers The meaning of capitalism, the promise of socialism,  the ideas for a programme of transformational politics and a strategy for how to achieve them.

If books in the right hands really are weapons, this one’s thermonuclear. 

Please note no links in this review are to Amazon, if buying from corporate tax dodgers can be avoided, please do so.              

May Day 2021: The150th anniversary of the Paris Commune
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 27 April 2021 14:55

May Day 2021: The150th anniversary of the Paris Commune

Written by

Dennis Broe celebrates the 1871 Paris Commune, an example for Marx of 'communal labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart', and its representation in photos, novels, films and paintings, 

Here in Paris we are now living through the 150th anniversary of the Commune, identified by Karl Marx as perhaps the first workers’ republic established in the history of humanity. The Commune lasted 71 days, beginning on March 18, 1871 and ended in a violent repression during what was called the time of the cherries, of the budding of the cherry blossoms, in the bloody week of May 21 to 28.

The Commune is represented in novels, films and non-fiction though in general representation is sparse. Aesthetic recounting of this rebellion is limited, as this history of a workers’ republic remains contested and repressed in France.

The Commune was a response by the Parisians to the end of an ill-fated war waged by the emperor Louis-Napoleon to distract the French from the corruption and negligence that characterized the latter stage of his Second Empire. It ended up by uniting the German states under Bismarck as the French military, also hollowed out by years of corruption, was quickly defeated. The delusion of the emperor, his ignoble defeat and the shattering of the imperial dream are recounted in the penultimate novel in Zola’s epic chronicling of the rise and fall of Louis Napoleon’s Second Empire in the Rougan-Macquart series, titled appropriately La Débâcle .

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Upon its victory, the German army then became an occupying army and laid siege to Paris, figuring to starve the city into submission. The French ruling class, industrialists and remnants of the old aristocracy led by the emperor’s minister Adolphe Thiers, left the city and fled to the former palace of the king at Versailles, where they would soon collaborate with the Germans to crush the commune.

Inside the city a new form of government appeared, a direct democracy with elements of the National Guard on its side and with the working people of the city behind it and engaged directly in carrying out reforms in health, education and an equal status for women. Indeed, the face of the commune that has come down though history is that of the feminist Louise Michel, in the forefront of many of these reforms and, upon the downfall of the Commune, exiled from France.

The Commune is not well represented in the cinema, but its most shining moment makes up for that lack of coverage. Peter Watkins’ La Commune from 2003 is an almost six-hour faux documentary, with a filmmaker interviewing the ordinary working people who took part in the moment. Each of these non-professional actors, many researching their characters on their own and including many Africans, detail their involvement in a way that also allows us to see the continuity between these worker-actors of today and their character of 150 years ago. One critic labelled La Commune as the best film in a 15-year span.

The Commune defied the industrialists and issued proclamation after proclamation that pushed the government of Paris toward a workers’ state. Thiers and the German collaborators he represented were furious and finally with the aid of the German army annihilated the rebellion, in the bloodiest week of state terrorism in French history since the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of the Huguenots.

Communards Wall resized

Row after row of these working people were lined up and shot. The most sacred place commemorating the Commune is the Mur des Federales, the wall of these victims inside the famous cemetery Père Lachaise.

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 With the Commune in ruins, its proponents either dead or exiled, Thiers then proclaimed the birth of the French Republic, ending forever the attempts to re-establish the monarchy, which had been overthrown in the French Revolution. Indeed, French Republicans now proclaim the Commune as a founding moment in the establishing of a representative parliamentary democracy. However, that bourgeois democracy, with the industrialists now firmly back in power, was erected on the bones and coffins of the Parisian citizens who had instituted a direct democracy in which the people made decisions together.

Battles over the memory of the Commune continue to be waged. Adolphe Thiers is commemorated in the traditional French manner by having streets and squares named after him in many French cities and towns. However, there is no street or square that bears his name in Paris, the site of his bloody executions.

The Catholic Church, attacked for its corruption by the Commune as it was in the French Revolution, allied with the state to anoint the Church of Sacre Coeur, of the Sacred Heart, which overlooks the city and stands as a symbol of the triumph of the bourgeoise. However, just below the Church, in a way that suggests the old spectre of revolution is not dead, sits Louise Michele square, with its commemoration of the Commune’s leading spirit.

 Released to coincide with the 150th anniversary is a work by the French historian Michele Audin, The Bloody Week, which claims that Thiers’ accounting of the dead is vastly understated. The official figure is over 6,000 casualties but by checking cemetery records this new book claims the figure is at least 15,000 and may have been as high as 20,000. Underground mass graves of the communards were still being discovered in the 1920s, while building a line of the Paris subway.

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Audin is a renowned mathematician who has also written two novels about the Commune, the lastest of which is Jose Meunier: 19 rue des Juifs. In it a sex worker, a dressmaker, a janitor and a hairdresser aid the lead character Jose, a miller, to escape the clutches of the secret police as the Commune is overwhelmed. Jose then goes into exile in London where he dreams of returning to Paris.

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Les Halles by Leon Lhermitte, 1895 

The subject of repatriation of exiled revolutionaries also featured in another novel by Zola, The Belly of Paris, where an exile from a failed attempt in 1851 to overthrow the second Napoleon returns to the huge outdoor marketplace in the centre of the city that was Les Halles and attempts to shelter himself amid the bounty of the market.

In France this year, the March 18th date was celebrated with great fanfare but that celebration quickly gave way to its opposite as the country readies itself for the 200th anniversary in May of the death of Napoleon. He is a symbol of empire and conquest beloved by the right and no friend of democracy. It was his nephew, founder of the second empire named in honour of his uncle’s self-proclaimed first empire, that started the war that brought on the siege of Paris.

Marx’s valuing of the experiment of the Commune as a spirit that is yet to be realized explains why it remains at the same time a moment of hope for working people. It is also a moment of fear for their new digital overlords, whether they be Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, Elon Musk’s Tesla or Emmanuel Macron’s start-up nation. Here's what Marx said about the Commune:

The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters; that to bear fruit, the means of labour need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the labouring man [and woman]…; and that, like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated or communal labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart.

Bring it on!

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Radical, subversive circus and cultural change
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 08 February 2021 09:28

Radical, subversive circus and cultural change

Written by

Kimberley Reynolds describes how radical and transgressive circuses in twentieth-century children’s literature make the case for social and personal transformation. Above image: Family of Saltimbanques by Pablo Picasso, 1905

The circus has been a consistently popular setting, theme, metaphor and space in publishing for children from at least the nineteenth century, and writers, illustrators and readers are attracted to it for a variety of reasons. Foremost among these is the fact that the circus world is exotic, international, polyglot, excessive and carnivalesque. They combine animals from distant lands (in line with concerns about animal welfare, few circuses now have animal acts), astonishing illusions, gravity-defying aerialists and acrobats, the antic behaviour of adults in the roles of clowns, and sideshows featuring what were traditionally known as ‘freaks’. These features are all related to the identification of the circus by the first wave of modernist and avant-garde artists and authors as a quintessentially radical aesthetic space: a space where themes and ideas are explored with a view to challenging and changing how the everyday world is perceived and organised.

A sense of the radical appeal of the circus can be established with a few examples. For instance, during his Rose or ‘circus’ period, Pablo Picasso used images of circus performers as metaphors for the socially and economically precarious position of artists. Like circus performers, he suggests, innovative, challenging artists in early twentieth-century Europe and America were regarded as unimportant outliers by those in positions of power. Henri Matisse had a life-long interest in circuses and what they said about movement, freedom and creativity. This interest is documented in his book Jazz (1947), which was originally titled The Circus. More than half of the images it contains are of circus performances. Fernand Léger and Marc Chagall were fascinated by the way circuses liberated bodies and minds from convention. Their paintings often focus on the way circus acts create a sense of mental and physical liberation from the constraints of everyday life.

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The Acrobat and His Partner by Fernand Léger

Circuses also offered artists new perspectives (from above and below) and celebrated speed, flight and simultaneity, as when multiple acts are taking place on the ground and in the air at the same moment. Circus rings and the contorted body shapes made by acrobats and aerialists lent themselves well to abstraction, while the transitions from acts featuring spangled, gravity-defying artists to lumbering elephants, ferocious big cats, bizarre clowns and the exceptional bodies found in circus sideshows gave a surreal, dreamlike quality to the circus experience. Perhaps most importantly, the inter-artistic nature of circus acts spoke to avant-garde interests in ‘Total Art’, meaning the combining of words, music, lighting, movement, and the plastic arts to provoke new sensations and perceptions.

Mikhail Bakhtin has shown how, by inducing new outlooks on the world, carnival, of which circus is one form, feeds cultural change. This understanding points to the subversive potential of circuses. In Ant-Nazi Modernism, Mia Spiro points to the way that the decades which witnessed the rise of fascism and Nazism saw the deliberate use of circuses to challenge the world view they promulgated. This deployment works well since circus life and circus acts stood for everything such regimes sought to suppress. They were ethnically, socially, and sexually diverse; they mixed levels of discourse; they displayed fluidity, eroticism, exoticism, and hybridity. The peripatetic nature of circuses means they were also free from geographical and nationalistic boundaries. This was as true on the page as under the Big Top or on the canvas. For instance, in Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood (1936), the circus is the only place where lesbian, transgender and other characters who struggle to fit into life in 1930s Paris and America can be at ease. Barnes makes the circus a space where, ‘no one is “alien” because everyone realizes that social positions, race, [and] sexuality are performances’ (Spiro 73).

Understanding the performative nature of all aspects of social life – not least in political displays – undermines the kind of mass spectacles by which totalitarianism asserts its power. So, for instance, performance theories relating to audience response compare the different effects on spectators of circuses and the huge, highly choreographed rallies favoured by Nazi propagandists. These mass spectacles were a deliberately hypnotic, homogenising and coercive kind of event. Their effect was to make most participants and observers unquestioning and conformist. Circuses, by contrast, are energising and individualistic; performances are not designed to lull audiences, but to provoke them. Their astonishing and often dangerous acts make audiences ask, ‘how do they do that?’ In this way, spectators are encouraged to recognise that they are watching tricks and illusions and to think about and deconstruct them – exactly the opposite effect of the Nazi rallies.

Circuses offered abundant metaphoric potential for celebrating freedom of thought, movement and interaction at a time when all of these were under threat. This made them valuable subjects for those artists and writers who were opposed to the divisive, hierarchical, nationalistic, and militaristic politics of the far right. In their hands, the circus was simultaneously offered as a site of intellectual and cultural provocation and a place of delight that appealed not just to a cultural elite but to large and mixed audiences. Children have always been part of the circus audience, and in circus stories, children are present as both performers and spectators. This does not mean that circuses are good places for the young. The experiences of real child circus performers have often been brutally abusive, and many of the first circus stories for children concentrated on this aspect of circus life. Stories about the sufferings of young circus performers make up a complete subgenre, but here my focus is on the way the circus setting was used by children’s writers and illustrators to introduce to their readers some of the artistic experiments and political critiques found in arts and letters from the first half of the last century.

