Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (66)

The election: Ask this, how do they treat the vulnerable, the stranger, the poor?
Wednesday, 06 November 2019 18:18

The election: Ask this, how do they treat the vulnerable, the stranger, the poor?

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David Betteridge responds to our call-out for material relevant to the election with a few words based on the Peking Opera

Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy (continued)

by David Betteridge, illustrated by Bob Starrett

We all know who the Tiger is. We all know where its well-armed stronghold lies. We all know why our taking of it cannot be deferred, too many years and generations having died, whether lost in mistaken sorties, or stuck in camp. We all know how fertile the wide fields are, that open up beyond the Tiger’s rule.

So far, we are agreed; but opinion differs over the strategy to adopt. I propose that the taking of Tiger Mountain might be achieved by several strategies combined.

Some of us will advance from the North, some from the West, East, or South. Some will be organised in big battalions, some in guerrilla bands under various flags, but all united behind the one big cause that we embrace, and that embraces us. To defeat the Tiger in its burning arrogance and power, we with our several strategies will need the qualities of many opposing creatures, an entire rainbow of talents, a spectrum of troops.

How will we tell true allies from tigerish false friends? By their fruits, as an ancient poet warned. Study, not so much their immediate small steps from where currently they stand, but the direction of their travel, and the good they do, or fail to do, along the way. Study, not their past slogans, but their present poems, songs and laws. Ask this: how do they treat the vulnerable, the stranger, and the poor?

Socially engaged, internationalist and critical: the destruction of GDR culture since reunification
Wednesday, 06 November 2019 09:56

Socially engaged, internationalist and critical: the destruction of GDR culture since reunification

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John Green discusses the obliteration of GDR culture since reunification. The mosaic is in Eisenhüttenstadt, and is by Walter Womacka

This month sees the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, leading a year later to the annexation of the former German Democratic Republic by the Federal Republic. I use the term ‘annexation’ intentionally because despite the people of the former GDR voting in their majority for a unified Germany, what they got was a de facto takeover by the west.

In his recent book ‘The New Faces of Fascism’, Professor Enzo Traverso of Cornell University uses this term unequivocally. He writes that ‘The annexation of the former German Democratic Republic was conceived of as a political, economic and cultural process that inevitably implied the demolition of antifascism …’ Despite the passage of three decades, the territory of the former GDR is in many ways still very different from the former Federal Republic.

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Hollensturz in Vietnam by Willi Sitte. Photo by Bob Ramsak / piran café

One might have the impression from the numerous depictions of the GDR in the western media that it was a country characterised by oppression, lack of freedom and a grey, monotonous daily life for its citizens. That it was in fact a country with a relatively high standard of living, with a flourishing industry and a vibrant cultural environment is redacted from the mainstream narrative.

Despite the fact that both postwar German republics were formed as a result of the partition by the Second World War Allies of a unified German nation, there developed in the eastern part a specific and separate culture and way of life, based on socialist principles, even if the system could be characterised as ‘state socialism’ and authoritarian in many of its aspects. Against all the odds the GDR – based on only a third of Germany as a whole and the least industrially developed part, with very few raw materials – managed to build a second German culture based on a clear break with the country’s fascist past and firmly rooted in Germany’s communist and internationalist traditions.

In any state there will always be a tension and sometimes conflict between artists and state institutions and official ideology. And in this the GDR was no different from most other countries, but art and culture were taken seriously by everyone; they were not marginal to people’s lives. The country had a lively book publishing industry, there were theatres and concert halls in even smaller towns, there was a thriving film industry and art scene. Financial support and encouragement were given to amateur art groups, often located in or near people’s workplaces.

The biennial GDR art exhibition in Dresden, at which a huge array of contemporary art works were exhibited, was a great draw for visitors from all over the country. There were often animated and fiery discussions about certain of the works exhibited. ‘Socialist realist’ art was the form that was officially sanctioned and encouraged but this was a somewhat elastic concept. Most artists were happy to paint and sculpt in a realist manner but interpreted the world in their own unique way. There were those who preferred to explore abstraction and they got a raw deal in terms of being able to exhibit and survive economically. It is only now, belatedly, that GDR art is slowly being recognised as interesting in its own right and worth exhibiting, even if most selections dwell overmuch on the so-called ‘dissident’ aspect.

The GDR produced its own home-grown song movement with a whole number of groups and individual singers who developed a recognisable ‘GDR style’: socially engaged, internationalist and also critical. Sometimes, as with Wolf Biermann, the critical element went too far for the powers that be and he was banned from publicly performing, before being expelled from the country, but most managed to find a niche and steer clear of official sanction. There was a large annual festival of political song which brought together musicians from around the world, like Pete Seeger from the USA, Victor Jara from Chile, Leon Gieco from Argentina and the Sands Family from Ireland, among many others.

What overwhelmingly characterised GDR art and culture was that it was viewed by everyone as an integral part of society, and for artists being engaged as well as critical were taken as given. Broad sections of the population were actively engaged in the arts, either as participants or as audiences and readers. Schools and workplaces organised regular trips to the theatre, concerts, cultural events and exhibitions and these were invariably subsidised by the state.

This unique integration of art, artists and society which is only really possible under a socialist system, came to an end with the demise of the GDR. And although the Federal Republic provides generous support for the arts – in contrast to the UK – they are very much linked to the capitalist structures within which they operate and are often very elitist.

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Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, by Bertolt Brecht

While the ruling SED party and GDR government were certainly over-controlling in terms of their cultural policies and over-fearful of what they viewed as potentially negative western influences and anti-socialist activity, they did actively and generously encourage and support the development of an artistic environment that was socially engaged, integrated and committed to humanitarian aims. That legacy has been lost.

Following unification in 1990, almost all GDR industries were very quickly dismantled or taken over by West German firms, and all GDR institutions (e.g. universities, theatres, museums etc.), if not closed, had new managers imposed on them. Most of the staff in GDR universities, colleges and schools, as well as in local and national government, found themselves out of a job or demoted.

The GDR’s media – television, radio and publishing houses – were all closed. Former co-operative and state farms were also closed down. With this total dismantling of the GDR’s infrastructure, people were obliged to migrate to the west to find work, particularly younger people. This left whole areas of the territory virtually devoid of a younger generation. Still today, wages are still lower in the east, as are pensions. The promised affluence has benefited very few and the wealth gap between the population in the former GDR and that of the Federal Republic remains large.

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Werner Tübke, History of the German labour movement II, 1961

The imposition of the federal German system on the east has also meant the obliteration of a specific GDR culture. Since unification, the German Federal government and media have attempted to deny anything positive about the GDR, and have deliberately conflated what they call ‘the two totalitarianisms’ i.e. nazism and communism. In doing so, they avow that this time they are determined to undertake a proper reckoning with the GDR and expose its totalitarian essence (implicitly recognising that they had not done this properly with Germany’s Nazi past). Most cultural representations of the GDR have also been eradicated or hidden.

In the concerted attempt to demonise the system and life in the GDR, there have been a plethora of horror stories – virtually all written by western pundits who never experienced the GDR first hand. The most notorious is the much-hyped book ‘Stasiland’ by the Australian Anna Funder, who visited the GDR for a few days as a tourist and returned there after unification to interview people who were ‘victims’ of the regime. Her book is littered with factual inaccuracie,s and reveals an abysmal ignorance of what life was really like in the country, but it is widely seen as the must-read book about the GDR.

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The Architects, a film by Peter Kahane. Photo by DEFA

In the cinema, the much-lauded ‘The Life of Others’ by the West German aristocrat, Florian Henckel von Donnersmark was a well-crafted thriller – but a total caricature. His portrayal of GDR artists as subject to Stasi control and at the mercy of arbitrary state coercion was a fantasy, but it perfectly fitted the narrative that the West German elite wished to promote. He spoke to Christoph Hein before making the film, wanting to utilise his experience as a writer who had certainly had his run-ins with GDR state censorship – but Hein himself later distanced himself from the film, and said it bore little relationship to reality.

GDR writers, film-makers and theatre directors have almost all been blacklisted, and have not been given the opportunity of reflecting their own assessments of GDR reality. This is all part of a concerted campaign to erase any positive vestige of GDR culture from the historical narrative.

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The most egregious example of the destruction of GDR culture was the controversial demolition of the Palace of the Republic in the centre of Berlin. This modern building symbolised more than any other the confidence, forward-looking attitude and strength of the GDR. The building not only housed the GDR parliament but contained a theatre, concert halls, cafes and restaurants which were much used by the city’s population.

Of course, the two parts of the formerly divided Germany will eventually coalesce, and memories of the GDR are already fading as new generations come along. However, it would be a historical travesty if the many positive sides of the GDR experience and the contribution it made to the world were to be totally obliterated. It would be even worse if this experience and contribution were equated with the Nazi atrocities of genocide and fomenting world war, as part of the same ‘totalitarianism’.

