Deirdre O'Neill, in the latest in the series of Culture Matters/Morning Star articles on the effects of Covid-19 on culture, sketches out the argument for developing a new, dissident approach to film-making
‘For us, film is the most important of the arts’ - Lenin in 1919
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed how the absence of safety nets and the gross negligence of the Tory government has exacerbated the spread of the disease, leading to unnecessary deaths.
At the same time these conditions have called into question the legitimacy of the political and economic boundaries and definitions that are presented to us as fixed and immovable, and which keep the working class firmly in its place. The high death toll amongst working people, the people who do the jobs that keep society afloat, has made visible the class relations that are usually kept hidden.
For a very long time now working-class people have been neglected, their voices censored, and their concerns ignored. Now when they are needed, they are called ‘key workers’ and ‘heroes’ while the middle class, who ignored their increasingly desperate plight for the last forty years, wring their hands in shock at the crisis.
We have a visual media landscape dominated by people who consider the working class – if they consider them at all – as a niche market for the arthouse crowd. So, the question is this – how do we reformulate the struggle over cultural production so that it includes the working class? How do we distinguish it from the symbolic and often tokenistic performance of dissidence that take place in universities and art galleries?
We know that the dominant culture, in all its manifestations, is subservient to the needs of capitalism. As Marx and Engels pointed out, the cultural ideas in circulation at any given time serve the interests of the ruling class. But could it be possible that this crisis offers us an opportunity to develop an approach which subverts neoliberal representations of the working class?
Let’s explore the possibility of this crisis opening up a space for a dissident, oppositional film culture. This is not about seizing the opportunity to move into spaces within the existing film culture, so that we can represent the working class in a more authentic way. That simply means accessing – perhaps from a more critical perspective – the already existing modes of film production. Let’s explore how we might overturn the present mode of film production.
What we have seen over the last forty years is a continuous renewal of capitalism by the very people who claim they want to see its downfall. While they might proclaim their commitment to social justice, at the same time they clamour to be accepted by the neoliberal institutions they profess to criticise. They fail to understand the solutions they offer are themselves a product of the neoliberal order.
The film industry at the present moment is dominated by the middle classes both behind the camera and in front of it. As Christopher Eccleston says in the film The Acting Class (O’Neill and Wayne 2017) ‘it’s white; it’s male, and it’s middle-class.’ Consequently, the majority of representations of working-class life are literally filtered through the lens of a middle class who have no experience of working-class life. They have never lived on a council estate, never gone hungry, never had three jobs to survive, and never had to use a foodbank.
The majority of representations in film exist not to expose the ingrained inequalities and injustices of working-class life, but to sensationalise or obscure them, or offer them up for the voyeuristic pleasure of the middle class. For the working class, there is restricted access to careers in the film industry, because preventing full access to the forces of audio-visual production is one of the essential methods by which those with power reproduce and consolidate that power.
The internet and digital film culture has expanded the potential for a dissident film culture, and has made a limited form of exhibition and distribution easier. Platforms such as Youtube and Vimeo have made it possible for politically committed filmmakers without access to the mainstream avenues of distribution and exhibition to upload and distribute their films. But generally speaking these films are not treated seriously by the mainstream film establishment. They are ignored by those involved in mainstream film production, and are not critically discussed.
So how do we build a dissident film culture, one that makes an intervention into capitalist society, a film culture that disrupts the existing one, not fits nicely into it?
While in principle the notion of a broad base as necessary for a radical transformative politics appears to be a sensible one, I would argue that the present crisis demands a concentration on the working class and a move away from the concerns of the professional middle class. It is their class formation that dominates both the political and the cultural, and it is their interests that frame the way in which we understand society.
The key is participation in a community-based film culture with its own screening space and independent forms of distribution and exhibition. The trade unions should be working to provide training and workshops for working-class people run by working-class people. Training should be linked to a political education – it is of the utmost urgency that we create a film culture that is able to represent the working class in ways that working people can recognise and engage with.
