Using the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, socialist musician Calum Baird argues the left must take seriously cultural demands as part of a reconstruction from Coronavirus.
This year’s May Day weekend was greeted not with glorious pictures of marches in Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, or with marches on rain soaked streets in Europe and elsewhere, but this time online, with events streamed from parties and movements across the world on social media. As a musician, I took part in two such events, one organised by the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) and the other by the Edinburgh May Day Committee in conjunction with local trades councils.
Amidst this crisis, it has been easy to get despondent, cut off from society and from the broader world. Even in so-called ‘normal times’ this is easy to do when coping with the rush and busyness of life. However, May Day shone a light of hope amongst the uncertainty that looms over our times. Activists and organisers from within our movement spoke brilliantly about the various campaigns and priorities of the movement right now. This primarily involved ways we can support working people and their organisations through this crisis, but also involved a plan for re-construction of the economy and society after it has abated.
This plan includes a green new deal for tackling climate change, improving conditions for key workers and proper funding of our health services. Support for migrant workers who, prior to the crisis, were dismissed by the Tory government as “unskilled”, an end to homelessness and reaffirming the labour movement’s international commitments, with tributes to the Cuban doctors and their heroic efforts to support the fight against Covid-19 around the world, were discussed also. However, one aspect of reconstruction that was only lightly touched on in the events I was involved in was the cultural sector. Speaking at the Edinburgh May Day online rally, actress Kate Rutter (I, Daniel Blake, His Dark Materials, Peterloo and more), spoke of the devastating impact this crisis has had on acting, TV production and on venues and theatres too.
The creative industries have suffered massively from this crisis with its spaces being amongst the first to close and, most likely, the last to re-open.
To illustrate the problem, the largest arts festivals in the UK, and the largest of its kind in the world, The Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe Festival, have been cancelled. The damage this will cause the Scottish economy is significant. It will have particular serious effects on Edinburgh’s economy. Everything from theatres, to small venues, hotels, bars and restaurants will be affected by this unprecedented cancellation. You need not spend a week in Edinburgh to realise that much of the economy in and around the capital is built on the tourism industry running at full capacity with the Edinburgh Festival as harvest time. Additionally, the independent arts venue in Edinburgh, Summerhall, has issued an appeal for donations and funding support as this crisis deepens. Poetry events, music concerts, exhibitions, small-scene radio, beer production and craft trading will all be lost if Summerhall is forced to close. This is just a small part of the picture of the crisis in the cultural sector. A recent survey by Music Venue Trust found that 554 of its 670 member venues are under threat of imminent closure. If this plays out across the whole of the UK, 82% of the country’s live music venues will be lost, decimating the circuit.
We face the gloomy reality that as many as 1 in 5 smaller businesses will not re-open after this crisis. It is likely that this hammer will initially fall on the hospitality sector and will then, inevitably, spill over into the arts, culture, and entertainment sectors too. 14% of Scotland’s tourism businesses have already ceased trading. Several Scottish small and independent music venues live hand to mouth as it is, and the UK government’s loan scheme swaps one short term issue for a longer term one further down the road for these spaces.
The Scottish government has recently announced new measures for freelancers, the recently self-employed and the creative, tourism and hospitality sectors, as well as a £45 million fund for viable SMEs crucial to the Scottish economy. This is to be welcomed, whilst also recognised as being only short-term and very limited support. Significant work will be required to resuscitate the creative industries post-crisis and it is almost inevitable that this resuscitation will take the form of a half-hearted, ad hoc approach. “Market forces” that have, vulture like, selected what can be kept for profit in other parts of the economy cannot be allowed to repeat this process in the creative industries. If they are, this would be a coup de grace against much grassroots, independent and emerging culture.
For cultural workers that depend on a thriving arts sector, a contraction in the industry will be yet another crushing blow to their livelihoods on top of already existing problems such as unstable incomes and excruciating operating and living costs. It should be pointed out at this stage that the response from the arts community to this crisis has been immense and a lot of work has been done to support cultural workers. Creative Scotland have given out bursaries of up to £2,500 to applicants, the Musicians’ Union have opened a hardship fund giving each applicant £200, Help Musicians UK have given £500 to applicants and others have given out financial support too. Nonetheless, this crisis presents the left and the labour movement more widely with an opportunity to reassess its relationship with and understanding of art and cultural workers.
Most of us on the left will not need told or reminded that dominant social and political forces cannot rule by brute force or coercion alone, they also require consent to rule. Culture, then, assumes an instrumental role in allowing classes to rule whilst, at the same time, containing qualities of intrinsic value to the ruled. This includes language and other national traditions such as song and dance. Through culture and the cultural institutions, the ruling class can convince most of the population that their rule is not only legitimate, but natural, real and all that can be. Indeed, we on the left and in the broader labour movement will have wondered at various times in our lives why it is that, despite all of its crises, historically and presently, capitalism has been able to survive, adapt and even regenerate itself. The diffusion of culture is central to this phenomenon.