Transformation and transgression in juvenile circus stories

Soviet writer Yuri Olesha’s The Three Fat Men (1928) overtly uses the circus to criticise oppressive rule and to celebrate imagination, creativity and intellectual freedom. This is a story about revolution: in it the oppressed people in an unnamed town rise up against the ‘Three Fat Men’ who rule their land and literally consume all its resources. Though it is not geographically or chronologically anchored in a particular time or place, because its author was living in the new Soviet republic and the story was completed just one year after the series of revolutions that saw the old imperial Russian rule replaced by the world’s first communist society, it is difficult not to link the book to those events. The revolution is led by members of a circus. One of these is Tibbulus the Tightrope walker and the other Suok, the girl acrobat, but even before they begin to take control of the events, a circus act has been encouraging the people to disrespect their three fat leaders. For instance, the three are represented on a stage by a trio of fat, hairy apes while a clown sings:

Like three great sacks of wheat,
The Three Fat Men abed!
For all they do is eat
And watch their bellies spread!
Hey you Fat Men, beware:
Your final days are here! (17)                      

The clown is right. The surreal plot, which includes separated twins, kangaroo trials and arbitrary sentences, a living doll, a talking parrot with a beard and a great many extravagant banquets, culminates in the overthrow of the Three Fat Men. The people are inspired  to liberate themselves by those with courage, creativity, education and morals. All of the provocateurs are connected to the circus.

The Three Fat Men is aimed at able readers, and Olesha’s use of the circus is deliberately political. But books for younger readers also celebrate the internationalism, category mixing, simultaneity and Total Art found in modernist painting and writing. One of these is Samuil Marshak and Vladimir Lebedev’s The Circus (1925). This belongs to the outpouring of much-admired books produced in the first decades of Soviet rule, often by avant-garde writers and artists who hoped that they were helping to build society anew. For its original readers the book’s internationalism mirrored the drive to unite the many countries and peoples, with their different languages, eye shapes, skin tones, hair colours and fashions, that made up the new Soviet Union. It also supports the work of transforming an illiterate peasant culture into one which was both literate and ready to welcome, rather than fear or resent, modern technology.

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Cover of The Circus and Other Stories, by Lebedev

The Circus begins with a poster based not on the highly decorated traditional fairground graphics usually favoured by circuses but on modern advertisements, as seen it its use of clean lines, sharp typography and white spaces. Huge, repeated exclamation points convey that very modernist quality of energy, while the text promises eclecticism in the form of ‘A rider from Rio,/An aerial trio/…. Jacko, the famous clown… all the way from Paris.’ Inside, a black tightrope walker is used to familiarise the workings of a telephone message, showing modern technology as thrilling but unthreatening, while a green musician is introduced as the wife of a Soviet clown. In line with the modernist appreciation of speed and dynamism, many images show figures in motion, zooming this way, galloping that, balancing precariously and defying gravity.

In the British-produced The Circus Book (1935), by Wyndham Payne with illustrations by Eileen Mayo, Japanese acrobats practise on one page while a man in evening dress is shown working alongside clowns and performing horses ridden by a bear and a lion on another. All are very familiar circus images, but when considering the significance of representing the way categories were mingled under the Big Top in these books, it is important not to forget the extent to which in interwar Europe, racial and national origins, sexuality, and physical development could determine a person’s fate. From policies in Nazi Germany to fascist demonstrations in London, Jews, Romani (a group closely associated with circuses) and others deemed inferior by those in authority were vilified and often attacked. The Circus Book makes much of the internationalism and inclusiveness of circuses. It asks children to admire the ability of circus performers to speak many languages so they can work together: ‘… circuses engage artists of every nationality so you can imagine the babel of tongues behind the scenes. Some of the directors can give orders in half a dozen different languages, nearly all the artists can speak at least two or three besides their own, and a well-known clown was able to do his act in twelve languages’ (8). This short information book is not overtly provocative or revolutionary; nevertheless, readers of the book are invited to admire what elsewhere in society was being presented as suspect.

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Undoubtedly the most famous circus story for children is Dumbo, as told through the 1941 Walt Disney animated feature film. The artwork in this circus story (which began life as a children’s book and generated many spin-off picturebooks) has a modernist edge that subtly comments on, for instance, the alienation of workers and the loss of identity in modernity as in the impressionistic depiction of the roustabouts who set up the Big Top in a storm, and crowds fleeing as the huge tent collapses when Dumbo knocks over the ‘Pyramid of Pachyderms’. Expressionistically-coloured scenery conveys mood, while Freudian-inflected experimental sequences such as ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ bring in other avant-garde interests around subjectivity, interiority and the psyche. The most pointed aspect of its radicalism focuses on racist policies in the United States at the time. This occurs in the section where Dumbo and Timothy meet Jim Crow and his gang. The name ‘Jim Crow’ refers to the laws that enforced segregation the in the US up to the 1960s. The crows dress and have the mannerisms of scat/jazz musicians: jazz clubs were places where whites and blacks often mixed. Dumbo and Timothy also mix with the crows in defiance of the segregationist agenda, and it is the crows who enable Dumbo to fly and become a hero. Their knowledge of psychology leads to the ‘magic’ feather that persuades Dumbo he can fly.              

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The Circus of Adventure, by Enid Blyton

There is nothing obviously radical about Enid Blyton’s The Circus of Adventure (1952); nevertheless, when the four adventurers, Philip, Dinah, Lucy-Ann and Jack, and the young central European prince who is in their charge seek refuge in a circus as they flee from a palace coup, behaviours that would have been suspect in other settings are valued. For instance, the young prince, Gustavus Aloysius, known as Gussy, gives a bravura performance as a girl, when soldiers ransack the circus, looking for the fugitives. The four British children have also been disguised with grease paint, circus costumes and an invented language. Because this is a circus and so outside what the soldiers consider to be the real world, they see insignificant itinerant performers rather than their prince and his middle-class British minders, and soon depart. The success of the children’s performances owes everything to the help of their circus friends. Their class background, age and nationality become unimportant, and the children are valued for their skills with animals and their willingness to join in the work of keeping the circus on the road.

As in the mythology that has grown up around circuses, all the members of the circus are portrayed as a big family, though they come from many countries and speak dozens of languages (‘Ma’ is Spanish, her husband is English, and their son seems to speak every language there is). Outside hierarchies are also of little consequence to the members of the circus. When the young prince objects to his treatment by, ‘Ma’, the woman who plays his grandmother, she responds, “Pah! ...You’re just a boy. I’ve no time for princes.” The narrator reinforces her statement by observing approvingly, ‘And she hadn’t’ (148). Such a celebration of classless internationalism is highly unusual for the broadly conservative Blyton.

The transformative effects of the circus on Gussy prove permanent. His time with the performers (and, of course, the four British children) has made him a stronger, better young man with a new, more respectful, attitude to his people and those who lack his social position. Gussy, it is implied, is on his way to becoming a modern ruler and a better ally for Britain. This is arguably a convenient than a radical conclusion from a British perspective, yet for much of the book even an author known for finding foreigners suspicious turns a circus full of ‘others’ into loyal, creative, heroic friends who use their circus skills to thwart a coup. The circus setting, then, shapes the book’s message and refashions the author’s ideological assumptions.

This brief sample gives a sense of how circus stories produced during the first half of the last century shared interests, agendas and modes with the experimental arts and letters produced by some of the best known modernist artists and writers. My growing collection of circus stories shows that for many writers and illustrators, the circus continues to provide an aesthetically and politically radical space, theme and metaphor that helps them make the case for social and personal transformation.

Time to share our stories
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Friday, 29 January 2021 10:39

Time to share our stories

Written by

Mike Quille interviews Gerry Murphy, President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions

Thanks for the chance to interview you on the subject of culture and the labour movement. Recently I interviewed Mark Taylor, one of the authors of Culture is Bad For You, a new book outlining how culture is riven by divisions and inequalities based on class background, ethnic origin and gender. Working-class people are much less likely to get into good jobs in the cultural industries, as actors, musicians, writers, film-makers etc., and much less likely to sustain them and make progress in them.

They are also under-represented as consumers, in audiences, visitors to galleries, concerts. In addition, there is also other research showing how literature, along with other mainstream cultural experiences, fail to represent working-class people fairly.

What is your experience and your views as a trade union leader on these issues?

Culture is a site of struggle that has huge potential to further improve our world and the lives of working people excluded from the many rich cultural experiences on offer.

I suggest that we as agents of change have yet, despite some valiant efforts, failed to fully employ the many forms of expression culture encompasses as a vehicle for change. This failure is evident in, the under-representation of the working class as contributors, instigators of and consumers of culture. It is obvious also in the subjects that populate the cultural landscape and the mediums in which they are expressed. Persons of influence in working-class communities, politics and the labour movement generally have been focused in seeking to address more pressing issues, such as ending poverty and creating a society where everyone is facilitated to reach their potential in peaceful co-existence.

The reasons underpinning this failure are complex. It is not simply that the middle and upper classes are better educated and possessed of incomes that permit them to indulge their cultural pretensions. It is not because the working class do not appreciate beauty or are devoid of imagination and talent. The failure, as I see it, is centred in two areas – those of opportunity and access.

Opportunity arises when circumstances allow for some of the time and energy otherwise expended on survival to be employed to communicate and share our experience and interpretation of the world around us. While access is about enabling, by overcoming the gatekeepers, to facilitate participation, creation and consumption of culture on the part of working people.

The stranglehold established on both of these areas by the middle and upper classes has permitted them a filter on all aspects of cultural life. If we are to be successful in broadening opportunity and facilitating greater access for the working class into society’s cultural life, we have to create the conditions whereby working people have the time and the energy to express themselves. That can only come about when the economic system which scaffolds our world is reshaped to bring about the necessary redistributions of power and wealth to facilitate this.

While that broader struggle continues it is important and vital that working-class experience of the world is recorded, transmitted and enjoyed by a broader audience. And for that to happen working people need to seize on the possibilities of technology and challenge the established cultural gatekeepers.

Those influencers who promote cultural mediums and expression, those who commission this work and target it at particular audiences need to be presented with authentic examples of the working-class experience. This working-class experience represents a largely unmined treasure trove of beauty, truth and joy, qualities enjoyed by audiences of all classes. I see my task, as a someone in a position of leadership, as providing encouragement to and advocacy on behalf of creatives working in whatever medium who communicate the working-class experience and interpretation of the world.

Can you give us an example of recent cultural works which in your opinion successfully communicate working-class experience?

The recent publication by the Culture Matters Co-operative of an anthology of writing by Irish working people and those of Irish descent, successfully communicates the working-class experience. This rich variety of stories from across the island of Ireland have been edited into a coherent and powerful insight to lives lived on the edge of social and economic certainty. “From the Plough to the Stars” showcases the raw talent, the humanity and honour of those that society has in many cases chosen to marginalise. The stories themselves, largely written by people unknown to the literary world, communicate with honesty both uncomfortable truths and reasons to be hopeful.

From Plough to Star cover  

Jenny Farrell, who did the editing, has alongside these writers challenged all of us as well as the established cultural elite to embrace the everyday experiences of working people. And while this book is entertaining, it is so much more, representing that challenge to wider society’s understanding of the sort off the world, we live in. This is central to what culture should do in all its forms, and this work is a fine example of it being done correctly.

Trade unions play a central role in the economic struggle to improve terms and conditions of working people; and they play an important role in the political struggle to bring progressive values of democracy, equality and justice into social life.

What can they do as part of the cultural struggle to serve their members; to ally with and support creative workers who want to focus on working-class experience in the content of their cultural work; and to influence government policies towards culture – for example the funding, accessibility, and content of state-supported culture?

