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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Editorial - Cultural Capital(ism)

Certain cultural moments can come to represent and define particular times. One such moment for 2019 took place in a Somerset field in mid-summer. Glastonbury festival has hosted many great musical and cultural icons in its headline slots over its almost 50 year history. But, in 2019, the festival hosted its first solo Black British headliner: Stormzy. The show – itself a celebration of Black British culture, from ballet dancers who are now able to wear ballet shoes that match their skin tone, to BMX bikers who Stormzy met on a London street – was hailed across the media as a historic performance, and also lauded by the political left.

Culture has always been deeply connected to politics. All at once, culture can respond and react to politics, be shaped or controlled by it, and be the force doing the shaping. Stormzy’s lauded Glastonbury appearance is emblematic – though by no means the only example – of these relationships interacting simultaneously.

“culture cannot lead politics if it is only the already-powerful who can participate”

As a reaction to prevailing politics, his lyrics are damning of the former mayor of London and UK prime minister Boris Johnson. Stormzy was one of several artists who came out in support of Jeremy Corbyn in 2017, in recognition of a politician who spoke to salient issues in their lives and in grime lyrics. By tackling politics head on, Stormzy also provides a counter- narrative that facilitates political expression and supports new political identities. Though many of Stormzy’s audience may in ordinary times be unlikely to chant ‘Fuck Boris’, the power of the crowd and a message veyed through music can galvanise political identity and make another politics seem possible.

The same dynamic has played out numerous times through the 20th century. From counterculture in the 1960s to the punk eruption, from jazz to Northern Soul, culture and the arts can create and nurture group political identities and foster attitudes that come to shape political preferences. Socially liberal politics followed rather than created shifts in cultural attitudes. So, too, folk music has a long history of passing on stories that create identity and call for political action, from land protests to environmentalism.

But culture cannot lead politics if it is only the already-powerful who can participate. Change happens because a minority view or minority group gains traction, and culture can help that process take place. But if it is the dominant group or elite who holds the means to produce and distribute culture, there will be fewer opportunities for this to take place.

In this way, Stormzy’s headlining of the main stage at Glastonbury also served as a rebuttal to the power relations that dominate cultural spaces and events. So often, who is given space on cultural platforms reserved for ‘the greats’ is filtered by class, race, gender, disability and age. What was momentous about Stormzy’s success was that the bar of a good performance in the eyes of mainstream media for him was always higher than for a white, middle class rock band. By headlining Glastonbury and doing it so successfully, he shifted ideas about the kind of music that is deemed acceptable to the mainstream, and broke through the very real ceiling that certain groups are able to reach in the creative industries and beyond. This was made explicit through his performance, but was also implicit in his choices of who would join him on stage, and the deliberate platforming of talented Black British artists.

“culture and how we relate to it can act as a gatekeeper to economic opportunity beyond the creative arts”

While culture and politics frequently interact directly, our economic system can also serve to restrict or increase access to culture. Who has the resources to live a creative life? Is an economic logic imposed in which creativity must serve a market? Who has access to the materials to create? And whose creativity is deemed acceptable or interesting? Many of the most successful people in the UK arts today hail from financially comfortable, safely middle and upper class backgrounds. Indeed, cultural jobs are recorded by the Office for National Statistics as ‘middle class’ despite how the origins and creation of culture is realised across all social strata. When Labour MP Chris Bryant said in an interview that the arts were too dominated by public-school educated people like James Blunt and Eddie Redmayne, he was named a ‘classist gimp’ by Blunt.1 Yet it isn’t hard to see the barriers that a Paul McCartney, Maxine Peake, or Glenda Jackson would face today.

More deeply, culture and how we relate to it can act as a gatekeeper to economic opportunity beyond the creative arts. Precisely because not everyone is equally able to participate, the arts can act as a class signifier and restrict access to opportunities across the economy and society. Our culture goes beyond the arts to much broader ways of being and interacting. If it is necessary to be able to comment on opera or literature, using particular ways of expressing opinion, in order to enter a certain social circle – that circle will remain closed to many. But so, too, can knowledge of how to hold oneself in a room or meeting shape who is seen to have authority.

However, in another sense, cultural production is becoming more democratic, and the economic thresholds for participation in, and enjoyment of, it are being lowered. If opportunity was previously decided by the studio executive or the record company, today anyone with a smartphone and internet connection can record and distribute creative outputs through digital means. This kind of insurgent creative production can shape political identity in often unpredictable ways, and beyond the comfort zone of the cultural elite. And there are breakthrough moments. At Glastonbury, Stormzy was taking a slot normally reserved for white men, intruding on the status quo.

This issue considers the relationship between culture, politics and economics. Our authors write about the role of culture in political movements and identity formation, and whether culture can be made accessible to everyone.

In her piece, Francesca Sobande examines digital re-mix culture, arguing that political expression can occur through the creation of memes and digital imagery, but so can the mis-use of ideas and words.

The New Deal included a programme of support for artists to accompany the economic policy. David Adler argues that a Green New Deal, if it were to take inspiration from this policy, must recognise the dispersed nature of modern cultural production.

“Culture … shapes who is able to participate in social dialogue, how political identities and economic ideologies form, and which political decisions are held to account”

Jeremy Gilbert’s piece argues that it is through creative co-production that we experience collective joy, and that public services should be designed for this purpose. Duncan Exley calls for the greater inclusion of working-class people in decision-making, including through political representation – highlighting the cultural barriers that exclude many working class people from participating in politics.

Dave O’Brien sees a difficult future for any project trying to make the arts accessible. With local funding cut, he argues that our current system of governance is inadequate to create a truly democratic culture. Rhian Jones shows how the means of cultural production are increasingly shut off to the working class, who are less able to live a precarious and financially uncertain existence in order to pursue their cultural work. Ellie Barrett also considers the barriers to participation, arguing that the ‘arms race’ to more and more expensive and environmentally damaging materials in fine art excludes many.

Culture is defined retrospectively as much as in the present. In their piece, Lois Stone discusses the representation of queer lives in museums, and how LGBT+ identities have been erased through lack of representation in museum collections and exhibitions.

In his interview with Josh Emden, the playwright and poet Inua Ellams discusses how his identity shapes his work, and puts forward his view that exposure to different cultures can be more effective than political grandstanding at changing cultural perceptions and prejudices.

Recent political upheaval has led to the identification of a ‘culture war’. In his piece, John Curtice looks at the reorientation of politics away from a left-right axis towards an authoritarian-libertarian axis, and what the implications are for the prospects of the major UK parties.

Beyond the UK, culture wars have been more explicitly waged as a means of cementing power. Nahid Siamdoust’s piece on the complicated history of music and the State in Iran reveals the extreme end of a spectrum where politics seeks to control culture.

Culture – both in terms of the arts and the subtle ways in which we interact – shapes who is able to participate in social dialogue, how political identities and economic ideologies form, and which political decisions are held to account. It is therefore vital that the hallmarks of our culture are not restricted to a few, but instead that the means of cultural production are accessible to everyone. That must go beyond individual arts programmes, to looking at the ways in which our economic and social systems can enable us all to be creators.