Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (52)

Rosa Luxemburg and the spiritual growth of the proletariat
Thursday, 03 January 2019 21:58

Rosa Luxemburg and the spiritual growth of the proletariat

Written by

‘The most precious thing' said Rosa Luxemburg, 'in the sharp ebb and flow of the revolutionary waves is the proletariat's spiritual growth.' Jenny Farrell presents two letters by Rosa Luxemburg, murdered one hundred years ago in Berlin by the proto-Nazi Freikorps.

Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, founder members of the German Communist Party and fearless anti-war activists, were murdered on 15 January 1919. It is not difficult to discover the details of their political and public lives. However, we would like to honour their memory by highlighting their spiritual and ecological awareness, through presenting two private letters by Rosa Luxemburg to the Russian-born Sophie Liebknecht, wife of Karl Liebknecht.

RL 1

These letters reveal the private person, the inner landscape of Rosa, an aspect rarely explored in the letters of Marxist writers. The correspondence highlights her sensitivity towards the way we express our humanity in our relationship with the natural world, and that our political, economic and cultural struggles for a humane existence are not ends in themselves, or merely material struggles. They are also moral and psychological struggles for an empathic, compassionate life, for an almost ecstatic, peaceful unity with oneself, with others and with nature.

1. Vronke, 2 May 1917

My dearest little Sonyusha!* Your dear letter arrived here in perfect time yesterday, 1 May. It and two days of sunshine have done much to cheer me up. For my heart was very sore these last few days, but now things are looking up again. If only the sun would stay that way! I am outside almost all day, strolling around in the bushes, searching every corner of my garden and finding all kinds of treasures. So listen: Yesterday, May 1st, I met – guess who? – a radiant common brimstone! I was so happy that my whole heart pounded. It flew up to my sleeve – I wear a purple jacket, and the colour probably attracted it – then it bobbed up and down the wall. In the afternoon, I found three different beautiful feathers: a dark grey one from a redstart, a golden one from a yellowhammer and a greyish-yellow one from a nightingale. We have many nightingales here, I heard the first one early on Easter Sunday, and since then it comes to the big silver poplar in my little garden every day. I put the feathers in a lovely blue box for my small collection: I also have feathers there that I found in the yard of Barnimstraße** – from pigeons and chickens, and also a beautiful blue one from a jay in Südende***. The “collection” is still quite small, but I like to look at it sometimes. I have already decided to whom I will give it.

This morning I discovered a hidden violet right next to the wall I was walking past! The only one in my whole garden. How does Goethe put it?

A violet in the meadow stood,
With humble brow, demure and good,
It was the sweetest violet.

I was so happy! I am sending you it here, with a kiss pressed lightly on it, may it bring you my love and my greeting. Will it still be little fresh when you get it? ...

Then this afternoon I met the first bumblebee! A very big one in the new shimmering black fur jacket with golden yellow belt. It hummed in a deep bass and flew first to my jacket, then in a big arc high above the yard. The buds of the chestnuts are so big, rosy and swelling, shiny with juice, in a few days they will probably pop out their leaves, which look like little green hands. Remember, last year, how we stood in front of such a chestnut with young leaves and you called in droll desperation: “Rosa! (You roll the “R” even more than I do), what can you say? What can you say at such delight?”

And another discovery made me happy today. You may remember, last April I phoned you both urgently at 10 o’clock in the morning to come to the Botanical Gardens and listen with me to the nightingale giving a whole concert. We sat quietly hidden in dense shrubs on stones beside a tiny streamlet; but after the nightingale, we suddenly heard a wistful call, which sounded something like this: “Gleegleegleegleeglick! I said it sounded like some moor or water bird, and Karl agreed, but we simply couldn’t work out what it was. Just think, one morning a few days ago, I suddenly heard the same lamentation near here, so that my heart throbbed, impatient to find out what it was. I had no peace until I discovered today: it’s not a water bird, but the wryneck, a grey woodpecker. It is only a little bigger than the sparrow and has its name because it tries to frighten its enemies by strange gestures and head contortions. It lives on ants only, which it catches with its sticky tongue like the anteater. The Spanish call it hormiguero – the antbird. Mörike by the way wrote a lovely funny poem on this bird, which Hugo Wolf set to music. I feel like I’ve been given a gift, knowing what the bird with the sad voice is. Perhaps you could let Karl know about this, he would be delighted.

What do I read? Mainly scientific books: plant and animal geography. Just yesterday I read about the causes of songbirds disappearing in Germany: it is due to increased rational forestry, horticulture and agriculture, slowly destroying all their natural nesting and feeding habitats: hollow trees, wasteland, scrub, and withered foliage in gardens. It was so painful to read this. I’m not worried about their singing for people, but the image of the silent, unstoppable demise of these defenceless little creatures hurt me so much, I had to weep. It reminded me of a Russian book by Prof. Siber about the destruction of the Redskins in North America, which I read in Zurich: Slowly but surely, civilised people drive them off their land and submit them to silent, cruel annihilation.

I must be unwell that everything shakes me so deeply now. Do you know? Sometimes I feel that I am not a real person, but some bird or other animal in a failed human form; inwardly I feel much more at home in such a small shred of garden as here, or in a field amongst bumblebees and grass than - at a party conference. I can tell you all this: you will not immediately sense a betrayal of socialism. You know, I will hopefully die for the cause anyway: in a street battle or in prison. But my innermost self belongs more to my coal tits than to the ‘comrades’. And this is not because, like so many bankrupt politicians, I find a refuge, a rest in nature. On the contrary, here too I find so much cruelty at every turn that I suffer a great deal. Imagine, for example, that I simply cannot forget the following little episode. Last spring I was on my way home from a walk across fields, in my quiet, empty street when I noticed a dark little spot on the ground. I bent down and saw a soundless tragedy: a large dung beetle lay on its back and defended itself helplessly with its legs, while a whole load of tiny ants swarmed over it and consumed it – alive! I looked at it, took out my handkerchief and began to chase away the brutal beasts. But they were so cheeky and stubborn that I had to fight a long battle with them, and when I had finally freed the poor wretch and taken him far onto the grass, two legs had already been eaten away ... I fled tormented, feeling that I had done him a very dubious favour.

There is long twilight in the evenings now. How I usually love this hour! In Südende I had so many blackbirds, here I can’t see or hear any. I fed a pair all winter and now it has disappeared. In Südende I used to stroll the street around this time in the evening; it is so beautiful when even in the last violet rays of daylight the rosy gas flames suddenly flicker in the lanterns and look so strange in the dusk, as if they were a little ashamed of themselves. Then the indistinct shape of a porter’s wife or a maid scurries through the street, quickly running to the baker’s or grocer’s to fetch something. The shoemaker’s children, with whom I am friends, used to play in the street in the dark until they were robustly summoned home from the corner. At this hour there always used to be some blackbird that couldn’t find rest and suddenly screeched or babbled like a naughty child, s startled rom sleep and flying noisily from tree to tree. And I stood there in the middle of the street, counting the first stars, reluctant to go home, leaving the balmy air and the twilight in which day and night nestled so softly together. Sonyusha, I will write to you again soon. Put your mind at ease and be cheerful, everything will be fine, even with Karl. I will write to Mathilde about your household worries and do whatever I can. Goodbye until the next letter, my dear little bird.

I embrace you.

Your Rosa.

* Russian pet name for Sophie (Sophie was a native Russian speaker, Rosa was very fluent)

** The Women’s Prison in Berlin

*** The district in Berlin where Luxemburg lived

Translated by Jenny Farrell

RL 2

2. Wrocław prison, mid-December 1917

Yesterday I lay awake for a long time – these days I can’t fall asleep before 1 a.m., but I have to go to bed at 10, because the light goes out then, and then I dream to myself about various things in the dark. Last night this is what I was thinking: how odd it is that I’m continually in a joyful state of exaltation – without any particular reason. For example, I’m lying here in a dark cell on a stone-hard mattress, the usual silence of a church cemetery prevails in the prison building, it seems as though we’re in a tomb; on the ceiling can be seen reflections coming through the window from the lanterns that burn all night in front of the prison. From time to time one hears, but only in quite a muffled way, the distant rumble of a train passing by or quite nearby under the windows the whispering of the guards on duty at night, who take a few steps slowly in their heavy boots to relieve their stiff legs. The sand crunches so hopelessly under their heels that the entire hopeless wasteland of existence can be heard in this damp, dark night.

I lie there quietly, alone, wrapped in these many-layered black veils of darkness, boredom, lack of freedom, and winter – and at the same time my heart is racing with an incomprehensible, unfamiliar inner joy as though I were walking across a flowering meadow in radiant sunshine. And in the dark I smile at life, as if I knew some sort of magical secret that gives the lie to everything evil and sad and changes it into pure light and happiness. And all the while I’m searching within myself for some reason for this joy, find nothing and must smile to myself again – and laugh at myself. I believe that the secret is nothing other than life itself; the deep darkness of night is so beautiful and as soft as velvet, if one only looks at it the right way; and in the crunching of the damp sand beneath the snow beneath the slow, heavy steps of the sentries a beautiful small song of life is being sung – if only one knows how to listen properly.

At such moments I think of you and I would like so much to pass on this magical key to you, so that always and in all situations you would be aware of the beautiful and the joyful, so that you too would live in a joyful euphoria as though you were walking across a colourful meadow. I am certainly not thinking of foisting off on you some sort of asceticism or made-up joys. I don’t begrudge you all the real joys of the senses that you might wish for yourself. I would just like to add to this my inexhaustible inner cheerfulness, so that I could be at peace about you and not worry, so that you could go through life wearing a star-speckled cloak, to protect you from all things petty, trivial and alarming.

If you enjoyed these letters, you can read more here.

An armoury of ideas: reading for rebellion in 2019
Thursday, 27 December 2018 22:38

An armoury of ideas: reading for rebellion in 2019

Written by

Kitted out with optimism, Mark Perryman makes a New Year selection of books as weapons to help bring down a government

Not much doubt which argument will rage on long after any Christmastime peace and goodwill has disappeared – Brexit. Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure is an account of this most dismal of sagas which locates its gestation in a mix of imperial delusion and cultural confusion rather than this deal, that deal or no deal.

On a similar front England’s Discontents by Mike Wayne is an exploration of English national identity that provides a highly effective insight towards understanding the political terrain of post-Brexit Britain. This new terrain will be sited on competing definitions of ‘control’ and precisely who, or what, we need to take it back from.

Gianpaolo Baiocchi’s We, The Sovereign describes models of sovereignty that retain both an egalitarian impulse and the power to transform.  Most on the Left would regard staying in the EU as a necessity towards any such ambition but that doesn’t mean the arguments in the new book The Left Case against the EU from Costas Lapavitsas should be discounted either. Leave? Remain? The key surely is Change. 

Whether or not Labour can come out the other side of the seasonal break from Brexit starting to look more and more like the next Government will be the crucial question of early 2019.  Jeremy Corbyn and the Strange Rebirth of Labour England, by Francis Beckett and Mark Seddon, revisits the roots of Corbyn’s rise to provide readers with credible optimism towards that end.  Matt Bolton first wrote up his critique of Corbynism as a blog, describing it as possessing a ‘terrifying hubris’. Harsh but his was a critical account that was decidedly well thought-out and deserving of a considered read. Now Matt, with co-thinker Frederick Harry Pitts, has turned their shared line of argument into a book Corbynism : A Critical Approach.  I wasn’t convinced by their answers but there are some very good questions raised, too good to simply be dismissed out of hand.     

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Here’s one question that most certainly needs asking – will it be the economy that shifts things in 2019, stupid? Yes, almost certainly. The publication of the collection Economics for the Many edited by John McDonnell is a comprehensive range of the kind of policies that will not only roll back austerity but also in the process lay the foundations for a durable alternative.

However, any such project should also be about the quality of the lives we lead, which is why Melissa Benn’s Life Lessons is such a vital companion volume.  Making the case for a ‘national education service’ this book is an explicit critique of the managerialism that has monetised our children’s education.

Of course the New Year is also a time to look back over the past twelve months. No one is better equipped to inject some biting satire into remembering the events of 2018 than cartoonist Steve Bell. If Steve’s latest collection Corbyn: The Resurrection, covering the years 2015-18 failed to make it as a stocking-filler, my advice is to rush out and buy yourself a copy to be sure of a happier New Year.  

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Of course neither Brexit nor Corbynism exist in a vacuum. Trump and the revival of the Democrats in the mid-terms, especially the breakthrough of new, young, Left candidates, was a 2018 transatlantic example of certain commonalities. Where we go from Here  is an account by Bernie Sanders of the two years since Trump’s election and what this means for the future of American politics.  By the end of 2019 the next round of Democrats’ Presidential primaries will be fast approaching, making sense of the parallels and differences with our situation in the UK that Bernie helps reveal thus becomes increasingly vital. 