The promise of wealth, the illusion of freedom, the illusion of endless opportunity, the illusion of endless greatness being at your fingertips so long as the status quo is preserved – this oozes out of capitalist culture in almost all forms. It is a way of life, a bourgeois way, a vision of life that is – quite literally – sold to us daily. The market as both our master and liberator in many spheres of life is the curious image of neoliberal culture.
While this is not a complete analysis of culture under capitalism and, with more space, one could set it out in more detail, it is a basis for understanding the role of culture in society and is one of the salient intellectual achievements of the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who articulated this position most effectively. One could expand this analysis by recognising that while culture allows classes to diffuse their ideas and control society, the Covid crisis has shown just how important culture is to people. This is true for sources of information and entertainment during the crisis. In the Gramscian analysis, this proves that while culture is of great benefit to maintaining the hegemony of the rulers, it is not irrelevant to the ruled either.
Yet, despite this, the labour movement is still far from having a grasp of the role of culture and cultural workers in society. A common meme in the movement is that while the working class need bread (means of subsistence) we need roses too (culture). The problem with this idea is that it reduces culture to mere window dressing, something which Gramsci shows is not how the working-class view art and culture. Art gives hope, a clarification and it provides validation. At a time like now with the rise of the far right, coronavirus conspiracy theories and other campaigns of disinformation, this is vital. Furthermore, this analysis misses that a role of the artist is to encapsulate and empathise with the human condition, explain society, and speak out against injustice. As Bertolt Brecht says, art is a hammer which one uses to shape society. Above all else, though, this analysis misses something crucial about the artist, or better, the cultural worker: what some call roses, the cultural worker calls bread. Any suggestion, therefore, that the artist window-dresses life misunderstands the existence of the artist.
While it is important that the labour movement has a programme for reconstructing the cultural sectors and for cultural democracy integrated into its aims, we have to recognise the artist’s agency in their approach to their work too. One way to do this is to recognise that the artist – sometimes unconsciously – is constantly embroiled in ideological struggles with different themes and dominant forms in the art world (a world that has its own degree of autonomy) as well as the broader one we all live in. The labour movement, therefore, needs to acknowledge that artists that ally themselves with the movement are contributing to the wider class struggle through an ideological and cultural struggle to enlighten people on the alienation involved in the existence of all artists whilst, at the same time, concerning themselves with an ideological and cultural struggle to enlighten the people about the problems of capitalist society.
Shifting our analysis is important if the labour movement is to articulate a vision for re-constructing culture in the same way it has envisioned other aspects of post-Covid reconstruction, like improving the deal for key workers, for example.
We must think radically about the future of the cultural sector. We cannot allow a negative re-distribution of culture to take place with only those who can afford it being able to pursue a career in the arts (something already underway before the pandemic) on the one hand and, on the other, we cannot allow small cultural venues to close and disappear meaning that only those musicians, bands, poets, theatre companies and so on with capital or wealthy patrons behind them can afford to tour and perform in the venues that are left.
After World War II, there was a strong push from the labour movement to expand access to culture. Indeed, the aforementioned Edinburgh Festivals emerged from this push. This took place across Europe and was integrated within wider demands for better access to education too. The same must happen again after Covid-19. In addition to insisting that existing venues are not forced into closure, the labour movement and our organisations must demand a radical expansion of such venues into communities outside of urban centres. A way of doing this would be to argue and see to it that every town with a population over a certain size (say, 20 000 people?) gets its own theatre, a number of libraries equipped with modern technology, a number of sports facilities and a number of community centres also. An expansion in cultural infrastructure like this would lead to an increase in demand for drama groups for all ages, community tuition in different aspects of musicianship, writing workshops and more – giving space to some of that untapped creativity that exists within all of us. The community centre could become a hub for all these things with space for drama group rehearsals, rehearsal space for music groups and could even have a performance space for local and touring bands, groups, and companies.
A programme for cultural democracy must involve artists and their existing institutions – especially those in the labour movement – in the planning, application and delivery of this programme, in the same way that workers in energy production must be involved in planning and delivery of the transition to green energy.
Recognising the ideological implications of culture must be the foundation stone of our analysis of it. Recognising that cultural spaces and institutions being owned and controlled by a wealthy few as something which is seriously damaging for society as a whole is equally as important. As the work of Gramsci and others shows us; culture is massively important to any social force that endeavours to be hegemonic, to miss it out of our analysis and our vision for a socialist future is to hamstring our movement and stops us from connecting with the very people who can bring about emancipation.
Image: Detail from Diego Rivera, Mike Steele