Whose culture is it anyway?
They say you only miss something of value when you no longer have it which suggests that whatever it was we did have probably wasn’t worth having in the first place. I’m talking of course of our much vaunted ‘democratic culture’, supposedly a thousand years old (in reality, our loaded universal suffrage was only fully enacted in 1926). And judging by the actions of our political elite, it’s an extremely malleable concept.
The ‘election’ of a new leader of the Labour government is a case in point, for what has actually happened is that a new government has been ‘elected’ without the bothersome problem of getting people to actually vote. And it‘s been done because of the disastrous impact of ten years of Blair. And if anyone doubts the cunning skills of our political elite, we need only look at how they stretched Blair’s reign to breaking point in order that Brown could be presented to a thoroughly pissed off public as a ‘saviour’ of New Labour’s ‘mission’. In the process the political process has been reduced to nothing more than a cliff-hanging soapie episode.
I grew up in a culture of struggle, in fact I am of the third generation of ‘strugglelistas’ in my family, or as they call us in the US, ‘red diaper babies’. But in fact (and this goes to the very heart of our current predicament), it’s the culture part of the ‘struggle’ that is the most important to me and I think also the core of today’s struggle to transform our world.
Our culture connects us to the past but to whose culture are we meant to be connected to? I grew up in London, a second generation immigrant but I never questioned the fact that I was British even if I had no idea what being British meant. Of course being white made things easy for me to be ‘assimilated’ but being the child of Communist parents also put me on the ‘outside’, outside in the sense that like immigrants, I found myself belonging to what they like to call a ‘sub-culture’, though I quarrel with this definition given that British Left culture was rooted in working class national struggles. Add to this the fact that my mother’s family were nominally ‘Jewish’, which made me ‘Jewish’ by default as it were, though none of my mother’s family were remotely religious (nor my father’s), nevertheless my ‘culture’ was imbued with ‘Jewishness’, make of it what you will. In any case, politics and class always came first.
The combination of the left, jewishness and immigrant ‘cultures’, is a heady brew within which to grow up, but if nothing else, it gave me a take on life that was/is unique in that I was both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the dominant culture of capitalism that I existed ‘within’.
Exploring who we are has taken on a central role in capitalist society and for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that capitalism has lost whatever ‘moral high ground’ it thought it could command. Recapturing that ‘high ground’ is now the major preoccupation of capitalist society and with good reason for if it is to have the support of its domestic populations for its foreign and domestic ‘adventures’, it has to have solid ground upon which to justify its policies.
There’s also a lot of talk these days about ‘Britishness’, all part of the government’s attempts to instil some kind of patriotic ‘culture’ in the populace, in a futile attempt to re-establish a belief in the ‘system’. For the most part it exploits the most reactionary tendencies in people, fuelled as it is by our insecurities and fears using barely disguised xenophobia and out-and-out racism as its main weapons.
It’s a tactic as old as capitalism and likely much older but it has to be said that capitalism has taken patria to new and horrific heights (or depths). In its name it has exterminated untold millions of lives and continues to do so using even more horrific weapons than it has in the past (if that’s possible). And all of it in the name of our ‘superior civilisation’ and ‘culture’.
This is why for us, here in the developed world, culture is so important and its lack, or rather, unlike earlier periods, when belief in the ‘system’ and its values was widespread and could be easily harnessed for various and sundry imperialist adventures, a paradoxical situation has arisen: on the one hand, depoliticising life has enabled the state to act with virtual impunity but on the other, lack of political involvement has led to a widening gulf between the ‘people’ and the state.
This has deep ramifications for the state can only maintain its grip because we go along with the idea. Once we no longer believe in its right to rule, it loses the right to exercise its authority and, as is the case here in the UK and in the US, the much-vaunted ‘liberal democracy’ has run its course, and as we have seen, increasingly it’s rule by fiat and compulsion.
But a state which is seen as corrupt and self-serving and worse, blatantly lying about the reasons for its actions, loses all legitimacy (and indeed, if there’s one word that gets uttered more than any other by the state and its mouthpieces-except terrorism-it’s legitimacy).
The major objective of the state therefore, is to restore its legitimacy to rule and to act on ‘our behalf’, thus the buzzwords; ‘civilisation’, ‘Western values’, ‘Britishness’ and so forth are tied directly to the conceptions we have about who we are.