Given the Covid-19 crisis, it will probably be a long time before we are ready to go into big crowded spaces. In the meantime we need to diversify the way we understand all aspects of film – its production, content, and viewing – and we need to make sure we don’t compromise with the dominant model, in order to get funding or good reviews. We need to address the issues important to working-class lives by responding to their immediate concerns, so we can build a vision of how a very different society might begin to emerge.
Deirdre O'Neill explains how the Inside Film project is implementing the principles of cultural democracy, by making a stand with the downtrodden, impoverished and silenced working class.
Inside Film is a filmmaking project that works in prisons, with people on parole and in our latest run of the project, with foodbank users. Run completely by volunteers, we teach the theory and practice of filmmaking. This integration of theory and practice we consider a critical intervention into the reality of working-class lives.
An awareness of the reality of life for the working class can be documented or theorized, but remains simply a question of perception if not accompanied by the ability to challenge that reality in meaningful ways. That is to bring to bear a force that makes systems accountable, broadens the individualized limits of neoliberal subjectivity, and promotes alternative interpretations. The fusing of theory and practice, what Marx referred to as praxis, makes possible the production of the alternative interpretations by people considered disposable under neo iberalism and whose narratives are currently removed from the pubic sphere.
Making films by, of and for the working class
The students taking part in the project make their own films – films that they script, storyboard, act in, shoot and edit. The idea underpinning the project is that working-class people have the right to access the means of cultural production, which in turn provides them with the skills, and builds the confidence, to represent their own lives.
The project is predicated on the fundamental belief that working-class values, attitudes and experiences are distinct from those of other classes. Research has demonstrated that working-class people think differently, have different priorities and share experiences that separate them from the middle and upper classes. Working-class people demonstrate a strong commitment to family and community and are more inclined to think and act collectively. They also tend to have a solid work ethic – although if you garnered your knowledge of working-class people from their representation on reality television programmes that denigrate participants whilst sensationalising poverty, you might not think this is true.
The intentions of the Inside Film project rest upon the knowledge that working-class life is often defined externally to the people who live it, by people with no experience of working-class life. As Marx pointed out, the proletariat are ‘the class in civil society that is not of civil society’. I would argue that many cultural projects run for the ‘benefit’ of the working class are dependent on middle-class professionals who create situations where they can access funding, further their careers and signal their (declassed) progressiveness.
These projects do not attempt to build subjectivities or movements able to engage critically with neoliberalism. Instead, they develop institutionally approved education programmes focused on ameliorating the pain and despair caused by neoliberalism and in the process contain and manage any potential for dissent. Presenting as politically neutral these programmes and the projects they deliver perpetuate the hegemonic values of the social, cultural and economic status quo.
It is important to realize that the generally negative one-dimensional representations and constantly repeated stereotypes of working-class people and working-class lives within the dominant culture are based on the decontextualized end results of lives severely by neoliberalism and the predations of corporate capitalism. The processes that create those results, the psychological impact of classism, and the effects of its discriminatory practices on the subjectivity of working-class people are ignored.
The films made by the people we work with represent the ‘embodied experience’ of the working class, whether that involves blurring the boundaries between right and wrong – as the prison films do – or providing a stark picture of life without the means to provide enough food for yourself or your family – as The Food Bank Film does.
These are stories of working-class life narrated by working-class people. These films deal with the multiple realities of working-class life as it is lived now – the anger, the contradictions and sometimes the resignation that austerity has created and the consequences of being working-class in a society where you are not valued.
The question of how we define class has become a complex one, partly because of the persistence of the white male, (usually Northern) industrial worker stereotype that continues to occupy the cultural imagination of the middle classes whenever the question of class arises. This depoliticized stereotype conveniently situates the working class firmly within the safety zone of historical artifact, and serves the purpose of dismissing (the working) class as an analytical category, making it easy to ignore the collective commitment essential to broadening our understanding of democracy and citizenship.
