The Cultural Public Sphere

Contra Economistic Cultural Policy

Jim McGuigan


An alternative perspective to economistic cultural policy is framed by public sphere theory. The concept of the public sphere derives from liberal-democratic thought. However, it is important to distinguish a liberal-democratic concept like the public sphere from, say, the mere naming of a political party such as the Liberal Democrats in Britain, at present a junior partner in the British Conservative government that calls itself a ‘coalition’. The political philosophy of the public sphere is quite different from and, moreover, critical of this and similar currents of neoliberal politics that are devoted to the theology of market forces and are hell-bent on destroying the final vestiges of what Pierre Bourdieu called ‘the social state’.

Neoliberalism is not just a current in politics. It is the dominant ideological formation in the world today. The Anglo-Saxon – or, rather, Atlanticist – formation in global political economy has led the way in establishing the hegemony of neoliberalism nearly everywhere over the past thirty years. And, even in countries that have had what has been thought of as a welfare-state tradition of cultural policy, the cultural-policy framework has become predominantly neoliberal, whereby economic considerations always trump cultural considerations.

There is something especially ironic and indeed paradoxical about neoliberalism’s application to cultural policy. Urban regeneration through cultural leverage, most notably, is supposed to make up for the devastation wrought by neoliberal economic forces and policies on local and regional economies. Neoliberal cultural policy is characterised, on the one hand, by cultural reductionism in that too much is expected of culture. And, on the other hand, the driving force behind this overloading of hopes and expectations onto culture is, in reality, economic reductionism.

The intellectual determination of such policy is, in André Gorz’s phrase, economic reason and, in consequence, the policy goals are primarily economic. That is how public expenditure on culture is justified predominantly now. In effect, then, cultural policy is reduced to economic policy, often in a quite ludicrous manner.

Because cultural policy should be about culture first and foremost as a public good, it is reasonable and also necessary to be critical of crudely economistic cultural policy. The perspective of the cultural public sphere, in contrast, takes culture seriously and does not reduce it to economic instrumentalism. Incidentally, the problems of neoliberal cultural policy are exemplified and substantiated in the phenomenon of the regenerative festival in de-industrialised cities that I have studied.

Economistic Cultural Policy

Scholars and practitioners have argued over the rationale for cultural policy for many years, especially justifications for public subsidy to the arts, media, and sport. In the post-Second World War period, the main reason given for such state intervention in the cultural field was ‘market failure’, the assumption being that there are cultural forms that are in some sense socially valuable though they may not be commercially viable.

While, of course, there remains a considerable residue for that rationalisation – to preserve and develop, say, national heritage or to enable experimentation and popular participation – there is a curious sense in which the old rationale has been reversed.

The idea that public subsidy for culture produces an economic pay-off has been around for some time, in the sense of creating jobs, contributing to income tax revenue, attracting tourist revenue, and so forth. Since the 1980s, this has been a defensively Keynesian argument for sustaining public cultural investment – that it is not so much a cost to the public as, in fact, a benefit – and. in spite of the economic realism, usually made for cultural reasons. The economic argument in support of public cultural investment has, however, transmogrified in recent years to become its primary justification – and for economic reasons, not cultural reasons.

That shift is manifested very clearly in the EU’s annual European City – now Capital – of Culture programme. It was launched in 1985 when Melina Mercouri acquired the first designation for Athens. Whatever the decision-making process, nobody would deny Athens’s qualifications for receiving the accolade – nor Florence in 1986, Amsterdam in 1987, (West) Berlin in 1988, Paris in 1989. But, in 1990, Glasgow?

There have been some other surprising designations since Glasgow during the past twenty years. In 2009, for instance, the accolade was shared by Hitler’s home town of Linz, which he himself had intended to regenerate as a citadel of the Third Reich. In fact, Hitler spent much of his time bunkered under Berlin in April 1945 poring over a model of the regenerated Linz.

The designation of Glasgow signalled a shift from a sign of universally acknowledged cultural eminence to an exercise in urban regeneration, in effect, civic boosterism, city branding and the like.

Still, the debate rumbles on concerning the ‘legacy’ of Glasgow 1990 twenty years later. Glasgow is now said to be very good for shopping – it has some not inconsiderable art and art galleries as well that are worth visiting. Claims are made that Glasgow – a once derelict, de-industrialised city – now has 58,000 jobs in tourism – a very broad category indeed covering quite a range of ‘service’ occupations. Even at the height of shipbuilding on the Clyde, there were only 38,000 actually employed to build ships.

Glasgow is undoubtedly a site, in Schumpeter’s term, of ‘creative destruction’. Whether the creativity has made up for the destruction is debatable. But, what is not debatable, in the case of Glasgow, is the conclusion that cultural policy is no substitute for social policy. Glasgow at present still has the three poorest constituencies in Britain and life expectancy in the city is ten years below the national average.

More broadly, we can argue about the extent to which the promotion of ‘culture’ and its cousin ‘creative industries’ is a satisfactory solution to the economic devastation caused by neoliberal transformation over the past thirty years, a notable feature of which has been to destroy manufacturing capacity in comparatively high-waged economies of the global West and transfer it to low-waged labour markets in the East.

