Demonization of anti-capitalist cultural forms

[This is the last of three posts on the Great British Class Survey. To access the others, go to the introduction here.]

My final concern arises from the attitude to forms of culture that this study reflects. Specifically it reflects a demonization of a large number of truly counter-cultural forms, which is to say highbrow culture. By counter-cultural I mean, quite simply, running on lines that are counter to the general motions of society, and since our society is conditioned by capital and the social relations that it feeds on, counter-cultural forms are those which cause problems for capital. Highbrow culture is counter-cultural in two specific and important senses: first because it has always been and remains a problem for capitalist sale. It simply is not attractive enough, or as easy to reproduce, as capitalism wishes for its commodities. The question of quality or intelligence or value is immaterial here: capitalism simply can’t sell ancient Greek poetry for as quick and big a profit as it can sell football. The second reason highbrow culture is counter-cultural is that it offers the possibility for disrupting the class position of members of society, and specifically allowing for the possibility that the lower classes might rise above their beginnings.

The demonization of highbrow culture is widespread. It informs programming on television and radio, curriculums in schools, even, ludicrously, decisions that highbrow cultural organizations take about what they are going to stage or exhibit (can’t be too highbrow, darling: that simply won’t do). And the reasons for the demonization, on the face of it, as so often, seem good: highbrow culture has traditionally been associated with the rich and powerful. But it isn’t any more, and this is a paradox that the liberal attitude is often ignorant of. The richest and most powerful, people like ex-Etonian David Cameron, are more likely to disdain highbrow culture – and particularly musical culture – than to enjoy it, and it’s the aspirational lower-class Tories like Michael Gove who are more likely to be seen watching Wagner – doubtless with genuine love for the music – at Covent Garden. (And the ticket prices, incidentally, might not cost any more than football: see my blogpost here). This paradox – the rich seem to be increasingly opposed to highbrow culture – serves a specific political and economic purpose, which will become clear below (essentially, it helps keep the poor in their place).

The demonization of highbrow culture covers over two huge errors: first, the error of essentialism (i.e. supposing that there is an unbreakable link between certain people and certain characteristics: here, a link between poshness and highbrow culture); second, the error of supposing that people are always representative of the situation in which they find themselves. Hand in hand, these errors help to sustain the abject position of the poor by denying them access to at least the possibility of deciding for themselves whether highbrow culture has anything to offer.

One of the greatest and most emancipatory benefits of highbrow culture is that it strikes those who were not born into an exposure with it – i.e. those from the lower classes, whose diet might be Agatha Christie and the Bee Gees rather than Virgil and Beethoven – as something profoundly Other, something to which they can aspire, something that can lead them, as a beacon, to a better life. It is perhaps the most staggering stupidity of the contemporary liberal attitude that so many people fail to see this. In precisely the same way, the democratic freedoms of the West are often seen by abject subjects of middle-eastern dictatorships, and so on, as a political consummation devoutly to be wished. Again, the liberal attitude is to feel guilty about the very freedoms that our patronizingly viewed Other regards as so very desirable. The only thing that could possibly be wrong about enjoying freedom or high culture would be to deny it to others. Yet this is precisely what the liberal attitude dictates. Hide high culture away; listen to pop; don’t try to foist our cultural attitudes (pro-women, pro-gay, multicultural) onto the Other.

But disdaining highbrow Western civilization simply because it is (falsely) assumed to have an essential relation to an exploitative elite is, quite simply, selfishness. It leads to the evisceration of school curriculums and the demonization of the arts. Extending the gift of civilization to the whole world, not to force-feed but at least to allow people the chance to decide for themselves whether they want it, is surely a better course to take. But the attitude reflected by studies like the Great British Class Survey serves one purpose only: to further the motion of modern capitalism.

The highbrow tastes that are implicitly disdained by this study, and which explicitly lift people into a higher class even when their actual material conditions are much worse than those around them, are quite simply the cultural interests that capitalism has always found it very difficult to sell, relative to the attractive objects of mass consumption peddled by the culture industry. The demonization of these cultural forms – so extensive that even an ex-Etonian prime minister can largely disdain them – is an essential function of the command to consume. And hand in hand with this demonization of the cultural artefacts themselves goes the demonization of those who wish to make them, and rational thought about them, available to as many people as possible, because they believe them to have the potential to emancipate.

I should say that I don’t mean, as the authors of this study do, that listening to Beethoven or reading Virgil will make your life more secure and you a better and more socially important person. It won’t. Absolutely not. Cultural capital buys you nothing and doesn’t improve your morals or social standing. It’s worthless as a commodity. Don’t waste your time learning about Beethoven or Virgil if you want to be a better or richer person. It has no direct causal connexion with the increase or decrease of personal significance or riches. But it might just lead you into thinking about things you hadn’t thought about before. Pursuing it might open doors that your birth and the wealth of your parents could not. It might lead you, for instance, if all around you are low-skilled workers in dead-end jobs, to imagine a different career path, one focused on teaching, research, arts administration, museum curating, performance, journalism, creative writing… But the moment you tick more than three boxes of highbrow cultural interests on the online calculator, you are catapulted into a higher social class. And the higher you go, the more guilty you should feel.

