The ALP & cultural democracy

Tony Moore

A key challenge for the Australian Labor Party (ALP) is how to encourage the move from an industrial to a post-industrial society without marginalising its traditional supporters, who not unreasonably expect Labor to safeguard their interests. Specifically, Labor needs policies that will enhance the participation of young people growing up in working class communities, not just in new economic opportunities, but as citizens in our national life. Access to career paths in the new economy is vital, but equally important to citizenship is cultivating a cultural democracy in which all, and not just a privileged few, participate. Just as Mark Latham is urging Labor to tap into the economic aspiration in the outer suburbs and regions, so must Labor governments embrace the cultural energy and forms of the suburbs. To do this Labor must abandon its instinct to impose on people abstract schemes dreamed up by apparatchiks and marketeers, and instead observe and harness the reality of people's lives.

Older reformers on the Left often despair at the consumerist habits of young Australians, who seem addicted to the siren song of international (especially American) corporations pumping out pop songs, films and TV, fashion fads and computer games. These distractions have been seducing young people (and their parents) for much of the last century - and it's important to note that most of the pundits who rail against US cultural imperialism brainwashing our youth have an old Byrds or Beach Boys album in the closet. The commonly prescribed remedy is a healthy dose of high or avant-garde culture, subsidised institutions like galleries, opera and writers festivals, and some classic British drama on the ABC. But too much passive consumption, whether high or low, is no good for anyone. Luckily the old punk slogan 'Do It Yourself' is alive and well within youth subcultures, on the internet, in local hip hop and indie music, in zines, in home videos and in young people's play. The challenge is for Labor to listen rather than lecture.

In the areas of arts and culture Labor governments have traditionally sought to bring middle class cultural enlightenment to the 'disadvantaged', through the education system, through publicly funded media, and through arts grants that assist those deemed to have talent to become professional artists, film-makers, writers, performers. The pervading ideology is the romantic idea of artists as a heroic caste separate from the rest of us, married to the liberal idea of social mobility for the best of the working class. But this approach does little to connect grass roots cultural energy to a wider national culture. Nor have Labor arts policies dealt with the growing division between the inaccessible and taxpayer subsidised elite arts practice of the lucky few and the commercial youth culture of the majority.

The challenge for the ALP's policy review process is to devise a cultural vision that cultivates and connects cultural production (including creative consumption) among young people; that makes a special effort to tap into the diverse cultural energies and visions and languages of working class youth, whether in the suburbs, inner cities or the bush. These days that culture is ethnically diverse, a patchwork of lifestyle, subcultural, and global in outlook. The real cultural potential lies here - with a group that is rarely asked to step onto centre stage, but a group that is far more representative of mainstream Australia than the latest intake of NIDA students or auters graduating from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.

The working class lock-out

The ALP has not had a big interest in elevating working class youth culture to the centre of public culture, in the same way that Blair and previous Labour governments have done in the UK. Federal and state Labor governments in the 1980s and 1990s adopted a crude, monolithic concept of 'youth': shorn of social diversity and - strangely for a 'Labor' party - blind to class differences. The boxes of various 'disadvantaged' categories were ticked - disabled, aboriginal, women, rural and isolated - but class, as a positive culture, a way of making sense of life, was rarely considered. Good intentions, patronising politics and professionally administered programs filled glossy government reports but failed to address the 'crime of the decade', as school leavers from working class backgrounds encountered a restructuring labour market that locked them out of the new jobs and prosperity of the 1980s and 90s.

Many long-term unemployment drifted into aberrant behaviour, delinquency, substance abuse, ill-health, and, increasingly, suicide (R. Eckersley, 1989, p. 3; Polk and Tait, 1989, p. 22). Others just became passive welfare recipients or under-employed, never quite living up to their potential, a lost generation(Polk and Tait, 1989, p.18). Both the ABC documentary Nobody's Children and the 1990 Burdekin Report into Our Homeless Children warned that Australia risked creating a permanent youth underclass extending into the next generation if urgent action was not taken (ABC Television documentaries, 1989; B. Burdekin, 1989). Sadly this appears to have happened. On the latest evidence one fifth of 20 to 25 year olds is at risk of falling into long-term unemployment despite improved economic conditions. A recent report, Australia's Young Adults: the Deepening Divide, concluded that over the last two decades young adults up to age 24 have actually slipped backwards in job prospects and income levels, stuck in work that is low-skilled, part-time and casual, largely in small companies offering little training or security (Dusseldorp Skills Forum, 1999, pp. 2-5). This shrinking of possibilities, rather than ethnicity, underpins any escalation in 'gang violence' in working class suburbs.