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Both Trumpism and Brexit have unleashed some ugly forces. The Chris-Howard Woods, Colin Laidley and Maryam Omidi edited collection #Charlottesville details one particular moment when a nakedly white supremacist politics came up against militant resistance. But for an insight into how to build a mass, popular and victorious movement around anti-fascism and racism there is no better book than David Renton’s latest, Never Again, a historiography of Rock against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, 1976-1982.

Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin in their co-authored National Populism describe the resurgent Right from Trump via the German Afd, Liga in Italy, and Marie le Pen in France to the Brexiteer ultras with ‘Tommy Robinson’ in tow  as a revolt against liberal democracy. A useful schematic for understanding the causes, it however fails to address what a progressive and in particular anti-racist alternative might look like.

A much better, and hugely original, starting point therefore is the one outlined by Will Davies in Nervous States. Utilising a wide range of both analyses and examples Will points to how reason has declined, and feeling has come increasingly to take its place. He doesn’t patronise the latter but via an understanding of it reasserts the cause of a rational, radical politics properly equipped for the era in which we live. Brilliant.

What kind of political organisation may be up to the task of not only resisting the rise of this populist-racist right but also reclaiming the cause of reason versus reaction? Paolo Gerbaudo’s The Digital Party is a wide-ranging, and international, survey of those parties that have gone furthest to embrace the organisational changes the new modes of communication demand of us all and as such is a compelling read for the future of politics.

 While some things change, others remain the same. The brutal, dehumanising treatment of the Palestinians by Israel continued in 2018. And this time the shooting by the Israeli army of unarmed protestors who joined Gaza’s Great March of Return offended even many of Israel’s hitherto staunchest supporters. But sadly still nothing seems to change.  What a relief therefore to read Nathan Thrall’s The Only Language they Understand an unashamed search for a principled compromise, that won’t satisfy entirely either side but will most.  

One of the welcome after-effects of Corbynism has to be the revival of a Left intellectual culture. One of the best examples of this is the journal  Renewal.The latest edition in particular carries a superb piece by left-wing economist Christine Berry available as a free download ‘how does a movement prepare for power.’  

Compass has always confounded convention by combining the work of a thinktank with the ambition of being a campaign hub. Occasionally wrongfooted by the rise of Corbynism, the latest Compass publication The Causes and Cures of Brexit showcases the organisation’s thoughtful strengths at their best, not demonising the support for ‘Leave’ but seeking to understand its rationale, something too few even recognise. Also available as a free download here.   And my favourite popular-intellectual initiative of 2018? The return of the political pamphleteer in the shape of Dan Hind’s excellent ‘New Thinking for the British Economy‘ series.

In the twentieth century it was 1917 that framed the efforts of those who followed in the footsteps of revolution.  John Maclean, by Henry Bell, details Scotland’s flirtation with revolutionary politics, while a special edition of New Formations marks the 2019 centenary of  Rosa Luxemburg’s murder with a range of essays detailing her continuing influence and significance.  

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The journal Twentieth Century Communism remains the unrivalled source of insights into 1917’s aftermath worldwide, the latest issue providing a rare focus on African communism. That aftermath was, of course, not unchanging. The first transformation we might date to the post-1956 New Left, chronicled in a brand new Socialist Register Reader with contributors ranging from Ralph Miliband and Jean-Paul Sartre to Rosana Rossanda and André Gorz.

And then a decade later a further convulsion, 1968, which in 2018 celebrated its 50thanniversary. The Voices of 1968 is an invaluable collection of original material from this most extraordinary of years ranging right across Europe and the USA for its sources.  Fiercely critical of the ‘official’ communist movement yet ardent defenders of its own particular interpretation of 1917, and Leninism more widely, John Kelly’s critical, yet not unfriendly, account in Contemporary Trotskyism details the particular appeal of this version of a revolutionary politics.

Of course ‘revolution’ in the era of late capitalism has come to mean all manner of things.  Alan Bradshaw and Linda Scott’s Advertising Revolution accounts rather brilliantly for the word’s evolution via a Beatles hit into a Nike advert and a message even Trump embraces. Taking a different tack Oli Mould in Against Creativity demolishes all manner of claims to ‘liberate’ body, soul and mind via a corporatised version of the power of the creative. Neither critique eliminates the necessity for social change, but both books force us to tackle a bastardised vocabulary as a barrier to making it happen. 

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Versemongering in the cause of social change has a long and rebellious history. Dread, Poetry & Freedom by David Austin provides not simply a biographical account of Linton Kwesi Johnson but a political history of the context of his poetry. Fusing their poetry with street-level activism the ‘Poetry on the Picketline’ collective stand unashamedly in the tradition of LKJ’s campaigning performances. Their debut collection Poetry on the Picketline, published by Culture Matters, gives a great feel of what they bring to any protest party. I also recommend that you aim to experience them live on picket lines in 2019. 

At the core of much of this is an admirably do-it-yourself ‘We are all poets’ philosophy. To help us on our way, iambic pentameters and the like, there’s no finer how-to read than Michael Rosen’s classic What is Poetry?    

Undoubtedly the political novel of 2018 was Jonathan Coe’s Middle England. A funny, if sorry, tale of generational political drifts and divides set in the present and immediate past. An epic – read it before Brexit Day, 29thMarch, ouch!

For children’s reading in 2019 how about going back in time? Michael Rosen has edited a new collection of old socialist fairy stories Workers’ Tales and he’s also adapted an all-time favourite Dickensian tale, Oliver Twist, into a brand new story retold alongside his version of the original, Unexpected Twist. Or for something entirely of the present, the third in Michael’s Uncle Gobb series Uncle Gobb and the Plot Plot is bound to be a 2019 favourite.

Pushkin Press are past masters at hunting down children’s books from around the world for translation and republication. Two of my favourites from 2018 were Jan Terlouw’s Winter in Wartime, a tale of a Dutch teenager in the wartime resistance, and Ele Fountain’s Boy 87 a story of childhood, refugees, and survival.

For the practical task of planning the year ahead there’s no better tool than the hugely stylish Verso Radical Diary and Radical Planner  – the perfect New Year treat for the well-organised person in your life. Sadly, there’s no entry for a 2019 General Election date, not yet......

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And my book of the New Year? Michael Rosen has collaborated with Kimberley Reynolds and Jane Rosen to produce a fantastically illustrated anthology of radical writing for children called Reading & Rebellion. Stretching back to the start of the last century right through to the beginnings of the 1960s revolt this book is an absolute treat of a revelation for children, and grown-ups, of all ages. The perfect read for a New Year and a new generation who more than anyone else will help ensure a future where peace and goodwill is more than a seasonal marketing gimmick but instead at the core of human existence.  

No links in this review are to Amazon, if you can avoid purchasing from this tax-dodging low-wage employer please do so. Mark Perryman is the editor of The Corbyn Effect. His new book Corbynism from Below will be published by Lawrence & Wishart in Autumn 2019.

Street art, Bristol
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Friday, 14 December 2018 19:59

Caught Doing Social Work? - socially engaged art and the dangers of becoming social workers

Written by

Stephen Pritchard offers some provocations on themes around instrumentalism of the arts and artists, gentrification and artwashing in the age of neoliberal capitalism.

Many people in the artworld believe that art can deliver social change. Many are following yet another artworld trend – that of socially engaged art. This is perhaps best represented by Assemble winning the 2015 Turner Prize. An important moment in the turn (or perhaps return) towards “Useful Art”.

assemblegroup

Assemble group photo, 2014

Many more see socially engaged art as a way of instrumentalising artistic practices in the name of state, corporate and other agendas. The English state, for example, instrumentalises art as a means of “improving” the economy, health and wellbeing, social ills, education, the environment, urban places, crime rates, unemployment, on and on and on. Art can, some argue, offer salvation to all our ills: Panacea Art.

Cultural policies around the globe are being honed to embed art and culture as a way of supporting and delivering the agendas of almost every government department and non-government organisation; harnessed by big businesses to unleash the false fog of corporate social responsibility.

In this sense, socially engaged art becomes yet another tool employed to support the target-driven, cost-benefit values of the dominant neoliberal ideology that is strangling our lives in the noose of individualism and strapping us into the straitjacket of uncaring personal gain.

A humanistic, socialist cultural democracy

The problem with this perspective is, for me, three-fold. Firstly, and most importantly, the type of social change being sought here is always state-led and thereby powered by political and economic agendas, meaning the arts will always be instrumental. Beautifully crafted, state-funded tools impose the soft power that’s so important to neoliberalism.

Secondly, there is the question of what is social change? Arguably anything: Good or bad; emancipatory or totalitarian; always ideological; never likely to result in paradigm-shifts. Recycling household waste is social change; but then so is Nazism.

Thirdly, people who not part of the artworld are not usually listened to. Their words, thoughts, ideas, wishes, dreams, hopes, fears are ignored or sanitised. Most people are disenfranchised by cultural policies “done to them”, not by, with and for them. This isn’t social justice. This isn’t democracy.

I believe in the radically political project (or perhaps projects) of cultural democracy. People-powered participatory democracy. Humanistic and socialist democracy. The arts have been used very effectively to implement all sorts of state agendas for time immemorial, but they have also been equally effective in opposing the state, opposing capitalism. So, does our work support neoliberal ideology or contest and oppose it?

 Missionaries, Mercenaries, Mediators and Mobilisers

We all learn and experience and express ourselves through cultural activities (whether “high” art or “popular” cultures and subcultures). Our creativity leads us to everyday revolutions that change our ways of being and living in our everyday cultures.

So why do we privilege artists to “engage” people in projects or “work” with people in ill-defined and misunderstood “social” spaces or places?

Are we, as artists working in “the social”, working as Missionaries preaching the Western European, white, middle-class, male, able-bodied gospel of the neoliberal creative industries and Creative Class?

Are we working as Mercenaries, engaging “disadvantaged” people and people in “difficult” places and communities somehow deemed to be in some way lacking in culture, for the sole reason that we need to make a living, a career, to make money?

Are we working as privileged Mediators capable of listening to people who are not listened to – who are ignored – with the sole purpose of helping amplify their frustrations, their anger, their fears, their hopes, their ideas, their demands for rights?

Are we working as Mobilisers – as political activists?

I ask, then, which side are you on?

Who Pays the Piper?

We are privileged. It’s how we use that privilege that matters. We must recognise that our practices are powerful and that we are influential. We must use our influence positively to bring about real and lasting change – radical change.

This is not the time to be instrumentalised by the state, by local authorities, by corporations, by NGOs, by those with vested interests in developing or profiting from our present neoliberal hegemony and the dominance of a neo-colonial Western culture propped-up by art, and proliferated using the slow violence of socially engaged art.

We must not be mercenaries or missionaries.

We can be mediators only if we recognise the privileged position of being able to mediate, and only if we do this with humility and when we do this ethically.

We can be mobilisers working as part of a broad movement of movements for radical social and political and economic change.

We can help bring down the citadels.

We can be part of the demand for the Right to the City.

We can be part of the movement to take back the city.

We can challenge status quos.

We can call for the decolonisation of our racist Western culture.

We can call out those who proliferate inequity, selfish individualism and greed.

We can stand together with those who are denied the privilege given to us.

Are we, then, truly using our privilege to help bring about truly radical acts?

A Revolution of Everyday Life?

We must never help governments and developers displace people.

We must say no to those who want to use us to deliver their neoliberal agendas.

We must never work as NGO artists, subtly instilling Western culture and language and ways of living on different people from different places.

We are not social workers or community workers or community developers or doctors or nurses or psychotherapists or teachers or preachers or community consultants.

We are not foot soldiers of capitalism.

We are not place-makers.

We are not the servants of the neoliberal Creative Industries ideal.

We must never be story-harvesters.

And we are not social cleansers.

Human relationships, radical action and democratic grassroots participation must happen in our everyday lives.

We need a Revolution of Everyday Life: revolutions of everyday lives.

As artists, we can help bring about a revolution of our everyday lives, of everyone’s lives and ways of being and living.

We can help people self-organise, cooperate and reignite our understanding of ourselves as individuals who are stronger collectively.

But we must never get caught doing social work.

Have you been caught doing social work?

Disturbing the Dust on a Bowl of Rose-Leaves

Cultural policy, like fortune, has always favoured the rich and powerful. But it has never before been harnessed so nefariously in the name of “social work”.

We must say NO! We must remember our roots; revisit our histories. We must understand how and why our arts and cultures have been separated from our everyday lives.

We must be wary of those who seek to enforce their values upon our creativity or denounce it as inferior to other cultural activities.

The qualities of radical acts exist in the form of aesthetic experiences not shallow, monolithic Kantian aesthetics.

Our everyday acts and our everyday cultures transcend instrumentalism.

Our everyday lives take must not be determined by institutions – artworld or otherwise.

We are to them like dandelions. We are weeds.