It should be obvious therefore that the struggle around culture, who it belongs to and what it consists of, is of prime importance.
The problem however is complex; the UK is no longer the ‘homogenous’ country it once considered itself to be (if this was ever true especially the gulf that exists between urban and rural life). And importantly, the economics of production has been totally transformed. No longer a major manufacturing economy, the bulk of its income is now either finance-related or marketing and distribution, most of our former real production has been exported to cheap labour markets. Thus the very nature of our working class has changed, so for example, the single biggest employer in the country is the state itself.
This vast state bureaucracy, even though under threat from New Labour (old Tory?) privatisation scams, is nevertheless a powerful ally of the state, connected as it is by the now virtually defunct trade union alliance to the Labour Party, and of course the tens of thousands of jobs.
The so-called service economy consists largely of low wage, majority female, non-unionised workers. As a result, the former class identity and cohesion via such things as trade unions and locales, no longer exists.
Then there is the result of the Thatcherite attack on the collective which Blair’s regime has sought to extend and solidify via backdoor privatisation. We now have an entire generation raised in a culture where the individual is considered supreme (”There is no such as society” said Thatcher), a propaganda ploy which is now backfiring in a big way on the state; for in order to instil a sense of national identity and of being a part of capitalist culture, whether real or invented, requires that the populace has a collective vision of itself.
For centuries this vision has been supplied by the state and its servants, delivered by its intellectual elite, trained at the state’s elite universities. An entire culture has been constructed that projects the values of the ruling elite and the business class it represents.
But the growing disparity between rich and poor has had unforeseen consequences reinforced by a backward-looking ‘education’ system which has effectively locked out millions of poor people, especially the young and especially from minority communities. As a result, a new kind of working class has emerged; alienated and traumatised by a rapacious capitalism, demonised by the mass media and virtually the ‘guinea pigs’ for a Blairite Victorian vision of the (ex)labouring classes, described by the pundits, amongst other things as ‘work-shy’ for which an army of ‘consultants’-privatised replacements for the government’s ‘welfare system’-have stepped forward with ‘solutions’ which consists largely of managing their criminalisation as a class.
The return to a Victorian conception of the relationship between working people and the state is no accident and has come about directly as the result of the depoliticisation of life, for without a real opposition, and with the able assistance of a redefined middle class (drawn from all those ex-council house tenants who are now proud ‘property-owning democrats’), the traditional relationships between people as a nation has been destroyed.
Thus the desperate desire to invent a ‘British’ character that draws on our imperial history, why else the focus on our past ‘triumphs’ (Nelson, WWI, WWII, Waterloo and the endless propagandizing around our historic ‘civilising mission’)?
For capitalism, there can be no future, only a reinvented past, which is why the emphasis on ‘our’ culture. I get the feeling that the last days of Rome must have felt very similar to our current situation made all the more dangerous not only by the kinds of weapons the state possesses but by the crisis confronting our environment.
This is why the imperial pundits talk so much about the ‘struggle for hearts and minds’ and why in the face of the failure to convince people that the imperial project is worth supporting, it has to resort to compulsion for they recognise just how dangerous an understanding of the past is to their plans.
It’s why in recent years there is a concerted effort on the part of the ruling elite’s propagandists to reinvent an imperial past and to rewrite history in the process. We see it expressed in grand ‘history’ projects, especially those created by the BBC which seek to put a new ‘spin’ on the Empire’s role in ‘civilising the natives’; in the use of public spectacles glorifying our bloodthirsty past; the exploitation of nostalgia (for a past that never was), for they recognise that the present reality doesn’t match up to the propagandised expectations.
It explains why, if socialism is supposedly ‘officially dead’, the state propaganda machine pours such scorn on the efforts of countries like Venezuela to chart a course independent of imperial desires.
The problem we on the left have is that culture is such a complex concept it’s difficult to control and secondly, the left has a real problem with anything that they can’t define in simple (some would say simplistic) terms. Culture is complex and constantly changing and to make matters worse, it consists mostly of an inheritance from the past and if we have no clear idea of OUR past and our relationship to it, then on what do we base a course for the future?