I see the answer in two parts. Namely what is it trade unions can do themselves, internally, to support culture and those who participate in cultural activity as either creatives, or in the crafts and trades that bring so much of our culture to the audience. Then secondly, trade unions need to come up with a plan to persuade the gatekeepers in government and the creative industries to change their approaches and open culture and its opportunities to all.

 The whole notion of culture as a site of struggle that can effect positive change for working people needs to be addressed urgently by the trade union movement. Culture represents an opportunity to present an alternative narrative, build relationships and persuade people. Others are embracing its potential and trade unions risk being left behind. Trade unions have been focused for the last three decades on resisting the erosion of their capacity to effectively represent workers in the face of a succession of neoliberal governments and an increasingly global economic order. This struggle is essential and can be enhanced and aided by broadening the challenge to the established order into culture and the arts.

It requires a shift in mindset amongst trade union memberships that will come about with demonstrations of the power that cultural media present. Such demonstrations are becoming more popular across the world. For example: Banksy’s painting of a vigil candle burning the US flag; or the art of Ai Wei Wei are but two examples from recent times. These examples illustrate this power being exercised on a global stage but the same power on a different scale is within the reach of every individual and every community across the globe. Witness the wall at Free Derry Corner, which regularly features in various media communicating a community’s concerns, demands and solidarity with others.  

free derry 

Previously I have said that accessibility and opportunity represented the challenges working people need to be facilitated in overcoming to fully participate in cultural activities. The trade union movement has provided such access in the past – the miners’ libraries of Wales and the Socialist Sunday Schools of the mid-19th century and early 20th century are examples of what was done. Today our trade unions run extensive education programmes which could be broadened to further open up the cultural world to working people. Trade unions can choose to do this.

Efforts to organise the existing workforce in the crafts and trades which are vital to producing and showing cultural works need to be redoubled. This has to be a priority given these areas of work are riven with bogus self-employment and the zero-hours contract. These two devices are already targeted by the entire trade union movement, and extending the battle aggressively into the cultural sphere can only assist in bringing about their end. It would also attract more workers into trade union membership given the inherent financial vulnerabilities of so much cultural activity

Trade unions also possess the capacity to assist cultural workers and local communities to access the existing limited arts funding available from the government and charitable avenues. Simple things such as identifying potential funding opportunities and providing technical assistance to complete often lengthy and complicate applications are examples of practical help that could be made available.

Lessons learned by trade unions when taking industrial action are also a ready source of help. The power of the consumer could be better organised and mobilised. No one is better suited to this type of activity than trade unionists. Such activism has both the power to demand change but to also shift the cultural landscape to one more equally reflective of the experiences of everyone who shares the planet.  

What difference do you think the current pandemic is making to the cultural life of working people?

The pandemic is acting on the cultural life of working people with the same disregard as it is acting on the cultural lives of everyone. Culture is being suppressed and will continue to be suppressed, as funding and audiences will both take some time to return to pre-pandemic levels. What the post-pandemic period offers is an opportunity to manage the re-start of cultural activity in a more inclusive and equitable fashion. To do so would go some way to acknowledge the sacrifice made by the many essential frontline workers, the majority of whom are amongst the lowest paid in society, who have stood up for everyone regardless of class or whether they are fans of Milton or Rita Ora.    

Thanks very much Gerry, you have outlined a comprehensive and radical agenda for the trade union movement, cultural workers and cultural consumers. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The post-pandemic period offers is an opportunity to restart cultural activity in a more inclusive and equitable fashion. To do so would go some way to acknowledge the sacrifice made by the many essential frontline workers, the majority of whom are amongst the lowest paid in society, who have stood up for everyone regardless of class, race or gender.   

It really is time we took it back, and shared our stories.

These poets are workers
Thursday, 17 December 2020 11:11

These poets are workers

Written by

Fran Lock writes about that advert, and the exclusion of working-class people, lives and experiences from the arts and literature

In October this year the UK government released – then quickly withdrew and disowned – a controversial advert advising creative practitioners to retrain for the Covid-crippled job market. The image they used featured a young woman of colour in ballet-dancer's tulle, captured in the act of tying her slipper. They christened her “Fatima”, and the caption beneath told us that her next job “could be in cyber”, she just didn't know it yet.

unnamed

Criticism of the ad was widespread and swift; rightly so. One of the crowning ironies to emerge from this criticism was that “Fatima” is not, in fact, a British citizen at all, but an aspiring dancer based in the US. Her real name is Desiree Kelley. Both Kelley and Krys Alex, the freelance photographer who took the photo, were quick to condemn the use of their image and their art as part of a campaign encouraging people to give up on their creative vocations and “reskill” in cyber securities. It is telling that CyberFirst, the “government outreach and education programme”, which ran the campaign, foresaw no objections, and felt no ethical qualms about the indiscriminate repurposing of art by young women of colour to further their own agenda.

Disclaiming all responsibility for the ad, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden made feeble noises about a recent visit to the Royal Ballet, describing the “wonderful” dancers there, and the immense “value” the company brings to the country. It is worth noting that even within such a prestigious company the average dancer earns barely above the minimum wage. Most dancers, of course, are not with the Royal Ballet, and there are few mainstream employment opportunities for black and minority ethnic dancers within the UK as a whole. While both opera and ballet are over-represented in government arts funding, this funding scarcely benefits the thousands of struggling freelancers, many of whom find themselves ineligible for financial support and remain unable to work, a state of exhausting precarity that disproportionately affects working-class, black, and minority ethnic people.

Much criticism of the advert centred on its cynicism and flippancy regarding the performing arts, and the structural racism that underpins such attitudes. Art is work, commentators argued; it is a passion honed into a career though years of patient and punishing study. For poor people, and people of colour, working within a system specifically designed to exclude them, the quantity of grit required to achieve any kind of sustenance or success is that much greater. Practitioners deserve the same financial safety nets as would ideally apply to any other profession.

Watching these debates unfold across social media I reflected that “work” is a vexed term, and one that right-wing elites seem intent on misunderstanding: if art is work, then by their logic the amount you earn becomes the only metric by which the worth of your job and its contribution to society is measured. If art is not-quite-work, then it is either an indulgence you can do without, or a passion so intense that you should do it for free, and where no one is obliged to acknowledge the conditions under which your labour is extracted.

Alongside these conversations, the ad unleashed a flurry of passionate and creative rejoinders in which the Tories were roundly slammed for their inability to recognise artists as people with unique talents and skills, and an arts career as anything more than an interchangeable “gig”. Arguments raged about how we define art and the value we place on it. My fellow poets were often among the most vociferous and articulate participants in this back-and-forth, but I think we also have our blind spots.

Chief among these blind spots is the idea that the Right doesn't value the arts. This is patently false, it is precisely because they value the arts so highly that they don't want us, or anyone who looks or sounds like us, involved. Excluding black or working-class people from the arts doesn't prevent art from happening, it merely prevents those same black and working-class people from participating; this in turn allows for the wholesale colonisation of cultural space by moneyed elites. A refusal to fund or to compensate artists for their labour is a form of social cleansing, it ensures that only those with wealth, privilege and connections are able to compete and to contribute; to be recognised and ultimately rewarded.

Alienated, exhausted and ashamed

I find myself returning to that obnoxious ad. It isn't “Darcy” whose next job could be in cyber. Darcy's safe: she's white, she trained at the Royal Academy, she has the support and privilege necessary to pursue her dream. Contemporary ballet is therefore well-stocked with Darcies. Future generations of Darcies will look to contemporary ballet and feel comfortably confirmed. They will seek and find reflections of themselves there; they will be welcomed and included. For “Fatima” this is not the case. Fatima will be told by her parents and teachers that her ambitions are untenable. They will not tell her this to be unkind, but they will look to contemporary ballet and see startlingly few poor brown faces there. Despite Fatima's obvious talent there will be no money left for lessons, and little spare time for practice. If Fatima does persist, she will persist inside a system that operates under an unchecked assumption of affluence. Her invisible effort to snatch time, energy and attention back from the unconducive conditions of home, or the double-shifts she works to support herself, will be left maddeningly unacknowledged. She will feel alienated, exhausted, and ashamed. Nine times out of ten she will give up.

This is not just true of dance. This pattern persists across art and literature, where the Fatimas of this world do not need to “reskill”, where they are lucky to work just one other job. Most of us working in the arts already have an as-well-as, we do not need or want an instead-of.

It serves the Tories to position art and literature as leisure activities, as charming and optional hobbies. Indeed, for many white middle-class persons the act of reading and writing is often figured as inherently pleasurable and restorative. However, these are exercises in pleasure through which the individual participates in the acquisition and confirmation of cultural status. It is a political activity; a prestige-seeking activity, which situates that reader and writer within a cohort of similarly well-read peers. Reading and being seen to have read the “right” books contributes to a sense of shared class identity. It contributes to a “house-style”, a shared fund of formal tropes and characteristic concerns. This identity is further moulded through mainstream discourse, such as literary journals, broadsheet book reviews and Radio 4 interviews with prize-winning authors. It is fostered through bookfairs and festivals; readings and signings, private events and exclusive content; cottage retreats and weekend courses.

For the middle classes, who have access to literature, literary discourse, and literary spaces from a young age, to read is to connect to a community of others like oneself. Often a significant overlap exists between the life experiences of readers and the writers whose work they consume, and between writers who submit their work, and the journal editors who decide what is published. There is a level of identification, comfort, and entitlement that is impossible to imagine for even the most joyful and voracious of working-class readers, the most driven and devoted of aspirant writers.

Our reading experiences as working-class people are different: omnivorous and opportunistic, in the main. We claw back attention from the material demands of unlovable labour. So when we read, we read partly with a sense of awkwardness and shame. We do not recognise affirmative reflections of ourselves in literature or in literary discourse. When we see ourselves in print at all, we are routinely dehumanised and reduced. When we write, then, we write with all the anxiousness and urgency of our lives behind us. When we write, these lives inform both the structure and the subject of our work; we embody a challenge to the dominant discourse, to the cultural status quo. There is much at stake for us in writing. There is much at stake for them in excluding us.

Reskill and go away

The Tories wish we would “reskill”, by which they mean “go away”. They wish poets in particular would “reskill” because due to its mode of production, poetry accommodates Fatima to a greater extent than other creative practices, being both cheap and portable. More than this, because of its emphasis on voice, on the rhythms and inflections of speech, poetry preserves the tangible traces of class and race identity. It recognises and elevates the cadences and textures of lived experience, and acknowledges the flare and dexterousness with which words are shaped and thoughts are formed across widely diverse cultures and communities. Of course they underfund us. And of course they marginalise the teaching of poetry in schools. They wish to reclaim the practice of poetry as a genteel past-time or an academic exercise. They want to deny us the opportunity to infiltrate cultural and discursive space, to talk about our lives to each other, and to challenge the implied audience for art and literature.

The poems I am presenting today explore in their various ways the complex relationship between creativity and labour; they show the diversity of working-class voice, and the intensity of working-class experience. Further, they demonstrate how necessary, and how potentially radical those voices and experiences are. The independent presses represented by these poets offer an example of the way working-class people are removing artistic production from its usual elite haunts, and connecting to each other, deciding and refining our own tastes and ideas, and not relying upon on some middle-class editorial filter to tell us what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. When we decide we no longer need the permission of cultural gatekeepers to publish or to mediate between ourselves and our audiences, then the conversions about issues that matter to us can be kept alive long after their fads for our tokenistic inclusion have faded. We need such spaces now more than ever, to keep the lives and experiences of both working and unemployed poor people present within cultural space at a time when government and media discourses figure us as expendable and faceless economic units; collateral damage at best.

