Thomas Hardy’s last novel, Jude the Obscure, first published in 1896, begins with an epigraph from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: “The letter killeth”, writes Paul — and with this, Jude Fawley’s fate is sealed. Jude’s quest for learning, his desire for culture, is thwarted at every turn. He seeks transcendence only to finish alone in the world and, after one final attempt at resolution, dies at just 30. There are many explanations for his tragic fate in the book. His aunt believes in the Fawley curse, according to which all members of the family are apt to make calamitous unions — so the coupling of two Fawleys after Jude’s relationship with his sexless, “ethereal” cousin Sue, is destined for disaster. Jude blames his weakness for women and booze, leading to his twice-failed marriage with the fleshly Arabella. But it is ultimately his rejection by Christminster, the seat of high learning for which Jude yearns, that finishes him:
"'I love the place', Jude says, 'although I know how it hates all men like me — the so-called Self-taught, — how it scorns our laboured acquisitions, when it should be the first to respect them; how it sneers at our false quantities and mispronunciations, when it should say, I see you want help, my poor friend!'"
“The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life”, says Paul. So much of working-class existence seems structured by this opposition. Letter versus spirit, learning versus life. Jude is perhaps the paradigmatic figure of a form of working-class culture in the years before 1945, the lowly aspirant to the towering heights of civilisation whose banging on the walls of learning leads to his untimely demise. In this, Jude represents the age of the “Self-taught”, the working-class autodidacts who didn’t so much seek to demolish the seats of high culture as scale its barricades. Another such figure, who appeared a few decades later, is Leonard Bast, the working-class aspirant of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. The letter killeth Bast too — quite literally. He is killed by a falling bookcase.
As the literary historian Jonathan Rose has chronicled in fascinating detail, drawing on over 2,000 published and unpublished memoirs of working people, the culture of the self-taught was once a flourishing one. His book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, charts the rise and fall of the autodidact from the early nineteenth century into the twentieth, with both its apotheosis and ultimate demise coming in 1945. For a while this culture, one that fed on the classics as much as any of the highbrows in Bloomsbury did, provided an outlet for working-class cultural aspirations that had been otherwise denied.
While this was an important aspect of working-class life, and helps to remind us of E.P. Thompson’s lesson that the working class is as much formed by its own activity as it is by exploitation, it’s important to remember that its precondition was exclusion. It was only because formal educational and social opportunities were actively denied to working people that they had to form their own culture of learning. But it was also a culture built through collective endeavour and struggle. The autodidact was as much a product of the trade unions, socialist political organisations, friendly and mutual societies and informal networks of learning and support that developed among the working class as it was of the solitary reader working by candlelight. This, then, was not simply a literary culture, but a political one.
This culture didn’t last beyond the war years. The 1944 Butler Act that made secondary education available to all children in Britain opened up new routes for smart working-class kids. The decades that followed also saw the growth of university intakes, including many more working-class scholarship students and women, as well as the effects of the foundation of the Arts Council in 1945 that pioneered public funding of the arts, and the introduction of the BBC’s Third Programme in 1946 (the precursor of Radio Three, whose output was self-consciously highbrow and cultural), all of which increased participation in culture. Generally speaking, the middle decades of the twentieth century were the years when culture was democratised, however imperfectly, and when working-class people were brought into the system, often for the first time. The walls surrounding the citadel of high culture were not so much broken down as opened up between 1945 and the late 1970s.
But this, too, was not destined to continue. Looking back, it is easy to romanticise this democratic culture of the middle years of the twentieth century, not least from a present in which many of its gains are once again being rolled back. Public libraries have been gutted, now more like low-tech hubs for those at the sharp end of Britain’s class system to gain access to whatever meagre and squeezed benefits they are still entitled to, the lending of books reduced to an auxiliary role. The country’s schools remain highly stratified, not just between state schools and the kind of hothouse private schools that more or less guarantee students a spot at one of the country’s elite universities, but also within the state system itself. Our novels and films are filled with the solipsistic tales of middle class strivers recounting their attempts to be good bourgeois subjects — with the occasional knowing nod towards Marx thrown in if we’re lucky. The relative recent success books like Olivia Laing’s painfully trite Crudo, Ben Lerner’s attempt to push the boundaries of liberal handwringing in The Topeka School, or most recently Natasha Brown’s Assembly with its lament to the pains of working in finance, show the paucity of choices on offer. The space for both the high and the low in culture has been squeezed so tightly that much of what passes as art now is a generalised middlebrow pap, served up as literature even as no attempt is made to hide its commercial roots. Under today’s conditions of cultural homogenisation and widespread economic precarity, high art must appeal to the market just as much as the least enduring works of the cultural industries. Even much contemporary popular music, once a bastion of working-class artistic endeavour, is now stacked with the same identikit voices, regurgitating the same tired sounds — honourable exceptions being the remarkable boom of UK drill, although even that tide is ebbing, and the past decade’s second great wave of grime.
