A couple quick reflections on culture, policy and politics

kulturaSome colleagues asked me to put together a quick presentation on culture and future of democracy in SEE. Here’s what I came up with.


Competing cultural models and prospects for democracy

The fundamental thesis I would offer is that the approach to cultural policy adopted in any state will be closely related to the dominant way in which democracy is understood. There is probably no good justification to offer a “hard” interpretation whereby a particular kind of democracy produces a particular kind of culture, or the other way around. The relative autonomy (Hall) of culture from other institutions is of variable strength, but probably greater to the degree that authority in a state is contested or incompletely established (as it is in most Southeast European states). Rather, it is possible to talk about tendencies and inclinations.

The term “democracy” is probably as variously understood and as contested as any term in any language, probably on a rank with terms like “truth” and “justice.” It is used as often to denote states and parties (German Democratic Republic, Srpska Demokratska Stranka) that are not democratic as ones that are. In public discourse on democracy the term is as likely to be used to signify concepts loosely related to political structure – like efficiency, transparency and responsiveness – as concepts closely related to political structure. What we can talk about more concretely are the goals associated with democracy, and the dominant purposes and motivations of political elites. The list of options here might be thought of as a listing of the highest probable availabilities, but is by no means exhaustive.

  • Democracy as a programme of enlightenment: Under this assumption the purpose of all kinds of leadership (cultural, political and otherwise) is to bring the public to the level required by the ambitions of governance. In the way this is formulated it is already apparent that there may be an assumption of an existing or threatened inadequacy – whether this is seen as deriving from “backwardness” or from an anticipated denaturing effect of market mechanisms. The political response to a perceived threat is to enhance support for (a narrow subset of) high culture, to advocate initiatives for the codification of cultural standards and language in particular, and to seek means of diffusion as a primary strategy of elevating the culture. This might be regarded as a classical approach to cultural policy – it draws on 19th century cultural interventionists such as Schiller (“The theatre as moral institution”) and Arnold (“Culture and anarchy”) as principal references. Noble in purpose, the character of cultural policy under this conception is authoritarian.
  • Democracy as an ongoing project of creating a democratic public: While this assumption is closely related to the preceding one it encourages a cultural policy more oriented to supplementing popular and commercial offerings than to displacing them. This is the approach of many of the world’s largest and most influential national broadcasting systems (see: BBC and PBS mission statements — slides). The idea is at least mildly liberal-interventionist, relying on the assumption that by means of public support a quality of information, education and cultural content can be offered that the market cannot be relied on to provide. As the mission statements imply, there is a strong focus on education, sometimes in the form of formal (Open University) or informal (documentary programming) adult education, and more frequently in the form of early childhood education (Sesame Street). While generally non-authoritarian in approach, projects operating under this rubric are confronted by constant challenges from private and commercial cultural sectors on the grounds that they are unnecessary or offer unfair competition.
  • (There may exist a subcategory to this model, in which among the purposes of democracy is regarded the creation or maintenance of a diverse public. In this case there is likely to be a strong emphasis on providing cultural content showcasing minority cultures or in minority languages – this is explicitly encouraged by EU cultural policy, for example)
  • Democracy as a programme of unification/elimination: Drawing on the early insight that culture provides a social space in which different perspectives are united (Schiller), this approach seeks to solidify and narrow the unity that is produced. The direction of policy depends on drawing a distinction between the things that fall inside and outside of the category of “national culture,” both selecting from among existing possibilities and inventing new ones where necessary  (Čolović, Hobsbawm). The reliance on cultural elites for definitions is likely to mean that the type of culture that is called “national” is likely to be aspirational and uncertainly rooted in reality, whereas much of the creativity of people from the national community is likely to be neglected and to fall outside the definition (Stojanović). In this approach as in the “enlightenment” approach, policy places a strong emphasis on codification
  • Democracy as leaving decisions to the public: In contrast with the preceding approaches, each of which relies on a greater or lesser degree of intervention into culture, this one proposes as little intervention as possible. This might be regarded as an anarcholiberal approach – support the initiatives that need (or request) support through a selection process that is as autonomous as possible, regulate as little as possible, encourage the greatest possible quantity and diversity of production. The virtue of this approach is its avoidance of restrictive (and possibly authoritarian) guidance. The drawback is in the likelihood that cultural processes can be reduced through the operation of commercial forces to “mere” entertainment (often labelled as “the lowest common denominator”), with the loss of potential for culture to function as a discursive space.

Is one cultural model more conducive to democracy than another? It is not hard to say both that each has easily visible advantages and drawbacks, and that the fields of culture and politics develop in ways that are largely autonomous from one another. It is probably also worth noting that to point out what model is dominant is not the same thing as to describe the entire cultural field. From the point of view of social science it is probably better to adopt a modest posture – to attempt to characterise a field and talk about projective probabilities, without being overly prescriptive.

In that spirit, a brief assessment of dominant cultural policies in the region, in a few short points:

  1. There has been a general retreat from the idea of enlightenment, possibly a result of scarcity of resources, but probably also in good measure as an ideological reaction to “real-socialist” regimes that put a heavy emphasis on enlightenment.
  2. Probably the same can be said about projects for creating a democratic public – efforts have been uneven, half-hearted, and in many cases reliant on what turned out to be temporary international support.
  3. Although “nationalism” is a stereotype applied to states throughout the region, it is not clear that there have been consistent projects for the development of culture along national lines, despite the heavy presence of various types of discrimination.
  4. Either for ideological reasons or as a result of limited capacity, the anarcholiberal model appears to have been adopted (whether by decision or not). To the degree that anarcholiberalism is not equivalent to freedom this has brought about the probably undesirable consequences of a) weakly controlled extremist and hate content, and b) centralised corporate control.

It could be argued then that regardless of which approaches to democracy anybody might favour, outcomes in culture have been largely undemocratic. As I final point I might add that this comes simultaneously with widespread rejection by youth of all kinds of social participation, including cultural participation (Ilišin, Tomanović). We might raise the question of whether there is any content to a discussion about the relation between cultures and states in an environment where neither states nor cultures inspire enthusiasm or loyalty.