These poets are workers: the poems they write are crafted and honed to a high degree; their writing is a space in which thinking occurs, in which questions are formulated and insights are gleaned. They are also workers in the sense that they perform “day jobs”, jobs which inform, fuel and exist in uneasy negotiation with their writing. They are Fatima, we all are. We struggle to maintain our autonomy and independence in a world that would rather we worked “in cyber”, or in ASDA, or cleaning toilets, or in Pret, or anywhere but art. But we are artists, and we are here to stay.

After Burnout

by Pauline Sewards

I’m going back to work next week,
one hand on my Policies
and The Little Book of Mindfulness.
The other hand clutching my pen
which in my mind
has swelled to cartoon proportions.

My mother worked for three decades
at a newsagent’s in Market town,
ironed her uniform every morning
cursed ‘Nylon’s a sod for creases,’
over the hissing steam.

She wore a badge saying Happy to Help
I’m in the helping business too
although the word is so loaded
I don’t know what it means anymore.
The newsagent’s closed ten years ago,
pigeons crap in the gutters,
net curtains grey in the windows.

Stories have spun themselves
while I’ve been away.
Red alerts on the screen
will demand data.

My mother is a survivor
When she walks around Market town
she’s greeted as minor celebrity.
‘I remember buying my Mirror from you,
you always had a smile.’

I walk on broken glass.
my pen is the means of production.

Ox and the struggle against the single file entry method

by Martin Hayes

when Ox felt ill
and couldn’t face filing out into the yard
along with the other oxen
so that they could all be strapped into their ploughs
Farmer came into the leaky barn
and just stood there
in front of him
and said

so what’s the matter with you today
Ox?

the ox mooed
deep and low
but Farmer didn’t understand
because farmers don’t understand
deep and low moos
they only understand the single file entry method
into the straps of their ploughs

so Farmer put his elbow-length gloves on
and stuck an arm up Ox’s arse
feeling about
for anything that might disprove
how ill Ox said he felt

let’s see what’s up here then

Farmer said

then he pulled at what was inside
he pinched at what was inside
he tweaked and tried to part
what was inside
and when he couldn’t find anything
he yanked at the only thing he could get hold of
which was Ox’s guts

and because farmers think
that oxen’s guts
are full of shit
Farmer pronounced

there is nothing wrong with you
you are faking it
you are full of shit
and you will not eat tonight

then he twisted a black mark into Ox’s forehead
with his thumb

and Farmer stayed true to his word
withholding Ox’s food
so that Ox remained hungry
letting out moos
deep and low
and this goes on
not only for oxen
but for nurses and fireman and fruit pickers
too

Body death and soul murder

by Dorothy Spencer

at least a hamster
in its ball
is breaking the boundaries
of its caged life
at least a dog
kicks up mud and dirt
as it runs along real ground
though the track is predetermined
and the rabbit is a fake
you run towards
the greatest nothing
and four tv screens
mounted on the wall
simultaneously playing the news
can’t pay we’ll take it away
and cash in the attic
to think we spent all this time
figuring out how to escape the daily plough
and body pain
callouses as big as onions
dysentery and not enough to eat
only to arrive at the end of history
running precisely nowhere
wedded as we are
to a still life
lived not on our feet but in chairs
and not in chains but in
bondage, to machines
as dumb as treadmills

***** 

Pauline Sewards is a Bristol-based poet and founder of the regular event in Easton called 'Satellite of Love'. Her first collection This is the Band was published by Hearing Eye in 2018. 'After Burnout' is taken from her most recent collection, Spirograph, published by Hearing Eye earlier this year.

Martin Hayes has worked in the courier industry for 30 years. His latest collection is Where We Get Magic From, published by Culture Matters. 'Ox and the struggle against the single file entry method' is taken from his forthcoming collection Ox, due to be published by Knives, Forks, and Spoons Press in February 2021.

Dorothy Spencer is an Editor at Lumpen Journal, A Journal of Poor and Working-Class writing, and a founding member of the Class Work Project, an education and publishing workers co-op, based in Edinburgh, Manchester and London. 'Body death soul murder' is taken from her debut chapbook See What Life Is Like, published by Lumpen earlier this year.

 

 

 

 

 

How to Read a Way out of the Crisis
Monday, 14 December 2020 16:32

How to Read a Way out of the Crisis

Written by

Mark Perryman presents his annual set of book reviews

The lockdown has forced all manner of reflections on how a deadly disease can threaten humankind’s existence and what kind of world will follow any much hoped-for recovery. Where those reflections end up is anybody’s guess.

Slavov Žižek is the kind of writer to be relied upon to make such a guess, and a well-educated one too, his response to the crisis, Pandemic!, doesn’t disappoint in making any reader think, and rethink. The evidence of past plagues is that to assume any such rethink on a systemic scale will happen of its own common-sense accord is only to leave power in the hands of those with little or no interest in effecting any such change.

The Monster Enters by Mike Davis is a historical testament to that, tracking how agriculture, food producers, governments and big business have colluded following past pandemics to protect their own interests at the expense of public health.

Lee Humber’s Vital Signs makes the case for the absolute necessity of a radical public health strategy with the explicit purpose of tackling inequality – inequalities revealed in explicit and deadly detail via disproportionate Coronavirus death rates.

Dead Epidemiologists is an investigation by Rob Wallace and his co-authors into where the virus came from, its origins and its rapid escalation to become a deadly pandemic. A detailed understanding of how and why the Coronavirus crisis proved so lethal is provided by the short and instant book The Covid-19 Catastrophe by Richard Horton, Editor in Chief of the medical journal The Lancet.  

MP1

One of the most interesting responses to this catastrophe has been from below: localised, community-focused self help, or ‘mutual aid’. Edited by Marina Sitrin and Colectiva Sembrar, Pandemic Solidarity is a collection of accounts from across the world of how these initiatives began, the ways they organise, and the questions they pose for more traditional ways of ‘doing’ politics.

But perhaps what the coronaviris crisis has revealed more than anything else is the prevalence of loneliness, not solidarity, in our society. Noreena Hertz’s pioneering argument in The Lonely Century is that rather than treat this as somebody else’s ‘problem’  the necessity is to reorganise society to produce connectivity – and out of this, collectivity.

Whether this might be one of the more hopeful outcomes of the crisis is too early to say although the bracing intellectual self-confidence of the many contributors to Everything Must Change, edited by Renata Ávila and Srécko Horvat, certainly seeks to convince the reader that things won’t remain the same, because the virus has proved they can’t. We shall see. To turn simply waiting to seeing how things might turn out into actively shaping those outcomes, Grace Blakeley in her new book The Corona Crash provides just the right kind of political programme, and analysis to frame the outcomes, with a newly radicalised version of a post-pandemic politics.

It isn’t to minimise the huge human – and as these accounts testify largely avoidable – tragedy to suggest that 2020 is simply the warm-up act to the climate emergency to come. In Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency Andreas Malm skilfully makes these connections to reveal the links between capitalism’s insatiable appetite for the natural world resulting in first a global disease and next the destruction of a planet.

MP1

Is it too late to put a stop to all this? Nearly but not quite – it is certainly the case that we are already in the midst of a climate crisis, but as Derek Wall maps out in Climate Strike, resistance most certainly isn’t futile, it’s our only hope. The paperback edition of Naomi Klein’s On Fire is pretty much a primer for the fusion of a movement against the Climate Emergency with the political demands for a ‘Green New Deal.’        

To turn such a fusion into mass, popular support however requires showing definitively it isn’t simply environmental interests that demand this but material interests too. At the core of this is the energy industry – decarbonise this and decarbonisation becomes a realisable objective. Renewables make perfect sense, by definition they last for ever, but decarbonisation on the scale required demands massive state intervention, as Ashley Dawson argues in People’s Power. Individual lifestyle choice is insufficient, nor can the market be trusted not simply to act in defence of vested interests. The sun, wind and tide – these are our common treasury for all on a global scale, and only the state can protect them to harness their power.

Will this lead to declining living standards? No, but they will be different. Co-authors Giorgos Kallis, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D’Alisa and Federico Semaria in The Case for Degrowth make this argument very well – though is ‘degrowth’ really the best label to maximise the breadth of support required for such a politics? Kate Soper’s Post-Growth Living is a perhaps more positive version of a not dissimilar politics, describing her case as  for an ‘alternative hedonism’, the sound of which the only response to can only be, yes please.        

The climate emergency is gathering pace at the precise moment that both the market economy and the welfare state are undergoing momentous change. This is the terrain on which any politics, including environmentalism, is forced to operate. Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper and Martijn Konings use one aspect of this change as the focus for their book The Asset Economy which they define as property inflation’s impact on class determinants and generational dynamics. An impact only too familiar to many 21st century parents and their millennial offspring!

 Alongside a housing crisis it is the ever-expanding digital economy that more than any other single economic factor which shapes the lives, and life chances, of millennials. Wendy Liu’s Abolish Silicon Valley is a fantastic political call to arms in the cause of socialising the ownership of this most individualistic entrepreneurial of economic forces. The 2021 Edition of the annual Socialist Register takes a similar theme, Beyond Digital Capitalism, to explore not only the regressive limitations of the digital economy but also the progressive possibilities for a socialist social media and new forms of workplace organising, community restaurants and low-carbon public transport – it’s a truly inspiring read. 

The Coronavirus has revealed the actually existing welfare state gripped by its own crisis.  Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s The Lost Decade records the government-made decline of the public realm in devastating detail. No amount of clapping for NHS frontline staff could make up for a decade’s worth of decline – and before that too, they record the underfunding, underpaying and undervaluing of an institution so vital to the nation’s health, virus or no virus.

Of course institutions, not even the rightly venerated NHS, can stand still.  Reinventing The Welfare State by Ursula Huws skilfully combines this imperative for change, while firmly establishing that the market isn’t the sole model for such a change. The ideas are bold, original and inventive, they’ll need to be if the near universal political acceptance of the market model for the past four decades is to be reversed. The consequences of such bipartisanship are sharpest of all in the university sector.

Editors Michael Rustin and Gavin Poynter’s Building a Radical University is a history of the University of East London, best known to those of a certain age as NELP (North East London Polytechnic). The book presents the institution as a haven of ‘radical innovation’ but whilst the instances cited are entirely admirable their survival is surely in resistance to, not the product of, the destruction of the polytechnic sector in the cause of a worthless marketing exercise. ‘Rebuilding the Radical Polytechnic’ – perhaps a future volume for the editors and contributors?   

At the core of both the Coronavirus crisis, and its after-effects, is of course inequality, particularly in wages and workplace conditions. This was the key determinant in how millions experienced the virus, caught it, and survived it, or not. Inequalities turbo-charged towards something over spilling into the obscene by the rapidly changing nature of work – from Amazon’s model, expertly documented in The Cost of Free Shipping edited by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese, via the Angry Workers collective recording the bitter experience of  casualisation in Class Power on Zero Hours, to Callum Cant’s superb analysis from inside the gig economy Riding for Deliveroo.