Stasi State or Socialist Paradise? The German Democratic Republic and What Became of It by John Green and Brunhild de la Motte is available from Artery Publications at £10.

Lively, incisive and erudite: Marxist Literary Criticism Today, by Barbara Foley
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 30 October 2019 15:42

Lively, incisive and erudite: Marxist Literary Criticism Today, by Barbara Foley

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Tony McKenna praises Marxist Literary Criticism Today (Pluto Press, £19.99) for its clarity, coherence, and insightfulness 

For the last few decades the world of ‘Marxist’ literary criticism has been dominated by a tiny coterie of elite thinkers, figures like Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton, ‘top-flight intellectuals’ whose tortuous, indecipherable language and pretentious linguistic philosophies often say a great deal about themselves but next to nothing about the literature they purport to analyse. For this reason I didn’t have high hopes for Barbara Foley’s new book, Marxist Literary Criticism Today, because I felt it might well be more of the same.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Foley is what someone like Jameson will never be. She is an authentic teacher – genuinely concerned with the type of clear and patient explanation which is designed to uplift the student and allow them to delight in the quirks and idiosyncrasies of her subject matter.

For this reason, part one of the book does not explicitly address the field of literary criticism at all. What it does do, is to give a clear and coherent account of some of the central concepts in Marxist philosophy and economics – concepts which one has to get a handle on, as they provide the optics through which great works of literature can be read. Foley outlines clearly some of the fundamental ideas in the Marxist lexicon: Class, Commodities, Capital, Surplus Value, Alienation, Reification, Totality, Base and Superstructure, dialectics and so on. These are often the subjects of fascinating discussions which are gradually integrated into literary concerns throughout the course of the book.

In the discussion on class, for example, Foley mobilises a classically Marxist understanding of the proletariat as the ‘universal class’ and emphasises that because of its structural position – as a social relation of production – it is the ‘“primary” analytical category for explaining social inequality and leveraging revolutionary and social change’. (17)  Historically speaking, patriarchal relations and relations of racist oppression have grown out of the structural dimensions of class exploitation, and therefore resistance to and destruction of the latter is, ultimately, bound up with the dissolution of the former and the mission of the proletariat in the modern age.

This might seem a little removed from the subject of literary theory. But when you understand that texts by ‘Shakespeare, Shelley and Brecht’ create their characters and describe their relationships in the context of ‘social forces constraining freedom in class-based inequality’ (106) and awaken in the reader ‘a universal need for freedom from alienation and oppression’ (106) thereby – you also come to understand that the universality which great literature projects is the aesthetic echo of the universality which is crystallised in and through the struggle for freedom that is part and parcel of the broader historical unfolding of the class struggle. (106)

Understanding and accepting this approach provides a significant tonic to the more fashionable ‘intersectionalist’ approach which often ends up ‘segregating’ different groups into the boxes which accord with their oppression; i.e. the notion that only people from particularly groups, ethnicities and genders are qualified to write about those same groups, or that ‘a dead white male’ like William Shakespeare can have nothing to say to a young black man growing up in a Harlem project.

At the same time, however, Foley never falls into ‘economism’ – that is, the belief that every aspect of social life is determined directly and mechanically by a set of class forces, without mediation or qualification. In fact, Foley argues, racist and sexist forms of oppression can often gain a near ‘autonomous’ life which throws up a myriad of complex and contradictory set of behaviours – behaviours which don’t always correspond neatly to the class interests which are at work underneath the surface of society, and which are responsible for directly producing and reproducing the means of social existence.

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That tension between the fundaments of class universality at the level of social being, and the richness and complexity of the myriad forms of cultural and political life, is one Foley brings out in a masterful analysis of the Ann Petry 1946 short story ‘Like a Winding Sheet’. This is the story of a black man (Johnson) living in same period, who is both economically exploited as a worker and racially oppressed as a person of colour. The story chronicles how he is racially abused at work by his boss, a white woman, and that the sense of such commonplace cruelty, along with the withering, debilitating physical conditions of his working existence, leaves him both smouldering and downtrodden. On arriving home one evening, an innocent remark from his wife (Mae) ‘causes’ him to beat her savagely. In one way, the action is baffling and nonsensical – he attacks his wife, another working-class person, another black person, and someone who has only shown to him affection and love. But Foley moves through the layers of society-wide oppression and exploitation in order to mine a deeper explanation:

As proximate causes, sexism and racism constitute the principal psychological motivators of the physical violence that Johnson enacts upon the body of Mae. Petry complicates her portrayal of causality, however, by supplying a further level of motivation to Johnson’s actions….Johnson’s lack of control over his hands, coupled with his lack of control over his conditions of work, signals a root cause of his anger in his alienation, construed in a classically Marxist sense, as the severing of mental from manual labor…his living labor is controlled by the dead labor embodied in the cart he pushes around, rendering him half-dead, indeed zombie-like all day long. The home, the site of the daily reproduction of labor power, is invaded by alienation; rather than functioning as a haven in a heartless world, it becomes the place where he can exercise the only freedom he has – the freedom to beat and kill, the freedom to reproduce in this own actions, in the seemingly private sphere of marriage and home, the dynamic of the intrinsically violent social relations of capitalism. (203-4)

Foley is able to show how the forces of sexism and racism interweave within the context of the broader class structures of capitalism. In other words she derives the ‘soul’ of the story from the forms and structures of social existence, but does so in a way which is neither mechanical or didactic, but clear and profound. Foley’s book is full of examples like this, meticulous fragments of analysis which capture the historical contradictions which abound in a given work of literature.

Thus Foley contrasts the medieval legends of King Arthur with the ‘rags to riches’ stories of young-adult author Horatio Alger as a means to elucidate ‘the supersession of feudal-era notions of obligations and dependency…by capitalist-era notions of individual freedom and autonomy’. (20) She employs a quirky and brilliant analysis in order so show how the English fairy-tale Jack and the Beanstalk hints at the specific and temporary nature of capitalism itself as a historical form: ‘Jack’s trading of the family’s sole cow for a handful of magic beans is a blatantly foolish act of exchange given the desperate poverty in which he lives with his mother. But the ability of the seeds to generate wealth far beyond the market value of the cow – through Jack’s ascending the giant bean stalk…testifies…also to the historical existence of markets where value and exchange value were not automatically seen as equivalent.’ From this one can derive the sense that our ‘present-day habit of quantifying exchange based upon the socially necessary labour time embodied in commodities is neither natural nor trans historical.’ (37)

Her analysis of the horrifically awful Fifty Shades of Grey is also rooted in the concept of Capital, only whereas Jack and The Beanstalk can be considered an expression of longing for pre-capitalist forms, Fifty Shades provide a paean to Capital. It is in many ways the idealised form in which Capital perceives itself – in as much as Capital is presented as a glittering, pristine creation entirely abstracted from the misery and suffering of the social exploitation which sets the basis for it:

There is no exploitation of labor in the world of Christian Grey, only capital willing to place itself on the market and, through creative application, expand itself indefinitely…The helicopter, the sheets, the glass-encased high-rise apartment: these commodities are so far removed from the labor processes generating them that capital cannot be thought of as a vampire sucking the blood out of living labor. (200)

And in the figure of dynamic billionaire Christian Grey, Capital as a charismatic force of progress abstracted from any social cost is personified:

Christian is himself Capital as pure money in seductive human form. And although…we are told he “works” so hard that he has little time for sleep – he is shown to be more concerned about the activities of his Gates-style philanthropic foundation, which is busy saving countless lives in Africa, than with overseeing the business empire which magically generates his wealth.’ (201)

Foley is also attuned to the silences between words, the invisible subtext, the things which are hinted at but not explicitly referenced in the gaps on the page. In an illuminating analysis of The Preamble to the US Constitution, Foley, in her rather Socratic manner, asks a series of pertinent questions. The document makes reference to ‘the People of the United States’ who are to ‘secure the Blessings of Liberty’, but ‘the people’ is a remarkably nebulous concept. Who are these people? Do they include the enslaved blacks? The women who didn’t have the vote? The poor white men, equally disenfranchised? ‘The people’ becomes a rather slippery stand-in for the real social group whose liberty and power the constitution enshrines, i.e. ‘white men possessing enough property to qualify them’. (171)  

The mirage being generated is that created by every ruling class which, ‘while promoting and articulating its own interests, proclaims its outlook to be a universal one.’ (172) At the same time, the cracks in the surface begin to poke through – the Constitution makes reference to the need to form ‘a more perfect Union’ (172) and thus implies the imperfections of the current arrangement while the exhortation to ‘insure domestic Tranquillity’ (172) obliquely hints at the political unrest of the vast majority of people who have been excluded from the remit of the Constitution – ‘there persists revolts of the less privileged like the recent Shays’s rebellion’. (172)  

Foley’s analysis of the Preamble to the Constitution is paired with an account of a 1987 poem by Gloria Anzaldúa, ‘We Call Them Greasers’ which offers the first-person perspective of an unnamed settler as he subjugates an indigenous group by means of rape and murder, ultimately driving them from the land:

I found them here when I came.
They were growing corn on their small ranchos…
smelling of woodsmoke and sweat…
Weren’t interested in bettering themselves,
why they didn’t even own the land but shared it
Wasn’t hard to drive them off,
cowards they were, no backbone…
And the women – well I remember one in particular.
She lay under me whimpering…
Afterward I sat on her face until her arms stopped flailing,
didn’t want to waste a bullet on her….
I walked up to where I had tied her man to the tree and spat his face.
Lynch him, I told the boys. (172-3)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

It is a stark and harrowing poem which ‘encapsulates a genocidal narrative in which sexism, racism and contempt for indigenous peoples are shored up by the nationalist dogmas proclaiming the supremacy of individualism and private property…In this phase of primitive accumulation called pioneering, the state is defined by the naked power of wealth; violence is the principal historical and geographical presupposition of the expansion of capital.’ (174)  

What is particularly intriguing and provocative in the pairing of the Preamble to the Constitution and the poem, is that Foley is able to show how ‘a historically materialist understanding of the role of the state in capital accumulation invites us to link the eminently civilized and rational prose of the Founding Fathers with the crude brutality evinced by the speaker in Anzaldúa’s poem. The realities of slavery, class struggle, rape, and genocide are masked in the enlightened language of the Preamble: yet one “we” leads to the next “we”.’ (174)

There is the odd occasion when the reader is tempted to take issue with some of the analysis. For example, Foley’s analysis of the great William Butler Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming’ is intriguing and well-argued, but flawed in my view. Foley detects a certain aristocratic longing to the poem – ‘the falcon cannot hear the falconer’ – which alludes, in her words, to ‘the hierarchical order associated with feudalism’ (168) of the past, an order which has been overwhelmed by the chaos of the present. ‘The “best’ (presumably those responsible for maintaining order) have not risen to the occasion, while the “worst” (presumably those responsible for the “anarchy” have taken command, “loos[ing] the blood-dimmed tide” and drowning the innocent’. (168)

According to Foley, the use of phrases such as ‘blood-dimmed tide’ in conjunction with social ‘anarchy’ ‘links the purposiveness of destructive human agents with the uncontrollability of natural forces’. (168) For Foley, the poem provides a ‘naturalisation’ of the human essence which essentially ‘bypasses the necessity for historical analysis’ (168) and thus the poem presents us with an ahistorical depiction of a generic humanity which inevitably tilts toward barbarism.

Of course the aristocratic tenor of Yeats's own politics – a certain anti-democratic and even fascist inflection – has a bearing on some of the themes in the poem. And the way in which social and historical relations are naturalised; the way in which the specific character of the capitalist social order is transmuted into an eternal fetish of human nature impervious to historical change – is important not only to help comprehend the ideological mechanics of political philosophies which aim to defend the status-quo, but in the literary arena it can give you a sense of why a certain work is aesthetically poor.

Rather than living flesh-and-blood characters who have grown out of the social relations of a particular phase of history and are, therefore, in some way imbued with the contradictions of the age, literary characters in which some kind of generic, eternal human nature is posited (be it a good or evil one) are inevitably aesthetically poorer, because they remain unchanging archetypes which cannot develop in a realist fashion in response to the pressures and demands of the social world they inhabit. They cannot fundamentally change in historical time – or in the case of the novel, they cannot fundamentally change in the course of the plot. If Anna Karenina had been born fundamentally good or fundamentally evil, the mainspring of her personality would not flow from the social contradictions of the society she inhabited; her tragedy would not flow from being a woman whose burgeoning self-determination in the context of a rapidly changing social world was nevertheless thrown into contradiction with an ossified and feudal hierarchy specific to 19th century Russia.

Guernica canvas Pablo Picasso Madrid Museo Nacional 1937

The ‘naturalisation’ critique can’t be so easily applied to a poem because a poem does not describe events in historical time in any coherent or linear detail (epic poetry being one possible exception). The poem is rather more fleeting and fragmented. This is something poetry shares with painting. If, for example, you consider Picasso’s Guernica – the bombs dropping on the small Spanish town during the civil war and the cataclysmic fragmentation and destruction of civilian life which ensues – there is no progressive historical development. We don’t see the citizens of Guernica as they are in the aftermath of the event, rebuilding their lives. But even though we are not made witness to a living historical development which is in some way embodied in the painting’s aesthetic – even though all the painting does show us is fragmentation and implosion – would it be fair to conclude that Picasso’s freeze-frame of civil war destruction represents an eternalisation of human nature according to the principles of savagery and destruction? I would say not; the painting offers up a snapshot of reality which evokes the ‘mood’ of a specific epoch rather than elaborating several moments in the historical trajectory of a given character or period in the way a novel might.

The Picasso painting gives some sense of what it means to be an individual walking through the remnants of a twentieth-century world which has been smashed by global and civil wars, the disorienting feeling of moving through the ruins in the aftermath. In the same way, ‘The Second Coming’ uses archaic, apocalyptic language and imagery – ‘beast…slouches toward Bethlehem’ – as a way of capturing the almost apocalyptic power and inevitability of modernity – in the words of Marx, all that is solid melts into air. But rather than ‘bypass’ the necessity of history in favour of a principle of naturalisation, Yeats’s poem, with its grotesque and funereal grandeur, captures the moment of modernity in all its sweeping, disorientating violence.

So the question of abstraction – i.e. to what level of clarity and concreteness can different forms of literature address social and historical contradictions – is one that Foley fails to address, and it is important here. But even if one were to accept that ‘The Second Coming’ is, in the last analysis, a poem which offers up an ahistorical view of human nature which privileges aristocratic hierarchy and power, then one is at a loss to explain just why it has such a moving and dramatic charge.

Likewise, the poem which Foley contrasts the Yeats poem to – Claude McKay’s ‘If We Must Die’ – is a worthy and affecting piece which deals in a far more coherent, politically conscious and revolutionary way with the concrete forms of oppression which human beings face in the twentieth century. However, it does not have anything like the level of aesthetic truth and power of Yates’s poem.

Perhaps because the subject matter is so broad, the range of works and concepts that Foley covers so diverse, there is the odd occasion when she spreads herself a little thin. For example, her discussion of the great Hegelian-Marxist Georg Lukács is weak at certain points, especially her explanation (74) of the ‘identical subject-object of history’ concept which Lukács puts forward, and which is so integral to an understanding of the proletariat in Marxist terms as the ‘universal class’.  

As for her categorisation of one ‘Tony McKenna’ as somebody who believes that the essence of art lies in the ‘transcendence of its class origins’ (144) – well…ahem…as bizarre as the thinking of that particular individual sometimes is, I can quite categorically confirm this is not his perspective.

Needless to say, these are but minor points. The major one is simply this: Foley has produced a work of great erudition which spans a colourful and vast selection of examples from literature past and present. In addition, her analysis is informed by a strong understanding of Marxist philosophy and economics which shows how the works she explores are shaped by the necessity and the contradictions of their historical origins. Finally, all this is brought across in the lively and incisive style of a teacher who genuinely enjoys the ebb and flow of discussion and debate. I think it is fair to say ‘Marxist Literary Criticism Today’ is an excellent work of literature in its own right.

Gandhi: 'The worst form of violence is poverty'
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 07 October 2019 14:38

Gandhi: 'The worst form of violence is poverty'

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Jenny Farrell reviews Walk with Gandhi, Bóthar na Saoirse, by Gabriel Rosenstock (Author) and Masood Hussain (Illustrator)

Bóthar na Saoirse (Road to Freedom) Walk with Gandhi is a beautiful book to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s birth on 2 October 1869. The book is a collection of haiga – a style of Japanese painting often accompanied by a haiku poem. The artists are the watercolourist Masood Hussain, from Kashmir, and the Irish poet and haikuist Gabriel Rosenstock. Hussain’s exquisite watercolours are a re-interpretation of historical photographs taken of Gandhi. Rosenstock’s haiku are in Irish and English. This is significant, as one of the main themes of the book is colonialism and Gandhi’s awareness and opposition to it, including the colonising function of language.

colder than all the prisons

you’ve been thrown into …

Downing Street railings

In addition to the amazing interplay of the two art forms, the book is interspersed with fascinating insights into Gandhi’s life and philosophy. These reveal that the book is designed to make Gandhi accessible for the younger generation. They invite readers to consider historical events, forms of protest, the effects of colonialism, and relate them to the present.

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The information put together for the readers is not designed to turn Gandhi into a saint. It relates aspects that surprise us, for example, that “He achieved much for the status of his fellow Indians in South Africa … but native Africans – such as Zulus – do not hero-worship Gandhi today. Au contraire! Gandhi took the side of the British in the Zulu uprising of 1906.” It was in South Africa that Gandhi’s journey began, when he was thrown off a train for sitting in a “whites only” carriage. This awakening was the beginning of his lifelong quest for freedom and justice. Mandela said about him later, in India: “You gave us Mohandas; we returned him to you as Mahatma.” Many of the tactics Gandhi first used in South Africa, he employed again in India.

Back in India, in 1915, his friend the poet Rabindranath Tagore gave him the name title “Mahatma”, Great Soul, a name Gandhi never warmed to; it deified him in some way. Tagore makes several appearances in this book. One of these connects him to the Irish anti-colonial struggle: Pádraig Pearse was in correspondence with Tagore and his play The Post Office had its world premiere in the Abbey Theatre in 1913.

Gandhi Poster Suite 5 ok

The Book “Bóthar na Saoirse” explores many facets of Gandhi’s life. For the younger readers it could well be a first introduction to exploring ideas of colonialism. For example, the following haiku echoes Frantz Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth:

are there hats enough

to go round …

the wretched of the earth

In the following haiku, Rosenstock gently hints at India’s own discrimination of the ‘Untouchables’, not without a reminder that “many societies have their own forms of class discrimination, snobbishness and exclusiveness, often based on dress, accent, schooling, money, property and other outer distinctive markings”.

a hand

like any other hand …

the untouchables

A fascinating insight Rosenstock provides in this book is linguistic links between Irish and Indian languages. Readers of this book discover that the “Irish word for a cow is bó and the Sanskrit is go…. The Celtic name Bovinda (White Cow) is the same as Govinda, another name for the Indian deity Krishna. A little clue to the cradle of Indo-European civilisation!”

This book is a gem. It is beautiful, a wonderfully enriching pleasure in terms of aesthetic appreciation and engaging the mind. It quotes many people on the significance of Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, such as Albert Einstein’s: “I believe that Gandhi’s views were the most enlightened of all the political men in our time. We should strive to do things in his spirit: not to use violence in fighting for our cause, but by non-participation in anything you believe is evil.”

To finish with a quote from Gandhi himself, one that struck a particular chord with me is: “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”

The book is published by Gandhi 150 Ireland, 5 October 2019 Paperback: ISBN 978-1-9162254-0-4 Hardback: ISBN 978-1-9162254-2-8 Ebook: ISBN 978-1-9162254 -1-1

Gandhi Poster Suite 8 ok

Tackling class-based discrimination in British culture
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 17 September 2019 21:17

Tackling class-based discrimination in British culture

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Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne argue that an incoming Labour government should make class discrimination a 'protected characteristic' in law.

At the 2019 TUC Congress Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Labour minister Laura Pidcock both spoke about establishing a new workers’ protection agency enforcing individual and collective employment rights. At the same conference, TUC head Frances O’Grady called for outlawing discrimination against working-class people at work, for example in the form of pay gaps and unpaid internships.

This is a welcome move. The gentrification of the Labour party under Tony Blair witnessed an increase in middle-class people voting for and joining Labour, and a reduction in the influence of the working class. With its talk of social exclusion, the Blair government removed the language of discrimination. We need to once again talk about the ways in which the working class are discriminated against, and the impact that has in all areas of their lives.

But for this to work in any meaningful way we need to couch this discussion within the framework of class struggle and not simply employment practices. Not all working-class people are in work and the denigration, policing and depoliticization of working-class people takes place across multiple sites – education, the media, health, housing, popular culture and politics. We need to recognize class as heterogeneous and multifaceted, but at the same time not lose sight of the homogeneity of oppression and exploitation that constitutes the material reality of working-class life.

The pronouncements by the Labour Party and the TUC offer some hope in a political context where class has become peripheral, and where the possession of material wealth and various social and cultural advantages are rarely considered to be part of the conversation.

Routine class-based discrimination in the professions

It is not widely known that in the last days of the last Labour government, the 2010 Equality Act was passed with a section which required public authorities to have ‘due regard’ to the desirability of exercising their functions in a way which reduces the inequalities of outcome that result from socio-economic disadvantage.

Unsurprisingly, the incoming Conservative government declined to bring this section into effect. Had it done so, it could have been a lever with which to combat local council housing policies, or perhaps the DWP’s barbarism. But an incoming Labour government should be bolder than just bringing this into effect. It could also add socio-economic status to the list of protected characteristics to give real teeth to the fight against class discrimination.

The charity Just Fair has been working to promote economic and social rights through existing and new legal protections. Their policy director Koldo Casla points out that:

Unlike the UK, at least 20 other European countries provide legal protection against discrimination on grounds related to socio-economic status. In the light of most advanced international human rights standards and best practice from other countries, a future legal review could be the opportunity to recognise socio-economic status as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act.

To return to the question of employment, working-class people are routinely discriminated against in the professions. The professions are dominated by the middle class and are saturated with class prejudices, often carried by people who think of themselves as ‘progressives’. The job interview is one of the key points at which access to the professions is controlled by the gatekeepers. Sociologists have shown how a form of ‘cultural matching’ raises barriers for working-class candidates in job interviews. Middle-class gatekeepers feel, consciously or otherwise, more comfortable with those who come from similar backgrounds.

As the sociologist Lauren A. Rivera notes, ‘shared tastes, experiences, leisure pursuits and self-presentation styles’ between interviewers and interviewees function subtly to sort out who ‘fits’ and who does not along class lines. ‘Hiring is a powerful way in which employers shape labour market outcomes’ argues Rivera, and the job interview is the crucial gatekeeping process that facilitates ‘career opportunities for some groups, while blocking entry for others.’

Making class a protected characteristic could provide individuals and trade unions with powerful levers with which to help make professional institutions more representative – although of course, as with gender and race, legal protections do not automatically produce the desired outcomes. But it would provide organisations across the board with the motivation to collect data and implement training and recruitment practices that acknowledge the reality of class discrimination. And it would also provide working-class people with the power to challenge class discrimination when it happens.

The class discrimination against working-class access to the professions is an important issue because these professions are so influential on a societal level. The people who work in these professions are the policy makers, creating change and making decisions that affect people’s lives, but without representative input by the types of people often most effected by their decision-making.

The media are one of the most influential professions because they feed into the others. Their stereotypes of working-class lives have real effects as they inform the thinking of the policy makers and set the tone for what is acceptable or unacceptable. For example, had the media done their job and properly investigated the fact that the DWP has blood on its hands, the appalling treatment of welfare claimants since 2010 might have been more difficult. We note that the middle class take to the streets in their thousands over Brexit, but where are they over the DWP’s assault on the poor? The media play a key part in stirring people to action over some things but not others.

Class-based discrimination in the creative and cultural industries

Our recent documentary film The Acting Class showed how economic resources and various other disadvantages, ranging from geographical location outside the South-East, educational background, cultural knowledge and above all social networks, gradually and over time filters out would-be working-class acting talent from the profession. This is not only a matter of social justice for the individual involved, as with other professions, it has a wider societal impact. In this case, the stories we tell ourselves as a society are likely shaped by the class background of the acting talent that is available.

Across the creative industries, the problem of unpaid internships that Frances O’Grady highlighted in her TUC speech, are rife. Such practices give the economically advantaged – typically via their parents – the chance to gain crucial work experience in for example, the film and television industries – and build social networks, that working-class talent cannot access because they are working instead as a barista to pay the rent. A recent report by sociologists called Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries, noted that according to data from the Office for National Statistics, only 12.6% of workers in publishing come from working- class origins, only 12.4% in film, television and radio and only 18.2% in music, performing and visual arts. Yet those who are most successful within these industries, who are overwhelmingly middle-class and white, tend to believe that this situation reflects hard work and talent – in other words, a meritocracy. That is another reason why legislation is needed: to force a change in mindset which is at the moment broadly and self-servingly content with the status quo..

Within the neoliberal public sphere, working-class people are constantly denigrated, ridiculed and their lives examined through a middle-class optic, while working-class values and attitudes are delegitimized. This reinforces class divisions and in the process constructs middle-class mores as desirable characteristics we should all strive to emulate, while at the same time keeping neoliberalism and the global economic system safe from the demands of a potentially radical working-class project.

It’s time for the Labour and trade union movement to demand legal protection against class-based discrimination, which is perpetuating an unequal and unfair society.

Fostering solidarity through culture: GFTU's 120 years of supporting trade unions
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 17 September 2019 09:40

Fostering solidarity through culture: GFTU's 120 years of supporting trade unions

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Paul Tims reviews the GFTU's recent booklet celebrating its 120th anniversary

The General Federation of Trade Unions recently celebrated its 120th Anniversary and, to mark the occasion, released a booklet designed to introduce newcomers to its work and goals. Although straightforward in its presentation, it’s a surprisingly dense gem of a document and serves both as a pocket history and an ideological primer.

In the early pages, we learn that the GFTU has its origins in the ideas of ‘New Unionism’ that began to take shape in the 1890s. Although there was considerable division between those who wanted to bring about an end to the capitalist system and those who wanted to develop trade unions within it, many prominent thinkers agreed that a federation to support trade unions was necessary.