One look at the contemporary literary scene reveals a world of cosy lifestyle choices, with books reduced to mere aesthetic markers. As Ralf Webb notes in a recent issue of Poetry Review, “The content posted [online] by influential publishing enthusiasts…leaves you with the impression that if you wear the right clothes, dine in the right restaurants, drink the right aperitif, and do so while bathed in the right light, then the sexiest book of poems… will generate from thin air”. Here is a culture shorn of any critical edge, despite its frequent hat tips to criticality. As with much of “generation left”, while there is an almost-blanket social liberalism, and many know that capitalism is responsible for the world’s ills, these positions are sundered to an individualistic entrepreneurialism, in which hustling and self-promotion predominate.
The literary elite is a coddled one, with books serving as respite for weary London BoBos and written by the kind of people whose families can provide them with the necessary modern equivalent of £500 a year and a room of one’s own (preferably one overlooking Margate’s old town and within easy reach of a Campari Spritz, please). As the novelist and critic Ryan Ruby recently remarked, in reference to one such piece of middlebrow lit fic:
“In the absence of compensatory literary pleasures (e.g. an exemplary prose style, formal innovation, insight into the human condition or contemporary life) or compensatory genre pleasures (i.e. entertainment) moral judgment becomes a way of answering the question all novels must answer: why am I reading this?”
While this is perhaps a hyperbolic overview of the contemporary scene (there are, of course, many pockets of resistance to this flattening of cultural life, as shown by recent offerings from British novelists like Luke Brown, Lucy Ellmann, Anthony Cartwright and Douglas Stuart, alongside the great swelling of complex, nuanced writing in translation, often from small indie publishers like And Other Stories, Tilted Axis, and Fitzcarraldo) the effects of the failure of the mid-century impulse are difficult to ignore. The gates were opened, the masses were benevolently allowed access to the seats of learning, only for us to end up back where we started, the doors firmly locked once more, and with a denuded culture in its place. If that is the case, then learning from the past becomes even more vital. We cannot repeat the same mistakes, but nor can we throw out those experiences wholesale. Of the conditions that allowed for the democratisation of culture, however attenuated that was, many are now long gone. Books are less central to the overall shape of culture than they once were, and writers sell less and therefore earn less than they did during the years after the paperback revolution. As a group, they are more professionalised than ever, but they are also more fragmented. Yet the impulse, the need, for a critical culture is more obvious than ever. Perhaps there’s something we’ve been missing?
If in the first half of the twentieth century the idea of culture was set by the opposition between high and low, it was also self-consciously the preserve of a leisured elite, from which the plebs were to be kept well away. You need only think here of the Bloomsbury Group, bed-hopping around the exclusive squares of central London and writing tracts like Clive Bell’s Civilisation that argued for the maintenance of a robust cultural aristocracy. The culture of the autodidact and the labour movement was, then, one formed half in opposition to this elite culture, half as its subordinates.
If this dominant high cultural ideal, and the oppositions that it lived on — state versus market, high versus low, mass versus elite, debased American versus unsullied European — had a dominant form in the early years of the twentieth century, at least in Britain, then it was that developed around the quarterly journal Scrutiny, and under the tutelage of the literary critic, F.R. Leavis.