The Howard government blames high youth wages, inadequate skills and a poor work ethic, but most commentators now see the 'radical transformation of work' as the prime cause of a structural unemployment among teenagers and young adults (Freeland, 1986; Polk and Tait, 1989; Eckersley, 1988). These changes have eliminated not just the entry level occupations, but also the career pathways within industries. Unemployment has hit some regions and types of work much harder than others (Polk and Tait, 1989, p. 19). Youth unemployment, hovering between 15 and 20 per cent for twenty years now, is unequally distributed, with kids in low socio-economic areas suffering levels as high as 40 per cent, while young people in high socio-economic areas, when not in full-time education, have little difficulty finding work. Skilled and semi-skilled blue collar employment in manufacturing has declined while the information and service sectors have greatly expanded, offering the extremes of high skilled, well paid jobs for some and low-skilled, poorly-paid under employment for others. Children from privileged and educated families, together with the smart and the lucky, went to university and had a chance. But the children from Labor's heartland were the casualties of change.

New youth cultures

Labor's social antennae is locked on the past, tuned to an idealised notion of working class popular culture that emerged in the 1890s along with the party's birth and reached its apotheosis in the industrial 1940s and 1950s. The self-referential obsession with 'True Believers' disguises how out of touch many in the Labor leadership are with the fragmented identity, ethnic and pop cultures that define life for many citizens who would normally look to a social democratic party to safeguard their interests. The growing diversity within Australian society is especially marked younger Australians, where the impacts of immigration, economic restructuring and new media are played out. The ALP's continuing failure to move beyond the platitudes of youth rights and come to terms with the messy reality of post-industrial youth subcultures threatens the loss of a new generation to meaningful citizenship and social democratic politics.

Before revamping the ill fated Knowledge Nation, Labor's policy reviewers should watch Head On and read Loaded by Christos Tsiolkas to get an idea about the polyglot identity confusion that is a crucible of creativity out in the suburbs. As personified by Ari, the troubled young man living between worlds, boys and girls assemble multi-identities from the material surrounding them as they grow up - the immigration experience, family, religion and politics, sexual options, global TV, the internet and music culture, neighbourhood norms and opportunity. In their protean, constantly morphing lifestyles, young people have rejected the 'generational' roles and mass labels that have typified twentieth century marketing and social management. Far from 'undermining our way of life', the clash of cultures in the suburbs is potentially a new wellspring of hybrid creativity, coming from the ground up, like cubism, jazz and rock & roll in the last century.

But Labor displays the social reformers missionary zeal to educate the masses; to impose culture on the unenlightened from the top down. The ALP has forgotten what social democracy was about. In its debate about the Socialist Objective Labor is confusing means with ends. The public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange was only a means of enabling all people, not just the wealthy, to achieve their full potential as human beings. Yet Labor today is obsessed with economic means - uninspiring utilitarianism that tells us nothing about what it is to be liberated humans. What are the cultural policy implications of this humanist understanding of social democracy? In the late nineteenth century William Morris believed that any socialism worthy of the name would use art to liberate people from alienating mass production. Labor should look at William Morris' ideas that the aim of socialism was to encourage a creative community where all had equal access to artistic expression - creativity and imagination is what makes us human and binds us to each other socially. Blair's one-time culture supremo David Puttman referred to the centrality of the Morris vision of popular creativity in Blair's Cool Britannia as a theory informing the government's approach to the arts, to film, to the BBC, British design and on to pop music.

A democratic culture policy for Labor

In 1975 veteran art historian Bernard Smith had a go at the Whitlam government for pursuing an arts policy that was at best romantic and at worst elitist. Romanticism had cleaved art from craft, and made artists the elect, secular gods among mere mortals. The policy of the Labor government's Australia Council was to reward excellence, dispensing money to those assessed by an elite to have the 'gift'. Smith dismissed this approach as romantic clap trap and preferred the idea promoted by Ruskin and William Morris in the late 19th century and subsequently developed in the UK by the arts and crafts movement that sought to promote the creativity of all citizens, beginning in the schools.