Yet, whilst they regard themselves as fragrant roses, safe within their walled gardens, we know that old roses, old cultivars, grow weak with age. We know that, as dandelions, as wildflowers, we are vigorous and hardy and that we can grow anywhere – whether inside or outside the false boundaries of their garden.

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.

- T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, 1935. (From The Four Quartets, 1941.)

Stephen Pritchard blogs here. 

Culture for the many, not the few
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 13 December 2018 14:22

Culture for the many, not the few

Written by

Mike Quille presents some principles and practical policies to implement cultural democracy.

This article is a contribution to debates around cultural democracy in the socialist left, the labour movement and academia. It includes discussion of:

- What culture means and why it is so important
- The links between cultural activities and politics, and current examples of the way cultural activities function in class-divided societies like our own
- Why we need a democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities, going beyond the narrow, elitist and top-down approach of Arts Council England
- Specific measures which might form part of a programme for an incoming Labour government

The real meaning of culture

Culture matters to the many, not just the few. For a large part of our lives, particularly in our leisure time, we make choices – or choices are made for us – on what to do with our time. Whether to watch television, and if so what to watch. Whether to surf the internet, go on Facebook, or read a newspaper or magazine. Whether to visit an art gallery or concert hall, go to the pub or out for a meal, listen to some music, buy some clothes, make some clothes, play an instrument, go to the opera, play football, watch football, go to church, sing in a choir, paint a picture or play computer games.

All these activities, and many more, have a cultural dimension. They entertain, educate and enlighten us, and help us to enjoy life by giving it meaning, purpose and value. And the choices we make are socially determined. Their accessibility, cost and their very meanings are conditioned and constrained by the choices made by the owners, controllers, and gatekeepers of culture – the rich and the powerful, the politically dominant social classes in capitalist societies. We make our own culture, but we do not make it as we please, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. 

So culture is essential to being human. Culture is ordinary and culture is everything, a whole way of life, and it is closely linked to society, to the economy, and to politics. Let's unpack these ideas in more detail.

 

As Raymond Williams said: “Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start”. So culture includes not just the arts, but all those learned human activities which give our lives meaning and enjoyment. To restrict the term, and political discussion of it, to a selected menu of arts-based activities is to devalue and exclude the majority of cultural activities as practised by the majority of the population. As well as the arts, culture includes sport, TV and the media generally, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, education, religion and many other popular activities. This makes for a looser and more varied set of concerns to think about, integrate into political manifestos and campaign about. But it is fairer, more inclusive and is far more relevant and appealing to the labour movement and most working people.

Fundamentally, human cultural activities are social, unifying and egalitarian. They tend to express and assert our common humanity and solidarity against divisions of class, gender, race and other social divisions caused by unequal economic arrangements such as the capitalist system. And cultural activities such as art, music and religion can directly inspire and support radical change in the real world, both personally and politically.

Taking part in this wide range of cultural activities, as consumers and as performers/actors, is not some optional extra for us. It sustains our health, well-being and happiness, promotes our freedom from oppressive political systems and exploitative economic arrangements, and is absolutely necessary to our development, liberation and flourishing as human beings. Culture is therefore essential to the socialist project of transforming society for the benefit of working people – the many.

As workers, we’re well aware of the economic struggle, the struggle for a fair return for our labour and for food, shelter, and other material necessities. In these days of austerity economics and flatlining wages, it’s a constant struggle to make ends meet on low incomes and inadequate benefits. The chaos and cruelty around the introduction of Universal Credit is the worst but not the only example of deliberate attacks on the poor by the Tory Government.

As voters and political activists, we’re also aware of the political struggle. This is the struggle to change the terms and conditions of our existence for the better – to liberate our social selves and prioritise social justice and the common good across all areas of state power and policy. So we struggle for various forms of social rather than private ownership of the land, farms, factories, offices, shops, utilities and banks. And we struggle to gain democratic control of social institutions, so that we all have an equal say in what happens in our lives.

Socialists, however, have always recognised that there is another struggle, which accompanies, expresses and supports the economic and political struggles. This is the cultural struggle, the struggle for cultural democracy, to apply fundamental socialist principles of shared ownership and democratic control to everyday and ordinary cultural activities.

How is class linked to culture?

Class-based divisions in society, based on unequal property ownership, constrain or prevent the full and free enjoyment of culture. Cultural activities may be fundamentally liberating and social, but in societies divided by class they are limited, appropriated and privatised.

Throughout history, tiny minorities of dominant social classes have tried – often successfully – to turn cultural activities into circuses, to go with the breadcrumbs thrown from the tables of the rich and powerful. In these class-divided societies, culture tends to become inaccessible, costly, irrelevant and of poor quality. It tends to be owned and organised in undemocratic ways. It tends to legitimise, conceal or ignore the ongoing, systematic oppression and exploitation of working people. And it is used to promote diversionary and reactionary political messages and values, in order to prevent the development of radical, anti-capitalist ideas such as cultural democracy.

So a continual struggle goes on to develop and sustain a cultural commons for the many, not the few. We face a cultural struggle against the co-option, misuse and appropriation of cultural activities, just like our economic and political struggles for better wages and for ownership and control of essential goods and services like our schools, our railways and our health service.

Just as neoliberal capitalism has shown itself to be incapable of providing adequate public services in these areas, so too it cannot sustain cultural production, delivery and consumption. We are witnessing the insidious and often hidden growth of corporate influence and control over cultural institutions – not only institutions like Arts Council England, but also social media platforms, broadcasters, sports clubs, pubs and clubs, and supermarkets.

These cultural institutions, which are of such importance to the everyday lives of so many people, present a major challenge for a socialist cultural policy seeking to implement shared ownership and democratic accountability into the cultural landscape.

What’s wrong with current popular cultural activities?

For the many, massive problems flow from the unequal and undemocratic ownership and control of cultural activities.

In sport, owners and management bodies are failing to make sport accessible, affordable and enjoyable for everyone, through sky-high ticket prices, undemocratic, ineffective regulatory authorities, and subsidies for elite sport at the expense of school sports and grassroots sports. Commercial pressures mean that capitalist ideologies of individual excellence and competitiveness – rather than the social and co-operative nature of most sport which is its most essential and appealing characteristic – cause regular scandals in most sports, involving drug-taking, cheating and corruption.

In the media, private ownership of large swathes of the means of communication by gigantic corporations like Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook prevent us enjoying human interaction without being watched, manipulated and influenced by commercial capitalist interests. We face privately owned media companies like Sky, Netflix, Disney and Fox, dedicated to making profits rather than meeting human need. And we face state-controlled media like the BBC, designed to support and legitimise the economic and political status quo, and institutionally biased against radical politicians, newspapers and ideas.

Our daily activities of eating and drinking are also cultural activities, as well as biological necessities. We do so in company with family and friends, for pleasure and to express and enhance our common and social natures. Yet corporations produce and sell us food and drink loaded with too much sugar, salt, and fat, and we are pressurised into consuming unhealthy amounts and types of of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Children and other vulnerable, poorer members of society are particularly at risk in a system where corporate profits depend on obesity and drunkenness.

Religious institutions own and control huge resources - land, buildings, capital - which do not always meet and serve the needs of many people for collective gatherings to express and strengthen shared beliefs and a commitment to the common good, and for refreshment, comfort and inspiration. Most religions have a powerful strand of concern for the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed and exploited, yet their vicars, priests, bishops and other leaders often fail to call for and to practise social justice.

In the arts, the situation is not much better than when Raymond Williams said, in a Guardian Lecture in 1985:

The central socialist case, in matters of culture is that the lives of the great majority of people have been, and still are, almost wholly disregarded by almost all arts.

What’s wrong with the arts, and Arts Council England’s ‘Cultural Democracy in Practice’?

Problems with cultural institutions mean that we face inaccessibility, obscurity, and vapid spectacle, as does the fact that state funding is so unequal. Money that comes from our taxes and our Lottery tickets is overwhelmingly focused on cultural provision in the London area, which benefits mainly the already well off, and tourists.

MQ pi 04 2016 map

The continuing, monumental failure of Arts Council England to develop and sustain fair allocation of the massive increase in resources it has received from the taxpayer and from Lottery funds over the last 20 years or so is truly appalling. Imagine the outcry if there were far more hospitals per person in the London area than elsewhere, or far more schools for the better off than for the poor, everywhere. Yet this is broadly the situation in the arts, and one which ACE is not even planning to tackle.

Clearly fearful of the true implications of implementing cultural democracy in a class-based, unequal society, which would obviously involve replacing their current structure, funding and mission to subsidise culture for the rich, ACE have attempted to co-opt the language and the concepts in the recent report which it commissioned on ‘Cultural Democracy in Practice’. This document has come under heavy criticism, including this statement from the Movement for Cultural Democracy:

We are agreed that the Arts Council report has almost nothing to say about Cultural Democracy – in practice, in principle or as public policy. It is a crude, historically whitewashed and politically inept attempt to co-opt to its own cause a long standing and now re-emerging strand of radical cultural debate, policy and practice that fundamentally challenges its record and its structure – particularly its use of lottery funding.

The MCD has now published a new statement on rebalancing funding of the arts.

There are other problems apart from funding. For working-class people wishing to have an arts career, it is getting harder to become a musician or actor or writer without rich relatives to support you. As Jeremy Corbyn has said:

There is a poet, author, singer, pianist, actor, playwright, and artist in every single person.

But cuts and curriculum changes in education mean our children are being deprived of the chance to learn how to appreciate and participate in artistic, sporting and other cultural activities at both primary and secondary school stages, as well as facing exclusion and discrimination when they attempt a career as writer, performer, musician, actor or artist.

The Government’s politically-driven austerity policies have led to huge cuts in cultural facilities, including libraries, community centres, youth facilities and sports facilities. These cuts are set to continue for years to come, and have been knowingly targeted at the least well-off sections of society.

MQ library closures

We also face the possibility of an expansion in leisure time in the next few decades, as labour-saving technology generates more unemployment, under-employment and free time. Again, this will impact more on the working class generally, and on less skilled workers, younger people trying to build careers, and people who are already socially excluded and discriminated against for various reasons. Over time there will thus be an increasing need for accessible, relevant cultural activities for large numbers of people who are currently excluded from participation

What would a better culture policy look like?

To tackle these problems, what should be the general principles for a Labour government’s culture policy, a policy to implement genuine cultural democracy?

Firstly, acceptance that culture is ordinary and everyday, and that it is essential and not marginal to working people’s lives. Both spectatorship and engagement in cultural production and consumption are fundamental to human fulfilment and flourishing, and therefore central to any progressive political programme. It is not just an aid to ‘economic regeneration’, still less a sticking plaster to mask the deindustrialisation, decay and worsening health of many working-class communities, particularly in the North.

Secondly, we need a more inclusive approach to culture and culture policy, covering cultural activities which matter to most working people, and which can attract the support of the labour movement. We need to start promoting culture as part of the ‘social wage’ for everyone, like health, education and welfare benefits, not an exclusive extra for the better off. We need to break down long-established hierarchies between different kinds of cultural activities and practices, which often reflect and perpetuate class divisions, and which again point to the importance of integrating the economic, political and cultural struggles in our attempts to build Blake's new Jerusalem, a classless society.

Thirdly, we need to develop democratic, inclusive and bottom-up cultural policies in which communities of practitioners and audiences are empowered, through various structures of shared, social ownership and democratic control, to direct culture towards their own defined ends. Those ends should be self-determined, and could be entertainment, personal fulfilment, self-expression or as a contribution to the struggle for a better world.

More broadly, we need to think about ways of facilitating and encouraging grassroots cultural formations and activities. There are some very good examples of people working together at various forms of cultural activity – whether learning to play a musical instrument, paint, write poetry, cook, play football or make films – for enjoyment, education or the value generated by doing things in a social environment. These activities may not be explicitly political, linked to any defined progressive thinking or located in the trade union and labour movement. But by providing platforms for people to share their work and ideas, and by encouraging people to do things socially and collaboratively, they build confidence, promote learning and open the doors to deeper levels of cultural and political engagement.

Specific policy proposals – some examples

It would be inappropriate to construct a detailed blueprint for culture policies, as there is a prior need to consult, discuss, and democratically decide on priorities. But there would surely be a consensus on the left about the following priorities for an incoming Labour government:

- Dismantling the barriers of class, cost and geography that stop working people from accessing culture, as consumers and as practitioners;

- Embedding cultural education – both appreciation and practice – into the national curriculum;

- Reclaiming the media – newspapers, online platforms, TV and radio – by reforming its funding, ownership and control and providing space for working-class voices and truly diverse, community-based providers. Facebook, Google, Amazon, broadcasters and newspaper publishers all require radical reformation, taxation and regulation, to lessen and ultimately abolish the influence of billionaire private owners;

- Radical shifting of public spending on the arts and sport, towards more support for grassroots participation, working-class communities and provision outside London;

- Increasing the representation of the working class in all cultural institutions, especially the arts, sports, and the media, in terms of content, audiences and practitioners;

- Developing partnerships between secular and religious authorities, so that as congregations dwindle and resources lie unused, local communities - particularly the poorest and most oppressed sections of those communities - can be empowered to access and benefit from their material and non-material resources;

- Regulating, taxing, and democratising other relevant cultural institutions, including food and drink corporations, breweries and pubs, supermarkets, arts facilities and sports clubs. All these institutions have potential to be specialist hubs in a common socialist project to meet need (rather than make profit) across the whole span of cultural activities. Various kinds of social ownership models and democratic management arrangements need to be applied to cultural institutions including ownership by the state, local authorities and local community co-operatives.

Conclusion

Cultural activities often reflect and serve the needs of the dominant class, in a class-divided society such as ours. At the same time they can also provide the space to resist the status quo and overcome alienation and oppression. They can help people envision better, fairer ways of organising our society, as well as promoting our physical, mental and spiritual well-being. To help culture works its magic on the many, not just the few, we need to imagine a world in which we have a stake in all the cultural activities available to us, and they are organised and delivered to meet our needs as human beings and not to make profit or to reflect and legitimise a set of exploitative and oppressive econmic and political institutions.

Demo

The Labour manifesto of 1945 contained these words:

We desire to assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this nation.

Cultural democracy was promised in 1945 and is long overdue. Now is the time for the Labour Party to present a new democratic and socialist culture policy in the next manifesto, and to develop local, co-ordinated campaigns involving CLPs, trade unions, and activists, across all the cultural areas. Why? Because culture matters to the many, not the few.

This article is an extended version of an article first published in New Socialist. With thanks to Roland Boer, Theresa Easton, Chris Guiton, Sophie Hope, and Jack Newsinger for their inspiration, assistance, comments and contributions to this article. Further contributions from writers, activists and artists on the detail of a socialist culture policy, are welcome, please send them to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Cultural democracy in practice: alternatives to artwashing and the Great North Exhibition
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 08 October 2018 15:11

Cultural democracy in practice: alternatives to artwashing and the Great North Exhibition

Written by

Theresa Easton and Martin Gollan are two members of a group of artists who staged protests about The Great North Exhibition and who organised an alternative – and ongoing – series of events, The Other Great Exhibition of the North. They were recently interviewed by Mike Quille.

MQ: There was a lot of media attention given to The Great North Exhibition. What were the views of local artists?

MG: I think for many artists and musicians and others involved in the creative world of Newcastle and Gateshead, the Great Exhibition of the North (GETNORTH) was something planted down with little relevance or desire to attempt to connect with what was happening locally, especially at grassroots level.

As it got closer to the launch of GETNORTH it became increasingly clear just how limited its engagement would be with established centres of creative activity, like the Ouseburn in Newcastle, or those communities where Tory welfare reforms and austerity have increased already entrenched levels of poverty and disadvantage.

Yes, there was a small grants programme, but few artists we know were successful in getting any funding from that. And GETNORTH’s ‘inspired by’ programme was simply an act of appropriation, making claims for festivals, projects and cultural activities which were already planned and in the calendar.

‘Inspired by’ gave the illusion of GETNORTH’s reach into Newcastle and Gateshead’s local arts community, when the reality was that it barely moved beyond the established cultural venues along the Quayside and city centres of Newcastle and Gateshead.  

It was clear fairly early on that IT was less about celebrating cultural, scientific and engineering accomplishments, than a promotional device for George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse. Unlike other arts festivals in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool or Middlesbrough, it was hatched in Westminster, like the Northern Powerhouse’s devolution plans.

It’s worth remembering that Osborne’s plans for a North East devolution deal, similar to Manchester’s, had already been rejected, that Greater Manchester seemed to be the only place where anything was really happening. You need to remember too that GETNORTH, although taking place in Newcastle and Gateshead, was supposed to be about the whole Northern Powerhouse area – hence John Lennon’s piano and Helen Sharman’s spacesuit being included in the rambling display at Newcastle’s Great North Museum.

GETNORTH was simply an example of artwashing – using culture to give a positive gloss to a cynically inspired political programme designed to distract northern communities from the reality of a centralised political and cultural machine. This Westminster machine is hellbent on pursuing neoliberal economic policies, and making ordinary people pay for the reckless and criminal actions of finance capitalism in the 2008 crash.

MQ: How did local artists, musicians and other creative workers react to the project?

MG: The cynicism of GETNORTH and its neoliberal capitalist roots was made clear by its list of sponsors, including BAE Systems and Virgin Trains. We acknowledge that along with the arts, it was also about science and engineering, and maybe from that perspective those two sponsors made some sense.

But only someone with a tin ear to what was already happening in museums and galleries, where protesters had already for several years been taking action against BP’s sponsorship of the National Portrait Gallery’s annual portrait competition, or Airbus’s links with the Science Museum, would think it a good idea to approach BAE Systems and Virgin.

GNE 2

The Art not Arms campaign against BAE Systems involvement in GETNORTH and BAE’s subsequent withdrawal, was a galvanizing moment for artists and demonstrated how we didn’t need to simply put up with it. Also, Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry incensed artists when he referred to them as ‘snowflakes’, chasing ‘subsidies’. It was obvious he was clueless as to the precarious working conditions of artists, who on average survive on less than £10,000 a year.

In April we put a call out through social media to anyone interested in creating an alternative, more democratic cultural initiative, which would be grassroots, led by North East artists and involve the communities that the official programme wasn’t interested in. We organised a meeting and about 20 to 30 people turned up – artists, performers, musicians, writers and activists. It seemed like we’d struck a chord.

We outlined our reasons why there needed to be a response to GETNORTH and we agreed a name for what we were planning, The Other Great Exhibition of the North, or OtherGEN. A website was set up along with Twitter and Facebook platforms to promote events and advertise the planning meetings, which continued through the summer. OtherGEN deliberately reached out to creative communities in Sunderland, Durham and Middlesbrough and elsewhere in the region, where GETNORTH was absent.

Our programme was necessarily somewhat ad hoc and reliant on the artists to themselves organise events and exhibitions. Some great ideas didn’t come off simply because of lack of time. Remember, work began on GETNORTH in 2016 – OtherGEN only had a few weeks.

However, we were awarded some funding from Seedbed Tyneside Arts and received donations from Newcastle Trades Council, Northumbria UCU and that enabled us to meet at least some of the costs incurred by the artists and performers who took part. Over time a core organising committee naturally formed and as we are all members of either Artists Union England or the Musicians Union, paying artists and performers was important.

Demo

June demo against GETNORTH artwashing

Among the events that took place as part of OtherGEN, the first was the march/parade on 22 June, the day GETNORTH launched. We marched from the Haymarket, down Northumberland St and congregated outside the Laing Art Gallery, where we had speeches and songs. It was a great way to start off.

In July The gallery at 36 Lime Street was transformed into a working studio as resident artist Theresa Easton created a range of hand printed posters in response to GETNORTH. On show was work by young women attending St Michael's Centre, Byker, alongside Theresa’s collection of broadsides and posters covering the 'Together Against Trump' campaign and a past residency at Robert Smails Printing Works, Innerleithen.

Otherness 1 Sheree Angela Matthews

OtherGEN workshop run by Sheree Mack

I think we were all clear that OtherGEN, as much as it was a set of cultural actions, it was also a straightforwardly political act. When OPENM;NDED, a group providing a platform to explore challenging issues through conversation, community and creativity, made contact with us about a spoken word event they were organising, there was no question of OtherGEN not getting involved.

The event at Kommunity had a panel featuring OtherGEN’s Stephen Pritchard, also Mo Lovatt and John Tomaney, who had recently published an article critical of GETNORTH, and spoken word performances from Wajid Hussain, Harry Gallagher and Andy White.

Other events in August included a Friday night ceilidh at Blackfriars Centre, Byker with local band Berking Mad. An exhibition, Is the Spectacle the Sun that Never Sets, was also held at System Gallery. The show, featuring work by North East artists Azin, Mark Carr and Sharon Gollan, explored the ideologies and consequences of neoliberalism and the deliberate austerity policies pursued by the Tory government. So along with the art on display, we shared information about Gateshead Foodbank, Newcastle West End Foodbank and the People’s Kitchen.

Work worklessness and the politcal economy of health sharon gollan 2

Work, worklessness and the political economy of health, by Sharon Gollan, in an OtherGEN art exhibition

In September, OtherGEN supported a jazz event in Sunderland, with Emma Fisk and James Birkett playing early jazz numbers. There was also a display from Assign (Arts Sunderland Support Initiative Group Network) of jazz influenced artwork.

A ‘drink and draw’ night was held at the Tyneside Irish Centre. Organised by Angela Kennedy, a Gateshead-based interdisciplinary artist and activist, the drink and draw was an opportunity to have some fun and loosen up their creativity in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere.

We returned in September to Blackfriars for a comedy night with local comedians Mike Milligan and John Scott.

MQ: Now the GNE has ended, what does your group intend to do?

TE: OtherGEN has struck a chord with many of those involved and will continue to build links with communities to create events and plan artistic developments with a whole range of people. The group has also developed a supportive role within the artistic community.  

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Community arts screenprinting workshop at Redhills, Durham, run by Theresa Easton for OtherGEN

The neoliberal and elitist environment of the ‘art world’ where the ‘free’ market rules, is being challenged and exposed. Alternative models of making a living as an artist are being embraced. Community art, sometimes seen as less important or serious as ‘high art’, is being used to challenge the idea that success is measured by the price of artwork.  

This is particularly relevant, as recently Arts Council England commissioned a report called ‘Cultural Democracy’ which was supposed to encourage arts organisations to open up decision-making and physical spaces for local communities and artists.

In fact, the report is another top-down approach that appropriates the radical concepts behind cultural democracy, and the work of communities and art activists. OtherGEN will continue to hold the government and its institutions to account as long as it continues to artwash its programmes of austerity, inequality and class-based discrimination.

MQ: What kind of pressures are artists under these days? How do you make a living?

TE: The effect of austerity on artists and their working lives is no different from other professions, having a direct adverse effect on the precarious paid work of artists. We are facing zero-hour contracts, less local government and public funding for the arts, cuts in visiting lecture work and huge cuts in schools’ art budgets, as well as the time devoted to the study and practice of the arts.

This inevitably affects the funding available for art work in educational contexts, communities, gallery work, art projects, residencies, and commissions – all these avenues of funding have been decimated by the austerity programme.  

Universal Credit has hit many artists hard, as benefits are cut because of irregular wage income. Artists are regularly asked to work for free to complete projects, so their business model is often deemed unprofitable by the DWP. Artists in England formed a trade union in 2014, the Artists’ Union England, to counter the exploitative nature of their work and demand better wages and conditions.

The corporate takeover of the arts manifests itself as sponsorship deals, which do not put money into artists’ pocket or provide regular, adequately paid work. Instead corporations are using taxpayers’ subsidies to present a squeaky clean image while they avoid tax, pollute the planet and exploit lucrative government outsourcing deals.

MQ: What would you like a Corbyn-led Government to do, in terms of arts and culture policy?

TE: Reverse the austerity cuts, and reintroduce universal, accessible library and museum services. The arts will always need subsidy, so investment at local and regional level is imperative in order to avoid a centralised approach.

The arts and other kinds of cultural activity need to be at the centre of communities. They are too important to our well-being to be restricted to weekend visits to cultural venues by the better-off. Those who work in the arts need employment protection like any other worker, and to have their trade unions automatically recognised. Diversity in terms of class, ethnic background, sexuality and other factors needs to be addressed, both for those who work in the arts and those who access and engage with it. Much more needs to be done to be totally inclusive and representative of our communities, especially working class and poorer communities.

MQ: More broadly, how do you think OtherGEN relates to the current discussions and debates about cultural democracy? What lessons might political parties like Labour take from OtherGEN?

TE: The general consensus from the discussions we have had in meetings is that our kind of ethos – participatory, egalitarian, based on mutual co-operation and support, and rooted in local communities – is what cultural democracy should be about, only for artistic activities, but other cultural activities too.

Cultural democracy is not something that can be imposed from above. It’s a process of genuine empowerment of communities, and the artists in those communities. If resources and power are located in grassroots groups, and the means of cultural production and enjoyment are developed, managed and enjoyed within democratic structures, as they have been within OtherGEN meetings, then it’s genuine cultural democracy.

But if power and money are located in professional cultural organisations, following templates and monitoring systems set by national bureaucracies or private corporate sponsors, then it’s not cultural democracy.

Like health, education and key industries like the railways, culture is too important to be left to the so-called ‘free market’. In our discussions, people have imagined arrangements where there is a genuine and significant amount of shared, social ownership and democratic control of cultural services. We think that just like other more material resources, working people also need to have more ownership of cultural production, communication and enjoyment.