Leavis taught at Cambridge from 1927 to 1964, and while his writing might be little read today, its moral certainty came to dominate the way that literature was understood by several generations of twentieth-century graduates. To reduce it to its very barest features, what Leavis’s cultural pessimism aimed towards was the building of an idea of “good” culture —and the tool with which this idea was imprinted onto generations of students was a form of practical criticism involving the contextless close reading of literary works that were often anonymised and picked apart word by word. The complement to this, for Leavis and others, was a project of canon-formation. Leavis’s book The Great Tradition reduced the vast multiplicity of English prose to just five exemplary post-Shakespearean figures: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence. These were, for Leavis, the great figures of the English novel (never mind that two of them aren’t English), and what was at stake in this was the definition of a tradition, linked to a strong sense of morality, from which the task of protecting culture could flow.
By the middle decades of the century, though, a new way of seeing culture came from the group that has often been referred to, somewhat disparagingly, as the “left-Leavisites”. If the Leavisite’s aim was to defend “good” culture from the barbarians, then the left-Leavisites (think: Richard Hoggart and early Raymond Williams) were those who sought not merely to give a leg up to the odd promising pupil from the horny-handed masses, nor to destroy the entire edifice of the cultural heritage, but to open it to all-comers. Good culture is not for the elite, but — ostensibly, at least — for everyone. Many who have written about their experiences of Leavis do so in religious terms. Adam Phillips in an interview with the Paris Review says that he “treated English literature as a secular religion”, that he was “fanatical” about literature, “zealous”; George Steiner described Scrutiny, the influential journal that Leavis edited and that did much to spread his ideas, as conveying the image of “a tiny, imperilled guard of the elect, expounding and disseminating [Leavis’s] acrid truths”. To stretch the religious metaphor to its breaking point, if the Leavisites were a secular clergy preaching the Good Book(s) to the country’s best and brightest (usually the children of upper middle classes), then their left-wing progeny were something like cultural Wesleyans, taking the good word out into the fields and workshops of Britain. Many of the major figures in the British New Left, not least Hoggart, Williams and E.P. Thompson, taught in Adult Education; the historian Raphael Samuel spent his entire career at Ruskin College, the workers’ university.
The move between the two wasn’t just generational, either. The literary historian Alan Sinfield, in his book Literature, Politics and Culture in Postwar Britain, sees four main reasons for the growth of left-Leavisism (or what he calls left-culturalism) in post-war Britain. Firstly, it amplified the particular ideology of post-war welfarism into the cultural realm. Just as access to healthcare or stable housing had once been the preserve of the wealthy elite, now, thanks to the functions of the welfare state, it was supposedly accessible to all — and so too with culture. It also had a particular appeal to the new cohort of scholarship students, working-class boys (it was mainly boys) who were the beneficiaries of education’s newly opened doors and who often themselves wanted access to “good” culture. It also stood as a repudiation of Stalinism and its crass socialist realist cultural form. Following Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” in February 1956 and the suppression of the Hungarian uprising later that year, Stalinism was thoroughly discredited for many young leftists in Britain. From this political tumult the New Left was born. But the revolution hadn’t just failed in Russia. The working class of Britain and the rest of the Western world, as hundreds of journalists and academics publicly worried from the 1950s on, were newly affluent, the boom in consumer durables and rising wages allowing them a newfound freedom. Realizing that the old bromides about the inevitable march of socialism would no longer cut it, many left-wing intellectuals turned to the cultural sphere.
Williams’s book Culture and Society, perhaps the most famous work within this tradition alongside Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, traces the development of the idea of culture out of a particular response to the Industrial Revolution. This lineage, the “culture and society” tradition as it came to be known, stretches from Edmund Burke and William Cobbett through the Romantics, Carlyle, Ruskin and William Morris and on to D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot and George Orwell in the twentieth century. It developed an idea of culture that was set against the developing industrial society: its lofty goal was the building of a New Jerusalem from Britain’s dark satanic mills.
“The history of the idea of culture is a record of our reactions … to the changed conditions of our common life”, Williams writes, “The working out of culture is a slow reach again for control”. The again in that sentence is a giveaway to the deep and abiding romanticism in this vision of culture. Before the flattening effects of commerce, there was an organic society in which culture was a part of the social whole. After the moral catastrophes of the Industrial Revolution, though, culture became something that, by its very definition, was oppositional, set against the prevailing customs of the acquisitive society. Against the utilitarian Gradgrinds of capitalist enterprise was set this native and romantic tradition of culture.
