Labour's pop culture project is doomed

Podium; From a speech by the cultural critic to the Social Market Foundation on the limits of `new' Britain

`

THIS MAY seem like a mad thing to say but, without Schubert and Titian, nothing makes sense. Obviously you could substitute any number of other names, or things, or even institutions, but the point would remain the same. Human culture is defined by and exists in relation to certain works. Those works may seem arbitrary, but, in fact, they are not. They are not arbitrary because they are, above all, transmissible.

I am fairly confident that any human being who ever lived could be brought to an understanding of Schubert. I am even more confident that the knowledge of Schubert - or even the mere fact of his existence - is a way of assessing the world in which we find ourselves. Put more generally: the idea of a history of attainment - of great works - is essential to our ability to maintain a viable civilisation. Without it, we may as well abandon ourselves to a scientific and technocratic - and, therefore, uncivilised - future.

Clearly the idea of great works is at odds with the idea that we are all artists, and anything can be art. It is, therefore, at odds with pop culture as an ideology.

Although, as I have indicated, great works may emerge from pop culture, they will only do so by default. The culture itself - as a culture - is inimical to the idea of the masterpiece, because that idea carries overtones of anti-spontaneity.

It also creates problems for the complex metaphysics of equality. Plainly, if I rate masterpieces as highly as I do, then I am, fundamentally, not equal to Schubert. This does not trouble me too much, as I am grateful that Schubert is there to give me a glimpse of something higher and better than I could ever be.

But it does, necessarily, trouble those who take an excessively fundamentalist view of equality. And such people are no longer, I believe, in a minority. A hyper-individualised society which treats all experiences as equal will inevitably deny the possibility of any superior experience - such as that felt in the presence of a masterpiece.

This idea appears in the insistence that current pop forms are exactly the same as earlier forms generally regarded as high art. It is routine these days to hear this view expressed in such forms as: "If Dickens were alive today he would write soap operas." Or: "Mozart could have made a fortune out of musicals." Neither is likely to be true, but both are consoling to a certain ultra-democratic vanity.

But, for New Labour, the acceptance of his view means that the newness of their project is doomed from the start. For, remember, the whole point of their "Third Way" was to soften the effects of the free market on the culture. But this is precisely what is made impossible by their adoration of pop culture.

For pop culture now is the globalised free market in its most raw and rampant form. Michael Jackson, until his fall from grace, was a front for the marketing of Pepsi-Cola. And every major rock tour now arrives bedecked with sponsorship. Overwhelmingly, what is being sold - the drinks, the clothes, the software, the hamburgers, the whole lifestyle - is American- made. It is the decor and the cash flow of the global market place.

New Labour thus finds itself promoting that to which it should be most profoundly opposed. And it does so because, apparently, it can see no alternative. "The People" - to whom Blair frequently and cynically appeals - must appear to have the last word. And, as far as culture is concerned, that last word is pop.

The deep problem here is that it has become difficult, if not impossible, to separate the concepts of democracy and the market. Buying something has become a vote more powerful and more meaningful than any voting slip inserted into a ballot box.

As conventional democracy declines and electoral turnouts fall, so market democracy triumphs by basing itself on the statistics of millions of buying decisions. Our political identity becomes co-extensive with our consumption patterns, because nobody troubles to make the distinction between the selfishness of material desire and the generosity of a free and rationally responsible choice.

In short, the New Labour solution is no solution at all, it merely sugars the pill of the cultural disruptions of the global market.

And it is certainly reductive and opposed to the idea of freedom. For it treats people as marketing statistics and it accepts the persuasive power of the market. If we accept this idea, then we reduce ourselves to our buying decisions. The next campaign for Nike or Coca-Cola will replace the Party Political Broadcast as the true political reality.

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child