Culture for the many, not the few

Culture Matters

Mike Quille explains why culture is critical to human being and how it and we can flourish

Culture matters to the many, not just the few. This article is a contribution to the growing debate and campaigns on the socialist left, in the labour movement and in academia about culture, the cultural struggle and cultural democracy. It covers what culture means and why it is so important; the links between culture, class and politics; the general principles of a democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities; and examples of measures which might form part of a programme for a left-leaning Labour government in Westminster, for national and local authorities in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland and which could also form the basis for campaigns by social movement activists in the Labour and elsewhere.

‘Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start’ said Raymond Williams. This means culture is about much more than the arts, including all those learned human activities which give life purpose, meaning and value, and which human beings engage in for enjoyment, entertainment and enlightenment. To restrict discussion of culture issues to a selected menu of arts-based activities is to immediately devalue and exclude the majority of cultural activities, as practised by the majority of the population, from analysis and political action. Applying Williams’s insight means 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.

Given this inclusive approach, what are the common characteristics of cultural activities, and why are they so important to socialists? Fundamentally, they tend to be social, unifying and egalitarian. They tend to express and assert our common humanity and solidarity against divisions of class, gender, race and other social fissures caused by unequal economic arrangements like the capitalist system. Additionally, cultural activities such as art, music and religion can directly inspire and support radical change, both personally and politically. So practising and enjoying cultural activities are not optional extras for us. They are essential for us to develop and flourish as human beings. They sustain our health, well-being and happiness, and equip us to live with and liberate ourselves from oppressive political systems and exploitative economic arrangements.

Those are the common characteristics of cultural activities. But class divisions in society, based on unequal and antagonistic relationships of property ownership, constrain or prevent the full and free enjoyment of culture by everyone. Cultural activities may be potentially liberating and essentially shared, socialising activities, but in societies divided by class they are limited, appropriated and privatised. Historically, in class-divided societies like our own, tiny minorities of dominant social classes often succeed in making cultural activities inaccessible, costly, irrelevant and of poor quality. Cultural activities become an instrument of political hegemony, designed to secure consent and co-operation through legitimising, concealing and ignoring the on-going, systematic oppression and exploitation of working people.

So we face a cultural struggle to reclaim a cultural commons against the co-option, misuse and appropriation of cultural activities. This runs alongside our economic and political struggles for a better return for our labour, and for ownership and control of essential goods and services like our schools, our railways and our health service. Neo-liberal capitalism has shown itself to be incapable of providing adequate public services in these areas, and in meeting basic human material needs fairly and equally – and neither can it sustain cultural production, delivery and consumption. The rich and powerful assert their economic and political domination of our lives through corporate influence and control over cultural institutions, and through the co-option of elites in all areas of social life. We can see this not only in arts institutions, but also sports clubs, social media platforms, broadcasters, pubs and clubs, churches and supermarkets.

Let’s look in more detail at some examples of the cultural issues and problems we face, which show the need for an inclusive culture policy which can make cultural democracy a reality in our lives. In sport, owners and management bodies are failing to make sport accessible, affordable and enjoyable for everyone. Ticket prices are too high for working-class families to afford; ‘light-touch’ regulatory authorities are undemocratic and toothless; and elite sports and sportspeople are subsidised at the expense of school sports and grassroots sports. Capitalist ideologies of individual excellence and competitiveness prevail in sport, rather than its essentially social and co-operative nature. This causes regular scandals 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. Corporations like Sky, Netflix, Disney and Fox are all dedicated to making profits rather than meeting human need. State-controlled media like the BBC, as well as commercial broadcasting platforms, are designed to support and legitimise the economic and political status quo, and have clearly shown themselves to be institutionally biased against socialist politicians, newspapers and ideas.

Our daily activities of eating and drinking are also cultural activities, as well as biological necessities. We eat and drink in company with family and friends, for pleasure and to express and enhance our common and social natures. Yet huge corporations produce and sell us food and drink loaded with far too much sugar, salt, and fat, and we are encouraged to consume unhealthy amounts of alcohol. Corporate profits flow from human obesity and drunkenness.

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’. We face inaccessibility, obscurity, and vapid spectacle, and the fact that state funding is so unequal. The 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 spectacular failure of funding institutions 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 twenty odd years is truly appalling.

As Jeremy Corbyn has said: ‘There is a poet, author, singer, pianist, actor, playwright, and artist in every single person’. However, 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. And 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.

Religious and other broadly spiritual activities are also important to many working-class people. Yet in most areas of the country the valuable real estate, wealth and other material and spiritual resources held by religious institutions are under-used. They could be better focused on achieving the common good, and particularly for the benefit of the less well-off in society.

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

All this is taking place against a background of a possible expansion in leisure time in the next few decades, as more labour-saving technology is introduced. Over time there will be an increasing need by working-class people for accessible, relevant cultural activities.

To tackle these growing problems, what should be the general principles for building a social movement on culture issues? What should political parties, authorities and governments do so that culture works for the many, not the few?

First, accept that culture is ordinary and every-day, 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. Second, development a more inclusive approach to culture if we genuinely want to transform the world for the benefit of working people. Discussions on culture policy should cover cultural activities which matter to most working people, and which can attract the support of the labour movement. Third, develop approaches in which communities of practitioners and audiences are empowered, through various structures of social ownership and democratic control, to direct culture towards their own defined ends. Scotland has 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.

Some examples of specific proposals which flow from this approach would be:
• 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;
• Massively shifting public spending on the arts and sport towards more support for grassroots participation, working-class communities and provision outside London and other capital cities;
• Increasing the representation of working-class people in all cultural institutions, especially the arts, sports, and the media, in terms of content, audiences and practitioners;
• Developing and applying various kinds of social partnership, ownership and democratic management models to the whole range of cultural institutions such as pubs, supermarkets, churches, arts and sports venues.

All these points could also inform local campaigns by activists working together to audit, challenge and transform the local landscape across all cultural activities.

Cultural activities tend to 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. 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 Labour and for other local and national political parties and authorities to adopt new kinds of radical, democratic and socialist culture policies. And now is the time to build a social movement through diverse local, grassroots campaigns around the cultural issues outlined here, involving activists and sympathisers from all the relevant cultural institutions. This is because culture matters to the many, not the few.

Mike Quille is editor of Culture Matters (https://www.culturematters.org.uk/), which promotes a socialist approach to culture. Culture Matters Co-Operative also publishes books, runs arts awards, and delivers cultural education to unions. With thanks to members of Culture Matters Co-Operative, and various contributors to the Culture Matters website, for their valuable comments and contributions to this article.