Low Culture: Neoliberalism, Conservative Social Practice and the Universal Marginality of Everyday Life

This is the text version of my keynote paper I gave at the Culture and the Periphery conference at Gray’s School of Art, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen on 4th October 2019.

Screenshot from Jubilee, Derek Jarman, 1978 (Featuring Borgia Ginz.)

LOW CULTURE: NEOLIBERALISM, CONSERVATIVE SOCIAL PRACTICE AND THE UNIVERSAL MARGINALITY OF EVERYDAY LIFE

Marginality is today no longer limited to minority groups, but is rather massive and pervasive; this cultural activity of the nonproducers of culture, an activity that is unsigned, unreadable, and unsymbolized, remains the only one possible for all those who nevertheless buy and pay for the showy products through which a productivist economy articulates itself.  Marginality is becoming universal.  A marginal group has become the silent majority (De Certeau, 1984, p. xvii).

Social historian and philosopher Michel De Certeau’s suggestion in The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) that marginality is universal reflects the alienating conditions imposed on daily life by global capitalism.  Whilst the centre, or centrality, is dominant and all-encompassing, it is populated only by a small number of chosen inhabitants – those useful in the service of neoliberal expansionism and control – and it is likely that most of those people also feel in some ways marginalised.  Everyday life is becoming both hyper-marginalised and hyper-centralised, and we are what De Certeau termed, ‘the silent majority’.

The governing centrality utilises neoliberal policy and conservative social practices to pathologise and ‘other’ people of ‘low culture’, thereby creating ‘marginalised peripheries’ (Shield, 1991). And social capital theory reinforces this increasingly universal notion of marginality, using art to colonise ‘uncultured’ communities via cultural ‘engagement’ and ‘inclusion’ initiatives whilst continuing to oppress them.

Neoliberalism has become a globally hegemonic form of discourse that has permeated our ways of living and thinking to the extent that, for many people, it forms the basis of how they interpret and understand the world (Harvey, 2007, p. 23).  Citizens become consumers in a world redefined as a global marketplace (Monbiot, 2016).  The neoliberal state relies heavily upon economists and economic principles to maintain the authority of neoliberalism and to legitimise its actions via technocratic forms of governance based upon quantitative data, economic indicators and market pricing (Davies, 2014, pp. 4-7).[1]

State-led policy filters down to arts institutions and then on to artists and down to participants and audiences via funders such as Arts Council England, Creative Scotland, etc. as well as a raft of philanthropic foundations and charities.  Many projects seek to target low- or under-engaged people and communities who are deemed to be lacking in culture (and therefore social capital).[2]  These projects typically seek to ‘empower’ marginalised people and places through a mixture of socially engaged art, education and outreach.  Many such projects are in areas that are perhaps classified as in need of, or already undergoing, regeneration initiatives, and art has long been perceived as a primary tool for urban regeneration (Garcia, 2004; Yelinek, 2009).  Thus, artists and arts organisations are funnelled into working in places identified by government, with people categorised as in need by government, addressing problems defined by government, using approaches and outcomes prescribed by government.  Further, artists and arts organisations are often encouraged to work in partnership with other private, public and third sector bodies as part of the state’s drive towards forms of neoliberal governance at once more central and more local.[3]

A profoundly conservative vein runs through what economic geographer Jamie Peck described as ‘the creativity script’ – individualistic and market-driven – in which creativity becomes a cheap and cheerful means of reinforcing fierce competition, valorising a ‘superior’ creative class, and validating it via the market and ‘post-progressive urban policy’.  Creative strategies such as placemaking or community engagement can be easily added to ‘business-as-usual urban-development policies’, offering ‘ideological cover for market driven or state-assisted’ gentrification.  These types of toolkit-based approaches to ‘arts-led regeneration’ require only a nod to the grassroots and to local authenticity to become a portable form of ‘fast-policy distribution’ – the perfect ‘creativity fix’ (Peck, 2009 [2007], pp. 5-7).[4]

Many cultural policymakers and art funders and commissioners have effectively mirrored state and corporate agendas, utilising economic arguments and technocratic control.  In doing so, the creative industries become an important aspect of centrality: a permitted space where neoliberalism’s useful people (including some arts organisations and artists) can work, so long as they comply with state ideologies.  Those deemed surplus to requirements (such as people in need of social housing, immigrants, disabled people, unskilled workers, etc.) or non-compliant (dissident artists, political activists, etc.) are relegated to the peripheries – marginalised.