Of course, Williams wasn’t just aiming to define a tradition. Culture and Society, and its sequel The Long Revolution, sought also to extend it. Culture, for Williams, is not just the great works of art but “a whole way of life”, one that must also include forms of working-class solidarity and political and social agency. As in the title of an essay of his published in the same year as Culture and Society, for Williams “culture is ordinary”. Culture is not just great works, it is also active and democratic, including the forms of working life that have been maligned or ignored by others — with “its emphases of neighbourhood, mutual obligation, and common betterment” via the labour movement.
To put Williams in the same bracket as Leavis may seem slightly unfair. Leavis’s “necessary attitude of absolute intransigence” on cultural matters, according to George Steiner, acquired its exemplary force due to its opposition to “a time of fantastic intellectual cheapness, of unctuous pseudo-culture and sheer indifference to values — [to] the century of the book club, the digest, and the hundred great ideas on instalment plan”. Williams himself sought to break these kinds of false equations, between “mass culture” and ugliness, between popular education and the debasing effect of commerce on the arts, and between the idiocy of much popular culture and the supposed idiocy of the common people. Yet still, the “three wishes” with which he ends “Culture is Ordinary” all fall within the terms of the Leavisite separation. These are: a recognition that “education is ordinary”, and that it should not be subsumed by mere vocational training or left to an elite; that the funding of the arts be extended “for its own sake”, not merely to grease the wheels of commerce; and, explicitly, that the forms and institutions of “mass culture” be removed from private ownership and the profit-making imperative. Here, popular culture is still maligned, if in now class-based and critical terms, and its influence on the working class still seen as a deadening one, all while a particular tradition of good culture is promoted — even if the aim is not now the pessimistic and elitist one of preserving access for a cultured few, but of promoting and encouraging it to all.
Of course, many of those involved in creating this democratic vision later became critical of it. In his long series of interviews with the editors of the New Left Review, published in 1979 under the title Politics and Letters, Williams said that while the aim of Culture and Society was “oppositional”, aiming “to counter the appropriation of a long line of thinking…[to] reactionary positions”, it was “not a book that I could conceive myself writing now.… It is a work most distinct from me”. Notably what was missing was a distinct idea of politics to complement this opposition cultural ideal.
If Jude Fawley and Leonard Bast were the cultural archetypes of the working class in the years before 1945, then the decades after were epitomised by the scholarship boy. The opening of formal educational possibilities in the post-war decades created new opportunities for the bright children of the working classes. Following university, many of them went on to jobs in the media, arts, teaching and lecturing, and their presence as cultural professionals helped to change the way that TV, literature, films and plays were both produced and consumed. Raymond Williams was one such beneficiary, being the son of a railwayman in the Welsh border town of Pandy who eventually gained access to his own Christminster after studying English at Cambridge on a scholarship. Richard Hoggart, another, wrote of the "uprooted and anxious" boy who after being admitted to the life of culture felt at home neither in the world from which he emerged nor in his new life at university. Others include the writer and dramatist Dennis Potter, filmmaker Ken Loach, novelists and playwrights David Storey, John Braine and John Osborn, and Tony Warren, the screenwriter and creator of the soap opera Coronation Street.
Such an explosion of creativity from those riding the wave of upward mobility lead to a literary culture typified by those “welfare-state Zolas”, as Andrew O’Hagan recently called them, of the kitchen-sink realists and the Angry Young Men. For all of the faults of this generation of writers (the treatment of women leaves much to be desired sixty years on, and race is a conspicuous blind spot) they did help to extend the breadth of British literature, showing working-class life and characters, as well as their own particular anxieties, often for the first time. Working-class figures had before then often been peripheral figures in works of literature, rarely having their own thoughts or feelings narrated, usually only when filtered through the actions and experiences of others. As O’Hagan writes, with the arrival of the 1950s generation, “soap suds and metal filings, factory whistles and wage packets were suddenly subjects”.