In Australia the Victorian reformers who founded art galleries, universities, public libraries and mechanics institutes, like James Smith and John Woolley, shared the view that culture should be accessible to everyone in their daily life. But by Federation the romantic mythology of the artist genius had taken over, espoused by painters and poets keen to distinguish themselves from the philistines. According to this view, artists are born with the gift of an artistic sensibility or intuition, and while training helps, art cannot be taught. The modernist avant-garde continued the romantic paradigm: art continues to be created by an elitist minority and is addressed to an elitist minority.

The new Australia Council risked becoming a conspiracy of the few against the many, as the elites chosen to choose excellence imposed their minority tastes on the public and rewarded those within the elite. Smith asked Gough to look at Australia's approach to sport for its arts policy. (This was before the Australian Institute of Sport was established.) The great Australian cricketers and swimmers arose from a vibrant participation of all kids in school and local team sport. We still get our Bradman's, but everyone, not just professional sportsmen, are assumed able to play sport. Bernard Smith reckoned everyone is an artist, just like we can all play sport, and recommended that government intervention go into energising the state of arts instruction in state schools, including fine art, creative writing, music etc. Most kids love to draw, paint, sing and tell jokes, but their natural talent and inclination gets knocked out of them as they move through high school. 'If your object is excellence', Smith observed, 'you begin with a broad base: elitism fails because it insists upon a narrow base; its apex fails to reach the limits of the possible.' But Gough bought Blue Poles and set up the Oz Council to pick winners instead. Labor's arts Tsars remain enthralled by capital A artists framed by romantic notions of the natural genius - look at Keating's Creative Fellowships.

Labor's current arts and culture policy, now under review, seeks to balance government support for excellence with 'giving everyone a chance to participate' and acknowledges that '(t)here needs to be emphasis on accessible forms of art, culture and leisure activities, not merely on elite performance.' This builds on the best elements of Creative Nation, that provided valuable seed grants to budding digital creators then outside the 'arts' discourse. However, under Labor the real money will continue to go to the promotion of an arts elite, the policy stating that a 'fundamental element of any aspect of government funding in arts and culture must include priority for the development of excellence and the maximisation of the opportunities for Australians to develop their talent to the maximum and to display it to other Australians and the world'. The priority remains the merit based peer judged funding dispersed through the Australia Council. Although the ALP believes there 'must be a recognition of the importance of amateur art', the policy insists that Commonwealth's role is in the 'development and support of professional artist'. But Labor 'will continue its support of the provision of art, drama and music education in the public school system'. This leaves the door open for some imaginative policy about how to expand this education and improve and monitor its quality, relevance and outcomes.

Labor makes a strong commitment to providing equity in access to participating in the arts and culture, and enshrines cultural diversity in the arts by listing the usual disadvantaged groups: the disabled, women, Aborigines, Torres Strait Islanders, migrants, youth and, to its credit, the regions and 'the outer suburbs of our cities'. But as usual Labor leaves out the working class, people who would actually make up the majority in all these groups. So odd that despite all the available evidence that shows profound economic division in Australia, and the clear backlash against Labor by traditional blue collar workers and the under-employed middle class, labor just can't bring itself to mention class, let alone talk about the positive contribution working class cultures can make to our arts. The problem is that equity in provision shorn of a socio-economic dimension, coupled with a funding emphasis on producing 'artists', ends up doing little more than diversifying the upper middle class arts elite, when the social-democratic goal should be a creative people, who lift the bar so much higher for the best regardless of where they come from.

In cultural policy the ALP needs to move away from romantic ideas that progressive culture lies with an elite of excellence, or the 'avant-garde', and engage with the creativity and vitality of popular culture. In William Morris' day arts and crafts seemed to offer hope, but today the immersement of young people in digital technology, the internet, music and identity subcultures suggests a way forward for a postmodern assertion of identity beyond the market. Significantly, unwaged cultural practices that contribute to a community often lead to careers in the new economy. Kids are building incomes and careers out of their cultural pursuits. Rather than imposing soon-to-be-obsolete vocational courses, Labor needs to encourage through community infrastructure the actual creative, productive activities of the young. The trick is to ensure an adequate minimum income for the unwaged and poorly paid during this process.

Moribund cultural institutions

It will not be easy to enfranchise Australian working class youth due to years of neglecting the public education system, which has left many, many working class kids without the cultural keys and tools to gain entry to the public culture. Schools and TAFEs are the greatest cultural institutions this country has, yet state and federal labor governments have colluded with Coalition governments in allowing them to run down and dumb down, downgrading knowledge and cultural literacy in favor of a fashionable dash to put a computer and a self esteem course in every class room, while children's curiosity withers on the vine.