The pre-existing TUC initially voted down the idea of a federation in 1896, but later came round to the idea, thanks in part to the writing of P.J. King and the support of Keir Hardie. In 1899, the GFTU was finally created with a remit to provide financial support and advice for unions, enabling them to strike without their members starving or facing legal repercussions. During these early years, the GFTU differed from the TUC that had created it quite dramatically. Whereas the GFTU aimed for day-to-day practical support, the TUC existed to discuss ideas and politics and to get trade union representatives into parliament.

Bolshevism or moderation

It wasn’t until later, during the rise of the USSR, that the GFTU’s ideology began to take on a concrete shape. The body had to choose whether to openly support Bolshevism or present a more moderate face in order to work with the British government to improve workers’ rights and secure the future of the unions. Its then leader, William A. Appleton, chose to steer the organisation away from Bolshevism in order to build an organisation that could work with and influence the UK government.

Ultimately, the labour movement that had spawned the GFTU gave rise to the Labour Party, while the TUC became the UK’s leading trade union body. However, thanks to its willingness to evolve and the astute decisions of its leadership, the GFTU survived and still plays an important role in supporting trade unions today.

The booklet’s potted history is even-handed (it freely admits that the GFTU often plays second fiddle to the TUC) while maintaining a positive vibe. However, the recitation of the organisation’s basic history is far less interesting than many of the individual highlights from that history. The GFTU’s booklet does an admirable job of showcasing the more bizarre, baffling, humorous and outright esoteric moments from its past. For example, we’re told that the miners’ union refused to join, despite the fact that the GFTU had attracted the support of many other large unions. We also discover that Isaac Mitchell, the first General Secretary of the organisation, though enthusiastic and tireless in his work for the union, was also so disorganised in his filing that he once managed to misplace a bond worth £10,000. Though it was successfully recovered, the GFTU was more careful about its bookkeeping thereafter.

However, the most important part of the 120th Anniversary document is also the most subtle. I refer to the insights into the GFTU’s sense of solidarity, which comes across in historical titbits and quotes. For example, from 1935 to 1937, the GFTU made an effort to get chain-makers recognised under new unemployment laws, so they could reap their benefits. From this we can gather that the organisation made a concerted effort to represent smaller unions and less well-unionised professions. This is supported by an earlier quote from Mitchell who (when he stood as a Labour party candidate in 1906) said that he sought to “represent all – except privilege”. We also learn that, during and after the First World War, the GFTU elected to support the admission of former soldiers into trade unions. This hadn’t been common practice before, but it helped cement the organisation’s commitment to solidarity.

Fostering solidarity through culture

The GFTU’s commitment to solidarity goes beyond purely practical matters: it’s enshrined on a deep cultural level. The modern GFTU actively pursues the cultural elevation of the working class in the hope of fostering solidarity. Although the 120th Anniversary booklet only touches lightly on the organisation’s cultural contributions, it’s worth noting that in recent years, they have hosted the country’s largest arts festival for trade unions, held a cultural festival for working-class Kurdish communities, and helped to promote plays about union history. The GFTU is even celebrating its 120th year by screening a series of films about women’s historic struggle to organise as part of the trade union movement. You can read more about that here in the Morning Star.

Perhaps the booklet’s greatest triumph, however, is the sense of continuity it provides between the GFTU’s historic roots and its present-day activities. It was born in the 1890s, in a time of political and ideological debate. Now it provides the tools of political thought to the next generation through accessible, left-leaning education programs. It was shaped by a need for solidarity among different types of workers, and now it regularly meets with trade unions and workers’ groups from around the world, thereby making that solidarity international.

The booklet is available here as a free downloadable pdf. Its graphic format is itself an example of GFTU's commitment to culture.

 

Culture by and for the working class – Inside Film and cultural democracy
Friday, 28 June 2019 10:26

Culture by and for the working class – Inside Film and cultural democracy

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

For more information on Inside Film, see here.

Profound new visions of a better world: why we need cultural education
Monday, 10 June 2019 20:05

Profound new visions of a better world: why we need cultural education

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Chris Guiton explains why it is essential that the labour movement uses a variety of political and cultural educational programmes to make the case for socialism

Antonio Gramsci’s profound insight that culture is a key site of political and social struggle remains as valid today as it was in the 1930s. Most of us on the Left understand that ruling-class ‘hegemony’ – the influence the capitalist class has over what counts as knowledge, beliefs and values in our society – is exercised through a range of civil society institutions, including the media, the arts, religion and education. And we recognise that while this power is not always visible, it is tremendously important in the manufacture of consent and conferral of legitimacy on capitalism and its current neoliberal manifestation.

So, it’s really encouraging to see senior figures in the labour and trade union movement talking about the need to reinvigorate political education. It has a crucial role to play in giving ordinary people the tools they need to analyse our current economic and political system and empower them to fight for a socialist alternative. But why is the cultural sphere so often neglected or sidelined in these discussions?

plebs league

It might appear odd that this is even an issue. After all, the labour movement has a rich history of working-class self-education, delivered through trade unions, political parties, libraries, the Plebs League, the Workers’ Educational Association and other institutions, most of which engaged with culture in its various forms. But most of this activity started to decline in the 1980s as trade union education was depoliticised by its reliance on Government funding, adult and further education provision experienced a class-based assault on its very being given its association with working-class politics and emancipation, and the Labour Party neglected its roots and lost its political compass.

There is an urgent need to revive this tradition of working-class education, restore infrastructure and funding, and rediscover an understanding of its democratising potential. This is an essential step if we are to ensure that a campaigning Labour Party can both win and retain political power. It will help people challenge the neoliberal narrative that ‘there is no alternative’ to the capitalist status quo by fostering a counter-hegemonic understanding of how capitalism operates, why political struggle has always been required to secure democratic rights, and the challenges we face in confronting a system which is clearly rigged against ordinary people.

What is cultural education?

But why does cultural education matter? What is it exactly and how does it relate to political education?

The explosion of popular culture since Gramsci’s time of writing (the Prison Notebooks were written between 1929 and 1935) has reinforced the significance of his thinking. Corporate-driven popular culture – films, TV, music etc – produces bland, uniform cultural products that encourage passive, docile consumption of their anodyne pleasures; promotes an individualised, competitive view of life; and discourages independent, creative, critical thinking.

Historically, there has been a tendency on the Left to underestimate culture’s political importance. Its significance has either been downplayed, with culture seen as an act of often private and largely passive consumption, or it has been viewed in instrumental terms as a weapon in the political struggle for socialism. But a more constructive, utopian perspective also exists, based on the understanding that there is a dynamic relationship between the cultural struggle and the political struggle. As the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein once said, “The revolution introduced me to art, and art, in its own turn, brought me to the revolution.” Socialism, then, can ultimately be viewed as a weapon in the fight for an enriched and democratic human culture.

Building on the work of Gramsci, the Marxist theorist and critic Raymond Williams was keen to promote the concept of a cultural revolution to accompany the economic and political revolutions. He understood this as a ‘long revolution’ leading to socialism through the extension and deepening of cultural and educational democratisation. He sought to articulate the ways in which we might give voice to our lived experiences, currently marginalised by a hegemonic, capitalist narrative. A fully developed campaign for cultural democracy plays a key role here, becoming a mechanism for resistance to and change of the dominant culture in all its manifestations.

Challenging the appropriation and commodification of cultural activities by the ruling class starts from this understanding. The arts can take us into imagined worlds and enable us to understand how others live. Listening to the music of John Coltrane, reading the novels of Angela Carter or looking at a painting by Cézanne can provide pleasure as well as help people deal with the alienation and oppression they encounter in their everyday lives. Culture can bring us together in shared, collaborative activities which are enjoyable in their own right.

paul robeson

It can also take on a more explicit counter-hegemonic character, encouraging us to think critically, ask challenging questions and participate in the wider world. Watching the film of Paul Robeson singing “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” to a group of Scottish miners in an Edinburgh colliery canteen in 1949 brings into sharp relief the emancipatory potential of linking culture to politics. At its best, culture not only has the potential to entertain and enlighten us, but can act as a liberating force, providing a broader canvas on which to understand historic, social and political issues, assert our common humanity against the divisions of class, gender and race caused by capitalism, and inspire radical change in the real world.

Similar benefits flow from other cultural activities such as playing or participating in sport, working on an allotment and socialising in pubs, cafés and restaurants. As well as being satisfying in themselves, they can provide multiple opportunities for engagement with others, which reflect the fundamentally social nature of human beings, emotional growth, and the encouragement of a collective commitment to the common good. This is based on an understanding that culture comes in many shapes and forms.

However, it’s all too common for discussions on culture to become a vehicle for the delivery of elitist perspectives on the relative values of its different manifestations. The frequently expressed division between so-called ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture’ conveniently ignores the barriers created by the Industrial Revolution to the production and enjoyment of culture by ordinary people.