From Jude and Leonard, then, we move on to Ken Barlow, the long-running character from Coronation Street played by actor William Roache. In his very first scene on the show, broadcast in its very first episode, we see him, the sensitive young man with the dash of blonde hair swept across his high forehead, recently back from university where he’d been studying English Literature. Sat across from him at the dinner table is his father, the postman Frank Barlow. Already there is a newly acquired friction in their relationship as Ken faces a barrage about his snooty air. Frank chides his son about his embarrassed glances to the bottle of HP Sauce sat on the table and his mother’s slurping of tea at dinnertime. It’s as much Frank’s insecurities about being left behind and judged by his own son as it is Ken’s attitude that causes the clash, but the emotions are deeply felt. The scene is a brilliant evocation of Hoggart’s anxious scholarship boy who returns home only to find he no longer fits in with his conformist working-class parents, one who succeeded at the price of separation and now exists at “the friction-point of two cultures”.
While Hoggart’s 1950s scholarship boy is a conformist character, wanting only to fit in, by the 1960s, a new wave of radicalism had set in. What was to become the culture of the New Left that cohered around this time did so through the jazz and folk clubs of London, the Royal Court theatre, magazines like the New Reasoner and the Universities and Left Review and, later, the newspaper Black Dwarf and the countercultural sheet OZ, and organisations like the CND as well as the new Marxist and Trotskyist groups that sprung up to the left of Labour and the official Communist Party. Such a culture defined itself against both the high culture of the past as well as the new working-class culture. Jazz’s popularity was partly driven by its status as serious music that was not associated with the previously dominant understanding of high art musical forms. The Free Cinema movement around directors like Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz was similar — a new form of cultural expression not beholden to the strictures of the past.
But if such newly confident forms of alternative cultural expression were the high point of left-culturalism, they also heralded its supersession. When the barricades of “good”, serious culture and the elite that was attendant to it were pulled down, traditional notions of cultural authority fell into confusion. The years that followed are those of Pop Art and underground poetry, in which commerce and culture freely mixed in a new spirit of individual rebellion. Much of this move can be seen in the trajectory of the Beatles: four kids from the North who, moving from the folk-adjacent skiffle scene, rose to become the dominant cultural force of the 1960s, their combination of commercial drive and musical experimentation a harbinger of the culture to come.
There’s a video on YouTube of a discussion between the historian and writer C.L.R. James and the dub poets Mikey Smith and Linton Kwesi Johnson on their formative literary experiences. The clip, a snippet from the BBC arts programme Arena from the early 1980s, begins with James, the elder statesman of the left, rhapsodising about his love of the Romantic poets that blossomed during his early years in the Caribbean. “British poetry, English poetry”, he says “was one of the finest things in the world”.
None of this will surprise those familiar with his cricket book-cum-memoir-cum-study of the colonial Caribbean, Beyond a Boundary. In it, James recounts his almost obsessive childhood reading of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, a book he claims to have read repeatedly from the age of 8. From Thackeray his obsession with books only deepened, blossoming into an abiding love of the classics of English literature. On he went from Vanity Fair to “Dickens, George Eliot and the whole bunch of English novelists. Followed [by] the poets in Matthew Arnold's selections, Shelley, Keats and Byron; Milton and Spenser … Hazlitt, Lamb and Coleridge, Saintsbury and Gosse…”, and on and on and on he went. In short, his schooling, the obsessive extracurricular reading as much as his formal education, was the archetypical classical English education. James the ur-Englander, more English than the English, born and raised in the Caribbean.
James’ arrival in England from Trinidad came in March 1932, the ship docking at Plymouth harbour carrying with it the “British intellectual … going to Britain”. His formation had prepared him for a country that seemed to him, looking from afar, to have a universal access to its own cultural heritage. What he got was anything but. In place of the great centre of learning that had fired his imagination, James found a society riven with divisions as deep as those he’d left behind, a country where poverty abounded and many of its citizens were actively excluded from the life of the mind that members of the leisured elite took for granted. Britain in the interwar years was a country gripped by political and social turmoil. Just a few years before James arrived, the General Strike looked, momentarily, to be on the verge of toppling the government, even in spite of the best efforts of the many university students who merrily broke picket lines by operating the nation’s trains and trucks. And as James’s boat pulled into the harbour, the country was only just beginning to recover from the economic crisis of the great depression. In this febrile atmosphere, James found a deepened political commitment, and he was soon mixing his cricket reporting for the Manchester Guardian with political activism with the Independent Labour Party.