New versions of the workplace, changing terms of employment, the displacement of work as a defining characteristic of personal identity – all these and more pose fundamental challenges for how trade unions organise. Yet their core role in defending and extending wages and conditions remain as vital as ever, evidenced by the surge in trade union membership during the Coronavirus crisis. Unions Renewed by Alice Martin and Annie Quick is a powerfully made case both for this defensive role and at the same time a trade union offensive towards the democratisation of the entire economy. Such a twin role will be indivisible from the moral and political case against ever-increasing inequality. Ben Phillips makes this case in How To Fight Inequality, while arguing that for such a movement to win must coalition build right across all forces in civil society. From the USA, Jackson Rising, edited by Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya, is a handbook for how such a coalition was built and achieved radical change in one American city. Read, and be inspired.   

Pre-lockdown there had been a wave of mass, popular movements intensely typical of a digital era framing how to organise. #Metoo was arguably the first of these but of course there is always a prehistory, one which is neatly captured by the sparkling prose and eclectic selection of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s Ladies Who Punch, which could almost be called ‘Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls - the grown-up edition’.  

And then during the early summer months of the Coronavirus crisis, #BlackLivesMatters erupted. Two books provide both backstory from both sides of the Atlantic and how such a street movement connects with resistance from within the beast of the legislature, Congress and the Commons. This is What  America Looks Like by Ilhan Omar subtitled ‘ my journey from refugee to Congresswoman’  is the autobiographical account of a politics entirely different from Trump’s, or Biden’s.  

Much the same could be said of Diane Abbott, the biography by Robin Bunce and Samara Linton, as chronicled here a target of, and consistent campaigner against, racism. There is, quite simply, far too few like her, more’s the pity. Nesrine Malik’s We Need New Stories proposes the kind of politics to produce the kind of consciousness from which just such a movement might emerge.    

When we, eventually, come out the other side of the Coronavirus crisis the pressing need for an oppositional politics of resistance will be urgent. Darkly sinister forces of conspiracy theories and pseudo-libertarianism have emerged and are preparing to prosper. The new and updated edition of David Renton’s  Fascism is the best short introduction to the scale and horror of what such a politics of hate and blame can conjure up. To date, despite on occasion the very real threat of a breakthrough, the various British variants of fascism have never succeeded. No Platform by Evan Smith tells of one episode, and the controversies it provoked, that contributed to the fascists’ defeat.

Thankfully while the threat of fascism should never be lightly dismissed, its imminent revival as a mass political force is unlikely. Instead we have the global phenomenon of populism, complicated by the fact this has both reactionary right  variants as well as popular left variants. The Populist Manifesto edited by Emmy Eklundh and Andy Knott provides a very good account of this sometimes bemusing variety under the heading of one ‘ism.’ For the People from Jorge Tamames takes a narrower focus, but is no less invaluable as a consequence. Focussing exclusively on the variants of Left populism, specifically Podemos in Spain and Bernie Sanders in the USA, this is a book to give hope for a better politics, and a better future, once the crisis is over.    

The key to that hope reaching fulfilment has to depend not so much on charismatic leaders but engaging ideas. This is the key difference between a Left that is popular and one that is simply populist.  A good starting point is to deconstruct those elements that have degenerated democracy. To that end the multi-authored Media Manifesto provides both an accessible critique and a credible alternative for what passes today as ‘news’. Peter Geoghegan’s Democracy for Sale expertly dissects how in the digital age the forces that produce such a biased, monopolised news production range far beyond what we read in a paper, listen to on the radio or watch on the TV and as this brilliant exposure reveals, are all the more dangerous as a result.

Eliane Glaser takes a very different tack in her new book Elitism. Described as both ‘a progressive defence’ and a ‘provocation’ the title would seem to fly in the  face of the former ,while living up to the latter. But this most interesting of writers is on to an idea, something rooted in the coronavirus crisis. Science and the scientists, doctors and frontline NHS workers, public health professionals, their collective expertise puts a fly-by-the-seat-of-his pants PM to shame. That doesn’t mean science and professionalism is neutral, but to ignore it entirely we do so at our peril.

And as for a thinker who draws these, and many other threads of ideas together, a new generation of writers will cite the late Mark Fisher. Matt Colquhoun’s Egress serves both as an excellent tribute to Mark Fisher’s influence and introduction to his ideas. For those familiar – or not so familiar – a hugely illuminating read.    

The coronavirus crisis has coincided with the end of Corbyn and Sanders insurgencies, and the defeat of Trump. Quite where this might leave politics afterwards is anybody’s guess and it’s too early for the guesswork, educated or otherwise, to get into print yet. A useful starting point before we get to read the eventual theses is the new edition of Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin’s The Socialist  Challenge Today, a polemical survey  of the hits, and misses of Corbyn, Sanders and Syriza.

The latter is the subject of a detailed critique in Greece 2015 by Éric Toussaint. Of course such critiques are necessary, although the crushing of hopes dashed can produce demoralised despair when what is required is the energy of renewal. Three very different accounts of the Corbyn era provide, perhaps unwittingly, some sort of basis for this kind of energetic  thinking, and doing.

From the outside left As It Happened is a collection of  Lindsey German’s briefings on the Corbyn project from the highs of 2017 to the lows of 2019.  Enthusiasm for what might be possible is combined with a sharply critical view of why it didn’t – or if you like, revolutionary realism.

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It is hard to imagine Deborah Mattinson ever describing herself as a revolutionary but the work she has done on polling and focus groups for a period revolutionised Labour’s approach to electioneering. Beyond the Red Wall is her attempt to make sense of Labour’s disastrous loss of so many ‘heartland’ seats in the 2019 General Election. We can argue the toss over the book’s methodology but recognising the seriousness of these losses and not assuming we know the answers why is absolutely vital.  

Muckrakers Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire don’t pretend to offer any such answers but their strictly unauthorised inside story on the Corbyn Leadership Left Out is so wonderfully scurrilous that it is a rollicking good read, whether or not the reader agrees with the politics.

This Land by Owen Jones is the same account but from an openly Corbynist perspective. With an unrivalled media platform, Owen is probably the best known purveyor of Corbynist politics. However the most interesting thing about his book is the scale, and the limits, of his critique of what Corbynism became.  

Chris Clarke’s The Dark Knight and the Puppet Master offers a very different view on what should follow Corbyn. Highly critical of left populism, Chris offers pluralism as his alternative, and in the process rejects the idea that Labour can be both popular and plural. Why not?        

The year will end on one happy note, the downfall of Trump. In his place President Joe Biden – but what Biden’s America will end up looking like, nobody yet knows. Better than Trump’s is a mighty low bar! Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht in Bigger Than Bernie are convinced that without Sanders at the helm it won’t be as good they’d have wished it to be. For Bernie supporters that’s a self-evident truth – the key however will be how to edge Biden towards the ‘better’ and when the process slows find the means to edge it forward again without retreating to the comfortable margins of inglorious, indignant, opposition. 

Where are the resources for such a hopeful outcome? Out of history, that’s where. Ruth Kinna’s Great Anarchists, illustrated by the sublime Clifford Harper, is a superb place to begin this journey of optimism, chronicling in words and pictures this most optimistic of ideologies.

Or Robert Tressell’s classic account of the potential for a working-class politics of change in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, now ingeniously recreated by Scarlett and Sophie Rickard as a graphic novel. At the core of these different yet complementary accounts is a sense of coming together to fulfil a common cause.

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That process Jodi Dean describes in her brilliant short book Comrade as ‘political belonging ’ a value sorely lacking when the practice of politics becomes divorced from the ambition to change, everything. 

The latest edition of the twice-yearly journal Twentieth Century Communism ranges over its usual fascinating mix of efforts towards such a scale of change, including communism fighting to survive under the Nazis in interwar Germany, the Soviet-China split in the postwar years, and Eric Hobsbawm’s writings on dialectical materialism.

Domestic tales of such efforts, not all of them happy, are retold in Ian Parker’s extraordinary Mapping the English Left through Film which details the story of 25 Left groups, with each account introduced with the device of a film Ian has chosen to best represent their politics, opening with Arnold  Schwarzernegger’s Total Recall as the Labour Party. If that doesn’t tempt readers nothing will. Ian’s book is both very funny and highly informative, a rare combination amongst most writers on the far Left. 

But sometimes these small, highly committed, revolutionary-activist groups produce leaders and regimes which in this tiny closed world are no laughing matter. My Search for Revolution is the story of the Workers Revolutionary Party, best known for counting Vanessa and Corin Redgrave amongst their ranks, as told by former member Clare Cowen. A story Clare describes as abuse, including sexual abuse, all in the cause of creating a party equipped to effect revolutionary change. 

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In the interwar years, dominated by the Popular Front against fascism, that cause connected to a broad public support in every sector of society. The Folk Singers and the Bureau provides a fascinating account, thanks to the painstaking research of author Aaron J. Leonard of just one instance of the breadth and depth of such support, namely folk music. Tellingly, much of the book consists of what the establishment did to first narrow, then demonise, and finally criminalise this support.

Edited by Colin Coulter Working for the Clampdown deals with a very different period of this fusion of the popular, the political and the musical – the late 1970s to early 1980s, punk, Clash and Rock against Racism. For those of a certain age there’s never been anything like it since. Nostalgia isn’t a healthy trait to equip a radical politics of today and tomorrow but sometimes it’s worth making an exception, because the lessons of Rock against Racism (RAR)are too valuable to be lost in the mists of time. Colin’s book helps us to understand why.    

Central to RAR’s impact was its agitational visual identity, mixing punk and dayglo, but in a highly original fashion, not derivative of punk in the least, but stood as part of that moment in its own right. The same care and attention to visual arts activism was applied to RAR’s sister organisation the Anti Nazi League (ANL) by one of the British Left’s most important graphic designers, David King. David set a standard of originality and impact both framed by the wonderful art of the Russian Revolution but entirely capable of going beyond it too. Rick Poynor’s David King is a superbly illustrated design biography and deserves to be read by anyone seeking to communicate ideas, and ideals, visually. 

A much slimmer volume is the pamphlet Protest Stencil, testament to how low cost guerrilla marketing, ‘subvertising’ with good graphics can extend the reach of ideas where more conventional methods fail. Or to while away the grim dissatisfaction of the pandemic ,indulge yourself and let rip the artistic imagination, crayons at the ready, with N.O.Bonzo’s Off With Their Heads – an ‘antifascist colouring book’, yes really!  

For many lockdown has meant spending more time at home, willingly or otherwise, and less time doing all those things that take us away from home,  willingly or otherwise. Animal Squat, written and illustrated by Doublewhy, is a children’s book like few others, a tale of wild things and even wilder ideas for parents not afraid of their sons and daughters questioning why?

More time at home has also meant for many rediscovering the joys of eating in versus eating out or takeaways. There’s no one better to make such a realignment enjoyable and economic than Jack Monroe, and her latest book Good  Food for Bad Days is perfectly timed for the baddest days imaginable.

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And when this virus is all over, what then? My book of the year maps precisely how a pandemic became a crisis, how new models of support and solidarity became the basis of survival and were given a social worth and weight never accorded to them before, and also provides an organising focus which demands the remaking of the political. The Care Manifesto by The Care Collective is my favourite book of 2020 because not only does it find a way out of the crisis, but lays the basis for something better in its place.  

