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Culture is a class issue

Joy Johnson 17/12/12

A new think tank such as CLASS is essential. For too long we've sold the pass on getting working class and trade unionists into Parliament. And for too long the elites have framed the political debate. Now CLASS is seeking to challenge these realities and produce, in the current jargon, a coherent narrative on housing, welfare, education and economic policy. I would make a further plea; include what is happening in the cultural sphere. In the age of austerity it may seem a luxury to worry about that preserve of the bourgeoisie - high art, but culture has multiple meanings and should be regarded as a class issue. We ignore it at our peril.

UNESCO’s definition provides reason enough for robust analysis and engagement;

‘... cultural industry is held to exist when cultural goods and services are produced and reproduced, stored and distributed on industrial and commercial lines, that is to say on a large scale and in accordance with a strategy based on economic considerations rather than any concern for cultural development’ (1982)  

The term culture industry, to describe culture as entertainment was first coined by the critical theorists from the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. It was a useful device to analyse what is, after all, another aspect of capitalist production with mass production and reproduction, where divisions of labour are complex and with varying degrees of unionisation. Put simply we are all consumers now and as such our desires are manipulated into needs in the pursuit of profit. This alone demonstrates why ownership matters, and why it should be an important area of concern for CLASS.

The political debate on the mass media, with its own place in the cultural industries, is concerned with ownership, control and specifically for broadcasting, its public service remit.   

Revelations of phone hacking, as a commonplace, by journalists working for the late unlamented ‘News of the World’ has shattered the myth that in globalised markets the only thing that mattered was what worked. 

While the press’s coverage of Lord Justice Leveson’s report has concentrated on ‘statutory underpinning’ the campaign group the Media Reform Coalition refuses to neglect the key area of media concentration. In a briefing paper they have highlighted what Leveson had to say on ownership. 

Unchecked media concentration over several decades has allowed some media groups to accumulate vast amounts of revenue and influence with adverse consequences for ethical journalism and democracy. One such consequence has been the development of intimate relationships between political and media elites in a way which, according to Lord Justice Leveson, “has not been in the public interest” (p.1956). 

Here’s another reason why it’s important for Class to become involved and one that is easily understood. Despite the abysmal failure of the government’s austerity programme it refuses to change course and local authorities are picking up the pieces. With reduced budgets they are making choices. Do they abandon luncheon clubs or do they take an axe to the local theatre? Is the concert hall saved but at the expense of the local library? These are false choices and should be resisted.

And here’s a question. What have the far right Dutch MP Geert Wilders and Labour controlled Newcastle City Council in common? Wilders taunts people in the arts with his charge that all ‘artists are subsidy beggars’. At the same time the council of one of the major cities in the north east is beggaring its culture programme with a proposed cut in funding to zero.  

Culture had been seen as part of the renaissance of Newcastle after the death of heavy industry. Other regions and cities facing economic decline also turned to culture and the service industries to produce jobs and create wealth. Now they too are being hit.  

Sir Andrew Motion, former poet laureate took up the cudgels when he came to my local community centre for a poetry reading in front of a packed audience.  He was scathing about Jeremy Hunt the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and accused him of not being interested in protecting cultural budgets. There hadn’t been any conversation about the arts so budgets were cut and libraries were being closed.    

Enough of low politics. Throughout history, and at times of great adversity, music and the theatre have brought solace, and given inspiration.

With emaciated bodies lying in the streets where they fell in the besieged city of Leningrad Shostakovich wrote his 7th symphony as homage to the city and to the people who were its defenders. Despite their misery and degradation the concert hall was packed for its premiere. 

For the composer Messiaen along with fellow prisoners a clarinettist, a violinist and cellist performed his eight movement piece Quartet for the End of Time. It wasn’t in a concert hall that the audience gave the piece their rapt attention it was the prison of war camp Stalag VIII-A in Gorlitz near Dresden. 

Ask yourself how many funerals of trade unionists have you been to when a recording of Paul Robeson has been played. His powerful voice singing Joe Hill has moved fellow mourners to tears while simultaneously they’ve been inspired by this essentially optimistic ballad? Or who can fail to be stirred by the music and lyrics of Woody Guthrie, Bob Marley, Joan Baez or Janis Joplin. The list is long.   

Children of the barrios of Venezuela take up their instruments, read music and form orchestras to play Beethoven, Mozart, and Copland. None of the legendary classics are off limits. These are not solitary experiences. These young musicians are part of the El Sistema programme and are part of society. 

The Venezuelan youth orchestra and conductor Gustav Dudimell thrilled audiences at the Royal Albert Hall and provided inspiration for Scottish children who have followed suit and are now part of the ‘Big Noise’. This is music for everyone and not just the elite. 

Only recently Julie Walters the award-winning actress warned that working class actors will be almost non-existent because they will not be able to afford to train. We’ve regressed in drama. Working class – writers and actors dominated theatre, now its ‘posh boys from Eton’.  

We have had crocodile tears from the education secretary Michael Gove bemoaning the scale of private school dominance while at the same time pursuing policies that disadvantage the working class actors of the future. 

The artistic and ethical importance of the culture industries is such that they can’t just be left to the markets. They are also the subject of heated political and theoretical debate. CLASS needs to ensure that in these debates it has a voice that demands to be heard because class is a cultural issue.



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