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Make culture radical again!

Rory Hamilton

“We are here to advocate exclusively for the Palestinians because no one else will,” said Declan Welsh of Declan Welsh and the Decadent West at St Luke’s in Glasgow on Monday night. Organised by Unite Hospitality, the Serving Solidarity from Glasgow to Gaza gig raised over £10,000 to send at least one surgeon to Gaza in aid of the Palestinian people who are nearly 9 months into constant bombardment by the Israeli state, with nearly 40,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip killed, around 19,000 children orphaned, and more than 10 children losing a leg a day. Alongside Declan Welsh and the Decadent West on the ticket were all local performers, Theo Bleak, Tina Sandwich, and comedians Frankie Boyle and Josie Long.

One person queuing for the event highlighted the importance of cultural solidarity, not just the material aid that the gig funded: “we know that the people of Gaza would be doing the same thing if it were Glasgow so its important we show solidarity”.

I should also highlight the key role played by Unite Hospitality – the vanguard of the trade union movement in Glasgow it would seem – having already organised similar events, fundraisers, and picket actions to support workers in precarious conditions at venues such as the 13th Note. Nick Troy gave a speech that followed Frankie Boyle’s set, in which he highlighted the role of shop workers in Ireland refusing to handle apartheid South African goods, and how this sparked a broader cultural boycott of the oppressive South African regime. The parallels remain – hospitality workers hold substantial power to bring the rest of the economy to a halt, particularly in the cultural sector.

I came away from the gig inspired. Not just by the performers themselves but by the audience, one of whom said they were there “to show the people of Gaza that the people of Glasgow are willing go beyond and to give a bit of money to come together and support them even in the smallest of ways”.

The gig also gave me pause for thought, that we lack the same cultural mirror as a weapon in our arsenal of resistance on issues from Palestine to the cost of living crisis. And it would seem to me that the work of neoliberalism as an ideology appears to have succeeded in separating politics from all facets of life.

The fact that for many people they are made to see the economy as an issue separate from politics, meant only for “experts” and not for everyone’s everyday involvement is a case in point. The disinterest fostered by this mentality enables the argument that the economy is best left to markets with minimal regulation to take hold as a broader ‘lack of understanding’ of complex things like economics.

Extend your understanding of this to the cultural sector. How many films do we watch nowadays which are either sequels, prequels, reboots or spin off series? It is a direct consequence of profit-seeking ideology driving corporate policy-making. Why are they the predominant films, because large studios don’t like to take risks, so they return to tried and tested models which they know are already popular which then eventually become tired themselves. Take some of Warner Bros recent decisions to can projects like Batgirl (filmed in Glasgow), or Coyote v Acme.

The same can be said of our music. The reach and influence of large labels is clear even by mainstream standards, for example Taylor Swift’s drive to ‘reclaim’ her music (as much a money-based venture as one of ‘reclaiming intellectual property’). It is apparent to me though, that we lack the same landscape of popular artists taking a stand either in their music or in the media against social injustices in the way that was very much more prominent in times of vicious social upheaval like the 1980s. I’m sure many readers will retain visceral memories of that period of time backed to the soundtrack of The Clash, The Jam, Billy Bragg, The Smiths and more. Lord knows, even pop groups like Wham! were talking about waiting in line for the dole and the DHSS, not just punk rockers. Of course there is a role to be played by subcultures here, and today much of our resistance music is found in hip-hop and black cultures in the US. And while protest music hasn’t died, and while this scenario was certainly engineered by the ideology that The Clash, The Smiths, or The Jam were raging against, what is left is scattered resistance, uncoordinated and not necessarily politically organised. During the 1980s, benefit concerts, such as the ‘Pits and Perverts’ gig at Electric Ballroom Camden were organised to provide funds to striking mining communities featuring Jimmy Somerville’s Bronski Beat and others, and there was a concerted effort to organise messages between groups by groups like Paul Weller’s Red Wedge.

One queuer on Monday night explained why it was important to them for cultural actors to play a role in political movements: “it’s important to keep people motivated to not lose energy and hope”. Resistance and organising is long, hard and tiresome, and we lose a lot along the way, so we must find ways of caring for ourselves (Audre Lorde) and making it fun, as well as serving a broader political purpose.

The power of culture is also important in material ways, and artists should consider the role they have to play – being silent because you’re ‘non-political’ is still a political choice. Derry Girls and Bridgerton actress Nicola Coughlan showed the role she can play in advocating for the Palestinian cause by raised over £1m through her social media channels. With 4.7M Instagram followers, think what someone like Taylor Swift, coming to Edinburgh this weekend, could do at 283M followers. As sociologist Stuart Hall argued, culture is a symbolic articulation of power, “The struggle between classes over material and social life thus always assumes the forms of a continuous struggle over the distribution of ‘cultural power’.” (Resistance through Rituals, 2006, pg. 6)

And think what more could be done with greater coordination. Without strategic organising across all sectors we end up with performative activism, such as at AI generated image calling for ‘All Eyes on Rafah’ (after months of activists sharing real images from Gaza and calling for the same response). In much the same vein as the wave of people sharing black squares on their instagram pages in a #blackout for Black Lives Matter in 2020, individual acts isolated from the political narrative do nothing to help the people affected by the issues they are supposedly advocating for. During ‘awards season’ many artists wore the Artists for Ceasefire badge, and individuals like Mark Ruffalo and Rami Youssef of the Poor Things cast utilised their platforms to great effect. Others like Billie Eilish wore the badge, but was then snapped in a Starbucks shortly after, in the cultural equivalent of crossing a picket, given then multinational coffee store is a prominent target of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.

The separation of politics from economics and from culture allows people to do the comfortable things, which begin with sharing AI generated images, but end with voting for people who continue to support abhorrent policies, including the continued supply of arms to Israel, the deportation of migrants to Rwanda, and austerity economics. I don’t believe there is a moral perfectionism – there is always something more each of us can do, and some will have greater means of doing more, so sharing something on social media is good for those who may not be able to engage otherwise. Furthermore we all make mistakes, and we can’t be aware of everything at once, but this is exactly why strategic organising is important, because that way we can be more aware, we can hold each other to account, we can ask each other questions and we can make targeted interventions.

And yes it might feel draining if everything in your life is political, but sorry guys, that’s just the way the world is. I’m sure the world wouldn’t feel so draining if the dividing lines between politics, culture and economics weren’t so rigid. Because then there wouldn’t be a need for individual campaigns for every single company to take a moral or ethical stance, it would be a given.

In the almighty words of The Jam, what you give is what you get!

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Some useful things you can read / do:

Gregor Gall’s book The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer gives a deeper look into the activism of the front man of The Clash.

Owen Hatherley is culture editor at Tribune Magazine which has a really interesting culture section every month.

And I was privileged to be at the Serving Solidarity gig courtesy of my involvement with Skotia media, any support for this small journalistic project trying to bring a much needed diversity to Scotland’s media scene would be greatly appreciated.

If you work in hospitality, then join Unite Hospitality.

I would also highly encourage you to support Medical Aid for Palestinians, as I have.

1 thought on “Make culture radical again!”

  1. In the new world of ‘culture wars’, if Taylor Swift did what the Dixie Chicks did she would get the same backlash. It looks like artists that most people have heard of stick to soft-core philanthropy nowadays.

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