3.03 Democracy & Culture

The sort of processes which can very quickly produce large scale common responses to events as diverse as the tragic death of a popular princess,[1] or the introduction of untested genetic modifications into food production, happen within the oral realm. (However much the process is informed by the newspapers, expert reports or networking on the Internet). Humans are highly attuned to the responses of those around them. Our fundamental needs to be social require this on the most fundamental level of communications. We need to co-ordinate our responses to be able to act in concert and achieve social coherence.

The promotion of consensus is much misunderstood and feared. It seems to suggest to some people either a social homogeneity imposed by a majority or a consensus manufactured by an intellectual elite. Either way it leads to an intolerance of difference and a lack of appreciation of diversity. It seems to imply a process of exclusion which leads to the worst excesses of populist bigotry or colonial oppression.[2]

Such fears can confuse an understanding of culture that is fundamentally a process of reaching agreements. These agreements do not have to be wholesale or imposed. They do not necessitate intolerance of those who demure. Sub-cultures form, exist, dissolve and echo in retrospect. Cultures in which millions of individuals are active are nothing if not dynamic, multi-layered, fractious, in much the same way that Foucault has shown that the progress of the discourses of knowledge to be less orderly than our received ideas of progress.[3]

A culture is also a pool of diverse resources, in which traffic passes between the literate and the oral, the superordinate and subordinate, the village and the metropolis; it is an arena of conflictual elements, which require some compelling pressure - as, for example, nationalism or prevalent religious orthodoxy or class consciousness - to take form as a 'system'. And indeed the very term 'culture' with its cosy invocation of consensus may serve to distract attention from social and cultural contradictions, from the fractures and oppositions within the whole.  (E.P. Thompson 1991 p6)

However for a culture to be identifiable, for communication to be successful, in spite of all the chaos and noise, there has to be a basic set of agreed signs - as with a spoken language.

The question remains as to exactly how this process of qualitative assessment, which is at the centre of cultures purpose, occurs in practice, and what part is played by the formal arts. This thesis cannot answer such an ambitious question but it can attempt to further articulate the question, to revive Williams's emphasis on the symbiotic relation of culture and democracy and to propose some fecund ways in which this occurs.

In contemporary Britain small innovating groups or subcultures make actions in public fora which serve as proposals which can be more or less widely discussed, adapted, and then taken up or ignored. The freer these groups are of institutional and particularly state institutional framing and guidance, and the more inclusive in membership, the more open they are to the desires of the population around them rather than being guided by the needs of the system.[4]

Such groups of artists are often not in positions to build and maintain archives, publish knowledge and set up legitimating rituals for their work. They are usually unfunded which also makes it difficult for them to persist with their activity for very long.


There seems to be a simple continuity that can be proposed between the processes of culture and democracy. Both are fundamentally about reaching mutual understanding as a basis on which to co-ordinate our actions.

Culture may be seen as particularly important for the direct evaluation of the environment as experienced through the senses. The results have a performative or material form which can be critically re-evaluated at any time. Democracy can be seen as the reaching for a more linguistically abstracted process of rational argumentation to achieve agreements as a basis of policy and legislation.

There seems little reason to make any hard and fast boundary between these categories; one flows surely into the other. But the separation of culture and democracy, both as objects of knowledge and practices, is a historical fact that has been reified in institutional and material forms. This separation seriously impoverishes democracy and hollows out culture in the process. A recent consultation document from the Cultural Strategy Partnership for London is pervaded by assumptions of a top-down management of culture which defines culture as a source of wealth and entertainment but almost completely ignore the elemental function of culture as pointed out by Raymond Williams.[5]

This distortion of the purposes of culture puts us in danger. It tries to replace the ability of a people to respond to their conditions with a culturally integrated leadership of managers and experts whose self-interests are inevitably modulated by their dependence on state funding. Of course people do ignore this and get involved in the independent production of raw cultural responses. Exploding Cinema is a good example.

This separation may be why the accounts of democracy I studied barely recognise the contribution of culture to the momentous changes they describe. It is not at all clear from these accounts how cultural creativity took part in the processes of communication that led up to the public dramas of revolution.[6]

If culture can be seen as a continuum which underpins overtly 'political' processes of negotiation on how best we organise socially, then I need to find a theory that is most appropriate for the elaboration of this line of thought. Jurgen Habermas seems to have produced the richest body of theory in this area and I will now go on to look into his theory in more depth.




[1] See 'The Heart of the Matter: Diana, democracy and popular culture', Stefan Szczelkun (Working Press pamphlet 1997 16pp)


[2] This discussion is one of the main strands of critique against Habermas and will be discussed further in my chapter 'Critiques of the Theory of Communicative Action'.


[3] Again, this refers to Foucault's 'The Archaeology of Knowledge' which is discussed later.


[4] Open access, inclusion and democracy being core themes in the collectives I have considered in Chapter 1.


[5] 'Culture and the City - ten ways to make a difference', a consultation document from The Cultural Strategy Partnership for London' (www.viscount.org.uk/csp) December 1999. This was a pressure group of established agencies putting their case to the new Mayor of London.


[6] Books read include: Anthony Arblaster's Democracy, second edition (OUP 1996 orig. 1994); Murray Bookchin's The Third Revolution: popular movements in the revolutionary era Vol 1 (Cassell 1996) - an account of the English, American and French Revolution; Peter Kropotkin's The Great French Revolution (Schocken Books 1971, orig. 1890); D.G. Wright's Popular Radicalism: the working class experience 1780-1880 (Longman 1988) - includes some references to Chartist culture; Dorothy Thompson's Outsiders: class, gender and nation (Verso 1993) - on Chartism, refers to the working class in the beginning of the C19th as 'literate and sophisticated' (p55). Link to excluded draft chapter.