and that’s why we have to stand up. thoughts on radical social and political movements, neoliberal societies and popular culture in recent times
unlimited freedom, leipzig (germany)
To ask whether and if to what extent radical social and political movements have an impact on popular culture in recent times raises complex and diverse questions. This essay will outline ideas to understand the relationship between culture and radical social and political movements in recent times.
I will start with some general questions to get the bigger picture and a theoretical understanding of the relationship between radical politics and popular culture in our days. The first question is: What do we mean if we are talking about culture and popular culture? Secondly I will ask: What are the features of postmodern cultures? And how are they connected with the current forms of capitalism and disciplinary? My thesis is: Popular culture plays an important role in the manifestation of post-fordism and neoliberalism, but it also offers possibilities for cultures of resistance. Thirdly I will ask: What do we mean, if we are talking about radical politics in recent times? And: What impact can radical politics have up on popular culture? My thesis is: We can distinguish between two different kinds of influences, on one hand radical politics can become incorporated in popular culture in form of commodification and thereby loose their radical character, on the other hand they can come on the agenda of the mass media, use them and new social media to spread their messages and to create thereby a strong social movement.
What do we mean, if we talk about popular culture?
Popular culture can’t be understood as a single phenomena, it is connected with the structures and processes within societies. Hall points this out when he says: “The changing balance and relations of social forces throughout that history reveal themselves, time and again, in struggles over the forms of culture, traditions and ways of life of the popular classes.” (Hall 1981: 227) Popular culture can be defined as the mass media mainly produced by the cultural industries (Hall 1981: 231-232; Mankekar 2001: 11733-11734). Popular culture does have the power to form understandings and beliefs about the world, it is setting up definitions and identities which are having a great impact on peoples everyday life and understanding of what surrounds them (Mankekar 2001: 11734). But people aren’t just a tabula rasa – they can consume critical – and furthermore “[t]here are points of resistance; there are also moments of supersession. This is the dialectic of cultural struggle.” (Hall 1981: 233) Hall understands popular as “a sort of constant battlefield” (Hall 1981: 233), in a constant state of transformation which is driven by resistance and acceptance and by the steady update of what belongs to the popular culture (or the non-popular). Culture also expresses the relations of dominance and repression – struggles about hegemony which are bound upon the mode of production. Popular culture is the space where hegemony of the ruling elites is secured, but it is also open for changes (Hall 1981: 234-239).
To understand trends in contemporary culture it is necessary to ask:
How do postmodern societies look like?
Trapped in space-time-compression and accelerating processes of changes postmodern societies are coined by a wide range of features (Nash 2000: 59). The mayor source for this change is a economic, cultural and political globalization (Nash 2000: 59). One consequence is “there are no more universal values and truths to which all members of society subscribe” (emphasis in Original, Nash, 2000: 38). The modern meta-narratives starting with the Enlightenment’s invention of reason, scientific truth and social liberation in form of a progress are losing faith. (Nash, 2000: 38) Also class-based politics and party politics in national contexts are becoming fragmented, among other influences because of changes in the mode of production which replaced classes with individualisation. The mayor change can be identified as the shift from fordism to post-fordism. Fordism was characterised by mass production and mass consumption. The majority of the people worked in factories in stable jobs. The crisis of fordism in the 1970’s was leading to new strategies to accumulate capital – for which the concept of neoliberalism played an important role. (Gilbert 2008: 170) “Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” (Harvey 2005: 2) In the praxis neoliberalism means that states are creating the frameworks for free markets and opens former state regulated areas like the health and the education system for privatisation (Harvey 2005: 2-3). One of the significant characteristics of neoliberalism is the erosion of permanent institutions by replacing them with the logic of individualisation and short-term. Neoliberalism and post-fordism are creating economic insecurity for the workers and focus on individualisation and competition. Because of this and the de-industrialization the old classes do not exist anymore and neither the class cultures which have been the structuring element of the popular culture before (Nash 2000: 2; Hall 2006: 235-239). If people are working outsourced, crowdsourced or in different part-time jobs at the same time with temporary work contracts it is impossible for them to built up the kind of group identity factory workers had in the 1950’s and 1960’s. “The fragmentation and pluralization of values and lifestyles, with the growth of the mass media and consumerism and the decline of stable occupations and communities, all mean that previously taken-for-granted social identities become politicized.” (Nash 2000: 2). Post-fordism disperses the key sources of identity like the family and national media, instead of this we can find new, commodified identities, for example feminism as a lifestyle without political implications (Gilbert 2008: 176). This is the context in which social movements and networks are arising. They are representing fast-changing, fluid and fragmented social relations and non-class identities like gender, ethnicity and sexuality. (Nash 2000: 2) Social movements are reflecting the fragmented identities post-fordism creates – to secure the sales on satisfied markets capitalism needs to create new desires and does this through the use of culture in terms of creating advertising, lifestyles and niche markets (Nash 2000: 31). This is one reason why culture is therefore in postmodern times is in many parts characterised by commodification.