The rendering of class as an archaic concept makes possible a refusal to engage with class as a dynamic category which is actively shaped by oppression and the changing demands of a global capitalism, thereby reproducing the norms of neoliberalism and in the process ignoring or sidelining questions of class.
The primacy of class
Our insistence on the primacy of class, the rejection of liberal subjectivity and the building of solidarity based on shared experience are crucial factors in the work done by Inside Film. Its fair to say we have never found this concentration on class to pose a problem for the students we work with. On the contrary we have found it useful in mounting a defence against the postmodern insistence on the impossibility of stable categories and paradigmatic bodies of knowledge.
You can call our position one of crude Marxism and accuse us of essentialism – that's fine, we will continue to work with the material reality of working-class lives while arguing that the essentialism you accuse us of is apparent everyday in the one dimensional representation of working-class people in mainstream culture.
The work of Inside Film emphasizes the importance of placing dominant representations within the social relations of neoliberal capitalism and the wider context in which they exist, insisting on the dialectical relationship between economics, culture and power and arguing they need to be fought on the same front.
Neoliberalism is not simply an economic system; it is a political and cultural system that permeates all areas of life. If there was a time when we could embrace the idea that ‘culture is ordinary’, we now have to face the fact that culture is neoliberal. Neoliberalism has pervaded our sense of who we are, and has had a profound effect on the kind of culture we produce, the way in which that culture is consumed and understood, and what we define as culture.
Neoliberalism has mobilized all forms of culture, but especially the media, as a means of justifying the exploitation and ongoing assault on the rights of the poor. As argued elsewhere on Culture Matters, it attempts to reduce cultural activity to a conduit for a corporate ideology focused on the profit margin, and in the process remove its capacity for resistant forms and critical engagement.
That is why the concentration on culture does not mean an abandonment of the material realities of political economy – rather, it is recognition of how one has been mobilized to obfuscate the other, and how the realities of both cannot be exposed without an exploration of the way in which they are dialectically working together in order to support the systems based on individualism, competition and the profit motive.
So to say we are a filmmaking project is to simplify both our aims and our practice. We insist upon the indispensable role played by radical education (see also here). We believe in the importance of consciously exploring the complexities inherent in the interaction of the structural determinants of social relations; the role those determinants play in the formation of working class subjectivities; and the institutional constraints that reproduce class-determined ways of being that result in a hierarchical system made up of capitalist winners and working-class losers.
Hopefully what has become clear is that the Inside Film project is linking questions of representation to questions of class consciousness, and the potential for that consciousness to demand participation in a public sphere from which the working class have been strategically, deliberately and increasingly excluded.
It is demanding that the production of film and the process of education be viewed dialectically through the optic of the wider social and political spectrum of capitalist relations, particularly as they relate to class. Within the mainstream media, working-class meanings and working class realities are constructed as subordinate. Indeed the continuation of the present system is dependent on the exclusion and rejection of working-class meanings. The aim of the Inside Film project is to bring those subordinate meanings to the fore and to position it as the primary meanings. This can only be achieved by wresting control of the means of cultural production from those for whom the present state of affairs is both rewarding and profitable.
Crucially it means claiming working-class perspectives are not simply marginalized perspectives that need to be considered as one perspective amongst many. On the contrary, what we are arguing is that working-class experience and the knowledge embedded within that experience holds the potential to contribute to political and cultural transformations based on fairness, community and collective interests.
That is why the project aims to articulate and to bring into focus what should be glaringly obvious: it is working-class people who have the unique ability and the undeniable right to talk about what it means to be working-class, to represent themselves at this particular historical moment. The current emphasis on the politics of identity groups derives much of its legitimacy from its ability to direct attention away from questions of class politics and onto non-economic, more socially and politically acceptable forms of single-issue discrimination. Those issues are generated not by the capitalist system itself, as is the case with class, but emerge from the need to downplay the unequal distribution of wealth under capitalism.
