Sunday, 31 May 2015

Cultural Resources and Neoliberalism.

Image by Yvonne Forster
So despite only about 25% of the electorate voting for them the Tories got the single biggest percentage of the vote (37%) and we have 5 more years of Tory Government, they hope to bring us more cuts to social provision leading to more poverty, more disempowering of Unions, a vague Anti-Extremist Bill, less taxation for the well off and possibly a new British Bill of Rights written by the Tories instead of those tricky internationally recognised Human Rights much loved by foreigners...  

Since the late 1970s Neoliberal capitalism/politics has reconfigured institutions (governments, schools etc), individuals and society into its own image. Capitalism’s most brazen trick is to try and pass itself off as natural, or ‘god ordained’ in a bygone era, attempting to convince us that this is how it is meant to be, that no other world is possible. The Situationists wrote about this in 1950s/60s referring to it as ‘the spectacle’ (1) — how advanced industrial societies are represented to themselves by the elite, so effectively that the oppressed internalise those values, those views. Society and culture dominated by a seamless representation of a capitalist version of the world via the media, state and corporations (1), where any dissent is marginalised or co-opted. Gramsci referred to something similar as 'cultural hegemony' (2). The hallmarks of neoliberalism are individualisation, an ideology of free markets, small state provision (for the workers, though not for corporations), privatisation (the transforming of public goods into private property) and a continual dismantling of workers rights and protections-in short authoritarian capitalism. Coupled with this is the phenomena known as 'post modernity' which includes the 'death' of the meta-narrative and at times a retreating into ethnicity and nationalism as sources of identity in the face of capitalist globalisation (3). All this has created a constructed, mediated environment/society that is anxious, alienating, individualised, competitive, commodified-with wage labour and individualised consumption promoted as the highest goal .

An essay written last year commented that some sociologists 'believe that we construct our sense of self, of self identity from the cultural resources available to us. That is in order to construct a version of ourselves that is understandable and intelligible to ourselves and others we draw on the representations, roles and social signifiers around us, configuring and modifying them to construct a sense of who we are both for ourselves and (others). Many of these cultural resources-conventional gender roles, nationalities, etc- are top down products of a nation state capitalist system and these cultural resources will perpetuate roles, identities and social structures that serve the status quo and reactionary relationships'(4).

Many, possibly most, people in the UK imbibe a daily dose of right- wing press including the abjectification of 'othered' groups and a few hours of 'spectacle'-game shows, food contests, programmes about the well off choosing new houses, dramas, soap operas etc. Often these programmes represent the working class as poorly educated, divided, bogged down in domestic problems. When did you last see a working class character in a contemporary drama who was 'sorted', self educated and politicised? Most TV appears to be written by the privileged reflecting their view of the working class-unfortunately many have internalised these offensive, belittling representations.

If individuals do draw on cultural resources to construct themselves and the 'cultural hegemony' of neoliberalism has created a society and media where the cultural resources readily available are an expression of a neoliberal worldview-including a disempowering view of the working class- then how is it possible for the working class to wake up and break free of both being constituted by neoliberalism and helping constitute neoliberalism? They are not going to hear an alternative narrative or come into contact with a creative progressive vision from the top down, the elite like things as they are. The Labour Party is now Tory-Lite, berating itself for not coming across as more business friendly in the last election and The Green Party is too small and poorly funded to compete in a 'first past the post' system with either of the two big parties.

There would appear to be -unsurprisingly-no alternative to grass roots organisation, activism and education (to cite a Noam Chomsky 'tweet') in constructing alternative cultural resources and political narrative.

On the distance learning website Futurelearn (5) there is a course 'The Secret Power of Brands' (6) which includes the idea of a Venn diagram in which one circle contains the felt needs of your target group, the other circle your organisation's attributes-in the overlap of the two circles are the aspects of your organisation that meets those felt needs, the aspects that the organisation needs to communicate (6). Obviously this is to do with businesses but transposable to other spheres. In an online article 'The Left Can Win' Pablo Inglesias of the Spanish Podemos party-that emerged from the Indignados movement- makes the point that the Left needs to communicate in a language that people understand about things that people are bothered about, that there has to be a tie up between what we are talking about and what people are experiencing or we are irrelevant while having the correct analysis (7).We need to disrupt the top down dominant discourses that people read and hear by listening to people and talking with them about the things that matter to them in a way that alerts people to the misleading, elite-serving, disempowering narratives they have been given and instead empower people to engage and create change. The disrupting of the top down discourse by the introduction of new ideas, new perspectives into the narrative is essential for effective resistance to hegemony (8).  

Similarly a recent 'Red Pepper' article/interview with Podemos member Eduardo Maura comments that the Left needs to have a better grasp of "class compositions and identities" (9) which are far more complex and fragmented than before the neoliberal era, and to have a better understanding of people's lived experiences so that it can communicate effectively (9). Podemos seems to be a political party that is closely aligned with progressive grass roots movements, it has managed to embed itself in local communities with many local branches as well as using social media/ the internet extensively in order to enable involvement and participation in discussion and decision making for as many people as possible (9). This model of a movement with multiple access points so that people with busy fragmented lives can get involved in a way they can manage has to be taken seriously as for many people an initial involvement that includes conferences, reading lengthy books and protests may be a bit too much.

In Scotland last year the 'Yes' campaign was a diverse movement that included many on the Left (10) and while the 'Yes' campaign failed to win the vote their grass roots model of campaigning seems to have been very effective at engaging people in local, community based discussion and participation.

All of the above examples are peculiar to time and place, in circumstances different to our own but they do give us clues as to how the Left/anarchism could engage more effectively with the world around us- exploring how anarchism answers the felt needs people have, listening to people and their concerns and then trying to give them a better analysis of the causes of their problems in a language they understand, having a localised and online movement that has multiple points of access so that people can learn, understand more clearly, engage and participate in a way they can manage. It will almost certainly be a bit messy and include mistakes but the need for a clearer, more effective communication of radical Left/anarchist politics is paramount.    


(1) Debord, G. (1968) 'The Society of the Spectacle'. Black and Red, USA.

(2) Thomas, M. (ed)(2012) ‘Antonio Gramsci: Working-Class Revolutionary’, Workers’  Liberty, London

(3) Bowman, M, Herbert, D. and Mumm, S. (2001) Religion Today: Religion and Society in Religion Today: Tradition, Modernity and Change. Course Introduction The Open University, Milton Keynes.

(4) 'Constructing the Self'


(6) 'The Secret Power of Brands' UEA

(7) Inglesias, P. (2014) 'The Left Can Win' 12-9-2014

(8) Hill. S. (2013) Digital Revolutions; Activism in the Internet Age. New Internationalist Publications Ltd. Oxford.

(9) Dolan, A. (2014) 'Si se puede' in Red Pepper, Issue 199, Dec/Jan 2015, Socialist Newspaper (Publications), London

(10) 12) Shafi, J. (2014) 'Another Scotland is-still- possible' in Red Pepper, Issue 199, Dec/Jan 2015, Socialist Newspaper (Publications), London.