Lying to the Land
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Sunday, 30 September 2018 15:17

Lying to the Land

Written by

In the first of a series of articles on aspects of modern culture, Paul Tims tells us about 'fauxgress' as exemplified in the film, TV and music industries as well as elsewhere – and how we can make things better.

The most pernicious and successful lie in western culture is that things are getting better. Every day, in every way, we move closer to perfect equality – or so we’re told. The general consensus is that we have more rights than ever and the bigotries and xenophobias of the last century are being pushed out of existence. The rise of the far right and the election of spray-tanned pop-up tyrant Donald Trump are supposedly aberrations: the death-throes of a sickening paradigm.

It must be nice to believe that. It’s a comforting theory that probably helps a lot of people sleep at night. I have another theory, however: one that contains markedly less horseshit. My theory is a simple one and can be summarised in a single sentence. Brace yourself. If you’ve been living in the consensus reality-tunnel for the last few years, this may blow your fragile little mind-melon into a thousand tiny pieces. Here it is: our culture is basically as awful as it’s always been, just slightly prettier. Don’t worry if your monocle popped out your eye in astonishment. That’s a perfectly ordinary reaction.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the progress we’re supposed to be experiencing is a carefully-crafted illusion. Over in the States, Trump wasn’t elected by a vocal minority of bigots, because that’s not how democracies work (no matter how dysfunctional they are). He was elected by a terrifying majority of socially alienated, systematically-ignored rust-belters who didn’t have access to the level of education needed to realise he was exploiting them, lying to them and pandering to their worst impulses. Here in the UK, racism is clearly alive and well. The British people are glibly preparing to leave the E.U. (along with the cultural and economic benefits it provides), largely because ludicrous caricatures like Nigel Farage told them it might provide a great opportunity to get rid of a few foreign johnnies.

Feminist Classic White Ladies Tee 1050x

You can buy T-Shirts with the word ‘Feminist’ on them, but they were probably sewn in sweatshops by women who are treated little better than slaves. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, did you know that reports of rape shot up by 20% last year in London alone?

It’s also worth noting that there is a prevailing sentiment against the poor and the sick here in Britain. The Tory government has declared literally thousands of disabled people on benefits ‘fit for work’ only to have them die within six weeks, cut off from the state support that allowed them to live. If there wasn’t a nasty undercurrent of hatred for the impoverished and the disabled, there is no way the party that did that would still be in power.

Racism, right wing lunacy and misogyny are supposed to be dying out, but the most cursory glance at actual statistics (or even just electoral and referendum results) tells you that this isn’t the case. The lie of continual progress is laughably transparent. There are, however, two questions worth asking. Where is this false narrative on culture coming from, and why is it being pedalled?

The chances are that you feel confident that you’ve encountered the narrative and agree that it’s pretty pervasive… but I bet you can’t think of a single source that’s actually articulated it! That’s because the lie isn’t told explicitly on news programmes or in editorials. If it was, people would see through it in an instant. Humans are pretty dense, but they don’t actually have brains made of play-doh. They’d notice a fib that spectacularly obvious. Instead, the lie is fed to us at a sort of primal level: it’s encoded into our cultural myths, emphasised by the stories the media chooses to tell and implanted in the very language used in mainstream forums.

moonlight

The media went mad with ecstasy awhile ago, when Moonlight (a film by and about black people) won Best Picture at the Oscars. It was happy news, of course, but did you notice the way that it was framed as a watershed moment: a significant victory that marked a serious change in the way western culture regarded non-white stories? Maybe that’s even true, so long as the stories in question are on the silver screen.

The year that film came out, America arrested 111,000 people just for being in the country illegally- a 42% increase over the previous year. Sure, it’s great a film by someone other than Honky McWhitebread the Third won an Oscar, but clearly it changed diddly-squat about race-relations in the real world, where human beings actually have to live.

If the murky waters of US race relations don’t float your boat, why not take a look at the always-zany world of representational feminism? Since 2016, we’ve seen gender-flipped reboots and/or continuations of some major nerd-culture touchstones: women now fill the main protagonist roles in Star Trek, Star Wars, Ghostbusters and Doctor Who. This is framed as an indisputable sign of progress by the decision-makers responsible. Conversely, any criticism of these gender-swaps is framed as inherently sexist.

marvelwomen

But why are we seeing lazy gender-swaps of stuff that already exists instead of a wave of original women-lead TV shows and films? And why hasn’t this supposed triumph of vaginal representation magically empowered women to not be used as fuck-toys and free labour by rapists and sociopaths out here in the real world? It’s almost like a lot of people in the film and television industries have cynically seized on feminism as a brand, that can grab viewers for their sub-par cultural byproducts while leaving actual women to suffer the same miserable fates they always have.

It’s not just films and telly that have turned once-meaningful ideologies into cheap brands, however: it’s also the music industry! I speak, of course, of Beyoncé. She’s held up as a symbol of both racial equality and feminism in the music world… despite being a truly terrible human being who shouldn’t be considered a paragon of anything. Once again, I should stress that it’s good non-white women are having their voices heard in music. Unfortunately, Beyoncé is a non-white woman who once gave a private concert to the family of the murderous dictator Gadhafi. She also once danced around in front of the giant neon-hued word ‘Feminism’ wearing nothing but a figure-hugging leotard. As a man, I understand I’m not allowed to define what feminism involves, but I know a lot of radical feminists who would tell you that it doesn’t involve gyrating around, half-naked.

Of course, in the three previous paragraphs, those perpetuating the lie of progress aren’t actually oppressing anyone or screwing anyone over. Maybe they’re not deliberately creating a false narrative? Maybe they’re just overly optimistic morons who ate a lot of paint as children? My counter-argument is one word: Disney. Disney films have had a fairly liberal outlook lately, right? They’ve promoted tolerance and equality and… hang on a minute! This bloody company was producing its merchandise using sweatshop slave labour as recently as 2012! Weirdly, I can’t find anything more up to date than that on the subject… which is suspicious in itself. If you needed proof that the pedlars of faux-progress (fauxgress, if you like) know exactly what they’re doing: there it is.

On a similar note, Nike (purveyors of the world’s most pretentious trainers) recently launched a massive ad campaign designed to combat racism… by including non-white people (especially Muslims) on the posters. We’ll leave aside the fact that simply including non-white people isn’t especially radical: it’s basically just the bare minimum demanded by human decency. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that Nike was using sweatshops and child labour in non-western countries as recently as August 2017.

nike

Just like Disney, Nike is a systemically racist company with a history of exploiting non-white workers. Despite this, they are hypocritically cultivating a progressive, anti-racist image for themselves in order to promote their brand. As with Disney, trying to figure out if Nike still uses sweatshops has proven rather difficult, as there’s a troubling dearth of post-2017 online resources regarding their corporate practices. However, I’d invite my readers to apply inductive reasoning to the problem and take a wild stab in the dark.

Nike and Disney don’t have the monopoly on exploitation however. The tech giant Apple has a nasty habit of filling its phones and computers with conflict minerals. If you’re not familiar with the term, I should explain that conflict minerals are metals and other materials mined in territories controlled by local warlords who use the profits to fund obscenely violent conflicts with other warlords. It’s interesting that Apple has managed to position itself as a trendy, alternative, ‘progressive’ brand without actually having a specific progressive message. It’s even more interesting that it’s managed to do it while indirectly funding wars that kill innocent women and children on a daily basis.

I’ve told you where the cultural narrative (or lie) of progress is coming from – cultural pundits, media outlets and half-arsed content creators. Given this information, it’s not that hard to figure out why it started. Money. Tell people everything’s getting better, frame yourself as a champion of the new paradigm and watch millions of good, kind, politically-aware people queue up to buy your DVDs and T-shirts, read your magazines and newspapers, retweet your sponsored fucking content.

The world is not getting better. Not in the ways that matter. But it can get better. You might be feeling a bit bleak and alienated after reading twelve paragraphs of proof that progress is a lie and that the world is as bad as it’s always been. But I’ll tell you a secret. You have the power to change things for the better.

Progress in mainstream culture may be a write-off, but we are living in an age where we have unprecedented access to music, books, TV shows and opinions that exist outside the mainstream. If you’re feeling dissatisfied with the way you or others are represented in your favourite genre of TV show or film, go on the internet and find cinematic works created by artists with genuinely different voices, or visit an online bookstore and find literary examples of your preferred genre that would never make it into Waterstones or Barnes and Noble.

If you’re sick of the pandering, half-witted fauxgress to be found in modern music, it’s easy to find lists of alternative songs in any style on music websites, then listen to them immediately on Youtube. It’s even easier to simply not buy products from corrupt, fauxgress-spouting compaies.

You’re already sat at your computer, reading this article. You’ve already taken the first step towards seeking out counter-cultural content. Thanks to technology, you have the ability to ‘vote with your feet’ and only engage with content that meets a high standard. If you want to kill fauxgress and replace it with something better, the simplest way to do so is to ignore it to death.

Minding the depth and breadth: a round-up of books for the Left
Friday, 21 September 2018 08:53

Minding the depth and breadth: a round-up of books for the Left

Written by

As Labour gathers for its annual conference Mark Perryman welcomes the variety of thinking a range of authors, new and old, are offering the Left at this vital time

It has taken a while but the past few months have seen a near avalanche of books seeking to explain, from a broadly sympathetic point of view, the phenomenon that is Corbynism. Liam Young’s Rise is certainly sympathetic – Liam is an unashamed enthusiast and activist for the cause. Yet in seeking to understand the youthquake that underpinned Labour’s vote surge in 2017 he is hard-headed enough to recognise that this is the beginning, not the end of the story.

The Socialist Challenge Today by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin comes from a different generation – Liam is twentysomething, whilst they are of pensionable age. This isn’t to pit the generations of the Left against one another, rather to point to an old legacy on which Corbynism builds and a new audience to which it appeals . This short book helps to bridge the gap with an argument that makes all the right connections.

Culture Wars performs such a role in a different way. First published in 2005 at the height of Blair’s ascendancy, the authors, James Curran, Ivor Gaber and Julian Petley have added new chapters for this second edition, to bring their discursive analysis of the vexed relationship between Labour and the media bang up to date.

An outbreak of fresh thinking on what Labour might become is also hugely welcome. Chantal Mouffe’s For a Left Populism develops the ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy ‘analysis she first pioneered with co-thinker Ernesto Laclau for an era dominated by the rise of a populist Right, countered by what she believes should be a progressive Populist Left .

Could Corbynism turn Labour into such a party? A New Politics from the Left by veteran activist and thinker Hilary Wainwright argues for a not dissimilar project though rooted more in the forms and practice of social movements. Described as a ‘ toolkit for revolution’ in The Shock Doctrine of the Left, author Graham Jones fuses this radical thinking legacy with the dynamics of new generation activism.

It will be crucial to its enduring impact that the Momentum-led Labour left doesn’t isolate itself from such extra-parliamentary thinking. For a regular injection of just such bridge-building the journal Renewal is an essential read. The latest, a pre Labour Conference edition, features an outstanding contribution by former Momentum National Organisers Adam Klug and Emma Rees on Labour as a social movement, free to download here.

For an insight into the political practice of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, and in particular during the 2017 General Election campaign there’s nothing that comes close to Steve Howell's Game Changer. Steve is not only acute politically on how Jeremy transformed the political landscape, in and beyond Labour , but also during the course of the eight weeks of the 2017 General Election campaign he was a key member of the leadership’s strategy group. Now out in paperback with a new postscript to account for the political fallout since 2017, it is an unrivalled read for Labour Conference, and after.

A politics rooted in the current vitality of the Labour Party requires a broad perspective on issues that matter, and few are more important than an understanding of changing class relations, a subject brilliantly covered in Charles Umney’s Class Matters.  

A failure to address such changes produces a trade union sectionalism which defends jobs at any price, ignoring issues such as socially useful production. The first and best example of a more progressive kind of trade unionism was The Lucas Plan as written up by Dave Elliott and Hilary Wainwright and now re-issued – and it simply couldn’t be more timely. One small gripe: compared to the 1982 original, both page and font size have been shrunk, making it more difficult to read than it needed to be.

Another challenge to sectionalism is to lift our horizons beyond the national, which has always been the ambition of the annual Socialist Register collection. The 2019 Socialist Register ‘ A World Turned Upside Down’ considers globalisation, in the era of Trump vs the rise, and rise of China.

The 2008 financial crash led to a revival of Marxism. Pre-crash, Michael Kidron was one of the finest practitioners of such thinking, and his wide-ranging writing has now been collected together in a new volume Capitalism and Theory.

Kidron’s writings are mainly drawn from the 1960s and 1970s. Bringing Marxism bang up to date, the much–acclaimed Mike Davis and his new book Old Gods, New Enigmas which deals with two key themes, the agency of change and the solution to a mounting environmental crisis.