As Stuart Hall, another Caribbean immigrant to London, writes, “What I really knew about Britain turned out to be a bewildering farrago of reality and fantasy”. And such confusion was not only on the side of the newly arrived, there was an even more bewildering lack of understanding among the white British. In the 1930s James was invited to take part in a BBC radio discussion about life in the Caribbean, and he describes having to approach it as if visualising his “audience as people who had to be made to understand that West Indians were a Westernized people”, and not the racial minors of colonial propaganda. The shock of misrecognition cut both ways. In the video from the 1980s, James says that when he arrived and found people “who were not as committed to the English system as I was in literary matters, I began to lose my sense of what Wordsworth meant”.
For James, as he says in the clip, “made no distinction” when it came to culture. What he means here, presumably, is that he did not see any gulf or contradiction between the idea of an imposed English or colonial culture and his own. What Caribbean culture was to James was the same as the ideal form of English culture that he imagined for himself. The great works of literature were contextless, applicable to any situation, and their moral vision could just as easily appeal to a young boy in Tunapuna as a teenager in Cambridge. Here again we have that vision of early and mid-century high culture, a universal culture that would appeal to people of any background and whose moral force was part of everyone’s common heritage. James’s realisation, then, that not everyone shared this sense is one of the first shockwaves in what would be a thorough re-ordering of culture, a breakdown in this solid veneer, that occurred throughout the latter half of the twentieth century.
Slightly later in the video, Mikey Smith, who was born in the Caribbean some fifty years after James, says that not only did Wordsworth have no impact on him as a child, he actively disliked him. Smith, himself a celebrated poet and left-wing activist who just a year after the film aired was killed by political opponents from the right-wing Jamaica Labour Party, then jokingly pretends to not even be able to pronounce the names of these great poets properly: “Woodsrooth”, he says, “Shak-e-speer-ee”. James’s fury at this, and Smith and Johnson’s amusement, is a brilliant moment of TV, but there’s a more serious fault line that underlies it. James was an early arrival to the colonial motherland; Johnson and Smith came much later. If, as the novelist George Lamming said, Caribbean migrants became, paradoxically, only West Indians in London, then it should not surprise us that in the years that separated the arrival of James in Britain in the 1930s and much later arrival of Smith and Johnson, a profound cultural shift had occurred. By the 1970s and ‘80s, the cultural life of West Indian London was making itself felt, a process to which James, along with many other British-West Indian writers, activists and musicians, contributed much. While the supposedly universal high culture, as James learned in the 1930s, was not all that universal after all, it took a series of political and cultural shifts produced by the experiences of those once excluded — particularly those of migrants from Britain’s former colonies, as well as the renewed women’s movement, and the struggle of gay men and lesbians, and others — to break with it.
Linton Kwesi Johnson, the other interviewee on the video, was an equally pivotal figure during the 1980s. Today he is most famous for his poem “Inglan is a Bitch”, first published by the Race Today collective in 1980 and later recorded over a lilting reggae track backed by a rumbling, menacing baseline for his album Bass Culture. The poem, memorably broadcast acapella on the BBC’s flagship alternative music show The Old Grey Whistle Test, recounts the racism, shit jobs and petty injustices of life in Thatcher’s Britain for its former colonial subjects: “Inglan is a bitch”, Johnson says, “dere's no escapin it”.
There’s no escaping culture, either. By the 1980s, the fractures were beginning to appear. Partly, this was the result of pressure from below. The old hierarchies were beginning to crack under the weight applied by newly assertive grassroots political movements and minority associations. While these were the years of Margaret Thatcher’s dominance and her brutal war against organised labour, seen most obviously in the miners’ strike, it also saw the growth of new political and social movements and coalitions. Under Ken Livingston’s Greater London Council, grassroots cultural activity blossomed. One enduring example was the Centerprise bookshop and publishing project in Dalston. During the 1980s and 1990s Centerprise acted not only as a community hub for an area that seemed to be increasingly under siege, it also helped local groups find new forms of active cultural self-assertion and expression. As Rebecca O’Rourke, who was involved in Centerprise in the 1980s, said of the project:
“It was a cross-cultural space — the publishing and writing projects worked with mixed groupings of men and women, with people who were straight, lesbian, gay, and from a variety of races. Identity politics were strong when I joined the collective, and there were issues about race and sexuality which were sometimes very confrontational amongst staff”.