Yet margins are not just places and spaces of exclusion and oppression.  They can equally be ‘a position of power and critique’, exposing the ‘relativity of the entrenched, universalising values of the centre’ and ‘the relativism of cultural identities which imply their shadow figures of every characteristic they have denied, rendered “anomalous” or excluded’ (Shields, 1991, p. 277).  Art and the creative industries must therefore, as Esther Leslie argued, be included in the critique of the ‘capitalist industrial model as a whole’, underpinned by a questioning of ‘why “social inclusion” is necessary in the first place’ and ‘why class society both needs and doesn’t need art’ (2011, p. 190).  This critique should also address what Erich Fromm described as the ‘isolation and powerlessness’ that results when ‘the laws of the market are the rule’; when the ‘concrete relationship of one individual to another has lost its direct and human character’, assuming instead ‘a spirit of manipulation and instrumentality’ (1942 [1941], p. 102).[5]  Relationships between humans become the reified relationships of things and people (artists being an excellent example) sell themselves as commodities in an increasingly precarious free market.  Reification can be simply explained as ‘treating human relations as relations between things’ – an essential mechanism of capitalist society (Feenberg, 2014, pp. 62-6).  George Lukács described reification as the ‘rational systematisation of all statutes regulating life’ and leads to ‘a closed system applicable to all possible and imaginable cases’ (1971 [1922], p. 96).

Artist Mark Hutchinson distinguishes between ‘conservative social practice’ which accepts, reforms, modifies and extends ‘existing terms and conditions of the social sphere’, and ‘radical social practice’ which demands change.  Their methodologies and materials may be similar, but conservative forms tend towards the utility and pragmatism of accessibility and participation whereas radical forms are ‘divisive, antagonistic and concerned with [their] own actions’ (Hutchinson, 2015, p. 60).  Understanding the differences between conservative and radical forms of social practices is crucial to when analysing seemingly similar practices.  They emerge from radically different social and political positions and seek very different objectives.

It is therefore possible to argue that the dominant ideology of the centre has expanded its roots within establishment culture and, at the same time, through acts of appropriation and co-option which are often attached to financial incentives, expanded into new areas, (re)colonising the working class and other marginalised groups by attempting to ‘convert’ it to accept the dominant culture over their own ‘inferior’ culture. 

The cumulative effects of neoliberal centrality on the arts and artists, on people and communities, on places and spaces, and on the redistribution of power, serve to simultaneously draw people in to increasingly narrow public and corporate sector agendas whilst also casting out the ‘others’ – those in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing at the wrong time – to the margins, the peripheries.  For Rosalyn Deutsche, ‘[n]eutralizing concepts of diversity’ were often used to ‘defeat genuine diversity’, homogenising individuals as ‘The public’, and removing difference in the name of ‘social harmony’ to create excluded space in place of public space whilst public space (1988, p. 11). 

UK arts and cultural policy does not only pathologise people at the margins of society, however, it also uses social capital as a vehicle to ground social change in the discourse of neoliberal economics.  Social capital introduces economic discourse designed to ‘increase the amount of capital (either individual or collective) by augmenting the number of social capitalists’; reducing society to a form of individual capital accumulation and increases civil society in so doing (Navarro, 2004, pp. 672-3).[6]  Social capital becomes the enabler of neoliberalism – of the shrinking state.  It also tends to negate and depoliticise discourses around power and politics, thereby reproducing neoliberal ideology.[7]

Social capital offers low cost solutions for social issues and places social capitalists at the head of efforts to both reduce the size of the state and to refine traditional neoliberalism.  State-led arts institutions thereby form a vanguard of social capital interventionism: (relatively) cheap, often cheerful options that not only ‘engage’ (some) marginalised people but also produce aesthetically pleasing outcomes which in turn are used as ‘evidence’ of ‘inclusion’.  Outreach and engagement activities of arts institutions and even many ‘independent’ socially engaged art projects serve as creative mediators for the state (and sometimes corporate interests as well) and mobilisers for social capital policy expansion within marginalised communities.