The latter may not have featured strongly in the original, though Martin Rowson’s superbly illustrated Communist Manifesto adaptation is perhaps one of the best ways of finding out what insights it does still provide. 

Of course reducing the politics of radical critique simply to the lexicon of Marxism is no longer enough, if it ever was. My favourite dose of theory is therefore provided by a huge volume of the late Mark Fisher’s writings K-Punk. Brutal oppositionalism combined with a razor-sharp wit, broken down into easy to digest chapter chunks, makes for critical thinking that is a joy and pleasure to read.  

Ways and means of understanding the resurgence of a racist populism in America and elsewhere couldn’t be more urgent. Sarah Churchwell’s historical account of what lies behind it in Behold, America is both hugely informative and absolutely terrifying. Sarah’s book focuses mainly on the neo-Nazi 'America First' movement of the interwar years.

Alt-America by David Neiwert provides more recent post-9/11 background and how that period was marked by the revival and eventual triumph of the American Radical Right. As an accompaniment, Mike Wendling in Alt-Right provides an unrivalled digest of the various groups and ideas which peddle their ways and wares in and around Trumpism.

However, the best single read on this most unwelcome of subjects is Lawrence Grossberg’s Under the Cover of Chaos. Why? Because in one tightly-packed read Lawrence unpicks the conjuncture that produced this ugliness, not as an inevitable product of circumstance, rather an avoidable curse, and how.

More than anything else Bernie Sanders’ bid to be the Democratic Party Presidential candidate represents what an alternative to Trumpism might look like and in that sense Crashing The Party , Heather Gautney’s inside story and analysis of the Sanders campaign, is the antidote required.

If all of this seems an Atlantic faraway, two books from the increasingly impressive Repeater Books serve to remind us of both the global roots and appeal of rightwing populism. Eliane Glaser’s Anti-Politics expertly situates this most unwelcome of phenomena in a long-term project to demonise ideology, the authority of ideas and the role of the state. Joe Kennedy covers not entirely dissimilar ground in his new book Authentocrats via a wonderfully abrasive dissection of the false promise of ‘real people ‘ delivering ‘commonsense politics’ that populism depends upon for its appeal.

Criss-crossing these various manifestations of the Populist Right is an unabated racism, and thus the resistance must likewise be characterised by an unrestrained anti-racism. The provocatively titled Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge has in the past year become pretty much a primer – and deservedly so, for a politics concerned with how privilege is highly racialised. Back to Black by Kehinde Andrews takes as its starting point what a modern and radical Black politics might look like. Be warned, Kehinde’s argument is that this demands a withering critique of previous models of radicalism.

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, the party’s claim to be an anti-racist party has come under sustained assault, with critics describing it as institutionally anti-semitic, and thus racist. The debate – such as it is – confuses legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-semitism. What this ignores is the rising opposition to the Israeli government within Israel itself, the global Jewish community and Western progressives including, but beyond too, the organised Left, all expertly described by Ben White in his book Cracks in the Wall.

A very different, though complementary, approach is taken by Jamie Stern-Weiner in his edited collection Moment of Truth. Expertly guiding the reader through what he describes as the ‘toughest questions’ affecting the Israel-Palestine relationship, Jamie has assembled a range of authors to respond to each question in turn. A complex format but it works brilliantly.

How can Labour re-engage with the tasks of being a party of anti-racism following the summer’s impasse over anti-semitism? By rooting its politics in a sense of place, that’s how. Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) is a vital starting point on that difficult but necessary journey of understanding. This is a book that fulfils the mantra of ‘the personal is political’ to illuminate both the challenges of, and oppositions to, racism.  

Akala’s Natives achieves something similar via a series of essays, some personal, others political, yet one never divorced from the other. Space, the nation, is of course a contested place, none more so than the histories that frame our present. Kill All the Gentlemen is the chilling title not of a murderous thriller, but Martin Empson’s rather excellent history of the sometimes violent class struggle that has shaped the English countryside, a classic of the ‘hidden from history’ genre.

Great (sic) Britain is of course made of many different places, and nations too. We are increasingly familiar with the tensions of a single unitary state containing four nations within one Union. Patrick Barkham further enriches the issues with Islander, his incredibly engaging trip around just some of the offshore islands and their communities which reveal this island as an archipelago.

Such islander stories, criss-crossed with anti-racism and a rediscovery of the radicalism buried in those histories, is a good starting point for a Left politics that matters. But the Left has a history of its own too that needs accounting for. Phil Cohen’s Archive That, Comrade is an affectionate and highly personalised, trawl through what that past can mean as we come to terms with the present, and the future too.

For those lacking the kind of collection of artefacts Phil can boast, a subscription to the journal Twentieth Century Communism will more than suffice. Unearthing in fascinating detail all manner of aspects of the legacy, the latest issue surveys how the centenary of 1917 was celebrated in places ranging from Belarus to Portugal. That was last year of course, 2018’s big Left anniversary was the 50th of ’68 though my impression is that it hasn’t been celebrated as widely as the 40th in 2008.

The books however have been impressively thoughtful, including the republication of the original 1968 Mayday Manifesto. The Manifesto was a product of the British ’68; Mitchell Abidor’s May Made Me is an oral history of the infinitely more famous May events in France. But the appeal of ’68 as an historical moment was that it was everywhere, an impact powerfully recorded by George Katsiaficas in The Global Imagination of 1968.

Of course like all histories ’68 is contested, sometimes bitterly so. Richard Vinen skilfully navigates that contest in his The Long ’68, and the one thing he leaves readers certain of is that it was a year that mattered.

What made ’68 of such lasting significance was the seamless fusion of the political and the cultural. It is a mix the Left has always struggled to achieve yet when it does the possibilities are unlimited. Few writers come close to George Orwell in providing such a mix, writings that deserve to be visited and revisited over and over again. John Newsinger’s Hope Lies in the Proles is a critical but sympathetic account of Orwell’s politics and lasting significance, while being peerless in its deconstruction of the weaknesses and contradictions therein.

Orwell would often use the device of a kind of travelogue to frame his political writing, and of contemporary authors Owen Hatherley is the outstanding exponent of this style. He combines his journeys of political exploration uniquely with incredibly well-informed explanations of the social construction of the architecture of the places he visits.

Owen’s two latest books are Trans-Europe Express, which applies his writing mix to Europe in this precarious pre-Brexit moment, while The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post-Soviet Age has him traipsing across Russia to find the lived-in remnants of a bygone era and what has happened to them.

My favourite writer of the political-culture mix of the current era however is Mike Marqusee, who so tragically passed away in 2015, the year his friend and longstanding comrade Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party. There is absolutely no doubt Mike would have contributed hugely to the changes that then erupted in and around the Labour Party. It is enormously welcome therefore that a collection of Mike’s essays, Definable Traces in the Atmosphere has been published, perfect to remind those of us who knew him what we miss so much, but perhaps more importantly for new, younger, audiences to discover his magnificent prose and acute political insight.

Of course such a political-cultural fusion can never be reduced simply to the written word, however well-written. The two latest titles in the excellent Four Corners ‘Irregulars’ series, Poster Workshop 1978-81 and Leeds Postcards illustrate the contribution the visual arts can make, superbly. The former catalogues the anarcho/agit-prop look of a strand of the libertarian Left which sought to flypost its way out of the nightmare of Thatcherism with graphic intent. The latter was slightly less ‘in your face’ but no less subversive, turning the humble postcard into a propaganda weapon. It’s a very English version of cultural resistance, with lots of humour thrown in to good effect.

As for a soundtrack to all this dissent, while there are plenty of contemporary contenders I remain a tad old school and still hanker after the music that helped to propel me into politics in the first place. How welcome therefore to read Jim Dooley’s Red Set, not only for the definitive history of The Gang of Four, but along the way explains why their music meant so much for the embryonic left-wing ideas of their dedicated followers, my younger self included.

For such a culture of radical intent we need poetry too, yes please. One of the finest practitioners of this purpose over the past 30 years or so, Benjamin Zephaniah, tells the story of how and why in his sparkling biography The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah . Reinventing this tradition for the present is the absolutely outstanding Potent Whisper, live he is electrifying, his collection The Rhyming Guide to Grenfell Britain a pocket-sized spoken word chronicle of our modern times. Poetry has both a very contemporary voice via Potent Whisper’s spoken word style and roots in our radical past.

CM book Arise cover 

arise! by Paul Summers, a celebration of the Durham Miners Gala, is also testament to all that. It is one of a stream of new, beautifully illustrated radical political poetry books coming off the presses of Culture Matters.

There’s also been some great new fiction, a literary form which is key to expanding the political imagination. In recent years there have been few better at that than the sublime Anthony Cartwright. His latest The Cut manages to fulfil the criteria of the fast-growing sub-genre ‘the Brexit novel’ with enough excitement, thrills and spills to produce a ready-made page-turner.

But perhaps the most subversive way to transform the body politic is through what we cook for ourselves. Anybody who needs convincing of the potency of cookery as a political force should take a read of Yasmin Khan’s Zaitoun, a beautifully produced book combining both stories and recipes from a Palestinian kitchen. For younger readers, Clive Gifford and Jacqueline Meldrum’s Living on the Veg explains the politics and morality of vegetarianism for children accompanied by dishes to cook, their strawberry cheesecake a mouthwatering favourite of mine already.

Which brings me rather neatly to childhood. My philosophy is simple, judge the progressiveness of any party or movement via the way it treats their children. If it can’t be bothered with children, then why trust it on how it will treat others? It is the application of that excellent socialist-feminist maxim, ‘the personal is political’.

The prime exponent of this genre, however, remains Michael Rosen. His latest book How To Make Children Laugh provides theory, practice and some very, very funny jokes. And for adolescent boys jealous of the girls and their Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls there is now a kind of companion volume by Ben Brooks called Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different, which wears its values on the cover via the lovely strap-line ‘true tales of amazing boys who changed the world without killing dragons.’

Siobhan Curham has written an absolute gem for young adult readers Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow combines music, football, refugees and my hometown Lewes in East Sussex. First on the list for teen readers reading to stretch their horizons.

And my book of the quarter, the perfect Labour Party Conference, and afters read? I am never one to diss theorising, the historical, the cultural and more, but as someone else once noted ‘the point is to change it.’ In the search for practical outcomes from all this reading, and the ensuing fervour of debate Michael Segalov explores the art of making that change possible in his brilliant debut book Resist! How to be an Activist in the Age of Defiance. A practical how-to-guide for campaigners, stylishly illustrated, easy-to-follow and not so hard to put into practice either. Read it, act upon it, the Tories won’t know what’s hit them.

Now that’s what I call a good read!

Mark Perryman is the editor of The Corbyn Effect and co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football.

Why the cultural struggle matters
Monday, 10 September 2018 13:12

Why the cultural struggle matters

Written by

Chris Guiton develops the theoretical reasoning for the struggle for cultural democracy.

It was refreshing to read David Morgan’s feature ‘Reclaiming the Future’ in the Morning Star. As David and many others recognise, there’s a pressing need for socialists to move beyond an often narrowly defined and reactive anti-austerity agenda and develop a progressive political programme on a broad front which presents a clear alternative to the neoliberal status quo.

In this regard, it’s worth reflecting further on Antonio Gramsci’s profound insight that culture is a key site of political and social struggle and that ruling class ‘hegemony’, the influence the capitalist class has over what counts as knowledge, beliefs and values in our society, is exercised through a range of civil society institutions, including the media, religion and education. This power is not always visible but is tremendously important in the manufacture of consent and conferring of legitimacy on neoliberal ideology.

CG Antonio Gramsci

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

Historically, there has been a tendency on the Left to under-estimate culture’s political importance. Its significance has either been downplayed, with culture seen as an act of often private and largely passive consumption, or it’s been viewed in instrumental terms as a weapon in the political struggle for socialism. But a more constructive, utopian perspective also exists, based on the understanding that there is a dynamic relationship between the cultural struggle and the political struggle, with socialism, ultimately, viewed as a weapon in the fight for an enriched and democratic human culture.

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

1024px Paul Cézanne 1892 95 Les joueurs de carte The Card Players 60 x 73 cm oil on canvas Courtauld Institute of Art London

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, Courtauld Institute of Art

Challenging the appropriation and commodification of cultural activities by the ruling class starts from this understanding. The arts can take us into imagined worlds and enable us to understand how others live. They also have the potential to take on a more explicit counter-hegemonic character. Listening to the music of John Coltrane or looking at a painting by Cézanne can provide pleasure as well as help people deal with the alienation and oppression they encounter in their everyday lives. Culture can bring us together in shared, collaborative activities which are enjoyable in their own right. It can also encourage us to think critically, ask challenging questions and participate in the wider world.