What I am calling into question, then, are the claims made for economic revival and urban regeneration achieved by cultural leverage – and many more examples other than Glasgow can be given for calling these claims into question. It might even be asked: is the kind of policy regime exemplified by the European Capital of Culture programme merely neoliberal sticking plaster for the wounds inflicted by neoliberal economic transformation?

Cultural Public Sphere

In liberal-democratic thought, the public sphere is supposed to be the arena of rational-critical disputation, free and open debate on issues of interest to citizens, the deliberations deriving from which should have consequence for policy. It is this democratic aspect of liberalism that is currently undermined by economic liberalism or, rather, neoliberalism.

Fifty years ago, in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jürgen Habermas told a pessimistic story of the decline of the public sphere from the European Enlightenment of the 18th century through the 19th century and into the late 20th century with the rise of heavily commercialised media and public relations, widespread political boredom, and the distractions of consumer culture.

However, in his later work, Between Facts and Norms, Habermas told a rather more optimistic story concerning the ‘sluice-gate’ model of the late-20th century public sphere whereby social movements and campaigning groups force critical issues onto the mainstream agenda. The most notable example in recent years would be global warming, though unfortunately it has been somewhat eclipsed in the past couple of years by the global financial crisis.

Of course, the very notion of the public sphere is both an ideal typification in the Weberian sense and an idealisation in the philosophical sense. My colleagues Peter Golding and Graham Murdock have described the public-sphere idealisation of politically democratic communications as a critical measure by which to assess what actually goes on in the politics of information and news.

The public sphere concept, then, is a vital analytical and critical tool, especially in light of what the journalist Nick Davies has called ‘flat earth news’. According to Davies, falsehood and distortion are replete in a journalistic environmental that is now driven increasingly by commercial imperatives that starve actual newsgathering of the resources needed to properly investigate what is going on. So, much news today is merely the regurgitation of press releases and the voicing of authoritative opinion.

Critics of the news media like the ones I have just mentioned are concerned with what might be called cognitive communications. As someone interested in the arts, I am concerned equally with affective communications, aesthetics and emotion.

Habermas himself, fifty years ago, distinguished between the political public sphere and the literary public sphere. The 18th-century literary public sphere was not so much about transient news topics as complex reflection on problems of life, meaning and representation, the problems of art. So, the literary public sphere functioned on a different time scale to the political public sphere and its rapid turnover of newsworthy topics.

A favourite example of mine to illustrate what is meant by the literary public sphere in the 18th century is the function of a text like Voltaire’s picaresque novella Candide (1759), occasioned, it must be said, by a topical event, the Lisbon tsunami where over 20,000 people died. That event was news indeed, the object of what we would call today ‘disaster management’. Voltaire, however, was interested in deeper issues than those normally treated in a here-today-gone-tomorrow news story, to wit, how to explain the significance of such an event in a priest-ridden culture. In effect, Candide was an attack on both religious mystification and uncritical rationalism; and it struck at the heart of modern disquisition on the meaning of life in an entertainingly novelistic manner.

The novel hardly performs such a function today even for a reading and (literary) festival-going public. Literature is simply not as important a medium in conditions of late modernity as it was during the formation of modernity hundreds of years ago.

Since then we have seen the proliferation of media and changes in literacy that would now have to include media literacy, which typically involves competence in visuality as well as words. That is one reason why an updated theory requires the conception of a cultural public sphere.

Furthermore, critical perspectives on the public sphere have focused much more on cognitive communications than on affective communications and are, therefore, limited in their approach. The accuracy of information and conditions favourable to dialogic reason are normative requirements of genuine democracy. Yet, an exclusive attention to cognition is seriously flawed should we wish to understand popular engagement with lifeworld issues.

While active citizenship addressed to the ‘big issues’ of politics is desirable, the subject matter of, say, serious news may be apprehended by many people as irrelevant to their everyday lives. Popular lack of interest in official politics is also understandable when people ordinarily have so little power over what happens at the level of the system. It may seem entirely remote from the lived or imagined relationships and identifications of mundane existence. However, aesthetic and emotional engagement with lifeworld issues might be felt passionately and experienced as especially meaningful. Hence, the need for a conception of the public sphere that accounts for affectivity as well as cognition.

The cultural public sphere of late modernity operates through various channels and circuits of mass-popular culture and entertainment as well as art, facilitated routinely by mediated aesthetic and emotional reflections on how we live and imagine the good life. The concept of a cultural public sphere refers to the articulation of politics, public and personal, as a contested terrain through affective – aesthetic and emotional – modes of communication.

The cultural public sphere features pleasures and pains that are experienced vicariously through willing suspensions of disbelief. In a mass-popular medium like television, the cultural public sphere is most evident in forms of fiction and entertainment where representation may not be policed so closely as in news and current affairs.

