Culture and politics
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.
I 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.