Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

On civilisation and culture

Terry Eagleton has a long and thought provoking article on civilisation and culture in today's Guardian.

The political currents that topped the global agenda in the late 20th century - revolutionary nationalism, feminism and ethnic struggle - place culture at their heart. Language, identity and forms of life are the terms in which political demands are shaped and voiced. In this sense, culture has become part of the problem rather than the solution, as it was for Matthew Arnold and FR Leavis. In traditional forms of political conflict, working people have proved most inspired when what was at stake was not just a living wage but (like the mining communities) the defence of a way of life. The political demand our rulers find hardest to beat is one that is cultural and material.

Ever since the early 19th century, culture or civilisation has been the opposite of barbarism. Behind this opposition lay a kind of narrative: first you had barbarism, then civilisation was dredged out of its murky depths. Radical thinkers, by contrast, have always seen barbarism and civilisation as synchronous. This is what the German Marxist Walter Benjamin had in mind when he declared that "every document of civilisation is at the same time a record of barbarism". For every cathedral, a pit of bones; for every work of art, the mass labour that granted the artist the resources to create it. Civilisation needs to be wrested from nature by violence, but the violence lives on in the coercion used to protect civilisation - a coercion known among other things as the political state.

These days the conflict between civilisation and barbarism has taken an ominous turn. We face a conflict between civilisation and culture, which used to be on the same side. Civilisation means rational reflection, material wellbeing, individual autonomy and ironic self-doubt; culture means a form of life that is customary, collective, passionate, spontaneous, unreflective and arational. It is no surprise, then, to find that we have civilisation whereas they have culture. Culture is the new barbarism. The contrast between west and east is being mapped on a new axis.

The problem is that civilisation needs culture even if it feels superior to it. Its own political authority will not operate unless it can bed itself down in a specific way of life. Men and women do not easily submit to a power that does not weave itself into the texture of their daily existence - one reason why culture remains so politically vital. Civilisation cannot get on with culture, and it cannot get on without it.

Eagleton's points certainly cast light on the activities of Margaret Hodge, Britain's Culture Secretary, who is busy trying to get everyone to submit to the power of New Labour's Corporate State though the cultural medium of 'Britishness'. As Hodge puts it,

'I know that across the political spectrum there are powerful advocates for the creation of a renewed and re-invigorated sense of Britishness.

No - the people who want a 'renewed and re-invigorated sense of Britishness' do not come from 'across the political spectrum' - they come from the Right wing of British politics - the Tories, the BNP, the Lib Dems and of course New Labour.

Actually it’s not that new. Enabling people and communities to form positive personal and common identities across the traditional boundaries of class or faith has always been central to progressive thought.

Has it? Why then did the Labour Party when it was set up call itself 'the Labour Party' rather than 'the British Party' if it wanted to form an identity 'across the traditional boundaries of class'?

But we know that simply talking about the concept of values that may embody Britishness on its own, means nothing to the good burghers of Barking. Those values need to be lived out in ways that mean something for real people in real places.'

And how are the philistines in New Labour going to make 'Britishness' real to the good burghers of Barking? Ah yes, set up Armed Forces Day - a really original idea.

Still, there are some dissidents - . Quoted on the BBC website was one Albert Beale, of the pacifist Peace Pledge Union, who said he disagreed with the concept of an Armed Forces Day. "The idea that we celebrate the fact that people go around killing one another is just an anathema to me," he said. Welcome to 'culture' and 'civilisation' under capitalism, Albert.

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