In British television, for instance, there are long traditions of political drama and satirical comedy that are notable for articulating issues that are otherwise marginalised in what I am calling specifically cognitive communications. Of course, not all drama and comedy can be judged positively in this respect. The fact that something engages popular attention does not in itself qualify it as the site of critical disquisition.

Public Festivals

One of the greatest ironies of neoliberal cultural policy is that it often seems to require huge amounts of public subsidy. This runs counter to the neoliberal claim that free markets are to be trusted whereas state intervention and governmental interference are not.

Take, for instance, Britain’s New Millennium Experience Festival in 2000, the centrepiece of which was the Millennium Dome exposition on a southern peninsula of the Thames in East London. This rather disastrous undertaking cost over a billion pounds in public money, derived from both the National Lottery and tax revenue. It received probably less than £150 million in corporate sponsorship, much of it ‘in kind’. And yet the Millennium expo turned out to be little more than a trade show for corporation business, much of it American corporate business. It is reasonable to conclude that the whole ‘amazing thing’ was a means of reassuring international capital that the New Labour government was not socialist.

Let us consider a particular example from the New Millennium Experience, the Mind Zone, which was dedicated ostensibly to celebrating the networking principle of digital communications and promoting high-tech engineering. It was designed by the deconstructionist architect, Zaha Hadid, and was generally considered the most cerebral of the zones in the Dome. The Mind Zone was sponsored to the tune of just £12 million by BAE Systems/Marconi, Britain’s biggest armaments manufacturer and one of the very largest in the world. The armaments industry is a fairly isolated remnant of manufacturing in a country that was once styled ‘the workshop of the world’ but now likes to think of itself as a ‘knowledge society’ or an ‘information economy’.

The New Labour government had come into power in 1997 promising to pursue an ‘ethical foreign policy’. This policy was soon quietly dropped with the government issuing export licenses and guarantees to the likes of BAE Systems for selling armaments to, for instance, the genocidal Suharto regime in Indonesia.

From a public-sphere perspective and according to discourse ethics, dialogical criticism of an ideological artefact like the Mind Zone is obliged to at least imagine an alternative. For example, there could have been, instead, a War Zone that looked critically at modern warfare, at what used to be called ‘the permanent arms economy’ and its relation to carnage throughout the world.

In the recent period, Britain has been involved in a succession of wars as the USA’s closest ally, sometimes deeply questionable wars like the one in Iraq where hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens have died in the interests of Western oil consumption and corporate profit.

After all, the Millennium Dome and its euphemistic Mind Zone were mainly funded by the public and only marginally sponsored by private business. So, why not address critical issues that are relevant to the public?
Incidentally, after the exposition closed, the New Labour government did not want to lose face by knocking the Dome down so they gave it away to the American Anschutz Corporation. It is now the O2 Arena, an exclusively commercial entertainment venue.

I should like to give another brief example from the British experience – Liverpool 2008. Liverpool was an ideal candidate for the European Capital of Culture accolade. It had been one of the greatest ports in the world but by the 1980s, like Glasgow, it was in a parlous state. Also, like Glasgow, it had an embarrassing left-wing history as well as considerable cultural riches. Since the Second World War, the population has dropped from 850,000 to 415,000. Many have gone far afield looking for jobs. And quite a few have been moved out to culturally bereft satellite towns. If anything, the greatest success of public expenditure on Liverpool 2008 has been to wipe out some further tracts of the once proud working-class Merseyside.

The biggest legacy of Liverpool 2008 is the Duke of Westminster’s Paradise Street shopping centre in the middle of the city. In fact, there has been a good deal of property development in the centre of Liverpool, including luxury apartment buildings. There is also the Albert Dock complex of galleries, museums, and shops, which was actually redeveloped long before the Capital of Culture year. More recently, much of the inner-city working-class housing has been boarded up awaiting demolition.

In fact, what has happened to Liverpool fits neatly into Richard Florida’s recommendations for attracting the so-called ‘creative class’ to regenerating cities. Of course, Florida’s creative class thesis is exaggerated and actually his creative class is nothing new. It merely consists of our old friends the professional-managerial class, for many of whom it is an over-statement to call them ‘creative’.

Florida, however, is right to observe that the traditional industrial working class has declined in number, down to a little over 25 per cent of the US labour force. Yet, the really significant growth in numbers is in what Florida calls ‘the service class’, now nearly 45 per cent of the US labour force. This service class, to quote Florida, consists of ‘workers in low-wage, low-autonomy, service occupations such as health care, food preparation, personal care, clerical work and other low-end office work’ – he might have added cleaning. In Britain, we would be inclined to call these people ‘working class’.

In spite of the American habit of calling working-class people ‘middle class’, if Florida were to do the same as the British, then, that would give an estimate of 70 per cent of the US labour force as ‘working class’, not unlike Britain and a great many other places.

As it happens, I agree with Florida’s position on these matters to the extent that Liverpool’s culture-led regeneration is a confirming example. It has indeed been good news for what Florida calls the ‘creative class’ but which I prefer to call the ‘professional-managerial class’ – yet probably for nobody else. In this sense, neoliberal cultural policy is quite evidently a class-based policy.

Leave a comment