View from
The Left

On Cultural Poverty

(Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Similarly, we should understand the notion of greater cultural wealth in connection with greater cultural equality.”

Reporting on the result of the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial, the BBC tells us thatPolls suggested many Americans were more interested in the legal drama than the war in Ukraine or a potentially historic ruling on abortion expected any day from the US Supreme Court.” What is the significance of this reality? One conclusion is that swathes of the American public are suffering from cultural poverty.

I began to think about the idea of cultural poverty after completing my new monograph on common culture, which is titled On a Common Culture. (1) (This piece, which appeared on my publisher’s blog, distills the essence of the book.) I do not use the phrase “cultural poverty” in the book, but it is implied in the argumentation. It is a provocative idea for reasons I will explain, but I think it would be a useful addition to our critical vocabulary. One can see how it is useful at times like these when, at the expense of other interests, a bizarre court case captures the hearts and minds of the public. I will try to define cultural poverty and explain how it sits at the center of a particular version of the so-called “cultural turn.”

1984 and Cultural Poverty

In my book, I use George Orwell’s 1949 book Nineteen Eighty-Four as a parable about the role played by culture in the lives of the poor. To begin with, we need to remind ourselves of the activities of the Ministry, where Winston Smith is compelled to make his contribution to the regime of Airstrip One: the Ministry of Truth. When we think of the Ministry, we think of the falsification of history, but rewriting history is not actually the main activity of the Ministry of Truth. Winston works at the “Records Department”; however, the Ministry also produces culture. Of special interest is the culture it produces for the proletariat or proles, handled by the departments of fiction, television programs and pornography (in Newspeak, Ficdep, Tele-dep and Pornosec respectively):

“…the Records Department, after all, was itself only a single branch of the Ministry of Truth, whose primary job was not to reconstruct the past but to supply the citizens of Oceania with newspapers, films, textbooks, telescreen programmes, plays, novels—with every conceivable kind of information, instruction, or entertainment, from a statue to a slogan, from a lyric poem to a biological treatise, and from a child’s spelling-book to a Newspeak dictionary. And the Ministry had not only to supply the multifarious needs of the party, but also to repeat the whole operation at a lower level for the benefit of the proletariat. There was a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama, and entertainment generally. Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator. There was even a whole sub-section—Pornosec, it was called in Newspeak—engaged in producing the lowest kind of pornography, which was sent out in sealed packets and which no Party member, other than those who worked on it, was permitted to look at.”

Of course, Orwell’s point is that the Ministry produces only pseudo-culture or anti-culture for the proletariat, which results in their being affected by cultural poverty.

In a 2000 Guardian piece he wrote to mark the launch of Big Brother on British television, Orwell biographer Bernard Crick states that 1984 is “savage, Swiftian satire.” By means of this exaggerated picture, Orwell helps us to understand the actual cultural situation of large numbers of people in his times but also later periods such as our own. Needless to say, cultural life in the 21st century is not as debased as it is in Orwell’s novel; however, his dystopia captures something of cultural lives in the 21st century. Many of us are consigned to cultural poverty on account of the steady supply of pseudo-culture presented to us as the genuine article.

What I am outlining is relevant in the whole of the English-speaking world (in Orwell’s “Oceania”), but we might proceed by turning to cultural lives in “Airstrip One” itself. The researchers behind “The Great British Class Survey,” who share their results in Social Class in the 21st Century, identified what they found to be the characteristics of the cultural life of the less well-off. The picture of the cultural lives of this group should be a cause for concern. Above all, it is a story of abstention from culture: abstention from everything from world music and jazz, to eating out, Indian food, or even going for a walk. The researchers recast such cultural lives as ones characterized by an aversion to public activities, but we are correct to be concerned about what we learn (even if that means we read against the grain of the research). Compared with others in society, those with less income and education are also experiencing cultural poverty.

The Cultural Turn

I will turn to solutions for cultural poverty in a moment, but first we need to understand how this kind of poverty can lead to other types. Discernible in Orwell’s classic is an example of what academics call the cultural turn.