The increasing valorisation of civic engagement embeds the principle of social capital within arts and community organisations as a universally positive output.  Social capital serves to distract from the economic and political processes which drive the civic engagement agenda, refocusing attention onto marginalised and excluded individuals rather than the causes of their marginalisation and exclusion; disadvantaged people become ‘agents’ of their own salvation – social capitalists ‘whose “belonging” is conditional on their mobilizing the only resources they have as a form of capital’:

[Social capital] programs implicitly make promises about the capacity of local networks to empower poor and marginalized groups and to transform the social relations that exclude them.  While the desired ‘mobilization from below’ rhetorically invokes the tradition of oppositional movements, it does so by redefining that tradition in a specific, restricted, formal way (Mayer, 2003, pp. 119-25)

Rob Shields:

The social definition of marginal places and spaces is intimately linked with the categorisation of objects, practices, ideas and modes of social interaction as belonging to the ‘Low culture’, the culture of marginal places and spaces, the culture of the marginalised (1991, pp. 4-5).

Cultural marginality arises from complicated processes involving both ‘social activity and cultural work’ from which high (central) and low (marginal) cultures form ‘binary oppositions’, whereas social marginality stems from the ‘categorisation of objects, practices, ideas and modes of social interaction as belonging to the “Low culture”, the culture of marginal places and spaces, the culture of the marginalised’.  Shields suggests this process of othering marginal, low cultures is at once scorned by centrally dominant power and yet part of its ‘imaginary and emotional repertoires’ (1991, pp. 4-5).  His concept of social spatialisation encompasses ‘the cultural logic of the spatial and its expression and elaboration in language and more concrete actions, constructions and institutional arrangements’ (Shields, 1991, p. 31).  Social spatialisations also create a ‘fundamental system of spatial divisions’ such as ‘subject-object’, ‘inclusion-exclusion’ and ‘civilised-natural’ (Shields, 1991, p. 46).  It can be argued that arts outreach and engagement programmes reproduce the process of othering described by Shields, as does creative placemaking and indeed some socially engaged art.

Lefebvre’s prediction of the total urbanization of society remains as pertinent today as when it was written (2003 [1970], p. 1).[8]  He asserted that new, technocratic forms of centrality favoured elites and intentionally excluded and displaced lower-class groups (Lefebvre, 1996 [1975], pp. 161-2).

The city has recently been physically and metaphorically reconstructed as a ‘positive socio-cultural category’ using superficial appropriations of past oppositional movements to encourage ‘bourgeois urbanism and gentrification’.  Rediscovered, the city now appropriates, monopolises and minimises difference, commodifying urban space and denying many people any right to the city whatsoever; marginal spaces are excluded, controlled and colonised.  Lefebvre’s critique of everyday life can therefore be read as a critique of the colonisation of urban space based upon the reintroduction of ‘colonial techniques of subjection and accumulation’ into urban centres from the colonial peripheries (Kipfer, et al., 2008b, pp. 293-4).  Indeed, for Lefebvre, the modern city was the ‘seat, instrument and centre of action’ for both neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism (1972, p. 131).  Colonisation exists wherever centres and peripheries exist; ‘wherever a dominated space is generated and mastered by a dominant space’ (Lefebvre, 1978, pp. 173-4).

It is essential to consider high and low culture in the UK today, and to update Lefebvre’s thinking by incorporating ‘explicitly anti-racist and feminist analyses of the relationship between urbanization and imperialism’.  It is also essential that Lefebvre’s theory is unified with ‘everyday life and political passion’ to avoid a form of politics shrouded in specialist and objectivist thought (Kipfer, et al., 2008b, pp. 298-300).  David Pinder asked three pertinent questions in relation to ‘moments of presence within everyday life’:

How can projects provide openings to different spaces and ways of living?  How can they enable ambitions of social and spatial transformation?  Must they be compromised by working with processes of capital accumulation and state power, complicity on the one hand, and the “merely” utopian and impossible on the other? (2015 [2013], pp. 36-41).

These are important questions.

Lefebvre’s theories are particularly relevant at times of systemic crises, like those enveloping the world today, when ‘the lines between what is “impossible”, “possible” and “realistic” are being struggled over and redrawn’ all over the globe, and when ‘Demanding the impossible’ is an urgent necessity.

We must begin by understanding that any attempt to differentiate high culture and low culture - to valorise the first at the expense of the latter – is to perpetuate class oppression, thereby reinforcing the universal marginality of everyday life.

References

Davies, W., 2014. The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition. London: SAGE Publications.