Communication in post-modern times
The needs of a post-fordist capitalism also require new forms of information technologies and communication. Only by this just-in-time ordering and the creation of niche markets are possible. (Nash 2000: 60) Facebook is a good example for the connections between new technologies of communication and the needs of capitalism. Facebook is the perfect tool for market research and addressing people with personalized advertising corresponding to their lifestyle. The best thing about it: All this data is generated by people for free since they are using it in their spare time for social networking. But new social media are also an expression of a global connected world and they are a tool for sharing information in an effective and fast way. In difference to earlier times the internet gives everyone who has access to a computer with uncensored internet the possibility to generate and publish own information and share them with a global audience who can react to it. Interaction and participation are the beating heart of new social media. Blogs offer the possibility to publish, comment and discuss articles, platforms like indymedia rely on the submission of articles, wikipedia is based on the collaboration of anonymous users, besides the publishing of very limited information, often in form of links, Twitter’s key features are the so called retweeting which means one is sharing the information on the own account, the possibility to respond to tweets by other users and by using hashtags discuss about a certain topic. Furthermore like in other social networks it is possible to follow people – so networks can develop, in these networks content is shared, often between strangers. Independent publishing to this extent with the possibility to communicate within a global community makes people more independent from the mainstream media and creates a global awareness that troubles the idea of nation states probably to the same extend like the global economic crisis that can not be controlled within single states. On the other hand the generated information can be used to map political activism and track activists. The mechanisms of control are always awake.
Control in post-fordist societies
Control within post-fordist societies works through danger (or the creation of a atmosphere of danger) (Foucault 2008: 66). We can find “ultrarapid forms of free-floating control […] short-term and of rapid rates of turnover, but also continuous and without limit.” (Deleuze 1990) How fast the freedom of the internet users can be under threat showed the international copyright trinity Acta. By establishing strict control mechanisms Acta would have criminalized a huge amount of activities in the internet, just the post of a picture without holding the copyrights, download a song or to break the lock on rights-protected files, would become a crime – so a free use of the internet would be impossible and users would be in the constant fear to break the law. This would have limited the freedom of speech and change the internet as we it know today. The only ones who would have participated from Acta are the mass media industries. (Meyer 2012; Arthur 2012)
Cultures of resistance in recent times
This is the recent context in which we have to understand radical social and political movements and their relationship with (popular) culture. But it is necessary to understand that cultures of resistance have a history, they are part of a long history (McKay 1996: 3-6). Examples for cultures of resistance during the last 20 years are: the Reclaim the Streets movement and an ecological movement around groups like Earth First! in the United Kingdom and a global anti-capitalist movement. Of course they are all very different, but they all have things in common: an utopian desire for a better world (but very different ideas about how this should look like), the connections to youth culture – if we think about the hippies, punks, rave culture, the production of own media – like zines, the distinction from the mainstream in an oppositional and radical reflex, the creation of an own lifestyle, activism in very different forms – ranging from party culture of the ravers to the direct actions of animal protestors and the Poll tax riot in Trafalger Square – and cultural production in general. (McKay 1996: 3-5)
Cultures of resistance have always challenged the mainstream in some way, that is the only explanation for their criminalization for example in the United Kingdom through the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and the tries to vanish them with police (brutality) (McKay 1996: 161-168). Gilbert (2008: 169) argues that there is no systematic challenge for capitalism at the moment. “In fact, the anti-capitalist movement, for better or for worse, has been defined by its very lack of common vision or coherent programme to implement a different set of socio-economic relationships.” (Gilbert 2008: 169) If we say so, we have to understand the influence of radical politics on the popular culture as very limited. To some extend this manifests also in a process of commodification of former radical politics. An example therefore are gay and queer politics. Whereas a lot of the ideas within the queer movement, especially following the influence of Judith Butler (1990), are very radical – like the deconstruction of gender, sex and the violence of the heteronormative matrix, in the praxis the impact on popular culture is present, especially on dance culture, fashion magazines and television, but only in form of consumable lifestyle that does not challenge that heterosexuality is the norm, other sexualities are marginalized and trans*people continue to be pathologised. (Roseneil 2000)
Instead of a conclusion
Roszak (1971: xiii) reflects in his book “The making of a counterculture” the need to continue working on the transformation of the societies we are living in by pointing out: “If the resistance of the counter culture fails, I think there will be nothing in store for us but what the anti-utopians like Huxley and Orwell have forecast”. And this is why we have to continue to fight for the better life. I know to be an activist can be frustrating because if you look around you, you will see that this world isn’t getting any better. I am becoming so angry when I see that feminist and queer activists back in the 1980’s fought the same fights we are still fighting today. And it is the same with so many other topics like capitalism, exploitation of so called “non-western” societies, global warming etc. etc. But I also believe that nothing is more powerful than ideas and utopias (the good ones as well as the bad ones) and this is why we have to keep the good ones alive. For me finding out about queer/feminist spaces was one of the best things that happened to me so far. And these spaces only exist because there are people creating them again and again. So let us come together and fight!
Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge.
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Gilbert, J. (2008) Anticapitalism and Culture. Radical Theory and Popular Politics. Oxford and New York: Berg.
Hall, S. (1981) ‘Notes on deconstructing ‘ the popular” in: Samuel, R. (ed.) People’s History and Socialist Theory. London: Routledge, pp. 227-240.
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Mankekar, P. (2001) ‘Popular Culture’ in Smelser, N. J. and Baltes, P. B. (eds.) International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (IESBS). Oxford: Pergamon, pp. 11733-11737.
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McKay, G. (1998) ‘DiY Culture: Notes towards an intro’ in McKay, G. (ed.) DiY Culture. Party & Protest in the Nineties Britain. London and New York: Verso, pp. 1-53.
Roseneil, S. (2000) ‘Queer Frameworks and Queer Tendencies: Towards an Understanding of Postmodern Transformations of Sexuality’ in Sociological Research Online, 5 (3), Available at: http://www.socresonline.org.uk/5/3/roseneil.html (Accessed 20 April 2012).
Roszak, T. (1971) The Making of a Counter Culture. Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition. London: Faber and Faber.