We often hear of how culture is upstream to other factors such as economic capital, political enfranchisement, and so on. For some, it is a matter of putting the cart before the horse, but for its defenders, the turn is a significant breakthrough, the moment when we finally start to take culture seriously and understand how politics and economics can be catalyzed by culture. There are obviously limits to the extent to which culture can catalyze change independently (and I will touch upon this at the very end of this piece), but we may justifiably conclude that culture possesses significant power for change. Writers of different persuasions have offered different accounts of the turn. Many proponents are Marxists. Examples range from Antonio Gramsci to members of the Frankfurt School to Pierre Bourdieu, but not every exponent is a Marxist. It is now commonplace to point out that the political right has caught up with the Left with respect to the importance of culture. Commentators on the Right now speak of “institutional capture” (successfully executed by the Left) and are busying themselves with strategies for winning institutions back. Previously, figures like the Marxist thinkers just mentioned came to mind when we spoke of the turn; today, one might just as readily associate it with Steve Bannon.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the cultural life in question is not random or haphazard: It is an integral part of how the status quo is perpetuated. Crick neatly sums up the point: “Orwell was deadly serious,” he observes, “in arguing that capitalism, faced with a largely literate and free electorate, could only by means of cultural debasement maintain a class system so grossly unequal and inequitable.”

Cultural Wealth and Beyond

But, of course, turn this around, and we have a blueprint for something utopian based upon the logic of the cultural turn: Increase the cultural wealth of the less well-off and that class may be able to expand its share of other social goods, be they political, economic, or some other kind of capital.

Greater cultural wealth for the less well-off. What would that entail?

First of all, I think we need to reframe the question somewhat. Much of the time, our discussions about improving the material circumstances of the underprivileged circle around the idea of equality. By and large, when speaking of the economic capital of the less well-off and the possibility of their having more wealth, the larger context is equality. Similarly, we should understand the notion of greater cultural wealth in connection with greater cultural equality. So, the question should actually be: “How do we bring about greater cultural equality?”

Old-fashioned thinking can only produce unhelpful answers to this question. A hidebound approach would suggest that, somehow, the poor should renounce popular culture and develop a taste for the culture of the better off: They should adopt highbrow taste. Only in this way might equality be achieved.

But wealth and, therefore, inequality in the culture domain mean something different today. No doubt in the past the culture of the well-off was high culture and nothing but high culture, but this is no longer true. Personal experience confirms what academics in this field, beginning with Richard Peterson, have concluded about taste: For decades now, the dominant taste of the more powerful groups in American society (and beyond) has been “omnivore taste.” This means that the privileged do not limit their cultural lives to high culture; the highbrow appreciation of popular culture (which we might date from the middle of the 20th century or even earlier) has resulted in the well-heeled developing taste for a combination of high and low in their cultural diet. (The taste of the less well-off has changed less, though it is sometimes construed not as lowbrow or commercial but “univore.”) Academic work has added all manner of nuance to this line of thinking, but the central observation has stuck: Dominant taste is omnivore taste.

Against this backdrop, the idea of greater cultural wealth for the poorer groups becomes more coherent and appealing. It is a matter of bringing about a situation in which, while holding onto much of the popular and/or mass culture they already enjoy, the less well-off combine that kind of culture with strata of culture which speak to an aspirational attitude to culture. Bring that about, and the tastes of advantaged and disadvantaged would start to coalesce. We often speak of the commonweal in relation to economic circumstances. Here we could justifiably speak of it in relation to culture. In such circumstances, the cultural commonweal would be secured.