De Certeau, M., 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Deutsche, R., 1988. Uneven Development: Public Art in New York City. October, 47(Winter, 1988), pp. 3-52.

Feenberg, A., 2014. The Philosophy of Praxis: Marx, Lukács and The Frankfurt School. Revised ed. London and New York: Verso.

Fromm, E., 1942 [1941]. Fear of Freedom. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Garcia, B., 2004. Urban Regeneration, Arts Programming and Major Events: Glasgow 1990, Sydney 2000 and Barcelona 2004. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 10(1), pp. 103-118.

Harvey, D., 2007. Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 610(1), pp. 21-44.

Hutchinson, M., 2015. Everybody lies: The ethics of social practice. Art and the Public Sphere, 4(1 & 2), pp. 53-62.

Kipfer, S., Goonewardena, K., Schmid, C. & Milgrom, R., 2008b. Globalizing Lefebvre?. In: S. Kipfer, K. Goonewardena, C. Schmid & R. Milgrom, eds. Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre. New York and Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 285-305.

Lefebvre, H., 1972. La pensée marxiste et la ville. Paris: Casterman.

Lefebvre, H., 1978. De l'État, Volume IV. Paris: Union Générale d'Editions.

Lefebvre, H., 1996 [1968]. The Right to the City. In: E. Kofman & E. Lebas, eds. Writings on Cities. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lefebvre, H., 1996 [1975]. Perspective or Prospective?. In: E. Kofman & E. Lebas, eds. Writings on Cities. Oxford and Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, pp. 160-174.

Lefebvre, H., 2003 [1970]. The Urban Revolution. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Leslie, E., 2011. Add Value to Contents: The Valorization of Culture Today. In: G. Raunig, G. Ray & U. Wuggenig, eds. Critique of Creativity: Precarity, Subjectivity and Resistance in the ‘Creative Industries’. London: MayFlyBooks, pp. 183-190.

Lukács, G., 1971 [1922]. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. London: The Merlin Press.

Mayer, M., 2003. The Onward Sweep of Social Capital: Causes and Consequences for Understanding Cities, Communities and Urban Movements. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27(1), pp. 110-132.

Monbiot, G., 2016. Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot
[Accessed 5th March 2018].

Navarro, V., 2004. Is capital the solution or the problem?. International Journal of Epidemiology, 33(4), pp. 672-674.

Peck, J., 2009 [2007]. The Creativity Fix. Variant, Spring, Volume 34, pp. 5-9.

Pinder, D., 2015 [2013]. Reconstituting the Possible: Lefebvre, Utopia and the Urban Question. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 39(1), pp. 28-45.

Shields, R., 1991. Places on the Margin: Alternative geographies of modernity. London and New York: Routledge.

Yelinek, A., 2009. Culture as a Tool for Urban Regeneration, Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

 

 


[1] William Davies described neoliberalism as ‘the pursuit of the disenchantment of politics by economics’ (2014, p. 4).

[2] Several state-initiated cultural engagement projects are investigated in later chapters, particularly the Creative People and Places programme.  Other notable UK projects include the Calouste Gulbenkian-led Inquiry into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations, the AHRC Cultural Value Project and Towards cultural democracy: Promoting cultural capabilities for everyone – a report resulting from a fifteen-month enquiry by Kings College London.

[3] The issue of artists and arts organisations becoming involved in public-private-third sector partnerships is examined in later chapters.

[4] For Peck, creative cities policies were ‘being stamped out cookie-cutter style across the urban landscape, spanning a quite remarkable range of settings having become policies of choice, in particular, for those left-leaning mayors who have learned to live with, if not love, the market order.  Nominally bespoke creativity strategies can be purchased from consultants in practically any mid-sized city these days, or they can be lifted off the shelf from countless websites and urban regeneration conferences’ (2009 [2007], p. 7).

[5] It is interesting to note that Fromm was talking about the instrumentality of market economics as early as 1941.

[6] For Navarro, ‘capital might be physical, monetary, human, or social, but it is capital nevertheless’ (2004, p. 673).

[7] Navarro quipped that ‘The US state with the highest social capital is thus seen as the one with the smallest public sector’ (2004, p. 673).

[8] In The Urban Revolution (2003 [1970]) Lefebvre hypothesised that Western societies had already been totally urbanised (whether city or elsewhere) to the extent that the urban represented an entire way of being, thinking and doing that was quickly becoming a totalising global phenomenon.