Labor rightly boasts about revolutionary increase in the number of children completing year 12, as modern Australia needs a smarter, better educated workforce. But the reality is an underfunded, unreformed public school system unable to cope with the influx of kids with very different needs who don't want to be there. The stick and carrot policy of penalising the unemployed to encourage them to remain in education ignores the studies showing the difficulties working class kids have with the competitive academic curriculum of the senior years of high school (Connell et. al., 1982). Senior school participation is lowest in areas where the traditional working class culture is proud of manual work and the wages it used to command and is culturally hostile to the abstract way schools teach knowledge and credential ability. Upper middle class kids with tertiary educated parents do well because schools teach and assess a culture with which they are intimately familiar. The 'problem' with public education is not the quality of teaching, but the clash between the upper middle class culture of the curriculum and the cultures children bring to the school from their families, peers and the media (R. Eckersley, 1989 p.7).

The fundamental reform of public secondary schooling is a priority, so that education can truly be a bridge from the old society to the new for those least able to make the crossing. State governments embarked on a similar project at the beginning of the twentieth century to shepherd potential workers into the industrial age, and our next federal Labor government should have the vision to erect an education system for the new age (Sherrington and Irving, 1989, p.11).

In the meantime cultural inequality is growing. While kids from blue collar families struggle to get enough marks for uni entrance and fail to get the presentation skills to score a job at DJs, private school children in better off suburbs and the lucky few who get into selective state high schools continue to dominate the cultural industries and grant allocations. For all the talk about access and equity programs and disadvantage funding from Labor in the 80s and 90s, the upper middle class Anglo flavour of Australian arts remains entrenched, especially in the 'avant-garde' and 'classic' arts, but equally in film and TV. The result is a white bread, middle class public culture that has little sensitivity to the nuances of class, style, ethnicity and hybridity that makes modern Australian society interesting. Too many Australian films, TV drama, plays and novels reflect a safe, classless, predictable world view, even when they attempt to tell a gritty story from the other side of the tracks. You rarely encounter the unexpected, the shocking, the dangerous, the strange. For the reason, look to the privileged pool from which our writers, directors and national story tellers are recruited by institutions like the National Film Television and Radio School, NIDA or the ABC. Labor's worthy disadvantaged funding schemes in the 80s and 90s for NESBs, women, and Aborigines failed to ever embrace working class people. There was no box to tick if you came from a comprehensive state school. Labor could never grasp that it is the culture of ordinary people that can revive Australian public culture, rather than middle class culture that must save 'disadvantaged' people.

The art school model

Public education must take into account the diversity of its clients, and look inventively at ways of interesting working class adolescents in the story of humanity and of equipping them with the skills to flourish.

In the UK, Labor governments supported art schools, mainly for creative working class kids who dropped out of the comprehensives or would not sit still in their selective state grammar schools. A number of studies (the best being Art Into Pop by Simon Frith) have documented the contribution of these schools to British music style and pop art, from the Beatles, the Stones and the Who to Vivien Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. Creative but non-academic students in Britain have long enjoyed the option of attending an art school in the senior years. The art school structure creating an outlet for a generation of troubled, working class youth. John Lennon, Pete Townsend, any English rock band you could name since the 50s, had at least one member who spent time in art school. Consequently working class art has had a far more sympathetic run in Britain, helping to shape its pop culture.

Victorian aesthetic champion John Ruskin kick started art schools because he saw that England lacked an edge when compared with France in the 19th century. It was taken up by Labour and turned into a social democratic alternative to the Oxford education. Rather than a middle class emphasis on reading and writing, these schools value another type of literacy. As writer McKenzie Wark told Worker's Online:

As it turned out in the 60s and again in the 80s and 90s, it was about media skills. It gave you, not just your John Lennons but your Allan Parkers - a whole range of really significant cultural figures, from working class backgrounds who went to institutions that dealt with the fact that were often a bit unhappy and developed skills which didn't necessarily fit with the middle class aspiration.

They learnt pop culture literacy, translated it into skills and made the connections to intervene in their culture. Whether it was in the Face magazine or on the BBC in the Young Ones or on album cover art.

In Australia, the Bulletin of the 1880s and 90s had a similar philosophy. Its founding editor J. F. Archibald argued that everyone has at least one good yarn or picture in them, and put his money where his mouth was, inviting contributions from ordinary folk and paying published contributors. The 'Elizbethan-style' popular energy the Bullie unleashed in those years, tapping into shearing sheds, docks and pubs etc, would seem to have proven old Archibald right. By asking working class Australians for their stories they found house-painter-come-poet Henry Lawson!