It is clearly designed to exclude the working class from appreciation of a broad range of cultural pursuits, and disempower them by dismissing typical working-class cultural activities as having less intrinsic value than their upper-class counterparts. It is also an expression of snobbery, which says more about the person uttering it than the subject to hand. These are important points. Kurt Weill, the German composer and Bertolt Brecht collaborator, really nailed it with his comment, “I have never acknowledged the difference between serious music and light music. There is only good music and bad music.”

Let's return to Raymond Williams, who famously noted that ‘culture is ordinary’. His genius was to focus on the importance of people’s lived experience, as he explained, using ‘the word culture in two senses: to mean a whole way of life – the common meanings; [as well as] to mean the arts and learning – the special processes of discovery and creative effort.’ And to insist on the importance of both senses, in conjunction.

As the Left mobilises, and the struggle against neoliberalism intensifies, we’re presented with a fantastic opportunity to promote and reclaim working-class culture, rediscover the value of culture generally as a means of individual and collective empowerment, and learn how to use art and culture in the battle for hearts and minds that is crucial to effective political organising, campaigning and education. While class and capitalism shape our culture, the scope to develop an independent and potentially resistant working-class culture remains very much in front of us, as ordinary people continue to resist capitalist norms and create their own meanings.

The link between culture and education

How does the link between culture and education manifest itself? The Russian psychologist and teacher, Lev Vygotsky, was fascinated by the connection between them. As a Marxist, he believed that human concepts are rooted in social activity as humans are, fundamentally, social beings. A person’s understanding of the world is inextricably rooted in social relations, with individuals constructing meaning from their social experiences, and then acting upon them accordingly. Participation in cultural activity provides a means of knowledge construction, involving the shared transformation of meaning constructed with others, leading to further development and learning.

Panel Paulo Freire by Luiz Carlos Cappellano. CEFORTEPE Center for Training Technoloresized

Paulo Freire by Luiz Carlos Cappellano

In a similar vein, the great Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, developed an educational method and approach particularly suited to labour movement and trade union education, because of its informal and people-centred approach, its emphasis on dialogue and its concern for liberating the oppressed. Freire’s critical pedagogy is based upon the core concept of ‘praxis’, defined as the unification of reflection and action. The aim is to create a pedagogy that enables both teachers and students to critically reflect upon reality, take transformative action to change that reality and work to create a better world.

Crucially, it is a dialogue of equals, where informal education takes place on a dialogical (or conversational) basis rather than centred on a formal curriculum, located in the lived experience of participants if it is to have meaning for them and to help generate new ways of acting in the world. There is a clear focus on building a ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’, working with those who do not have a voice to develop an in-depth understanding of the world and the social and political contradictions that characterise capitalist society.

Inevitably, there are many people who find it difficult to make the connection between culture and politics. In the wake of Thatcherism, and the embrace of neoliberalism by the entire political establishment and much of the media, there are several generations of people who have grown up without the experience of political and cultural struggle.

This is often expressed as ‘what’s politics got to do with football’ or ‘I don’t understand modern art’. This means starting from an understanding of where people are and leading them towards a better grasp of how politics defines everything we do, including our access to, and participation in, art and culture, how much it costs and how it is organised. It means challenging the ‘pedagogy of repression’, where people are conditioned to think that they have no democratic rights, no agency and no power to fight for social change. Which, of course, explains why the Government fights so hard against anything resembling a critical pedagogy in our education system – because it emphasises critical reflection, bridging the gap between everyday life and learning, and underlining the link between power and knowledge.

Why we need a broad-based programme of political and cultural education

Clearly, the development and application of political and cultural education isn’t a simple hierarchical, top-down process. Ideas must come from below as well as above. If the Labour Party and other labour movement institutions are to engage with a broad cross-section of people and develop a genuine social movement, they need to recognise the power of grassroots activism and encourage debate, participation and collaborative working.           

Trade unions, the Labour Party and other labour movement organisations such as Momentum, need to develop comprehensive programmes of political and cultural education which are accessible, flexible and relevant. Online learning can play an important part in this. But nothing beats getting together in a shared environment to develop an understanding of the politics of resistance.

So, the fact that the annual The World Transformed festival, which runs alongside Labour Party Conference, is being replicated in a series of events around the country is welcome. There is a marvellous opportunity here to reach out beyond traditional forms of political engagement and initiate a dialogue with people about what we want from society, the contribution that culture can make to the development of a better world, and how we radicalise everyday life and develop effective political strategies that deliver systemic change and fundamental shifts in power.

What might a typical programme of cultural education, nested in a larger political education framework, actually look like? There’s no uniform template for such a programme. But, building on existing good practice, it might include consideration of topics such as:

- How radical poetry, theatre, music and other forms of culture can help us understand issues around exclusion, poverty and inequality, give voice to the voiceless, promote community engagement and develop deeper levels of political consciousness.

- How art and culture can be used to understand and challenge existing power structures and create the space for radical change.

- How we balance what Marx called ‘necessary labour time’ with the free time to enjoy social and cultural activities that bring us together and allow us to develop our individual creativity.

- How pubs, clubs, cafes, community centres, theatres and other venues play an important social role, acting as the ‘glue’ that holds communities together, contributing to people’s happiness and wellbeing, and to social cohesion.

- How the commodification of sports such as football, which provide entertainment and emotional engagement for millions of people, is a classic example of the way neoliberalism erodes not just the social origins of the game, but potentially destroys it by subjecting everything to the search for corporate profit.

- How to develop local campaigns which bring politics and culture together and which rediscover, protect and develop working-class culture.

- How to challenge the negative role that the mass media (TV, radio, social media etc) plays in modern culture, bombarding us with a range of messages which promote competitive individualism, mindless consumerism and passive consumption of a culture designed to discourage dissent.

- How the systematic distortion of the news displayed by our largely right-wing newspapers and other media helps ‘manufacture consent’ for a reactionary political agenda.

More broadly, we need to think about ways of facilitating and encouraging a broad range of grassroots cultural formations and activities, which have the potential to link to political activism. The explosive anti-establishment energy unleashed by punk in the late 1970s was the DIY cultural ethic at its best. More recently, grassroots football fan clubs have made heroic efforts to challenge corporate control of the bigger football clubs and then gone on to build interest in more explicitly political campaigns against, for example, racism, sexism or homophobia.

There are multiple examples up and down the country of organisations delivering events which make the link between politics and culture explicit, in social clubs, festivals and political meetings. The challenge is to broaden and deepen this activity and develop approaches that liberate us from traditional, bureaucratic forms of political engagement, deploy innovative organising techniques appropriate to a 21st century environment, and which embrace a collectivist ethic whilst encouraging a diversity of approaches.

There are also many examples of organisations working effectively at various forms of cultural activity which don’t have an explicitly political flavour – whether learning to play a musical instrument, paint, write poetry, cook, play football or make films – for enjoyment, education or the value generated by doing things in a social environment. These activities are also clearly valuable. By providing platforms for people to share their work and ideas, and by encouraging people to do things socially and collaboratively, they build confidence, promote learning and open the doors to deeper levels of cultural and political engagement.

By establishing learning spaces that are outward-looking, creative and empowering, art and culture can do things that political information by itself can’t. It can help build the social movement vital to the success of socialism.

The challenge is how to build on these foundations in a way which promotes the potential for all types of art and culture to provide opportunities for the articulation of alternatives to dominant views of society, which breaks down the barriers between ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’ of culture, and which underpins the development of a politics of radical social and political change. Whatever solutions emerge, the process must facilitate and encourage the formation of new collaborative networks at local, regional and national levels which are democratic, participative and empowering. And which help develop a self-sustaining ecosystem of socialist and progressive groups working towards the common goal of a fairer society.

To return to someone we started with, Gramsci famously said, ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’

We are living in very dangerous times as the crisis of capitalism deepens, reactionary forces in society resort to increasingly desperate measures to cling onto power, right-wing extremism is on the rise and the smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party plumbs new depths. We are at a critical juncture in the struggle and the battle of ideas will only intensify. Poets, musicians, artists and others can shed light on the problems faced by society, offer profound new visions of a better world and act as harbingers of change. It is therefore essential that the labour movement seizes the opportunity to use a variety of political and cultural educational programmes to make the case for socialism.

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other
Sunday, 24 March 2019 14:34

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other

Written by

Sean Ledwith reviews Angels and Demons, by Tony McKenna, a collection of essays on artists, writers and politicians written from a historical materialist perspective.

The role of the individual in history has been one of the perennial debates throughout the development of Marxist theory. Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century were keen to dissociate themselves from the ‘great man view of history’ that had characterised much of bourgeois scholarship up to that point. The defining feature of historical materialism as an analytical tool in their hands was to transfer the focus of attention away from the actions and intentions of individuals, and onto the structural forces and relations of production that have combined to create a succession of modes of production across the millennia of human history.