Mark Perryman is co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football

Popular culture, Brexit and One Nation Toryism
Monday, 14 December 2020 15:27

Popular culture, Brexit and One Nation Toryism

Written by

Jim Aitken describes how so much of popular culture reflects and legitimises the values of the Tories and the ruling class. Image above: Downton Abbey

There was a palpable sense of euphoria on the BBC during the morning after the night before of the General Election of December 12, 2019. It had a feeling of glee about it; a childish excitement that the un-English dragon of socialism – as represented by Jeremy Corbyn – had well and truly been defeated by the forces of St. George of England. These forces, amazingly, had included many of those who had been reduced to the level of serfdom by the political party they were now supporting. Dragon Jeremy had promised these serfs their rightful inheritance and instead they chose Boris, the court jester. England’s green and pleasant lands could remain forever precariously green – a bit like the serfs themselves.

In a sense the BBC was entitled to this gleefulness because it had helped to orchestrate a campaign that told the serfs of England’s former industrial areas that the court jester needed their seats to Get Brexit Done. Many duly obliged because they too wanted to Get Brexit Done. No-one asked them why they wanted it done and why Europe was so noxious to them. No-one asked them if they thought it was the EU that was responsible for the de-industrialisation of their areas; if the EU was responsible for the austerity they lived under; for the food banks they go to for food or for the zero hours and chronic low pay they receive. No-one asked them if all these adversities were made in the UK or in the EU. For the court jester, however, Europe was foreign and too left-wing with too many regulations for a free-marketeer like him. England did not need to be a vassal state any longer. She could be free from all the regulations that guaranteed the serfs minimal rights, and be great again.

The political media pundits though never spoke much about England at all. They spoke about Britain and the British election and about how the incoming British government would Get Brexit Done. England and Britain are clearly interchangeable words, for them. The reality, however, in this election was that of the 365 seats won by the Conservatives, an enormous 345 were secured in England. Scotland gave them 6 out of 59 and Wales gave them 14 out of 40. Northern Ireland gave them a Remain vote and a nationalist majority. The overwhelming mandate for Brexit came overwhelmingly from England as a result of the English nationalist genie that had been released from the Brexit bottle. What has to be examined is how this huge English mandate has come about.

Yes, of course, the TV channels and newspapers will support any form of Conservatism including the cabal currently associated with Johnson’s extreme right-wing coup leading his Party. It doesn’t matter how far right this Party goes because – so we are repeatedly informed – the Conservative Party is the natural party of government. Any cursory look at the record of who has been in power down the last 120 years will confirm this. What has to be considered is why this is the case and how has it been achieved.

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The latest sensation on Netfix is called The Crown and it traces the reign of the current monarch, Elizabeth. This series may soon have to compete with Andrew Marr’s new series Elizabethans telling the people of the UK how lucky they have been to be subjects of such an outstanding monarch. His book of the same name follows fairly fast from his The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth 2nd and her People which came out in 2012. TV schedules and daily news items abound about the monarchy. It is a bit like the logic of advertising whereby consumers will invariably buy what is most known to them. The more you are harangued the weaker your defence can become. Monarchy is certainly a product that is force-fed to the British people.

There are countless films and TV programmes dedicated to monarchs past and present. Some recent ones dealing with Queen Victoria, once Empress of India, include Young Victoria, Her Majesty Mrs Brown, Victoria and Abdul and Victoria. There has also been films further back on The Madness of George111, The King’s Speech (George V1), The Favourite (Queen Anne), Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age ( Elizabeth1), Henry V as well as The Queen about the current monarch. This is by no means an exhaustive list but these films do come immediately to mind. There has also been a rather morbid fascination in film with Henry VIII, the monster who gave England her first Brexit by breaking with Rome. Keith Michel played the tyrant in The Six Wives of Henry V111 as far back as 1970 but there has also been A Man for all Seasons (1966 &1988), Anne of the Thousand Days, The Other Boleyn Girl and several historical novels by Hilary Mantel which focus largely on the character Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s Machiavellian fixer, in Wolf Hall (2009), Bring up the Bodies (2012) and The Mirror and the Light (202

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Just below the level of monarchy we have Winston Churchill portrayed in films like Young Winston (1972), The Gathering Storm (2002), Into the Storm (2008), Churchill (2017) and Darkest Hour (2018) to name only a few. There have been countless biographies also written about him including one by Johnson in 2014. And like the monarch he turns up all the time in other TV programmes. The greatest offenders are programmes like Antiques Roadshow and Flog It. These programmes, while certainly interesting in terms of objects that have been superbly well made by magnificent craftsmen, often throw up pieces of Churchilliana along with the usual items associated with the reign of some monarch.

We are back to the effect of constant advertising again. While it has to be agreed that Churchill played a significant role during the Second World War, it should always be remembered that he was first and foremost a Tory and an imperialist with everything that usually goes along with that. Dundonians to this day continue to tell us that he was run out of Dundee after his comments on their drunkenness became widely known and another seat had to be found for him.

The use of monarchs past and present along with the figure of Churchill continues to be pervasive, permeating the public mind and perpetuating the values of Conservatism. This is how the masses are psychologically programmed to accept ruling class values – through these values being pervasive, through their permeation and perpetuation. In every city in the UK there are streets named after monarchs and aristocrats, hospitals, bridges, theatres, public buildings, coinage and stamps and countless mugs, tea-towels and all the rest

Even the anti-working class soap Eastenders where the characters are aggressive, violent, duplicitous and generally venal – and that’s just the female characters – all meet up in the pub called The Queen Victoria. The action also takes place in Albert Square. Monarchy can seem to be as natural as breathing if it is so pervasively used and being so pervasively used as it is in the UK means that the UK also has one of the most secure ruling classes in the world.

The aristocracy and landed gentry have also been rehabilitated and legitimised by TV. The Antiques Roadshow and Flog It again often either have their programmes set in stately homes or in the spacious grounds of such Palladian pads. The genial presenter Paul Martin will often have a chat with the owner about the wonderful, marvellous history of his house and marvel at how he has managed to keep it looking so spruce for another 500 years. Questions about how his ancestors acquired the wealth to build such palatial residences are seldom asked. Programmes such as these ones enable the success of long running series like Downton Abbey.

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And then there’s our armed forces. Sometimes these antique programmes can take place in buildings associated with the navy or in some armed forces museum and the memory of Abu Ghraib and what our soldiers did there can be conveniently forgotten. Dad’s Army has been running continuously since it first came out in 1968. When it did first come out it was funny with the memory of the war not too far distant. By running continuously there is the permeating agenda about how we won the war – which was all down, of course, to Churchill.

It seems that the further right the UK has gone politically, the larger and larger poppies have become. No other European country that took part in either of the two world wars commemorate these conflicts quite like the UK. It is now mandatory to have poppies emblazoned on football shirts from October to November. Football fans will stand quietly to remember the war dead so that the same ruling class can remain in power despite the fact that it was the same ruling classes that got us into such wars in the first place. Those who have died in war should be remembered but remembered in such a way that will prevent wars from happening ever again. With the arms industry the biggest one in Britain with exports around the world, conflicts have become inevitable. None of Her Majesty’s leading subjects standing proudly at the cenotaph wearing their poppies will ever mention this fact.

The poppy is also the ultimate item associated with charity, something the ruling classes worship because they lack any sense of generosity. Sales of the poppy are encouraged on TV and radio so that they can help the charities that help our retired and wounded ex-servicemen and women. Charity does not seem to have filtered down to many of the ex-soldiers currently begging on our streets who all went off to conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq as heroes and are now forgotten.

With Vera Lynn dead, the way the craven media has embraced Captain Tom Moore is quite incredible. Here we had a 99 year old ex-serviceman walking in his garden to raise a charitable donation to give to the NHS. While that is laudable given that the NHS has been underfunded by the Tories for the last ten years and the Covid crisis places huge demands on its services and staff, old Tom Moore did his walking dressed with all his military medals on his blazer. That was a moment the media loved because it played beautifully into the paradigm of our wonderful armed forces and charity at the same time.

The brutal British Empire

Captain Tom, just like Vera Lynn before him, was knighted for his services to charity. He became Sir as she became Dame. While citizens who have achieved great things and contributed to the welfare of others should be recognised by the state, the honours system in Britain does something else entirely. By calling people Sir or Dame or Lord or Baroness the British state separates people from others. To be in possession of an OBE, MBE or CBE is to be a recipient of the Order, Member and Commander of the British Empire. Such titles which Robert Burns derided as mere tinsel show, are seen as being the very epitome of respectability despite the fact that the words ‘British Empire’ refer to something that no longer exists and was brutal in the extreme when it was around.

Charity has become pervasive and its operation permeates minds just as monarchy does. The word comes from the Latin caritas meaning love and compassion. The word is also one of the seven Christian virtues but much of its practice is associated with the already rich becoming recognised and deemed respectable by receiving honours for charitable work. The same people have been silent on inequalities, food banks and zero-hour contracts.

Children in schools are conditioned to believe that social inequalities can effectively be ended by recourse to charity. There are countless charity days in schools to raise funds for various causes throughout the school year and you get to dress up in silly clothes or outfits from Harry Potter for the occasion. Teachers as well get down with the kids by dressing up. There are also the charity evenings on TV for Children in Need and Comic Relief. Here we can all see the latest celebrities doing their bit for charity and viewers are led into the belief that such celebrities are genuinely caring people. Some may well be. However, the fact that many of these celebrities bank their cash in offshore accounts is never raised. And the fact that such offshore accounts are facilitated by those in power who value charity so much is also never questioned. The question why one of the richest countries in the world has to have such recourse to charity is also a silent subject.

TV also seems to encourage tears. Chat show hosts, newsreaders and reporters seem to welcome tears from people who invariably say sorry as they dry their eyes and the interviewer says no, it’s fine. Sometimes this is done by people outside courts or people who have witnessed terrible events or, more generally, people who have come through adversities. Shows of emotion seem to be welcome. This has become particularly true on The Repair Shop, a programme that is a wonderful tribute to the highly skilled craftsmen and women who brilliantly repair objects brought in by members of the public. The programme is also a wonderful antidote to our throwaway society by getting skilled workers to repair a whole assortment of items.

Often when people come to see their items newly restored there will be tears of joy but often this can end up degenerating into sentimentality. And sentimentality is now part of a media dialectic which enjoys shows of sentiment and emotion while failing to adequately expose the actual brutality of the nation’s underlying economic base.

Marx once posited the base and superstructure theory. In this he noted the unequal economic base and how its relations are made manifest in a cultural superstructure which establishes its right to rule. In modern times, this happens through the people being told to believe in all the wrong things such as to love monarchy, Churchill, honours, widespread charity and shows of sentimentality. And the actual news programmes now treat viewers as idiots with graphics on screen to help them understand the simplest things. The Covid tier system recently announced by Johnson became a three-tiered wedding cake to help us understand what tier actually meant.

The last thing any capitalist state wishes is for is for its inhabitants to be well-educated. The £9,000 per year fees in England and Wales confirms this. Also the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations is a case in point. When statues of former slave owners were toppled or reactionary figures on plinths daubed with paint, the ruling class was temporarily shaken. But the idea that the Proms should abandon singing the imperialist ditties Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory and God save the Queen because they hark back to the days of slavery and empire was just too much for Johnson who insisted these traditional songs be sung out loud. Sadly, many ordinary people would have agreed with him.