At its best, culture not only has the potential to entertain and enlighten us, it can provide a broader canvas on which to understand historic, social and political issues, assert our common humanity against the divisions of class, gender and race caused by capitalism, and inspire radical change in the real world.

Similar benefits potentially flow from other cultural activities such as sport and religion. As well as being satisfying in themselves, they can provide multiple opportunities for social engagement, which reflect the fundamentally social nature of human beings, moral and emotional growth, and encourage a collective commitment to the common good.

One essential step is to reform the education system and replace the current, destructive audit and accountability culture, excessive testing and associated narrowing of the curriculum in our schools with an approach to education which is holistic, provides space for culture, and encourages children to think critically, questioning everything, nurturing enthusiasm for learning and intellectual curiosity.

CG culture camp images

More broadly, we need to think about ways of facilitating and encouraging grassroots cultural formations and activities. There are some very good examples of people working together at various forms of cultural activity - whether learning to play a musical instrument, paint, write poetry, cook, play football or make films - for enjoyment, education or the value generated by doing things in a social environment. These activities may not be explicitly political, linked to any defined progressive thinking or located in the trade union and labour movement. But by providing platforms for people to share their work and ideas, and by encouraging people to do things socially and collaboratively, they build confidence, promote learning and open the doors to deeper levels of cultural and political engagement.

CG clapton fc

Think of the explosive anti-establishment energy unleashed by punk in the late 1970s, the DIY cultural ethic at its best. Or the way grassroots fan clubs have sought to challenge corporate control of the bigger football clubs and then gone on to build interest in more explicitly political campaigns against, for example, racism, sexism or homophobia.        

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

To return to someone we started with, Gramsci famously said:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

We are living in very dangerous times as the crisis of capitalism deepens, reactionary forces in society resort to increasingly desperate measures to cling onto power, right-wing extremism is on the rise and the smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party plumbs new depths. We are at a critical juncture in the struggle and it is essential that the labour movement seizes the opportunity to move the political and cultural battle forwards and make the case for a genuine socialist alternative.

For consideration of what a culture policy for the labour movement might look like, see here. 

Culture for the many, not the few: notes towards a socialist culture policy
Saturday, 28 July 2018 08:19

Culture for the many, not the few: notes towards a socialist culture policy

Written by

Chris Guiton and Mike Quille present an analysis of what culture means, and what a democratic and socialist approach to culture policy might look like.

Introduction

The mission of Culture Matters Co-Operative Ltd is to promote cultural democracy, which we understand to be a more democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities (including the arts). These notes set out our contribution to the current debates around cultural democracy. They set out our thoughts on

- What culture means and why it is so important

- The links between cultural activities and politics, and current examples of the way cultural activities function in class-divided societies like our own

- The general principles of a democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities

- Details and illustrative examples of specific measures which might form part of a programme for an incoming Labour government.

What culture means and why it is important

What is culture? ‘Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start’ said Raymond Williams. This means that culture includes not just the arts, but much, much more. It includes all those learned human activities which give life purpose, meaning and value, and which human beings engage in for enjoyment, entertainment and enlightenment.

So as well as the arts, culture includes sport, religion, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, education, the media and many other popular activities.

What does culture mean to us? Fundamentally, cultural activities are social, unifying and egalitarian. They assert our common humanity and solidarity against divisions of class, gender, race and other social divisions caused by capitalism. And cultural activities, especially art, can directly inspire and support radical change in the real world.

Taking part in cultural activities, as consumers and as producers, is not some optional extra for us. It is absolutely essential to our development as humans. It sustains our health, well-being and happiness, including our freedom from oppressive political systems and exploitative economic arrangements.

Culture, politics and class

Class-based divisions in society, based on unequal property ownership, constrain or prevent our enjoyment of culture. Cultural activities may be fundamentally liberating and social activities, but in societies divided by class they are limited, appropriated and privatised by ruling elites.

Throughout history, tiny minorities of dominant social classes have tried – and often succeeded – in turning culture into circuses, to go with the breadcrumbs thrown from the tables of the rich and powerful. In these societies, cultural activities become inaccessible, costly, irrelevant, and even an instrument of oppression. It tends to be owned, organised and delivered in undemocratic ways. It legitimises, conceals or ignores oppression and exploitation. And it is often used to promote diversionary and reactionary political messages and values.

So struggles develop against these tendencies to privatise and undermine culture, and to develop and sustain a cultural commons for the many, not the few. We, the many, face a cultural struggle against the co-option, misuse and appropriation of cultural activities. This struggle to regain enjoyable, meaningful and accessible cultural activities is like our economic and political struggles for fairer wages, for ownership and control of essential social goods and services like the railways, the utility companies and the National Health Service.

Just as commercial markets and the profit motive have shown themselves unable to provide adequate public services in areas such as health, energy and transport, so they are also unable to provide accessible culture. The aggressive inroads of neoliberal capitalism, bringing profit-making motives into cultural production, delivery and consumption, and privately owned, corporate influence and control over culture, are major challenges for a socialist cultural policy.

Current Cultural Issues

It is well understood on the Left why we need to win state power and implement political and economic policies to tackle austerity, the assault on our public services, growing poverty and inequality and the lack of political and economic democracy in Britain. What is less well understood is why and how we need to develop cultural policies, which are often perceived as being of secondary importance to political and economic issues.

Here are some examples of the issues we face, which show the need for an inclusive culture policy which can implement cultural democracy:

- in sport, we face high ticket prices for football games which exclude families on tight budgets from attending together. There is the growth of corporate boxes at events, and undemocratic ownership and control of clubs and the way that sport is organised. There is too much funding for elite sport, and not enough at grassroots level. There are the spoiling and corrupting pressures of drugs and cheating in many sports, which inevitably follow from stressing the capitalist values of competitive individualism.

- in the media, we face the private ownership of the means of human communication by gigantic media monopolies like Google, and by companies like Facebook, which appropriate information about us in order to practice surveillance and influence our commercial and political choices. We face privately owned media companies like Sky, Netflix, Disney and Fox, dedicated to making profits rather than meeting human need. And we face state-owned media like the BBC, designed to support and legitimise the economic and political status quo, and which are institutionally biased against radical politicians and newspapers.

- in our social cultures of eating and drinking, we face the terrible effects of profit-seeking capitalist corporations, loading our food and drink with sugar, salt and fats, and causing immense and increasing mental and physical health problems.

-‘There is a poet, author, singer, pianist, actor, playwright, artist in every single person’ said Jeremy Corbyn, but for working class people wishing to have an arts career, it is getting harder to become a musician or actor or writer without rich relatives to support you. Cuts and curriculum changes in education mean our children are being deprived of the chance to learn how to appreciate and participate in artistic, sporting and other cultural educational activities, at both primary and secondary school stages.

- we also face inaccessibility, obscurity, and vapid spectacle, and the fact that state funding is so unequal. Money that comes from our taxes and our Lottery tickets is overwhelmingly focused on cultural provision in the London area, which benefits mainly the already well off, and tourists.

- the massive expansion of the ‘creative industries’ and of cultural activities generally in the last few years means many more people are working in jobs linked to culture. Also, virtually everyone in the labour movement enjoys some form of cultural activity, as a consumer if not as a creator or performer. Creativity is seen as a major factor in the future economy, and a significant component of many kinds of work, both in the traditional cultural sectors and the wider ‘knowledge economy’. But the growth of the creative industries has failed to deliver on its meritocratic promise. Far from offering non-alienated labour, the chance for creative fulfilment, and post-industrial economic regeneration, young people entering the labour market today are being forced to accept poor pay and conditions, chronic job insecurity, and a lack of hard-won basic rights such as sick pay, maternity pay, and pensions. Cultural and creative labour markets are increasingly informal and closed to ‘outsiders’, operating outside equal opportunities and equality legislation and not reflecting the social and demographic make-up of contemporary society.

- the downgrading and exclusion of arts subjects from the educational curriculum of schools, combined with the marketisation of higher education away from the arts and humanities and the gutting of further and adult education, all combine to significantly reduce the opportunities for cultural and creative fulfilment of young people, and have a disproportionate effect on already marginalised groups. The opportunity for the best possible cultural and creative education, as consumers and as producers, should be available for all children, not just those of the wealthy.

- the Government’s politically-driven austerity policies, which have led to huge cuts in cultural facilities, eg libraries, community centres, youth facilities and sports facilities. These cuts are set to continue for years to come; and have been deliberately targeted at the least well-off, geographically and demographically.

- the possibilities of a vast expansion in leisure time in the next 10, 20 and 30 years, as labour-saving technology generates even more unemployment, under-employment and spare time. Again, this will impact more on the working class generally, and on less skilled workers, younger people trying to build careers, and people who are already socially excluded and discriminated against on the grounds of gender, ethnic origin, disability etc. Engagement in fulfilling cultural activities is set to become more and more important in most people's lives.

General principles for a culture policy

In general, a culture policy to implement cultural democracy would need to recognise:

- that culture is fundamental, not marginal. The creative activity embodied in culture is a form of social production, with humanity’s happiness and well-being as its end product. Spectatorship and engagement in cultural production and consumption, widely defined, are essential to human fulfilment and well-being.

- that an inclusive approach to culture is essential if we genuinely want to transform the world for the benefit of working people. Culture policy must cover cultural activities which matter to working people, and which can attract the support of the labour movement, so that culture is seen as part of the social wage for everyone. This means breaking down long-established hierarchies between different kinds of cultural activities and practices – which often reflect class distinctions – and reaffirming the legitimacy of cultural institutions and public funding based upon participatory, democratic and egalitarian principles.

- that we must challenge the narrow, centrally-dictated instrumentalism which has become so central to cultural policy and administration over the last thirty years, accompanied by oppressive monitoring and evaluation requirements, without maintaining an idealist, elitist position eg by focusing solely on the arts and excluding popular cultural activities. A genuinely socialist approach should be based on the understanding that culture, including art, belong to everyone, as creators, performers, and consumers.

- that we need to develop democratic, inclusive and bottom-up cultural policies in which communities of practitioners and audiences are empowered to direct culture towards ends that they define, whether that be entertainment, personal fulfilment, self-expression or as a contribution to the struggle for a better world, and avoiding value judgements on how and why people engage in culture. These might learn from and build on existing examples of successful 'DIY culture' in music, art, poetry and other fields, and large, public examples of working class culture such as the Durham Miners’ Gala.

- that we need to learn, through democratic, grassroots policy-making, how to develop policies and processes which can be used to encourage, enable and facilitate people to participate in cultural activities. These policy-making processes need to tackle concrete issues of accessibility, in terms of cost, geography and content; ownership and control of the institutions that fund, organise, deliver and regulate cultural activities; recognition of the fundamental need to embrace diversity of gender, race, nationality, sexuality, class, religion etc in the production and consumption of culture; and consideration of how to decolonise culture, and challenge the dualism of cultural ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’.

Specific Policy Proposals

The following examples of specific policy proposals reflect and build on many of the good ideas that have already been proposed as a contribution to the culture policy of an incoming Labour government. It is not an exhaustive list, further work is needed to clarify and develop the details, but we offer them in a constructive spirit to stimulate discussion:

- Require government policy makers (national, regional and local) to test proposed policy objectives against an over-arching objective of the promotion of a cultural democracy which works for the common good. Review whether relevant institutions and processes are fit for that purpose, and closely monitor implementation of such a radical policy in order to ensure that it is not captured by sectional interests.

- Dismantle the barriers that constrain or prevent ordinary people from accessing culture, particularly that which is publicly funded, based on cost, geography, class and social exclusion. Ensure that people generally have an equal opportunity to join in and enjoy all the arts and cultural activities.

- End the corporate capture of the Arts Council and other publicly funded arts bodies, exemplified by the recent appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch to the National Council of Arts Council England. Ensure that cultural funding is distributed equally, regionally and demographically, with regional, local and community participation to ensure that cultural spending empowers the communities that elect those representatives. Champion investment in people over large-scale vanity projects which benefit a narrow elite.

- End the distorting impact of corporate sponsorship and private philanthropy on the freedom and independence of cultural institutions.

- Ensure that leaders of cultural institutions – not only theatres, art galleries, concert halls and poetry publishers, but sports clubs, churches, and broadcasting and media corporations – seek to engage with all sections of the community, particularly the least well off and the least powerful.

- Explore ways to recover working class history and culture at a national, regional and community level, and restore the democratic and humanist cultural traditions that have been eroded by neoliberalism. This might build on the examples of local ‘people’s museums’ which have been set up in parts of the country, using community facilities and contributions by local people to build a picture of the locality.

- Recognise and support the important community role played by small music, visual and performing arts venues, many of which are facing closure as a result of commercial pressures or removal of grants or local funding. These play a vital role in developing creative ability and should be supported via business rates relief, direct subsidy and protection from commercial or residential development.

- Build on our rich history of community arts and sports by extending support, via regional culture councils and other relevant organisations and local authorities, to make space and resources available, so that creative and recreational activity is both available and accessible in urban and rural locations.