In Australia today, the pop music scene is probably the most democratic art form, and it owes as much to government intervention through JJJ, and a string of ABC TV showcases like Countdown, Recovery and now Fly TV as to the commercial music conglomerates. The same could be achieved for creative teenagers in magazines, games, fashion, TV, comics, animation, visual art, films. In a post-industrial society, where the manufacturing jobs are in China, these are the skills that will create wealth and exports. Value-added culture remains one of Britain's big wealth generators. We make more money flogging music to the world than we make flogging sugar, yet Austrade and the economic departments persist in seeing culture as side-line to wealth, a distraction from the real business of silos and ingots and land. Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates know the future in the developed world is with information. Labor could bravely elevate culture as a key economic portfolio, linked with communication and education policy: that would send the message that was lost in Barry Jones' spaghetti and meatballs.

The big challenge for Labor is to help young people from working class backgrounds to find work in the new expanding areas of the information economy. The whole clever country, education rhetoric that surfaced first with Hawke and then Kim Beazley plays in a really ambivalent way. It's telling a lot of people that 'you can't live the life that you've lead, you've got to become someone else, you've got to become middle class to get on - and, by the way, you're going to have to pay for it as well'. This does not play well with the electorate. What you should be saying to people is: 'your culture as it stands is already a great resource; what we need to do is stick your kids through the training to figure out how to use it, how to make an income with it'.

The next federal Labor government must create, and creatively fund, new public culture infrastructure to tap the cultural energies to be found beyond the wealthy, affluent suburbs and inner cities: reformed schools that emphasise creativity and local youth culture, an Australian version of the British art schools to supplement the academic curriculum and TAFE, structures and means for life-long learning, a revival of community based resources like skill share, public access media. Labor must make friends with small business, the incubator and engine of the information economy. Cultural innovation occurs in small self-managed units that cater for a diversity of groups that make up the market, with a de-emphasis on assembly-lines, mass markets and vertical control by hierarchies of management. The times favour younger producers open to new ideas and flexible ways of working. The challenge is for Labor to win this constituency by freeing up seed capital for new enterprises.

History shows that the well off are very good at gobbling up public resources, getting the best seats on the art gravy train. Institutions will need to be decentralised in working class neighbourhoods and operate from the ground up rather than the top down. A new book, The Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida, observes quite correctly that economic prosperity can return to depressed towns and regions that establish universities, encourage cultural diversity, attract young knowledge workers and are sympathetic to bohemian and gay lifestyles. Child friendliness and a wide ethnic mix help to. But what role do the original inhabitants of rust belt towns play in this gentrified renaissance? A Labor government's vision for prosperity, whether in old industrial towns like Wollongong or new suburbs on the urban fringe, must be to give the people who already live there the tools to energise the new cultural industries.

There is cause for optimism. The passing of the industrial era has caused great dislocation, but it is an opportunity for a true liberation of human potential as younger people respond to the increase in information, the loosening of Fordist discipline, the end of fixed life-long roles and the shedding of mass culture. In the absence of steady careers, more and more young people are finding identity in what they do rather than in what they are paid to do. What was so good about hierarchical, boring industrial jobs anyway? Why have social democrats become the nostalgic defenders of a postwar Keynesian settlement that the New Left originally believed to be pretty de-humanising. Socialism was always a means to an end - an unleashing of our full humanity.

There is no going back. At the century's end Australia's middle aged leaders are locked in a battle for competing nostalgias. Howard's Liberals yearn for a mythical white bread, picket fenced 1950s without today's noisy minorities, while too many on the left cling to the Whitlam renaissance as the measure of all progress. But young Australians are creating the future regardless of government plans and it behoves the ALP to embrace their cultural reality.


Tony Moore is Publisher of Pluto Press and a member of the Evatt Foundation's Executive Committee. He was a member of the ABC National Advisory Council and a staff program-maker from 1988 to 1997. This article develops ideas raised in a conversation between academic and columnist McKenzie Wark, academic Anna Munster and publisher Tony Moore, published as a chapter in E-Change.


 

Suggested citation
Moore, Tony, 'The ALP & cultural democracy', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 6 (sup.), October 2002.<http://evatt.org.au/papers/alp-cultural-democracy.html>