At the same time, as revolutionary activists and not simply disinterested scholars, the founders stressed the ongoing importance of human agency and the capacity of individuals to operate with a degree of choice, albeit within the constraints of these subterranean processes. This fine balance between structure and agency is neatly encapsulated in a celebrated passage from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

Of course, subsequent generations of thinkers, seeking to follow the founders’ example, have not always succeeded in reproducing both elements of this conceptual tension; oscillating at times between the voluntarism associated with Sartre and others, and the subject-less paradigm constructed most intricately by Althusser.

Anyone looking for a modern attempt to recreate the dialectical balance between the individual and wider social forces in the spirit of Marx and Engels should refer to this highly readable collection of essays by Tony McKenna. The author impressively surveys the lives of a number of individuals across the fields of politics, philosophy and the arts who have had a major impact – for good or ill – on human affairs.

SL 1

Nicholas II

McKenna takes his theoretical cue from a passage in Trotsky’s seminal History of the Russian Revolution in which the character of Nicholas II is portrayed as an amalgam of the subjective and objective:

In Trotsky’s account, the personal and the political achieve a harmonious but terrible synthesis, for in the person of the last Tsar is embodied all the decadence, fatality, pettiness, self-deception, brass ignorance, denial and hopelessness of a historical tendency which has entered into an inevitable, mortal freefall. (3)

Developing the template provided by Trotsky for a distinctively Marxist approach to biography, the author persuasively argues that a nuanced version of historical materialism, eschewing both crude determinism and naïve individualism, can creatively identify the strands that link the lives of the one with the many. The personalities he discusses are not reducible to mere abstract cyphers, the personal representatives of mechanical, anonymous historical forces, but rather their art and activity, their interests and individuality, only resonates its full uniqueness and meaning in the context of the historical epoch, and the underlying social and political contradictions which set the basis for it. (6)

As a formulation of the Marxist conception of the role of the individual in history, McKenna here provides a valuable new iteration of the analyses of Marx, Trotsky and others in previous eras.

The author divides his ten subjects into the two categories alluded to in the title. This classification follows a method that in more familiar terms consists of radicals and reactionaries. In the former camp, we find Victor Hugo, Hugo Chavez, Rembrandt, Andrea Dworkin, William Blake and Jeremy Corbyn. The ‘Demons’ team is made up of Christopher Hitchens, Schopenhauer, Hillary Clinton and Trump.

It would be difficult to think of more diverse and anomalous assortment of case studies for McKenna’s thesis that historical materialism can usefully contextualise the personal with the political! However, he deploys with virtuosity a remarkable grasp of the breadth of cultural, economic and political forces at work in the lives of these personalities. Anyone interested in any of the above figures will find their understanding enhanced by McKenna‘s sophisticated delineation of how the respective subject’s ideology was shaped by the dynamics of the age.

The only slight drawback of the author’s selection is that the personalities are not analysed in chronological order. The reader for example can find herself rewinding from Hitchens in the twentieth century to Rembrandt in the seventeenth, and similarly from Dworkin in the twentieth to Blake in the eighteenth. McKenna perceptively suggests the key to explications of individual psychology from a Marxist perceptive should comprehend how major figures mediate most profoundly the most significant contradictions within the capitalist order at different stages in its development. (15)

It might have been preferable, therefore, if each study more evidently reflected a step-change in the operations of the rule of capital from the dawn of the bourgeois revolutions to today’s seemingly remorseless neoliberal hegemony. However, this consideration does not detract from the elegance and power of McKenna’s expositions.

The emphasis on contradictions in an individual personality is the fundamental insight that lies at the heart of McKenna’s methodology. Again, in this aspect he follows in the tradition of some of the best thinkers in the Marxist tradition. Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks of the 1930s, drew attention to ‘contradictory consciousness’ as one of the symptoms of alienation in the mental framework of every subject living under the role of capital.

Voloshinov, in the previous decade, explored the phenomenon of ‘multi-voicedness’ and the manner in which the consciousness of an individual can simultaneously contain ideological input from a range of sources, some of which may be conflicting. Likewise, the author here contends that the key to unlocking human personality is the way in which the contradictions of the age are manifested in the unique experience of every person. The result of this methodology is a sequence of portraits that fulfils Gramsci’s guidance on how biography in the tradition of historical materialism can produce insights that are superior to its bourgeois counterpart:

They never let you have an immediate, direct, animated sense of the lives of Tom, Dick and Harry. If you are not able to understand real individuals, you are not able to understand what is universal and general.

SL2

Rembrandt, Self-portrait at the age of 63

In the moving chapter on Rembrandt, McKenna elucidates how the painter’s sublime genius lay in his ability to tune into the contradictions of the world’s first bourgeois revolution as the newly born Dutch capitalist state threw off the yoke of the Spanish Empire at the turn of the seventeenth century:

For he channelled this dualism in an art which attains a new depth of individuality and interority, illuminating the flickering shadows of the soul, while at the same time possessing the kind of aesthetic integrity which was able to express the suffering of an age, allowing it to bleed into the backdrop of his paintings. (96)

450px Rembrandt Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son Google Art Project

McKenna recounts how many of Rembrandt’s portraits of the 1630s, such as ‘The Prodigal Son in the Brothel’, are of the moneyed bourgeoisie whose ‘exuberant political freedoms' (89) are expressed in the lavish and salubrious scenes depicted around the characters. The optimism and self-confidence of an embryonic ruling class that is taking a torch to the decaying carcass of feudalism is almost palpable.

1024px Rembrandt The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp

The greatness of Rembrandt, however, is that the artist notes, amid the surging power of the Dutch bourgeoisie, a sense that its hegemony will be built not on the abolition of exploitation but only a new type of exploitation. Describing the iconic ‘Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp’, McKenna draws our attention to the attitude of the scientists looking down on the corpse in front of them: They see him only in terms of an object like any other, to be appropriated, to be carved up; as a means to enhance their own material and intellectual powers. (93)

This picture is conventionally interpreted as representing the humanism and idealism of the scientific revolution of the early modern age. With an appropriate lightness of touch, however, McKenna deploys a Marxist lens to re-imagine it as a portent of the calculated disinterest the capitalist class retains for the millions of subjects who labour in its name.

At no point does the author’s analysis relapse into a crude materialism that might see Rembrandt as the artist of the Dutch bourgeois revolution and little else. McKenna does not lose sight of the fact that the reason the artist remains phenomenally popular is that he addresses anxieties and concerns that continue to exercise the human imagination, and that probably always will.

Rembrandt bue squartato 1655 01

For example, ‘The Slaughtered Ox’ from 1643 contains an enigmatic power that seemingly defies rational explanation. The image of a butchered bovine cadaver in a basement at first would appear to be an unlikely source of fascination. For McKenna, however, the painting brutally reminds us of the material reality of our existence as transient beings in a universe ultimately beyond our comprehension:

Rembrandt is making us aware that, ultimately, this is our destiny – that, each day, life crucifies us that little bit more and that little more slowly, through the sense of loss and suffering we must inevitably accumulate. (102)

If Rembrandt is rightly one of the eponymous angels of the collection, Christopher Hitchens as one of the most famous critics and polemicist of our age falls into the less desirable category. His championing of the calamitous Bush-Blair inspired invasion of Iraq in 2003 is probably the main reason Hitchens was suitably dubbed as a fallen angel in the eyes of many on the radical left. McKenna ultimately concurs with this damning verdict but does not elide over Hitchens’ undoubted qualities as a writer and is generous in acknowledging his subject’s stoical battle against cancer in the twilight of his life:

Hitchens had a wonderful facility with words. His literary flair surpasses that of his idol Orwell, in my view, in terms of its fluidity and grace…even in his later years, the increasingly rotund figure of this patrician journalist was in possession of a certain stoutly courage. (71-72)

Hitchens’ espousal of Western imperialism in his last decade can appear bizarrely incongruous in the light of his previous association with the revolutionary left. As McKenna observes, the most obvious explanation would be that ‘the allure of money and privilege no doubt played its part’. (70) But the author contends that a more productive line of thought is to trace the conflict that raged within Hitchens’ persona throughout his life between two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, the desire to shock the establishment, and on the other, the need to be part of it. In McKenna’s words:

The need to have it both ways, so to say-to be able to indulge the exhilarating frisson and enjoy the moral vitality which are the remits of the freedom-fighter, while simultaneously partaking in the silky confidences of the most famous and powerful; this was the central, elemental contradiction which fissured across Hitchens’ existence. (82)

Perhaps the moral of this particular life is that although contradictions are the essence of the human condition, they do not always play out without resolution. The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks forced Hitchens to decide whether he would decisively take the side of the oppressed or the oppressor. His total failure to comprehend Islamism as a distorted form of resistance to imperial hegemony led him into the welcoming arms of Cheney, Wolfowitz and the rest of the neocon cabal in Washington.