This great flourishing of alternative culture couldn’t last. Centerprise hung on in Dalston until 2012 when pressure from Hackney Council eventually forced it to close. This is, unfortunately, one of the downsides of such subcultural or countercultural politics: it’s not built to last. Its effects may linger, but they are fragile. Alan Sinfield ends his account of literature and culture, first published in the mid-1990s, with a clarion call for the power of subcultures. After the “collapse of cultural value” and the postmodern rejection of universals, the only hope seemed to lie in small and tightly focused groups and scenes. The late 1980s and early 1990s were the years of the free party scene, the new age travellers, the ravers and the anti-roads network. Its highpoint was the anti-poll tax movement that culminated in the riot in central London in 1990, eventually forcing a government U-turn. In culture, it saw a new generation of artists and writers emerge, many from far outside the circles of the old elite, and many of whom developed their practices while living on the dole. Art thrived, and shows like The Essential Black Art at the artist-run Chisenhale Gallery in 1988, that included work by Sonia Boyce, Eddie Chambers, Sutapa Biswas, Mona Hatoum, and Keith Piper have since become legendary. Others, not least the YBAs, ended up putting their faith in the market, with terrible results.
Thirty years on, and after the birth of a newly radicalised generation of young people following the financial crisis of 2008, Sinfield’s faith in such movements, both cultural and political, seems badly misplaced. Even when it was written he admitted to it being “in part a defensive strategy for bad times”. Now universalism is not the bad word it once was. Yet while this seems obvious, politically speaking, to a new generation of activists, culturally universalism is still anathema.
Postmodernism may have made much of its openness and anti-elitism, but it ended up merely creating new forms of exclusion. As the cultural historian Robert Hewison wrote in his study of Blairite cultural policy Cultural Capital, since 1997, “there has been growth in the size of the cultural sector and the importance of the economic role that it plays, but it may be that those whom the administrators of public funding for culture serve are principally themselves, since they have the cultural capital to occupy professional-executive positions, and are members of the class that is the principal beneficiary of publicly funded culture. It may not be that culture is being intentionally treated as a means of exclusion; indeed, it is the openness that it displays — aesthetically and formally promiscuous, socially anti-elitist — that is its most prominent characteristic. Yet this openness may not be as open as it appears”.
Culture may be for everyone, but clearly not everyone wants the kind of culture they are given.
The obvious criticism of this account of the rise and fall of a democratic culture is that it easily becomes just a new form of cultural pessimism — a reheated left-Leavisism, perhaps. It’s hard to argue with that. Yet, obviously, there is no going back to the 1960s. The conditions that made the democratic experiments in culture of those years possible — including a growing domestic economy that allowed for an amount of social mobility, strong labour movements and social safety nets, and free university education — are long gone. Blairism’s vision of a Cool Britannia was driven by a market-oriented managerialism that gives lie to the neat distinction between state=good, market=bad, even if under Blair state support of the arts increased. One need only think of the disaster of the Millennium Dome to know where that ended up. But the state and the market have never been neatly separated spheres, and it is idealist, to say the least, to think that “good” culture could ever be unsullied by market forces.
We should however learn from the impetus behind mid-century cultural democracy. What drove it was an ideal of inclusion that was not just about producing more of the same but was both democratic and oppositional. Such a vision is one that can and should inform our thinking once more. A new form of cultural representation that doesn’t give in to the facile liberal ideals of diversity and inclusion but is strongly informed by a class politics, that can see the fractures and divides in society and doesn’t try to imagine them away, that doesn’t hide from commitment and doesn’t fall into naive bourgeois solipsism, is — I believe — still possible. The contours are there, even if the conditions that would enable its creation are yet to be built. How we will do that remains to be seen, but we can make a start by affirming once more that, as Raymond Williams said, culture is ordinary.