The denial and disavowal of working-class experience within the dominant culture means that the necessary understanding that can lead to political transformation requires an excavation of working-class experience so that it can be re-evaluated, not under the terms of the values of the dominant culture but in relation to the specific values of working-class life.
The concept of cultural democracy presents us with a choice. We can stay within the confines of what is politically, intellectually and culturally acceptable and tinker at the edges to make life a little less brutal for those who are deliberately excluded – or we can make a stand and align ourselves with the downtrodden, the impoverished, the silenced.
We believe that we can commit to the creation of an oppositional culture, critical of and resistant to the dominant representations and ideological concerns of the mainstream. The first step is to recognize the definitional power of the media, and the unequally distributed cultural and economic capital involved in accessing that power.
Inside Film, inside prisons
The Inside Film project has to be understood as an attempt to project us into a future that does not exist, which is not known, one that will be produced in the very act of projecting ourselves into it. This is not an imagined utopianism into which our ideas of something different must fit. Rather it is a struggle to wrench the future from those who are content to continue as we are and who truly believe there is no alternative.
Within the education system as a whole, the definition of culture is limited, usually operating within the confines of middle-class taste, grounded in middle-class experience, producing cultural products and supporting, funding, and delivering cultural products and activities that fit well into the present neoliberal environment.
To build a more egalitarian, democratic cultural landscape we need to remove the teaching of culture and provision of cultural artifacts from the hands of a middle-class elite whose status and well-paid jobs are dependent on preventing or refusing to challenge cultural inequalities. Within the prison sector it is not unusual for those serving prison sentences to take part in opera, theatre, and creative writing projects. I am not denying that people who are banged up all day don't enjoy this work and derive pleasure from being involved in creative activities, but these projects provide a top-down version of how we understand culture and offer no opportunity for a more critical and participatory engagement with the creative process.
These kind of cultural activities, like most cultural activities, are political practices embedded within a conventional educational strategy of delivering knowledge of legitimized cultural forms. It is presented as a cultural provision intent on improving the lives of marginalized people, but there is no critical analysis of the purpose served by art when it is delivered within the institutions of the state and must be approved by those institutions as a means of regulating the imagination, while confining any radical potential within the framework of officially sanctioned cultural production. A perfect example of having your ideological cake and eating it.
This model of cultural provision serves the purpose of reproducing existing modes of social, cultural, and economic power and the modes of perception that sustain them. Discussions of class, poverty, and inequality are mostly absent from these kinds of projects. Offering a superficial version of reality, they are unable to go any further than that which is already visible, and point to the limits of pedagogic and cultural practices enshrined within the prevailing socioeconomic order.
In this model, cultural provision is considered part of a project of self-improvement, premised on the notion that to ‘improve’ themselves the marginalized or the (deliberately) excluded must learn to appreciate middle-class art forms and the implicit naturalization of capitalist structures contained within their content, form, and aesthetic strategies. This is not a conception of art that can openly address questions of class even though it takes place in one of the institutions where the class divide is at its starkest.
Within the prison, the organization of art-based activities, their content, and their delivery are dependent on a classed conception of the purpose of art. Both the definition of art and the perceived purpose of art are subject to a narrowly defined, aprioristic role that contributes to the consolidation of class power. This model of art and art provision is not grounded in a view of education or art as a social and civic engagement with the potential for a deeper understanding of, and a more critical engagement with, the social forces that impact on our lives, but in one embedded within the self-interest of the middle classes and the universalizing impetus of class power. Art provision for the working class then becomes nothing more than proof of their symbolic and material lack.
The hegemonic neoliberal culture of homogenized individualism and competition that shapes the subjectivities of all of us has made it more difficult to build solidarities based on classed experience. Our cultural landscape is premised on its relevance to corporate profits. So the task of a radical cultural project such as Inside Film is to interpose the experiences of working-class people into that landscape and in the process foster the ability to situate working-class experience in the interface between culture as a way of maintaining social control, and culture as a potentially disruptive force linked once again to the everyday lives of the people who live it.