McKenna’s reflective adoption of a Marxist approach to psychology here highlights the advantage of not focusing on our interiority alone; but also perceiving how by events in the external world can force us to confront the contradictions within ourselves. The fiery fiasco of the ‘War on Terror’ forced Hitchens to face the paradoxes of his own existence – and he was found wanting.

Jeremy Corbyn Leader of the Labour Party UK

McKenna’s closing chapter is a timely assessment of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. As the Tory government stumbles through the Brexit morass, the prospect of the Labour Leader walking through the black door of Number 10 is tantalisingly real. In the neatly titled ‘Chronicle of a Coup Foretold’ McKenna predicts that such a scenario would trigger a major crisis of the British state, in which the aspirations of millions of working-class people, long neglected by a venal elite, would be pitched against the centuries-old conservatism of the ruling class. Unlike the previous profiles in the book, McKenna does not detect any deep contradictions in Corbyn’s personality, and the author’s focus is more on a looming rupture in the wider body politic. In fact, it is fair to say that the Labour leader’s apparent lack of hidden agendas – conscious or otherwise – is the root of his remarkable appeal. Corbyn’s lack of complexity and personal ambition is a refreshing change from his recent predecessors in the post:

Jeremy Corbyn is a kind, decent, reasonable man who evinces a sense of faint distaste and aloofness to the more savage and Machiavellian manoeuvrings, which are so much a part of modern politics. (238)

Nevertheless, McKenna shrewdly cautions us that these qualities are eerily reminiscent of Salvador Allende, Chile’s doomed socialist Prime Minister of the early 1970s. Allende believed decency and reason would be enough to restrain the dark forces of military intervention that stood at his side in the last weeks of his administration. By the time he realised they were actually his deadliest enemies, it was too late. If Corbyn is not to suffer a similar fate in the future, the whole labour movement in the UK will need to realise there can be no common ground in the event of a clash between the ‘Angels and Demons’ – one must subdue the other.

Angels and Demons is available here.

from The Acting Class: Tom Stocks visits Eton whose alumni include Tom Hiddleston, Damian Lewis, Hugh Lawrie and Eddie Redmayne
Wednesday, 20 March 2019 14:49

The Gentrification of Culture

Written by

Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne discuss the decline and colonisation of working-class culture, introduce The Acting Class and call for culture to be at the cutting edge of counter-hegemonic challenges to the dominant culture

The products of film, television and theatre are disseminated in and through institutions and networks that are situated within economic and ideological constraints and hegemonic discourses. Representations of the working class within this circuit are often partial, uninformed and invariably negative. But, even so, they go on to have an afterlife as visual images recycled repeatedly until they harden into the taken for granted ‘knowledge’ of our society.

There is another recycling moment going on as well, the return, the doubling back from the progress made after the Second World War to the squalor, poverty, low wages, hunger and diseases that would have been recognizable to the Victorians. Nothing new to see here; just the British class system doing what it does best – allowing the middle and upper classes to use all the methods in their power to justify the cruelty and inequalities of the system it perpetuates.

The political and cultural expectations of the post Second World War period were conceptualised as an improvement in the living conditions of the working class – new housing, the welfare state, education, maintenance grants, a brave new world built by and made possible by the physical hard work and (to a certain extent) the tax contributions of the working class. The potential afforded by economic security – although far from accessible to everyone – led to a growing confidence amongst the working class at this time which in turn led to the demand for a more overt cultural presence.

There was an independent film movement in the 1970s, and during the 60s through to the beginning of the 80s television became more radical, showing the work of Ken Loach, Dennis Potter and John McGrath. Channel 4 signed up to the Workshop Agreement in the 1980s, which created an infrastructure of radical cultural workers whose praxis included political activism, education, and writing as well as film making. The work produced in all cultural spheres was often work that engaged with and explored in detail the lives of the working class. Seeing the lives of working-class people taken seriously on the television and cinema screens allowed an engagement with the cultural life of the country and provided the potential for political engagement and transformative politics.

The election of Thatcher in 1979 changed the way we think about culture and the way in which it is organized. Now it became something to be organized by an expert middle class, from the top down. It was to be sponsored, monetized, marketized and crucially, standardized. The support offered to radical cultural workers was removed and only those with independent means or rich parents could afford to take part in an increasingly narrow media landscape. In the process the popular culture of the working classes was appropriated and reinvented as middle-class culture.

The dominance of London in both the production and consumption of the arts, and the dominance of the middle class in London, has led to a situation where the middle and upper classes are able to dominate all areas of the arts: film, theatre, television, music and reproduce them in their own image, while at the same time ensuring the continuation of generational privileges.

london culture

The lack of social housing, the inability to rent cheaply, the lack of well-paid full-time contracted work, and the inadequacy of welfare benefits that are tied to stringent rules and surveillance all work together to marginalize the working class, and contribute to what has become a very narrow creative and cultural landscape. What appears to be the exclusion of the working class from geographical spaces gentrified by the professional middle class serves the additional function of excluding them from artistic production.

The decline of the culture of the working class has been one of the most powerful, telling developments in British society. John McGrath linked this decline of working-class culture to the systematic destruction by consecutive governments of the institutions embedded within the lives and history of the working class, out of which this culture grew and which sustained it. Crucially, for McGrath, these institutions were the very embodiment of working-class consciousness. If, as McGrath claimed, it was through these cultural institutions and the forms they took that the working class were able to recognize and identify themselves as a class with a distinct set of experiences differentiating them from other classes, then it follows that at the present moment, it is of the utmost importance that the working class produce their own cultural forms that are able to translate their own experiences.

Geographically we can consider gentrification as a form of internal ‘colonisation’. Colonisation is the practice of invading or settling on already occupied land for the purpose of acquiring assets and displacing indigenous populations by a more economically powerful and socially dominant group. Considering colonisation within this optic as a practice carried out by the middle classes brings into focus the ideological and material displacement of the working class. The success of the gentrification project can only be understood if we consider the physical, geographical aspect in a relational sense by mapping it onto cultural practices, forms of subjectivity and of course media representations which legitimise and normalise middle-class cultures of competitive individualism, status-seeking and accumulated and cumulative disdain for the working class based on feelings of superiority, career success and material acquisition.

The cultural and arts professions would like to consider themselves a meritocracy, magically escaping the structural determinants of class exclusion. In fact they are a perfect microcosm of the British class system, mediated through the lens of middle-class media workers who dominate the ‘creative’ industries which are responsible for telling the stories and projecting the images we have of ourselves and who ‘we’ are.

Our documentary feature film The Acting Class explores how this broader political economy works and with what consequences in the acting industry. The documentary won the International Labour Film Festival award 2017, an indication perhaps of the increasing awareness that the cultural industries are subject to similar dynamics of inequality and precarity as other sectors of the economy. The documentary interviews both established actors such as Christopher Eccleston, Maxine Peake, Julie Hesmondhalgh and Samuel West, as well as young aspiring actors trying to break into the profession today.

Maxine peake with tom stocks 700x455

Maxine Peake with Tom Stocks

Among the latter are Tom Stocks, a working-class actor from Bolton who set up Actor Awareness when he could not afford to take up his Masters in Acting at East 15 drama school. Among the multiple barriers to entry are:

- the dominance of the profession by the middle class in key decision-making roles; the project-by-project nature of the profession that gradually weeds out those who do not have access to an independent income (or the Bank of Mum and Dad);

- the London-centric nature of the profession that excludes actors of working-class origin from outside the capital;

- the subtle shaping of expectations and knowledge from a young age that makes acting seem ‘not for the likes of us’; and

- the erosion of culture and arts provision on the school curriculum.

In addition, there are the elite networks forged in Oxbridge and perpetuated in the profession, networks which Actor Awareness for example tries to counter by developing a network and mutual support system for the working-class actor.

The film has been seen by actors, educators, students, activists and trade unionists, as well as members of the general public. Digital technology has made possible alternative networks of film screenings and facilitated the organization of screenings in non-theatrical as well as theatrical venues. In this way the film becomes more than a series of images, it becomes a political intervention into present circumstances and offers the potential to change the conditions it is dealing with. Question and answer sessions build on immediate audience reactions of anger and emotional responses. One of the questions we are always asked is what can we do to bring about change?

This question has already contributed to the possibility of change, since audience engagement can have tangible results. For example, we have screened the film at a number of Equity branches, to help raise awareness within the actors’ union, and the film has fed into a wider process within the union to prioritise the issue of class exclusion in the sector. We also worked with The Equality Trust and Just Fair as part of their campaign to see Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 brought into effect. Section 1 requires public authorities to have ‘due regard’ to how their role can be used to reduce the inequalities of outcome that result from socio-economic disadvantage. This statutory duty could be a powerful lever for communities and activists to hold public bodies to account, for perpetuating class discrimination across all sectors and not just in relation to arts and culture.

Any counter-hegemonic challenge must begin with culture.

The film but can be purchased through the website and can be made available if anyone would like to arrange a screening.

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