For someone like Gramsci it is what the state and its media arms present to you all the time that gives the ruling class their ability to rule. The word hegemony meant for Gramsci an effective means of domination founded on acceptance. The dominated accept the rules of the social and political game, being convinced that such rules serve them well and form part of some kind of immutable order to which they are a part. The programme The Apprentice: You’re fired! is an example of this.

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This gigantic con-trick was in fact leaked by that grand old Victorian reactionary, the writer and journalist Walter Bagehot as far back as 1867 in his English Constitution. There is, of course, no English or British constitution written down anywhere. When Burke extolled its virtues to the republican Tom Paine it was Paine who asked Burke if he could furnish him with a copy so that he might read it for himself. The whole business of government is made up on the hoof. When the masses rebel sometimes they may win, but generally legislation will be brought in to keep them in their place like Thatcher’s anti-trade union legislation. At other times when there is serious pressure from below there can be legislation on race relations and sex discrimination. For Bagehot royalty functioned as a disguise. He elaborated further:

It enables our real rulers to change without heedless people knowing it. The masses of Englishmen are not fit for an elective government; if they knew how near they were to it, they would be surprised, and almost tremble.

In his customary invective against what the Queen Mother apparently called ‘the lower orders’, Bagehot went on to say that royalty ‘has a comprehensible element for the vacant many’ and in comments like these we can see how the ruling classes hide behind the monarchy, how it is used to keep us as subjects rather than as citizens. Bagehot again puts it so much better when he said ‘it is at the bottom of our people that we have done as well as we have.’

Johnson, Gove and all the clan from the 1922 Committee and the ERG could not have put it better themselves. Yet these people all claim that they are one nation Conservatives. This baloney is supposed to imply that they rule equally for everyone regardless of nation, region or class when their rule actually is designed to cater for the one class across the country who have all the wealth.

They have been using this term ever since it was coined by Disraeli in the 1870s. He used it to counter any expectations from the working classes after their agitation to further extend the franchise. His novel Sybil or the Two Nations came out in 1845 and the two nations of which he speaks are the rich and poor. His one nation term was coined to appeal to the masses that his brand of Conservative paternalism will look after them while not changing the structures and levers of the system that made them poor in the first place. Ironically, in the same year that Sybil was published Engels brought out his devastating critique on the two nations in his The Condition of the Working Class in England which avoided paternalistic solutions completely.

Bagehot described Wales as ‘a corner of England’ while deriding the Scots for their ‘intolerant common sense.’ As for the Irish he said predictably that ‘it is not so much the thing agitated for that they want, as the agitation itself.’ These attitudes are alive in today’s Conservative Party and this is best exemplified in the Internal Markets Bill that is strongly opposed by First Ministers Drakeford in Wales and Sturgeon in Scotland. The Tories were clear that they were taking back control and this Bill will certainly do that by centralising power away from devolved administrations.

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Brexit, we were told, was about taking back control but the question of who will be in control after Brexit was never asked. As far as I am aware there will still be a monarchy, an unelected second chamber in the House of Lords and the House of Commons will continue to function as an extension to the debating chamber of Eton, the place that has given us 20 Prime Ministers to date. The Church of England will continue to be established by the state and guarantee that no liberation theology will ever break out. And the Mother of Parliaments will continue to function without any written constitution and continue to make it all up as it goes along. Watch out on TV  for repeat viewings of The Dam Busters, Colditz, The Great Escape and more programmes on royalty along with as much dumbed-down reality TV as you can take.

Labour has been in existence for 120 years and her founder Keir Hardie loathed the privilege and hypocrisy associated with royalty. He described himself as an agitator who sought to ‘stir up a divine discontent with wrong.’ These are Labour’s roots and they have been steadfastly ignored even during the time of Corbyn. With Ireland gone, Northern Ireland with a changing demographic that could result in Irish unity, with Wales beginning to assert herself and Scotland with one independence referendum behind her and another looming, it is Labour too that will have to be taken to task for never having challenged the nature of a state that is designed to benefit the Tories. They created it, after all, to suit their needs. Maybe this has been inevitable considering for most of the last 120 years Labour has been happy with the nomenclature of being Her Majesty’s Opposition rather than being a socialist alternative.

Capitalists like us
Wednesday, 02 December 2020 09:28

Capitalists like us

Written by

Alan Dent continues his series on culture and capitalism by arguing that soap operas, game and talent shows validate capitalism

Fans of Hancock’s Half-Hour, The Liver Birds or Steptoe and Son enjoyed good quality entertainment. After a hard day’s work, what’s wrong with turning on the radio or the television to ease up and have a laugh? Joe Orton said he was no cultural snob and enjoyed I Love Lucy, yet he also defaced books from Islington Library in protest at the debased content of the shelves – and that at a time when libraries weren’t forced to ditch editions more than ten years old.

Orton was recognising that entertainment has its place, but not at the cost of elbowing art aside. Huw Weldon, in a famous speech in the 1960s, claimed the distinction between entertainment and art lay in the difference between giving pleasure and seeking truth. There is truth in Hancock, of course and in The Liver Birds, and King Lear is pleasurable in spite of the gouging out of eyes. Perhaps a better distinction lies in this: a work of art is successful whether or not it attains an audience. A soap opera watched by 100,000 would be an abject failure; a theatre play seen by 10,000 might be a huge success, artistically. Entertainment has to make money, even for a public service broadcaster, in the sense people won’t pay the licence fee for what they aren’t willing to watch. The success of a work of art is extraneous to questions of popularity. Emily Dickinson’s poems were artistically successful while still in her drawer. Accomplished art tends to attract an audience, but often not easily. Entertainment is impatient. No one writes a soap opera anticipating it may get due recognition in two centuries.

So entertainment must be given its due. As an introduction to dramatic writing and especially to good acting, much TV entertainment has done good work. Also, few people can tolerate a diet of only the most exacting art. Young people especially need to be eased towards appreciation of demanding art; but entertainment is much more amenable to manipulation than art. When advertisers are paying TV companies millions to buy their audiences, the last thing they want is content which subverts their view of the world.

AD Play For Today 1200 Red Shift Alan Garner BFI BBC A Year In The Country smaller

The era (1964-1984) that provided The Wednesday Play and Play for Today perhaps bridged the gap. Several hundred plays, some written by dramatists of exceptional talent, attracted good audiences. They weren’t all masterpieces, but they were attempts at real drama presented on a popular if naturalistic medium. The dates are to be noted: 1964 saw Wilson’s first electoral victory, 1984 was the year after Thatcher’s second. Sixties cultural openness declined into eighties philistinism. The BBC offered Ken Loach and others the brief to produce drama which challenged orthodoxy and addressed contemporary social realities. After Thatcher, that was unthinkable.

High art for the few and bland culture for the many

Trevor Griffiths remarked that he couldn’t understand why radical writers didn’t cleave to television. Like him, Thatcher recognised that a mass medium broadcasting material which questioned the status quo was potentially revolutionary. A division had to be made between high art, confined to a few, and bland mass culture. Forms like folk music (revived at around the same time The Wednesday Play began, largely thanks to Ewan McColl) which blended serious radicalism with popular melodies and lyrics, had to be sidelined by the pop charts, dominated largely by saccharine love songs. Entertainment had to confirm that what is must be, and art had to learn to pay its way. This remains the general tenor of British culture.

All entertainment, because of its need for commercial success, is debased art. It’s a simple truism: without Bach, there would be no pop music, no western music. Bach worked out Equal Temperament and he or his assistants or both tuned a keyboard so it could play in all keys. Prior to which, instruments were limited in range or had to be retuned for key changes (the musicology of this is explained clearly in Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs). Before Equal Temperament, harmony was limited. Bach was a musical revolutionary. Without Aeschylus there would be no Eastenders. Without Henry Fielding, there would be no Val McDermid. The same is not true in reverse: Mark Anthony Turnage has no need of Kylie Minogue, Caryl Churchill doesn’t need Coronation St. Entertainment is a debased form by definition, yet it can be responsibly employed.

What matters is who produces it and why. Entertainment in our culture is in general produced by the rich, and its purpose is to uphold the system which makes them wealthy. Our culture blurs the boundaries of art and entertainment for the purpose of elevating the latter and diminishing the former: pos-modernism, the intellectual handmaiden of this process, is nothing more than the refusal of a hierarchy of values. Its primary strategy is to assert there are no objective criteria by which culture can be judged. Who can say Ibsen is better drama than Coronation St? Putatively democratic, this is simply a capitulation to commercialism: what sells is good. Thus, Fifty Shades of Grey is better than The Trial (sales of the latter globally are enormous but in contemporary Britain relatively modest).

The problem art poses for capitalism is that it obviously isn’t aimed at a market. Who, wanting to sell, would write Krapp’s Last Tape or Heart of Darkness? As art is motivated by something other than pursuit of maximum sales, it’s a suspicious activity. Just what it might be about, the ideologues of capitalism may not be able to discern, but their attitude is well summed up by the remark Thatcher made to Birtwistle when he attended a reception for the music “industry” (idiotic designation) in Downing St: “We know what you’re up to.”

Advertising with knobs on

It is Thatcher’s paranoid philistinism which drives the entertainment industry (an apposite designation). An article in The Sun by Lucy Murgatroyd on 24th June 2020 tells us that Jacqueline Jossa is worth some £1.2m, Michelle Keegan £2.7m, Alan Halsall up to £4m, Danny Dyer £3.9m, Adam Woodyatt up to £4m, Steve McFadden £2.7m, Jack P. Shepherd up to £4m, Derek Thompson £6m, Amanda Mealing up to £4m. The article revels in the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy stars: they like to show off their expensive cars, they luxuriate in their wealth. That this is morally obscene in a society where millions depend on foodbanks, hundreds of thousands are homeless, ought not to need saying. Our culture not only normalises greed and its ostentatious display, it proposes it as morally worthy, a proof of status and value.

The first soap opera is thought to have been Painted Dreams, which aired on WGN radio Chicago on 20th October 1930. The title is appropriate. The form was elaborated to catch the attention of housewives. At its core, therefore, is reaction. It embraced no desire to examine the concept “housewife”. It took the category and all it implied (which included no small measure of despair and mental torment for women trapped in a limited, stultifying role) for granted. Housewives were a market. If, in their boredom, they could be hooked by redundant, sentimental, melodramatic broadcasts, they could be sold soap powder, or whatever else was deemed appropriate to their downgraded status. In its conception, soap opera was barely entertainment: it was advertising with knobs on. In a sense that is what it remains: an advert for capitalism.

According to the Mailonline of 3rd August 2017, Hugh Quarshie was demanding a pay rise for his role in Holby City, as he’d discovered that his fellow actor Derek Thompson was earning £399,000 a year. If nurses demand a pay rise, they are usually castigated by the right-wing media for “holding the country to ransom” or a lack of professionalism or neglecting their patients or some other confected failing; but for an actor to demand a salary some ten times the national average is not only acceptable, it reveals all is well with the world. The talented must be richly rewarded. Hard work must bring great wealth. These are rules inscribed in the heavens – immutable, irresistible, eternal.

