December 14, 2014

Contextualising Cultural Praxis - II

Below are the excerpts of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Lecture delivered by Sitaram Yechury on November 22, 2014. The memorial lecture was organised by the Jana Natya Manch. VI This hegemony of the `ideas' of ruling classes, as Gramsci explains, is not enforced merely by the State.The State is only the "outer ditch" behind which stands a powerful system of "fortresses and earth works", a network of cultural institutions and values which buttress the rule and domination of the ruling classes. Such culture is mediated and transmitted through a complex web of social relations and the consequent social structures. The family, the community, caste, religion, its places of worship like temples, churches, mosques, gurudwaras etc are the institutions that constantly feed the fodder to shape values and opinions bolstering ruling class hegemony of `ideas'. In the process, they create the `myth' of a `common culture'. This `common culture’ is nothing but the selective transmission of class dominated values through the various institutions referred to above. Further, it would be extremely wrong to conclude, as the communalists seek to do today, that our `common culture' is immutable. Take for example, the case of the ruling classes in Central America. For over four centuries, they embraced Roman Catholicism. But when the clergy, in one country after another, chose to embrace liberation theology and sided with the oppressed, the same ruling classes, overnight so to speak, shed their "centuries old culture" and embraced protestantism! `Common culture' is both invoked and discarded when it suits the interests of the ruling classes. Culture, therefore, constitutes the ideological formation that advances the interests of the ruling classes. On the obverse, also arises the culture of the oppressed that opposes such culture of the ruling classes. Culture thus becomes the arena of class struggle in India today. Under capitalism, while culture as an ideological formation bolsters the rule of capital, the forms of culture go through a process of commodification, as everything else in society. Much has been written about this process and needs no repetition. The cultural products of capitalism are aimed at achieving social control rather than expressions of social creativity. The exchange value of these products always supercede their use value. This, of course, does not hold for those cultural products that emerge from dissent and opposition to capitalism. Globalisation is a qualitatively different stage in the evolution of capitalism and imperialism. This is a stage marked by immense growth of finance capital and its internationalisation. These enormous amounts of capital seek quick profits, mainly from speculation across the globe. They, thus, need facilities for free flow of capital without any restrictions across countries. Its tendency is to negate geographical borders hence sovereignty of independent countries. Alongside, the tremendous concentration of wealth and assets in giant multinational corporations (including the cultural industry, for example, the merger of Information, Communications and Entertainment Corporations (ICE)), who control the bulk of world's production and distribution of goods, also seeks to convert the world into a single global cultural market. Economists have well documented this process and we shall not go into those details here. The cultural hegemony that such a globalisation process seeks is expressed in the need to create a homogenisation of public taste. The more homogenous the taste the easier it is to develop technologies for the mechanical reproduction of `cultural products' for large masses. Commercialisation of culture is a natural corollary of such globalisation. See for instance, the sudden popularisation of western concepts like "Valentines' day" etc, amongst our urban youth accompanied by the sale of universal products of cards and gifts. In many third world countries, illiteracy may be rampant but the image of Walt Disney cartoon figures are familiar to the children! Viewed in terms of class hegemony, the culture of globalisation seeks to divorce people from their actual realities of day to day life. Culture here acts not as an appeal to the aesthetic, but as a distraction, diversion from pressing problems of poverty and misery. Consequently, it seeks to disrupt the energy of the people and their struggle to change and improve their miserable existence. As Michael Parenti says, "A far greater part of our culture is now aptly designated as "mass culture", "popular culture", and even "media culture", owned and operated mostly by giant corporations whose major concur is to accumulate wealth and make the world safe for their owners, the goal being exchange value rather than use value, social control rather than social creativity. Much of mass culture is organised to distract us from thinking too much about larger realities. The fluff and puffery of entertainment culture crowds out more urgent and nourishing things. By constantly appealing to the lowest common denominator, a sensationalist popular culture lowers the common denominator still further. Public tastes become still more attuned to cultural junk food, the big hype, the trashy, flashy, wildly violent, instantly stimulating, and desperately superficial offerings. "Such fare often has real ideological content. Even if supposedly apolitical in its intent, entertainment culture (which is really the entertainment industry) is political in its impact, propagating images and values that are often downright sexist, racist, consumerist, authoritarian, militaristic, and imperialist." (Monthly Review, February 1999) Both neo-liberalism and communalism thus seek the homogenisation of public tastes. The former to strengthen its cultural hegemony and to reap superprofits. The latter, in addition to these, to pave the way for the establishment of a rabidly intolerant theocratic State – the RSS vision of `Hindu Rashtra’. Its slogan of "one country, one people, one culture" can acquire a real status and meaning only through such homogenisation negating the very fundamental foundations of India's rich cultural diversity. Further, both neo-liberalism and communalism seek to divert the attention of the people away from day-to-day problems and importantly weaken their struggle against the existing exploitative order. Both use culture as an important conduit to achieve this. VII How does one then combat such a cultural onslaught? An onslaught that drives away truly popular people's culture. At the first instance, it is necessary to bring back on to the cultural agenda people's issues, whose obfuscation and erasure is the raison d'etre of the culture of neo-liberalism and communalism. This is paramount to counter the cultural hegemony that they seek. Further, apart from using and innovating upon the existing forms, new forms of popular culture need to be evolved. These are necessary in order to combat the power of the electronic media that is aggressively propagating the culture of neo-liberalism and communalism as well as slowly but surely eroding normal social interaction by confining people particularly children and youth to the TV sets. More importantly, corporate media today has become the propaganda arm of these twin dangers that assault people’s consciousness in a manner to retard the advance of our people and prevent them from moving towards the emancipatory goals of liberation. This is not for a moment to suggest that existing forms should be discarded or to suggest that once other forms are created, the battle has been won. All new forms and innovations may soon be co-opted by the cultural moguls of globalisation. The point that needs to be underlined, however, is that in terms of content, people's issues must be brought on to centre of the cultural agenda and in terms of form creative innovations are necessary. Only through such efforts can the struggle to combat the present cultural onslaught be strengthened. The carrying forward of such a struggle in the cultural arena is the cultural praxis, today. This requires the devising of new forms to bring people’s issues as the central focus of cultural agenda, simultaneously consolidating the rich syncretic cultural content of our civilisational advance attained so far. This would be the best manner to honour Safdar’s memory today. In conclusion, let us recollect what Bertolt Brecht once famously said, when asked, during the period of the rise of fascism in Germany: “Will there be singing in the dark times? “Yes, there will be singing of the dark times”. Culture is the comprehensive expression of the irrepressible urge for freedom, for liberation – the human essence. (Concluded)