Skip to content

Culture and politics

March 29, 2009

The ‘cultural turn’ in the social sciences has opened the way for what seems like an abandonment of politics. I was thinking about this recently in relation to debates about the reconfiguration (perhaps break up) of the United Kingdom.

page0_blog_entry58_11I wouldn’t want to under-estimate the importance of culture in the transformation of the UK. Scottish devolution would be difficult to imagine without the cultural assertiveness that has been a feature of literature, film and music north of the boarder. Michael Gardener (2004) in The Cultural Roots of British Devolution has argued that cultural transformations predate devolution itself, an argument that is complimented  by Tim Edensor’s (2002) National Identity, Popular Culture and Everyday Life, where the example of contemporary Scotland provides a case study of how greater account needs to be taken of  what national identities owe to popular culture.

However the boldest claim for culture’s ability to unmake and remake nations is made by Kevin Davey (1997) in English Imaginaries in which he asserts: ‘Culture will out perform politics in the race to produce new narratives and representations of nationality and modernity’ in England. This seems to me to be asking a lot of culture.

Nevertheless the new dispensation in Northern Ireland owes alot to the ‘cultural turn’. I’ve always had my suspicions that ‘official’ sources took a decision at some stage to try to rethink the dispute as a cultural problem rather than a political one. After all culture is so much more malleable than politics: everyone with their own ‘cultural tradition’ to be respected, tied to educational programmes that promise mutual understanding with regards to cultural differences. It’s a strategy which assumed that what was wrong in Northern Ireland was that loyalists and republicans didn’t understand one another sufficiently, when in truth they probably understood one another only too well.

But the conflict was never really a culture clash, it was always to do with politics and the thorny issues of writing a constitution, drawing boarders and establishing institutions. The Agreement responded to Ulster unionism and Irish nationalism’s political differences by delivering a sectarian assembly for a sectarian electorate. A political compromise that really satisfied nobody’s political aspirations but assured everyone that their folkways would be recognised and respected.

Marxists also discovered culture as an antidote to their own theoretical and political maladies, in particular a tendency to economic determinism and the stubborn refusal of the working class to overthrow capitalism. Popular culture became the new site of political and ideological struggle, and proved a more appealing terrain upon which to fight power than picket lines or interminable trade union meetings. Coincidentally the academy and large sections of the Left lost interest in class and took up identity politics instead. Then last year the BBC discovered ‘the white, working class’ and broadcast a series of documentaries (and one docu-drama) that focused almost exclusively on the English working class’s ‘whiteness’, so remaking class as ethno-difference.

This is entirely in keeping with new Labour thinking for whom class is the politics that dare not speak its name. The Labour administration’s early response to working class poverty was alluded to by Peter Mandelson at the opening of the government’s Social Exclusion Unit in 1997, where he made the point that the government considered ‘social exclusion’ as being about more than poverty and unemployment. ‘It is about being cut off from what the rest of us regard as normal life’. This was an indication that Labour would not necessarily pursue policies of  job creation and increased benefits. Instead inequality and unemployment were a consequence of  a ‘culture’ of welfare dependency. And having taken the view that poverty was a largely ‘cultural’ phenomenon, government strategies were concerned with reconstructing working class identities in ways that would facilitate their inclusion in the culture of the nation.

In the latest edition of New Left Review, Nancy Fraser recalls the widely held view that second wave feminism was culturally successful but failed to transform institutions. But Fraser points out that feminism’s perceived cultural success was achieved only by it being co-opted by capitalism. Second wave feminism, Fraser argues, became a variant of identity politics, forsook the idea of redistribution for recognition, and social-economic struggle for cultural critique. Once unmoored from the critique of capitalism, feminism was made available for alternative articulations and drawn into a ‘dangerous liaison’ with neoliberalism.

Fraser’s argument might well resonant beyond feminists, leaving a number of questions to be addressed. To what extent have dissenting forms of culture simply been co-opted by power? Notice how the soundtrack of the 60s counter culture has been so easily appropriated by advertisers seeking to sell us mobile phones.

Perhaps the failure to bring about institutional and systematic change is a consequence of failing to distinguish between culture and politics? Or maybe it can be accounted for by a tendency in some circles to expect culture to do the work of politics.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 4, 2009 11:49 am

    Interesting post.

    But how would you respond to the thought that in one very important area, education, it is all but impossible to disentangle politics and culture in Northern Ireland? You’re much closer to this than me, but I understand there is a torturous political process going on in the North about introducing comprehensive education, a process being variously resisted by forces on both sides of the community divide. In my embarrassingly old-fashioned manner, I regard this a class issue in a fairly direct way. On the other hand, as Johnny Guitar points out, the subject of integrated education is a ‘third rail’ issue which almost no-one, except, he says, the Alliance and Workers Parties, are prepared to touch. (See So how does this fit into your distinction between ‘safe’,depoliticising, ‘culture’ and class politics per se?

  2. Rab permalink*
    April 4, 2009 1:04 pm

    I’d broadly agree with Johnny Guitar but, I suspect like you, I see the present education system as a class issue, from primary school right through to HE. So when I think about culture and education I tend to think of both in terms of social class rather than sectarian affiliation. My reading list would include Matthew Arnold, FR Leavis, Raymond Williams before I’d look at Tony Macaulay’s study, Churches and Christian Ethos in Integrated Schools, referred to by Johnny on Your Friend in the North.

    I think it is mistake to interpret the antagonism between Irish nationalism and Ulster unionism as a dispute about culture. It is first and foremost an argument about boarders, constitutions, institutions and national allegiances. I mean, what is there about being British or Irish that makes these two national designations so culturally incompatible that conflict must ensue? Both unionists and nationalists have access to broadly the same modern commodified culture as each other and even their own vernacular folkways do nothing so much as increasingly resemble each other, especially since unionism discovered the Ulster-Scots tradition.

    I suspect that the lack of enthusiasm in some quarters for integrated education may have less to do with culture than with History (with a capital H). Now, there is a controversy waiting to happen: how do you produce a public history to teaching in the classroom that will respect both ‘traditions’ and say anything meaningful or indeed true about the past?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: