Building Solidarity

Justin O’Connor published by Manchester University Press

Jennifer Hinves on Culture

As Justin O’Connor states, culture is “central to what it is to be human, to live in a social world”. He concedes that, while there are such things as cultural industries and that some of these are important, culture in itself is not an industry.

The key argument of this book is that culture, “as an object of public policy, should be moved out of “industry” and back into the sphere of public responsibility alongside health, education, social welfare, and basic infrastructure”.

O’Connor searches for a way to achieve this re-location, given that neo liberalism, and the commercial focus that it brought to whatever it was applied to, including culture, is discredited. Instead, he places culture in the realm of “public responsibility,” alongside “health, education, social welfare, and basic infrastructure”, although it is not clear if he is attempting to place – or reinstate – culture in that arena.

But even if that were successful, would this resolve any more of the complexities, contradictions, and dilemmas inherent in trying to categorise culture, which the British cultural critic Raymond Williams famously asserted “is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.”

O’Connor talks of the need for a “new approach to cultural policy which contributes to our collective capacity to act”. As an ideal, this is hard not to subscribe to, and in that sense any attempt to do this is to be applauded, but can this be considered to have been achieved?

If successful, this would pivot culture, O’Connor suggests, “from being a symptom of our systemic crisis to being a crucial part of our collective attempt to overcome it”.

O’Connor admits himself that “this is a tall order” but presents what he describes as a “sketch” for how this might be achieved. He considers Manchester as some kind of example and suggests a kind of “radical reinvention … that would have to nurture locally based actors, providing education and support to allow access and participation.” This, he argues, would require a focus on the “local economy” not as an economic engine but, as an alternative to the neoliberal mantra of obtaining a degree and moving on, but instead a “staying in place … and build(ing) solidarity alongside a creative future.”

Tall order indeed, but an excellent aspiration.

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