Blog post

Resources of Hope: Cultural Democracy and The World Transformed

Nick Mahony introduces the Movement for Cultural Democracy, a test bed for new thinking and collective action. The movement, which seeks to change social, economic and cultural conditions through radical and transformative cultural programmes, is hosting a number of events at this year's The World Transformed in Liverpool.

Nick Mahony20 September 2018

Resources of Hope: Cultural Democracy and The World Transformed

‘A strong democracy is an inclusive democracy. It’s a society where no-one is invisible and every voice is heard. Culture can be the preserve of the privileged few or, instead, it can be the building block that strengthens our democracy, celebrated as a basic human right, helping to create a world where all people are free to enjoy the benefits of self-expression, access to resources and community. Our goal is to ensure that in our time it is the latter that prevails and that this transformative value, of culture for all, by all, comes to permeate all corners of our social lives and political institutions’

- Movement for Cultural Democracy Manifesto

The Movement for Cultural Democracy emerged 12 months ago from a series of lively and over-subscribed participatory sessions at The World Transformed Festival (TWT) in Brighton. Its impetus is the crisis of neoliberal culture, democracy and politics and the waves of social movement activism, participatory politics and new left thinking that has risen up in recent years in response to austerity, authoritarianism and the pervasive hierarchies that work to exclude the most marginalised.

Public funding for culture – even if culture is viewed in the most orthodox of ways – is more skewed now than ever in favour of forms produced by and for the few; our cultural institutions are still not sufficiently accountable which means the boundaries between high culture and more everyday and grassroots practices remain as invulnerable as ever.

This new initiative therefore aims to build on a several decades long history of work on the theme of cultural democracy. It speaks to a diverse and long-running set of debates about the arts but also, on the new left and in other domains, about the relationship between culture, politics and democracy more broadly. Cultural democracy not only has direct connections to conversations in the arts but to the cultural studies tradition, to post-colonial literatures, to critical pedagogy, media studies, art history and the community arts movement. The 1986 publication of Culture and Democracy: The Manifesto by Owen Kelly (et al) remains a touch-stone in the development of a radical strand in these debates. It has been followed by many other initiatives, including The Social Policy Collective’s 2004 project that resulted in Beyond Social Inclusion: Towards Cultural Democracy and, most recently, the 2017 edited collection Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art: The British Community Arts Movement.

Looking to build on this work and the activities initiated at TWT last year the Movement for Cultural Democracy is hosting four participatory sessions as part of TWT in Liverpool next week to help take some of these debates and forms of activism further. The aims this time are to elaborate the new manifesto for cultural democracy and build the alliances needed to realise cultural democracy in our times.

In Brighton last year TWT attracted around 5000 people and is now regarded as one of the most energetic and well-attended events on the European left’s calendar. It’s a place where space is opened up to discuss different dimensions of the contemporary conjuncture, it’s a place where music events as well as new left projects are organised and it’s a place of political education, where new ideas, alliances and solidarities can be forged. TWT is expected to double in size this year and be attended by around 10,000 people with over 300 speakers on the programme.

My own involvement in what has become the Movement for Cultural Democracy began via conversations with the writer, filmmaker and activist Ashish Ghadiali in early Summer 2017. Like others, Ash and I recognised that Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party could provide the impetus for new work to address the relationship between contemporary culture, politics and democracy in the UK.

In this context we saw the need for a collective process that could bring some of the many different forms of radical cultural activism, from the past and present, into a collective conversation about the future, focused around the theme of cultural democracy. My own background is in supporting and researching participatory forms of practice and public action. And my interest is in the cultural formation and configuration of participatory processes and how the calibration of participatory public processes can reproduce, help disrupt, or otherwise impact on dominant cultures, forms of democracy and pre-existing relations of power.

TWT has a political culture of its own and it’s one that is connected to the contemporary culture of the Labour Party. But TWT’s culture has also emerged in a dynamic relation with a range of other, more grassroots, cultures of politics and practice beyond Labour. When planning our own TWT sessions we therefore needed to reflect on what kinds of participatory cultures we wanted to support and how. In Brighton, we invited different generations of artists and community artists (Peter Kennard and Cat Phillips, Loraine Leeson, and Barney Francis) to speak alongside cultural activists (Hassan Mahamdallie, Nabil Shaban, and Lois Stonock), politicians (Tracy Brabin MP) and experienced left political commentators (Hilary Wainwright) with the purpose of helping create a space where conversations could move beyond the limits of culture, politics and democracy as enacted by the contemporary ‘culture industries’ and mainstream ‘cultural policy’ discourse.

Over 150 participants attended and they were invited to generate proposals for a radical cultural programme. Together they came up with ideas including a transaction tax on the art market, joining the campaign for a universal basic income, democratising the Arts Council, reclaiming our local community spaces, decolonising our cultural institutions, improving lifelong cultural learning and campaigning to secure better rights for workers in the cultural sector, as well as many more. A workshop took place following the main participatory session to further discuss, sift and identify patterns amongst all of these ideas. This material then formed the basis of the draft ‘Manifesto for Cultural Democracy’ which was drawn up by a collective of some of those most closely involved. Once ready, the manifesto was sent to everyone who participated and was published in a special issue of Red Pepper in February 2018.

Since TWT in Brighton last year, our membership has expanded and the Movement for Cultural Democracy website and Twitter channel help promote our work. With the help of seed-funding from the Raymond Williams Foundation and another charitable foundation, the Movement has supported a series of smaller-scale participatory ‘conversations’ in the lead up to this year’s TWT. Six groups have begun to form, each growing out of distinct, though inter-related, contexts of thinking and practice. They are now in different stages of development and the four sessions the Movement for Cultural Democracy is organizing this year will provide a platform for some of these diverse and intersecting strands of activity.

The first of our TWT sessions in Liverpool is on Regenerating Regeneration led by the writer, researcher and organiser Stephen Pritchard. Stephen’s work critically engages with how the cultural sector is currently entangled in forms of neoliberal gentrification and he is actively supporting alternatives. Therefore, his TWT session provides a platform for a wider group of people to discuss these issues, in relation to their own experiences. Our second session is titled Beyond Cultural Precarity and is led by Clara Paillard (president of the Culture Group of the PCS Union) and Peter Stark (a cultural policy specialist). The session will address how to (re)fund and democratise our cultures so our resources are more equitably distributed and cultural workers are more fairly-paid and recognised for their work. Our third session At the Intersection of Class and Gender is organised by Rhiannon White who is the co-founder of Common Wealth, a theatre company which collaborates with working-class communities to produce pioneering new work around the country.

Finally, our fourth TWT sessionwill bring people from the first three sessions together to report back. Moussa Amine Sylla, who is based at The Selby Centre in Tottenham, will provide an update on the connections he is forging between community organising and the idea of radical cultural democracy, something he’s exploring in collaboration with Acorn activists and community organisers in Newcastle. Sophie Hope, who works on the politics of socially engaged art at Birkbeck, will also update the session on the collective she’s forming to look more closely at the histories of cultural democracy. Frances Northrop of the New Economics Foundation and the writer and activist Tej Adeleye will then reflect on their own connections to this project and work to bring the discussions together by helping identify points of connection and gaps in the conversation. This will lead into some collective consideration of how our pre-existing draft ‘manifesto’ needs to be updated and developed further and what steps are required to move the project forward.

Like TWT, the Movement for Cultural Democracy is situated on the political, cultural and democratic left. This new Movement isn’t a Labour Party project (at least yet) as the Party hasn’t yet provided formal support or funding. Those who are involved are therefore a loose collective of independently minded and practice-oriented people with diverse affiliations and alignments; some are Labour Party members, some aren’t. We recognize the urgent need for a radical left government as without one it will be much more difficult to alleviate the harsh social, economic and cultural conditions which currently stymie the emergence of radical cultural democracy. We want our new movement to influence any future left government with an agenda for radical change. We nevertheless also see an urgent need to build stronger alliances, beyond Labour, in the present, to help campaign for radical cultural democracy in our pre-existing institutions, networks and communities.

There is so much we can learn from what is already happening and from how people are currently organising. This is also why we are so wedded to a participatory process. It’s essential to support as open a space as possible, so conversations across different contexts can take place and stronger bonds of trust and solidarity between existing groups and forms of practice can be formed. We need this collective and co-productive approach because we can be stronger together and the challenges we face are so mighty and numerous: whether these relate to how we can enact cultural democracy withinthis movement; how to successfully create not just a manifesto but also a strategy that can help realise cultural democracy in the medium and longer-term; how to decolonize our contemporary culture, institutions and practices; how, as we move ahead, to continue to locate this movement at the intersection of the Labour Party and movements on the ground; and how to sustain this work financially – all to ensure this work is not overly reliant on volunteerism, remains as accessible as possible, and doesn’t reproduce what we’re trying to overcome.

It’s essential this project supports the on-going participation of as wide a range of people as possible. We’re not overly daunted. The movement is still in formation and the cultural hierarchies, forms of elitism, economic inequality and the dysfunctional forms of democracy that are all currently endemic are rendering our culture both increasingly harmful and unacceptable. In this context of crisis and possibility we therefore see a growing appetite for discussing and articulating alternatives. This project can be a test bed for new thinking and collective action.

Many difficult questions nevertheless loom. For example, we haven’t yet paused for breath long enough to consider the extent to which the realisation of radical cultural democracy is necessarily contingent on the democratisation of cultural input? We’re clearer about the urgent need to open up and democratise, as soon as possible, the social, economic and infrastructural resources required to learn, explore and create. Although we don’t yet know how any new manifesto for radical cultural democracy can successfully be integrated into a wider programme of change. For any wider project that aims to help create radically better social, economic and cultural conditions to enable many more individuals and collectives in our society to more actively shape their own democratic political or community projects, the redistribution of the means of cultural production needs to be a key concern. The horizon is, then, creating a participatory, creative and collective process that can contribute to realising profoundly more egalitarian, decolonized, self-managed and democratic whole ways of life, beyond dominant cultural formations – somewhat similar to what Raymond Williams called ‘the long revolution’. The Movement for Cultural Democracy is therefore a practice-based endeavour which is collectively working to generate new resources of hope. It’s for everyone committed to a politics, democracy and culture that’s for all and by all. So if you’re interested in The World Transformed come and join us for our sessions and a lot more in Liverpool next week.

Nick Mahony is an organiser for the Movement for Cultural Democracy. He is also Administrator/Coordinator of the Raymond Williams Foundation; an independent researcher and project worker; and works on outreach, events and development for the journal Soundings. Nick completed his PhD on the political, cultural and public dynamics of large-scale public participation experiments at the Open University in 2008 and worked at the OU as a Research Fellow. Since leaving full-time academia in 2015, he has worked freelance.

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