The cultural critic, Raymond Williams (1976), once said that “culture is one or two of the most complicated words in the English language”. Many people use the word “culture” to refer to specific artefacts or use it to refer to a set of rituals and customs that are practised by primitive tribal societies in the rain forests of South America or Central Africa. Some people use words like “cultured” to describe someone who has “good taste” in music and the arts. Such people will invariably come from upper middle class and upper class backgrounds and are acculturated at an early age to appreciate only those forms of culture, like classical music, opera and Shakespeare’s plays, which have been consecrated by a legitimating authority (Bourdieu, 1989). Any cultural form that is produced outside this narrow band of cultural production will be regarded as vulgar by those people who regard their culture as something sacred. Hence the term ‘subculture’, which describes any cultural form that is produced by ordinary people and regards them as inferior. While it is tempting to think that such views are limited to the bourgeoisie, this narrow view of culture can also be seen among groups at the opposite end of the socio-economic scale, who have been educated to think that the culture they create isn’t culture at all or it is inferior. Other people, often those whose cultural interests never stray beyond bourgeois art, insist there should be nationally approved forms of culture. But the people who call for state-sanctioned culture pretend to know more about culture than they do in reality.
In the last four or five years, there has been a succession of politicians and political commentators who have remarked on the need for some kind of British national culture. Douglas Murray, for example, demanded that the government create what he called leitkultur to snuff out other cultures as a means to prevent young British Muslims from joining jihadist groups (sic). Such an idea is naive as it is dangerous. If the word leitkultur looks German, that’s because it is. It was coined by German-Arab sociologist, Bassam Tibi in 1998 to refer to a “core culture”. Unfortunately, whenever this word is used it tends to be cited in the same breath as monoculturalism and national identity. Like nationalism, monoculture regards all forms of culture that do not have the state’s seal of approval as a possible social contaminant. In Murray’s world, anything that sounds or looks Middle Eastern would be banned, as too would hip-hop, Bollywood and even West African high-life music.
A national monoculture has to be constructed by hand-picked cultural experts (presumably chosen by the government of the day or some other state body) who then project this construction onto the people. Here’s an example: when the state of Israel was created in 1947, its cultural nationalists rejected Yiddish as the national language and chose Hebrew (modernized) instead. This is despite the fact that the majority of Israelis spoke either Yiddish (Askenazim) or Arabic (Mizrahim). Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews, wasn’t even considered. Hebrew was the language of religion and of the law, it was not the language of everyday life. Yet it was imposed as the Israel’s official language.
Monoculturalists, the vast majority of whom are ethno-nationalists (some of whom are in denial), rail against the idea that immigrant groups should continue their cultural practices once they’ve moved to Britain. They constantly complain about multiculturalism, citing it as the principle reason for Britain’s economic and social decline, and for incubating ‘terror’. Yet, much of what we consider to be British culture was brought to this country by immigrants. Fish and chips, pizza and tandoori masala are a few examples of cuisine that had origins elsewhere in the world. Words like ‘bungalow’ and ‘pyjamas’ are examples of Hindi words that are now part of the English language. We have listened to jazz, R&B, soul, rock ‘n’ roll and other forms of American music for decades, often to the dismay of the Britain’s self-appointed cultural cognoscenti. When rock ‘n’ roll first became popular in the 1950s, the BBC’s initial response was to ignore it. The BBC Light Programme grudgingly commissioned The Saturday Club to cater for this new youth market but sometimes, the songs played on this programme were performed by the BBC’s house band rather than by the original artists. The BBC eventually yielded to pressure but only when it was too late. By then, Radio Luxembourg and the pirate stations had stolen a march on the fusty old Beeb, who had to petition the government to outlaw the pirates. Radio One happened ten years too late and even then, it wasn’t much good.
So when I say that there needs to be a cultural intervention, some people will be confused and others will ignore me, believing culture should come a distant second to marching, demonstrating and signing petitions. Some people don’t think twice about culture and others will see it as irrelevant. According to Gramsci (2003) the dominant ideology maintains its grip on power through cultural hegemony rather than outright coercion. The dominant class controls mass cultural production and is thus in a position to influence the way people think of themselves and others. Simon Cowell is a member of the dominant group (he votes for and supports the Tory-led coalition) and is an exemplar of cultural hegemony. His cultural production line creates boy and girl bands who sound and look the same. This kind of standardization can also be found in fast food outlets like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. Cowell produces music that is bland, but catchy, yet says nothing about real life. You will never find Cowell’s acts commenting on poverty, inequality or anything that the audiences who watch X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. It is the worst of the ‘bread and circuses’ notion of culture, which reduces arts to commodities.
According to Theodor Adorno (1991), each cultural product is produced industrially (like tins of baked beans) and bears the stamp of the dominant ideology. This is a rather crude way of looking at mass culture, which is produced by the same class that runs the country. The claim made by the artists who labour under this system is that all art should be free of politics. This suits governments and those who support them. The last thing they want is people asking questions and making demands. However all art is political, even if it denies it, because the artist has made a political decision to take an apolitical position. The old style stand-up comedians of the pre-alternative era would often claim that they weren’t political. This is absurd. The racist and sexist jokes they told expressed dominant social positions, whether they admitted it or not.
Whenever an authoritarian regime takes power, the first thing it does is arrest artists and musicians. Then they arrest academics and intellectuals who disagree with them. The authoritarian-libertarian Thatcher government effectively starved Britain’s political fringe theatre companies out of existence, not only because they were being subsidized but because they opposed the cultural status quo. Cutting off their funding wasn’t as violent as the brutality meted out to musicians, say in Pinochet’s Chile, but it was a form of what Bourdieu refers to as “symbolic violence”.
Finally, I spotted this article by Guardian columnist, Suzanne Moore, who asks if right-wing people are “more uncultured” and then adds that they (the right) “don’t “get” culture”. It’s not that the right doesn’t get culture, they have their own view of culture, and they tend to view it as something created by people who have “taste” and who possess the right kinds of qualifications. In other words, culture should only be created by people who have been sanctioned to do so: the offspring of the rich, for example . As I said in this blog, the right’s idea of culture is heritage, which isn’t a living being but a corpse. The event discussed in the Moore piece mentions celebrities, who may be cultural, others are not.
So they had Michael McIntyre and Kirstie Allsopp providing youth and edginess with some interchangeable TV presenters, and those stalwarts of light entertainment Cilla Black and Bruce Forsyth. What a rum do. The Tory brand still appears toxic.
I’m not surprised to see the anodyne comedian, McIntyre, listed here. In some respects McIntyre’s ideologically neutral style is exactly what the right-wing view of culture is all about: it’s politically disinterested and socially disengaged.
Culture for the future. Culture for the 99%.
Adorno, T. (1991). The Culture Industry, London: Routledge.
Adorno, T. and Horkheimer, M. (1996) The Culture Industry: Enlightenment As Mass Deception in Durham, M.G. & Kellner, D. M. (Ed.) Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks. Oxford: Blackwell
Bourdieu, P. (1986) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London: Routledge.
Gramsci, A. (2003) Selections From The Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Williams, R. (1976) Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. London: Fontana
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