But how can the less well-off possibly enjoy even a modest amount of high culture, a skeptic might justifiably ask? Of course, in some respects, certain strata of high culture are a bit like the preserve of an elite. But we would do well to be careful about underestimating the capabilities of those who have less educational and cultural capital than others. As Michael Gerson, a speechwriter of President George W. Bush’s, put it, we should be careful not to promulgate the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

If that is too pious for one to fathom, another idea, emerging from cultural studies, is of relevance. It may well be that a person can proceed to some highbrow material by means of training that he acquires through popular and/or mass culture. The academic Richard Hoggart championed the idea of the “escalator” capacity of culture. This involves a rejection of the cultural mores of our time. The cultural climate of today is one which Hoggart associates with the carousel. Summing up the truisms of what he calls “mass society,” Hoggart suggests that it is asked of us that we accept “…that people cannot be mistaken, whatever they continue to accept, and that they should remain happily on…the carousel – no hint of any “onward and upward” progress in taste, from Pavarotti’s selected arias to the whole of Turandot, only an endlessly level and circular ride…”

While acknowledging the fact that society primes only some for the escalator, he vaunts the importance of the escalator for all.

Objection and Response

To round things off, we might rehearse what I take to be the dominant putative solution to the issues raised in this commentary before offering a perspective on why that solution is sub-optimal. A great many scholars have a pronounced interest in a quick-fix cure for cultural inequality. What is proposed is a kind of revolution in how we evaluate cultural preference. The principal change ushered in by this revolution involves our abandoning value judgements about the enjoyment of levels of culture. Such judgements represent “symbolic violence” and should be avoided at all costs. (The idea of ‘cultural poverty’ is probably extreme (symbolic) violence in this context.) The result of this simple gesture might prove significant. Through the simple abolition of value judgements about cultural consumption we might abolish cultural inequality. No common culture is required. The disestablishment of value judgements is also a portent of further change in Marxist academic circles influenced by Bourdieu. Here, conjoined to the injunction that we abandon value judgements to bring in cultural equality is a sense of the towering significance of cultural inequality.

Many of today’s commentators are of the view that the tackling of inequality in the culture domain may well be of full revolutionary significance. Such commentators work against the backdrop of the kind of thinking which argues that we must be cognizant of different types of capital if we are to understand and challenge power. Power is a matter of the simultaneous holding of different, interconnected types of capital, of which cultural capital is of great importance. Because power depends on the possession of different types of connected capital, beginning to undo cultural inequality may be of revolutionary significance.

Various commentators have pointed out that such a development is also populist in a number of respects. In the first place, it is suggestive of cultural populism. Populism means giving the public what it wants. Bad political populism refers to selling the public a bill of goods and “giving them what they want” in that context. Cultural populism parallels bad political populism, one might argue; bad political populism tries to convince us that a program bereft of real policies amounts to a panacea, and cultural populism aims to persuade us that consumption bereft of “Culture” represents meaningful cultural participation.

The development in question is also undoubtedly suggestive of a larger populist development involving the putative “democratic” superiority of the market compared with high politics. Following on from the work of Robert W. McChesney, commentator Thomas Frank has called this phenomenon “market populism.” As Frank explains, this type of populism not only exposes culture to market forces, it also advances the idea that the market sector is superior to political democracy in terms of democratic representation. Looking back to the dawn of this phenomenon, Frank fleshes out its assumptions:

“Markets expressed the popular will more articulately and more meaningfully than did mere elections. Markets conferred democratic legitimacy; markets were a friend of the little guy; markets brought down the pompous and the snooty; markets gave us what we wanted; markets looked out for our interests.”

Conclusion

A culture in which the tastes of people of different social classes began to converge would be a common culture. Of course, a number of factors stand in the way of the development of such a culture. Earlier, I emphasized the idea that, on one level, culture is upstream to economic circumstances. We must also concede, of course, that, in certain respects, the opposite is true. But in order to get rid of cultural poverty by making things more equal, we also need the intellectual framework for such a development. (My own study of common culture represents a modest contribution to a possible evolution of such a framework.).

Brian Russell Graham is an academic and author. His new monograph, On A Common Culture: The Idea of a Shared National Culture was published in February, 2022 by Zer0 Books. 

Endnote

  1. Strictly speaking, when developing the concept of common culture, it is not, in the first instance, a matter of finding a solution to the problem of cultural poverty or the cultural populism which produces it but, rather, a solution to the unhappy arrangement in which different classes enjoy different cultures. But in the process of developing the concept, it is necessary to explain why it is foolhardy to think that a common culture could be provided by cultural populism, and that consideration leads to the idea of cultural poverty.

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