The calculator is worse than simply being useless. It is a depressing reflexion of the present attitude in liberal Western society towards the possibility of properly understanding and then overturning our current system. And until we can cast off our assumption of an essential relation between highbrow culture and privilege, and the concomitant view that working-class people have working-class attitudes and cannot articulate for themselves a way out of their position which draws on the exquisite resources for self-understanding that highbrow culture offers, we are doomed to perpetuate the wretched class system of capitalism, which remains, even after this study, not seven classes but two: those who are exploited (a class that is growing) and those who exploit.

3 thoughts on “Demonization of anti-capitalist cultural forms

  1. ” Cultural capital buys you nothing and doesn’t improve your morals or social standing.”
    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you or thinking at cross purposes, but is this really true? Take, for example, knowledge of wine or how to tie a bow tie or the ‘right’ words to use in a certain situation. These kinds of rules can be established and/or established as of social significance by the dominant class in a society. Then someone who wishes to be seen by that class as worthy of entrance into that class can usefully study these kinds of rules, acquire these kinds of knowledge, and thereby acquire useful cultural capital to improve her/his social standing, surely.

    1. Thanks for your comment, and for taking the time to read this.

      I agree with you that the social rules you talk about are used, in social situations, to test whether people ‘fit’ in a certain class. People do play those games all the time. But what I don’t agree with is Bourdieu’s implication, in the notion of ‘cultural capital’, that knowledge of how to score highly in these assessments amounts to an important exchange value.

      My essential problem with Bourdieu (and this seems to be upsetting sociologists on Twitter, perhaps because I haven’t explained it clearly enough) is that I think he’s talking about ‘value’ rather than ‘capital’. He seems to conceive of cultural value as a more or less fixed quantity, of which the higher classes have more than the lower classes. Capital, by contrast, depends, within the sphere of production, on the generation of a surplus value which is alienated from the person producing it (the worker) — the alienation that I wrote my second main post about. Value is static, capital dynamic. It’s not clear that Bourdieu’s cultural value can be understood as capital in this sense. And, as a Marxist, I am very keen to look for the exploitation that is at the heart of the dynamic nature of capital, and why I am keen to critique modes of thought that seem to conceal that exploitation.

      To the degree that Bourdieu seems to imply that if you have some of this cultural value, you might be able to exchange it — say in the context of an interview for an arts admin job — in order to benefit economically, then I of course agree with him. But ultimately this seems a bit banal. If you have the knowledge required for a job, that will help you to get it; and if you have the tastes of a particular social group, then that group might indeed admit you to its number. But I don’t see a direct connexion between cultural value and economic benefit (and it’s economic benefit that I consider to be most significant in terms of material existence — again, a fairly straightforward Marxist attitude). A council-flat tenant might know more about opera than a mansion-dweller, simply because they’ve listened to a lot of Radio 3 for free, but the value of that cultural knowledge is not necessarily possible to translate into economic benefit. I’m very happy to have the connexion explained to me, and to learn the alchemical ability of highbrow knowledge to lift people out of poverty, or indeed (to pick up on the other items in the sentence you quote) to make people more moral or lift them into the upper middle class. That would be a panacea.

      Bourdieu’s focus certainly does make possible a plausible and nuanced presentation of class difference, and Savage et al. have produced a plausible and nuanced study. I just don’t like it, or the hierarchy it establishes, for the three reasons I give in this blogpost series’ introduction: it seems to me to tendentiously underestimate the size of the working class; it conceals the functioning of exploitation; and by suggesting that cultural value can be exchanged for higher social status, as it were by magic, it reduces highbrow culture to an exchange value, when I would rather think of it as having a still powerful but much less focused positive effect than that: it opens the mind, makes the world and its possibilities appear differently. But the struggle to rise out of material subjection depends on more than the high culture itself. The high culture, at best, and for those who choose to use it this way, can be a tool for awakening consciousness. Not for buying a Mayfair flat.

  2. This is difficult to read. You seem to be horribly upset that the lower-classes are stuck as they don’t have access to high brow culture and that high-brow culture itself is ‘demonized’ by the elite.

    You are the person making these distinctions. You are the person saying that Beethoven, Wagner and Virgil are intrinsically ‘high brow’ to be used as currency by people looking for ‘cultural capital’. You are the person stereotyping others as either living on council estates or Mayfair. Accusing the working class of being low skilled performing dead-end jobs, their only hope of salvation being to read some old classics, go to the opera and become a museum-curator.

    If David Cameron ever said that he wasn’t a fan of Wagner then I doubt it was for political purposes, he probably just likes other music. If you think that is a disgrace, that the proles need more access to ‘high culture’ then give it to them – its widely available. You could even try listening to their favourite bands if you can take a break from educating them.

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