That there is no necessary connection between talent and wealth or hard work and wealth is obvious. Poets of talent have, for hundreds of years, earned nothing or virtually nothing. Musicians of talent play in orchestras for modest salaries or jazz gigs for less than a plumber charges per hour. Teachers, nurses, care workers, kitchen porters, waiters work hard and get by. The indefeasible connection is between wealth and greed. All the wealthy are greedy. No one is trapped in wealth like they are trapped in poverty. It’s always possible to divest yourself of wealth, to employ it to help those who need help. What keeps the rich rich is not the operation of an abstract market, but greed.         

Soap operas, which continue to hook audiences through the tired formulas of melodrama (Orton pointed up the similarity between melodrama and madness) are principally transparent vehicles for the empty proposition that society can’t function without the rich: you love your soap opera; you identify with the characters; you follow the plots; their lives seem more real than your own (the boredom of capitalism makes sure of that); they are a major source of conversation; and the stars earn £400,000 a year or are worth millions. Thus, your pleasures depend on inequality. What is also at work, though, is the debased nature of the form.

Soap opera is excessively naturalistic. It defeats Ibsen’s maxim: The illusion I seek is the illusion of reality. In its place it puts: The reality I propose is the reality of illusion. The economics of soap opera production necessitates overlong scenes and expanded conversations. Soap operas are divided into bits which lack conciseness; what can be said in ten words will never be said in less than a hundred; an emotion that can be expressed in the most minute gesture requires histrionics. None of this is accidental. It’s not unusual for those addicted to soap opera to communicate with characters as if they are real: Dear Ken, I feel I must let you know your wife is having an affair.. or With deepest sympathy appended to flowers for someone’s funeral.

British soaps resized

This naïve appreciation of the framework is part of the ploy: the form engenders the naivety it requires. In spite of an expensive education system, people in their millions set aside suspension of disbelief and see no illusion. No one has ever written to an actor playing Hamlet in the theatre: Dear Hamlet, Sorry to hear about your dad….The debilitating naturalism of soap opera destroys the ability to simultaneously watch drama as if it’s real while knowing it’s factitious. In soap opera, there is no “as if”. This is as culturally backward as the simple folk of Dorset who, when first read the stories of Hardy took them for truth and when told Mr Hardy had invented them, said: “Why would he do that?”

The lack of the appropriate frame kills the sense that the writer (soap operas, of course, are written by committees) has invented to a purpose. There being no purpose to the illusion, it must be reality. What could be more dismal than millions of benighted adherents taking spatchcock, thoughtless melodrama for reality? Capitalism is routinely attacked for its injustice, but seldom for its unconscionable tedium, the source of the pitiful need to identify with plastic TV characters.

It’s sometimes argued that soap operas deal with pressing social realities, as if this justifies them and makes them half-way radical; but the form defeats whatever plotlines it may embrace. There is no catharsis where there is no appreciation of drama as illusion. There has never been a riot outside a TV studio in response to a soap opera, as people rioted over O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars in 1926 (it was also said that his inclusion of a prostitute in one of his plays was a disgrace because there were no prostitutes in Dublin). Whatever ostensibly contentious issue is included in a soap opera, its potential subversive effect will be annulled by its utter conformism, which confirms our culture in all its injustice, boredom and stasis.

Coronation Street

Soap opera characters are just like us, so the form proposes; but ironically, given the audience’s willingness not to suspend disbelief, they are played by stars who are anything but. Ken Barlow is a very rich man, and a Tory, though in the series he isn’t either. If the Ken the viewers can identify with as someone like us, a bloke who might live next door blends with the William Roache who definitely doesn’t (unless you’re very well off), the job is done: actors require huge financial rewards. Thus is real drama shredded and capitalism justified.

Tony Warren’s notion was reactionary from the beginning: a typical northern street with a pub at one end and a corner shop at the other; characters who would be as typical as their environment. The essence is stasis, a synchronic perspective, a slice through rather than of life. At the heart of the idea was the rejection of change, as if Coronation Street was born with time and would endure with it. Where drama often depicts characters trapped by circumstance and therefore implicitly available for transformation by escaping them, Warren’s little universe was to be self-enclosed and therefore entropic. Entropy spreads out energy until nothing can happen. The same dispersal is intrinsic to soap opera’s form. Nothing can happen in the sense that no fundamental change can come about because if it did, the very conception would wither. Characters may leave Coronation St, they may die, but the street itself remains, eternal and therefore dead. Until heat-death, the universe is in constant flux. Whatever is unchanging can exist only after heat-death, though, of course, it can’t, as everything that exists must be subject to change.

What is typical of characters in real drama, is energy. Even Vladimir and Estragon are defined by their inability to go; they have to wait for Godot so their energy is trapped. Lear employs his waning energy to assert his kingly power and Regan and Goneril theirs for the evil of lust for that power. Othello’s energy is misdirected into jealousy by the manipulative energy of Iago. Willy Loman’s energy, denied by his culture, fuels the fantasy which kills him. The characters in Coronation Street are held is aspic. Their energy is flattened out. They are puppets. There is no real drama because their can be no real possibility of change. The form defies it. Hamlet tells us things could have been different if corruption hadn’t seized the court of Denmark. What The Butler Saw tells us that disaster ensues when we try to hide the truth. A Doll’s House shows us people can be diminished by institutions but can rebel. Soap opera tells us nothing can happen and therefore there can be only the non-events of melodrama, an expression of the phoney emotions of the emotionally dead.

The just-like-us nature of soap opera is carried over into game shows and talent shows where people you might sit next to on the bus put themselves through humiliation in pursuit of money and fame. The formula is as simple as it is cynical: you have no shame; you will undergo any embarrassment to be lifted out of your current situation, even if by no more than few thousand quid. Both game and talent shows are based on greed for money and fame.

The false promise of capitalism           

The key to game shows is that contestants prove themselves idiots and to talent shows that they reveal themselves as talentless. Of course, some people defeat the formula and win or turn out able to perform. Yet the essence is the message that you’re willing to compromise your dignity for money or fame (which implies money). Central also is the notion of overnight success: one day you’re a teacher, next day you win Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. One day you’re a hairdresser, next day you have a recording contract. This keeps alive the false and essentially neurotic promise of capitalism: that while the wheel is spinning you may have the chance of remarkable fortune. Of course, a tiny minority are lucky, but that’s the point: the tiny minority who are exorbitantly wealthy deserve their wealth, and the rest deserve what’s left.  

This also militates against the idea of long apprenticeship or of a commitment which is worthwhile though not lucrative. It takes a long time and much hard work, for example, to master an instrument well enough to play in an orchestra. Hence this being an art form reserved for a minority. There is no ban, of course, on the masses taking to serious music, just a prevailing sense that “it isn’t done”, as Orwell put it. Aimed at the masses, soap opera, game shows, talent shows proclaim: this is your culture; it’s vulgar, it’s loud, it’s raucous; Shakespeare is not for you; Beethoven is too serious; this is your stuff and you love it.

The deliberate appeal to the lowest common denominator keeps the masses in their place: when the common folk start taking an interest in “high” culture, there’s trouble on the way. The barriers to them doing so are high and forbidding. A guileless, innocent interest in Mozart or Jane Austen is mocked by the cognoscenti. The common folk are made to feel embarrassed and pretentious if they show a liking for what is above their station. The mass media force their attention onto the culture which is concocted for them. The argument goes that the masses have willingly chosen this stuff and to criticise it is cultural snobbery. The truth is the culture has deliberately pursued downgraded forms to keep the common folk from what might make them think.

In this regard, it is interesting to look at the relationship between these forms and the education system. That schools run shows in imitation of Britain’s Got Talent indicates how the get-rich-quick, celebrity mentality has permeated. The last place you would expect such values to prevail is an educational setting where commitment to the cumulative mastery of knowledge and skills and a belief in learning for its own sake ought to be taken for granted. Schools have long been exam factories, but there used to be a hinterland of commitment to disinterested learning. By imposing a culture of measurement which proposes that what can’t be reduced to a number is worthless, government has erased any resistance within the system to the superficial, short-term values of the culture at large. OFSTED enforces minute conformism, which assists capitulation to whatever looms large.

Children were once taught traditional folk song in school but the Lincolnshire Poacher (sung by many primary school children in the 1950s) has been replaced by Taylor Swift. The subversive delight in poaching, the wish (in some versions) for bad luck to every magistrate would be unlikely to make it past OFSTED’s censors. The song is said to date from the eighteenth century. Today’s young are taught to attend to whatever is “trending”. Training in not thinking begins early and is well rewarded.

Class struggle in Lincolnshire

Capitalism makes two fundamental requirements of the common folk: that they should be dutiful employees and committed consumers. They hand over their labour to an employer for the latter’s enrichment and the wages they receive they hand over to commercial interests for the same purpose. Democracy barely gets a look in. For most, it is a trip to the polling booth every few years; but however they vote, the essentials don’t change: they must be diligent employees and good consumers.

By and large, the Left conspires in this by making higher wages and therefore greater consumerism the principal plank of its platform. The argument is hardly ever heard that the relation of employer-employee needs to be reformed out of existence. Higher wages, state provision of health, education, social care – such is the limit of socialism’s reach. Hence the core of socialism is removed, as only when people transcend the limits of their definition of employee can they begin to realise the potential which lies beyond it.

Popular culture is like fast food           

Soap operas, in their entrenched conformism, their stasis, their replacement of the transformative energy of drama by the dissipated entropy of melodrama confirm people in their current definitions. Joe Orton, in The Good and Faithful Servant, attacked employment. He is virtually alone among modern UK writers in going to the heart of the matter. The play was written for television, but no one will get to see it. Instead we have Strictly, Bake Off,  X-Factor, anything which stops people questioning. Very popular programmes, of course: people have to find some relief from the deadly boredom of capitalism.

The popularity of mass culture is akin to that of fast food: it is designed to appeal to the most easily stimulated and satisfied appetites. Fast food relies on fat, sugar and salt, a combination that is hard to find in nature and so one to which we have an excessive response. Our biological ancestors never ate anything like a doughnut. Natural selection ensured that when we get a hit of fat and sugar combined, our taste buds light up, because that’s a rare source of energy – but not in our supermarkets. The same is true of soap opera – it’s a sickly, sentimental confection which sparks up a set of responses remote from reality, unlike drama whose illusion penetrates to the deeper responses a true orientation to reality requires.

Similarly with game and talent shows: they permit the narrowest range of responses, all  in keeping with capitalism’s illusions: being rich is liberation, being famous is the way out of daily tedium. Incidentally, such programmes are universally popular. Globalisation has done its work. Romantic fantasies are particularly liked in China – hardly surprising when the reality is state capitalist tyranny. Russians appear to have more of a taste for crime dramas. This might occasion the argument that criticising these forms is pushing water uphill, that their universal appeal reveals their ability to key into fundamental features of the human mind which transcend cultural differences. This returns us to our initial proposition: these forms are debased art. Just as an advertising jingle can find a musical resonance across the globe, so soap opera has enough residual dramatic vibration to strike a chord. As for game and talent shows, they touch a nerve which associates performance and reward – a good spearthrower gets a good dinner.

It isn’t because they appeal to unchanging features of our nature that these forms are popular, but because they correspond to the dominant culture which itself is passed off as nature. They represent a misuse of mass media to inculcate a sensibility which upholds the system which creates it. They are brilliantly successful and will continue to be until an alternative and mocking culture arises, but that requires a willingness to forgo the rewards they provide. Writing or acting for fringe theatre is far less lucrative than doing so for television. Talent can be bought off – principle resists.

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