- Ensure that the cultural sector sets the standard in terms of workers’ rights, guaranteeing at least the UK Real Living Wage for all its employees, including artists and interns, management, technicians, cleaners and security staff. Introduce trades union representation into the governance arrangements of every public cultural institution.

- Rediscover the value of employer-supported workplace activities to facilitate sports and other forms of cultural participation.

- Provide proper funding for museums, galleries and libraries, to ensure that they play a much more active part in the lives of their communities, providing a place for creative activity and social connection and ensuring accountability to their publics. Museums and galleries should maintain free entry as a general principle, and offer genuine concessionary rates and free entry to low income groups to special events and exhibitions.

- Investigate and remove the barriers that exist in all cultural sectors towards equality of access to cultural and creative work by tackling the educational, financial, employment, career progression and management obstacles that prevent these sectors from reflecting the diversity of our population, particularly at leadership levels.

- Tackle the absence of significant working class representation in all cultural institutions (including the arts, sports, religion, the media, science and technology etc.) in terms of its content, audiences and practitioners.

- Amend the Equality Act to add consideration of class, social exclusion, poverty and inequality to the current policy framework, in parallel with the standard definitions of diversity, with their role factored in to all considerations of access, funding, participation etc.

- Empower and encourage local authorities to facilitate re-municipalisation at a local level, supporting social ownership for all cultural activities through co-operative and other forms of accountable, democratic self-organisation, where wealth is embedded and shared among communities rather than extracted for private gain.

- End the accelerating process of gentrification taking place in many of our cities, which first exploits and then drives out artists from local neighbourhoods. Encourage the recognition of artists as people who contribute to and enrich local communities. Consider options to set up a system of grants to provide living and material costs for artists working in community-based settings.

- Ensure art and culture are integral to the education system, free at the point of use, embedding arts education into the national curriculum so that all children in Britain, from primary school up, have the opportunity to access the best cultural and creative education, recognising the value it plays in the development of social, cognitive, emotional and physical skills and promoting lifelong arts learning.

- End the destructive audit and accountability culture, excessive testing and associated narrowing of the curriculum in our schools. Replace it with an approach to education which is holistic, enables children to live their lives to the full, and which addresses mental and physical health and wellbeing; encouraging students to think critically, questioning everything, nurturing enthusiasm for learning and intellectual curiosity.

 The media
 
- Reclaim the media (newspapers, online platforms, TV and radio) for the people by reforming its funding, ownership and control. Promote democratic accountability and pluralism in order to prevent market dominance by a small, powerful group of monopolistic interests, and create space for progressive and alternative providers capable of criticising and holding power to account.

- Reform and democratise the BBC to enable it to genuinely fulfil its public service broadcasting obligations and make a positive contribution to society, fully representative of its diverse audiences. Give adequate space and time to publicising and encouraging grassroots, DIY culture, and film and TV productions which offer a progressive or socialist vision of a fairer society

- Tackle the corporate capture of the web by monopolistic advertising platforms such as Google and Facebook via the introduction of effective regulation and taxation. Consider options for forms of social ownership of privately owned social media platforms. Facilitate the creation of decentralized social media networks, owned and controlled by the people.

- Introduce a statutory duty of care for the larger social media services, covering the key harms seen on social media platforms (harassment, misuse of personal data, hate crime, intimidation etc), backed by effective enforcement.

Sport and Leisure

- Challenge the commodification of football and other sports by using regulation and taxation to restrict corporate exploitation of clubs, players and spectators, and facilitate a return to the social and community origins of our national sports.

- As part of this new approach, tackle the chronic under-investment in football by enforcing a five per cent levy on Premier League broadcasting rights to be ploughed back into the grassroots game to improve pitches, facilities and training opportunities. Explore options to extend this policy to other sports such as cricket and rugby, which are similarly disfigured by corporate funding.

- Facilitate a shift of public spending on recreation and sport from high profile, elite sports to a greater range of community sports, encouraging a more inclusive and egalitarian ethos in sports institutions and activities, with full community participation in their governance, design and delivery.

- Improve the democratic accountability of sports clubs by giving supporters a greater say in how their clubs are run, at board level, including decisions regarding ownership changes and property sales.

- Require sports authorities to make significant improvements on provisions for fans with disabilities.

- Make the protection of public parks, playgrounds and leisure centres by local authorities and other bodies a legal requirement, prohibit privatisation and outsourcing, and provide proper funding to ensure they are properly maintained and remain free to use.

Conclusion

The arts and other cultural activities are often co-opted to reflect and serve the needs of the dominant class, in a class-divided society such as ours. At the same time, though, they can also provide the space to resist the status quo, to overcome alienation and oppression, and bring enjoyment and meaning into our lives. They can help people envision better, fairer ways of organising our society, as well as promoting our physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

These notes are intended to stimulate debate about the shape and content of a radical and comprehensive culture policy that a future Labour Government might be encouraged to adopt. Clearly, they are not the final word on the subject. Much work needs to be done to test ideas, develop detail and fill gaps. But, hopefully, they provide food for thought and offer a platform for further discussion. Readers are invited to submit general pieces (critical or creative) to our website, to help further the debate. They may also wish to consider joining the Movement for Cultural Democracy, which is a new campaign to drive a radical and transformative cultural programme in the UK.

Now is the time to seize the opportunity to create a comprehensive package of culture polices for the many, not the few.

With thanks to Theresa Easton, Sophie Hope, Jack Newsinger, John Storey and many others, for their valuable comments and contributions to this article.

Cultural nationalism: Brexit and the rise of nostalgia identity
Wednesday, 11 July 2018 09:02

Cultural nationalism: Brexit and the rise of nostalgia identity

Written by

With the current chaos of a Conservative government tearing itself apart over the incoherence of Brexit, Stuart Cartland critiques 'heritage culture' and argues that the time is ripe for Corbyn’s Labour to step in and throw its weight behind the expression of a more radical, egalitarian national cultural identity.

The recent release of British nostalgia flick The Book Shop is the latest in a long line of relentless, seemingly endless cultural representations of a backward looking gaze into a mythical sense of nation and place. What we have witnessed over recent years is a nostalgia blitz (pun fully intended), a prevalence and immense popularity of television series and films set within this largely rural and historical traditional utopia. These cultural texts provide a medium through which a crisis of identity based upon the challenges of the present are mediated. In many ways this can be viewed as national escapism on one hand and a form of cultural legitimation on the other.

When the future (or even the present) is uncertain and unclear it can be very comforting to escape into a sense of constructed familiarity. The past is often a place that we create or is created for us, free from the chaos and uncertainty of the real lived experience, one that is also in many ways an ideological creation, one where we airbrush out the inconvenient or unpleasing elements, and create a type of social and cultural utopia far from any sense of reality. Such fantasy fiction set within historical periods play upon, and legitimise, created concepts of the past which in turn inform our understanding of the present, one where nostalgia and sentimentality inform a collective national imagining.

However such an exercise, particularly for the English in a post-Brexit reality, is arguably built upon repetition and melancholy, a longing for a lost age of national exceptionalism, independence and greatness. As pointed out by Mark Easton in a recent BBC/YouGov poll, “there is more than a hint of nostalgia about people’s sense of Englishness. Almost three times as many of its residents think England was ‘better in the past’ than believe its best years lie in the future”. Therefore it can be no surprise to witness this expressed in popular television series and movies in recent years. Period dramas are a national industry in the UK, yet we have witnessed a tidal wave of cultural nostalgia set within a context of political chaos, economic uncertainty and the crushing reality of austerity fraying the very fabric of British society.

The unprecedented popularity of Downton Abbey, Indian Summers, Call the Midwife, the Crown, Victoria and Poldark are all set in a (largely pre-industrial) bucolic space populated by virtuous citizens, where the working class and women knew their place, and the power and position of the status quo is unquestioned. This can be viewed as a propaganda cult of ideologically constructed national memory and image, where the viewer is transplanted to an age free from supposed political-correctness-gone-mad, gay marriage, health and safety regulations, national decline, multiculturalism and open border immigration.

The construction and use of nostalgia is nothing new, yet the current national situation of a perennial state of anxiety and crisis arguably perpetuates an obsessive gaze back, even to past times of national crisis. Crisis can then be seen as a tool of defensive representation, exceptionalism, and a wilful delve into ideologically constructed notions of the past and perceived ‘golden eras’. The good-old-days and the blitz-spirit is intertwined with Brexit anxiety, and helps perpetuate a surge among the English (in particular) of a sense of defensive and backward looking Englishness and a wave of popular nostalgia. It is a distinctively top-down, traditional and conservative interpretation of history that utilises the use of Churchillian rhetoric and a triumphant and uncritical interpretation of history that has become a dominant conservative narrative of contemporary renewal within a context of disengagement.

One only needs to look at the most popular British films over recent years to see this also played out in the cinema - Churchill, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk are all based upon this recurring theme. whilst other popular British movies continue the more general clamour for nostalgia and sentimentality such as Another Mother's Son, Murder on the Orient Express and Phantom Thread. There is nothing inherently conservative about these historical periods, however they have been stripped of any radical possibilities and have been re-situated within a longing for a national space set with the past.

This historicised national narrative built upon reconstituted social consensus certainly helped legitimise and justify many to vote ‘leave’ - the Leave campaign was built upon nostalgic pastiche and myth - but also in terms of anxiety of how we cope when we leave. The dominant narrative being that we are in fact the factual evidence of Shakespeare’s ‘sceptred isle’ adrift in the north Atlantic, supremely detached from European politics and problems. These sentiments have always conjured strong mythical images of splendid isolation, that we are a breed apart from those meddling Europeans, that we are not or have never really been European, that we are certainly separate, distinct and of course superior. Again, the symbolic re-purposing of a nation alone, choosing its own destiny yet couched within a language of austerity and images of war fetishism, feed into the symbolic imagery of a national space.

These narratives of crisis and longing for images of a green and pleasant rustic past are not just located on the small or big screen. The recycling of cultural and historical sites, figures, language and myth which have produced such a depth of cultural pastiche and revivalism have been symbolically repackaged within our everyday lives, a process which Owen Hatherley describes as ‘heritage culture’. Imagery of artisan, handcrafted, bespoke, boutique, rustic and vintage have become culturally homogenous as the cozy appeal of the safety blanket of nostalgia and an imaginary social and cultural utopia is spread over us within an over-riding sense of benevolent manufactured nostalgia through the prism of social and cultural conserv-atism. 

The contested meaning of being English in an increasingly globalised world, with a nation trying to come to terms with devolution, EU integration and large scale immigration is clearly problematic but also rich with radical opportunity. However, the England sold to the world (and more importantly to itself) through a cultural obsession with tradition and nostalgia is reinforced through nostalgic paraphernalia such as calendars and tea towels, the cosy, comforting cultural security of the National Trust, Waitrose and farmers' markets. TV banality such as Midsomer Murders, the Great British Bake Off and Location, Location, Location. While movies such as the Iron Lady, Atonement, the King’s Speech, the Queen et al represent an ever present, and social aesthetically pleasing England, one viewed through the gaze of the middle or upper classes, set in rural idyllic English locations and often located within ideologically triumphant historical ‘golden eras’.

Examples such as these point toward a politically and culturally specific construction of nation and heritage, laden with cultural meaning and identity that purposely exclude those who do not fit the traditionalist images or values of the nation. It is a predominantly mythical representation that has no relevance to the majority of the population and one that most could never experience - yet it represents a well-established national, cultural and historical narrative, cleansed of social and cultural relevance. “The danger”, as Kazuo Ishiguro pointed out when discussing his novel Remains of the Day, “lies not only in the fact that politicians would sell this image to their electorate but also that the electorate might buy it”.

However, it is a cultural construction rich with radical possibilities, one which hopefully Mike Leigh’s forthcoming movie on the Peterloo massacre can help redress. Indeed, dominant, hegemonic cultural constructions have been challenged over recent years. Mike Leigh’s Spirit of ’45 being the most obvious example on the big screen, but also on the small screen examples such as Michael Sheen’s retelling of the 1839 Newport Chartist uprising in Valley Rebellion all point to radical alternatives.

Again, there is nothing inherent or or natural to support the claim that historical or rural representations need to be conservative. Indeed, there is a wealth of rich examples that can be utilised to represent and support a more radical and left leaning cultural identity, be it the Levellers or Diggers from the 1640s through to the campaign for the right to roam culminating in the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the 1930s.

With the current and ongoing chaos of a Conservative government tearing itself apart over the incoherence of Brexit the time is ripe for Corbyn’s Labour to step in and throw its weight behind a national cultural identity based upon England’s rich cultural heritage of egalitarianism and radicalism and offer a way beyond the anxiety, conflict and crisis which the current Conservative-dominated narrative behind Brexit represents.

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