frontline 14

Cultural Kapital

Gerry McGarvey reviews Beyond Social Inclusion : Towards Cultural Democracy a pamphlet from the Cultural Policy Collective, 2004, Cost: £2.00

“Whose Culture is it Anyway?” was the question posed for debate by the Edinburgh People’s Festival at one of the EPF’s events in Wester Hailes last Summer. The venue for this event was planned intentionally; to bring “the great and the good” out of the goldfish bowl that is Edinburgh City Centre during the Festival Season of August, and to one of the places the host of cultural events taking place in the city never reach.

That debate provoked passionate discussion of Edinburgh’s Annual August Jamboree but reflected little on the cultural desert that is the remaining eleven months of the year.

However, there is no such stalemate with the work of the Cultural Policy Collective, a group of cultural and arts workers who have recognised that there are serious flaws in the rhetoric of New Labour’s policy of Social Inclusion. Whilst the words surrounding social inclusion superficially appear benign and harmless, cultural and arts workers began to question the validity of social inclusion policy in the arts, and the political agenda promoting this policy.

Beyond Social Inclusion : Towards Cultural Democracy is the fruit of the reflections of those cultural and arts workers who began asking themselves ‘inclusion into what, and to what end?’

These were hard questions that were being asked, and inevitably, the reflections of these practitioners are challenging to those driving the current Social Inclusion Policy, as they require the “social includers” to follow-through and either acknowledge their empty rhetoric, or put into practice the ideas promoted in this pamphlet.

The Collective manages to avoid being dismissed out of hand by presenting a comprehensive guide to the history and discourse of Social Exclusion from its apparently sensitive understanding of poverty and the causes of poverty during the 1980’s, and subsequent corruption both in these islands and mainland Europe by neo-liberals.

However, it is when the writers reflect on their own industry that the pamphlet comes into its own and the criticism of Social Inclusion and the Arts is spoken with more than an air of authority.

Having exposed the cynical manipulation of culture; “…Under New labour the usefulness of culture has been made explicit, aimed at expanding the contribution of the ‘creative industries’ to the economy - estimated at £112.5 billion in 2001 - and supposedly fostering a general well-being, not least amongst the poor…”, and again, quoting an anonymous Blairite theorist “…culture handily displaces politics altogether: ‘governing by cultures’ is ‘now the centre of the agenda for government reform…the most important determinant of a combination of long-run economic successes and social cohesion…’” one finds it difficult to argue with the Collective’s conclusion that “Despite the fervour of those who champion it, social inclusion in the arts - and the wider political inclusion policy that sustains it - will contribute nothing to the struggle for a truly human culture.”

The pamphlet excels itself in its analysis of the management of culture in Britain over the last fifty years, as it looks back on the lost opportunities that could have contributed towards the democratisation of culture in Britain. However, rather than wallow in the cultural misery inflicted by generations of paternalistic policies by various post-war governments promoting the top-down character of cultural provision, namely the ‘democratising’ of high culture, the Collective’s reflections lead towards a vital and dynamic response.

The writers are imaginative in their proposal of a different policy, one that truly strives towards a real and meaningful cultural democracy and calls the “social includers” to account.

Taking much of their inspiration from the writings and practice of Paulo Friere, the Collective present the case for the need for a new philosophy of understanding and promoting cultural policy. This would be an understanding and philosophy that incorporates the aspirations rather than acting on behalf of people in order to allow their culture to flourish and become their own. In other words, socially including them at all stages and thus, in the process, becoming truly democratic.

Such radicalism might be quickly dismissed as idealistic were it not for the fact that the Cultural Policy Collective appear to anticipate this by addressing specific potential sites and cultural practices for such a process to begin to take place. The pamphlet offers insight as to how new management structures, employment procedures and the like would need to be implemented, as well as how there lies an immense untapped potential in already existing public sector institutions such as libraries, if the services were to be reconfigured as multi-purpose cultural services.

This pamphlet doesn’t shy away from the issues involved. It is unforgiving in its analysis of the causes of the current crisis in the arts, but it is positive in seeking a way through this maze and as a result is a valuable contribution to the ongoing Culture Debate. It provides a valuable resource to everyone seeking a theoretical framework for their work and a vision of a way forward for the arts and culture.

The question “Whose Culture is it Anyway?” will be posed again at this year’s Edinburgh People’s Festival in August, as it will be by many in other settings. This pamphlet can help provide some answers.

Edinburgh People’s Festival in various venues throughout Edinburgh from 7 -14 August.

Visit for details.

The Cultural Policy Collective website is here.