High Culture – Low Values by William Bowles

by William Bowles
featured writer
Dandelion Salad
Friday, July 11, 2008

I was raised in a working class family. My father was a full-time trade union official for the Musicians Union and my mother, before she became a full-time ‘housewife’, had been a chorus girl working in pantomime and a member of the Tiller Girls (the Brit version of The Rockettes) and during WWII she worked in a factory making bomb sights at Fry’s Diecasting where she campaigned on behalf of the female workers for equal pay (in the face of opposition from the male-run union). Not exactly typical of working class life but definately of it.

The Britain I grew up in was saturated with class: your accent (acquired via your education), dress and address defined who you were, even how intelligent it was assumed you were, what paths in life were open to you, your ambitions, in fact the whole nine yards were laid out for you from the day you were born.

Your chances of becoming a member of the middle class were strictly limited and if you managed by some miracle to get beyond a high school education, you faced a literal minefield of prejudice at university. You either abandoned your class entirely or faced a very schizophrenic future, something I experienced directly when by some miracle I made it to art school and ‘escaped’ from the working class future all my neighbourhood mates faced here in South London where I grew up.

Just how far this background is from those who define what ‘our’ culture is should surely be apparent to all, but at the same time it’s also somewhat removed from what we regard as working class culture, at least as it’s defined by those who run the dominant culture and surely this is the problem: what is working class culture? Is there one and how important is it to revolutionary change?

Just how much culture is defined by the middle classes is perhaps not so readily apparent but it is totally pervasive, in fact in a world defined by the ruling elites via a hegemonic media, even so-called working class or popular culture, pop music, fashion etc, is itself shaped by the very same middle class elites who run it.

By and large, working class life as it is actually lived is demonized and denigrated eg, so-called binge drinking, the violence of an alienated youth whose lives have been effectively criminalized by this awful neo-fascist New Labour government has led to the complete polarization of society into two mutually exclusive worlds. And who is doing the polarization? The middle class elites who run the media that targets the working class, from the tabloids to Big Brother and it’s reflected in the way the BBC for example has ‘dumbed down’ its programming. In the past it promulgated a distinctly middle class view of life, pushing so-called high cultural values and all but ignoring working class life and experience and even where it deigned to explore working class life it was expressed through the filter of the middle class values and attitudes.

Today working class life is effectively a culture of consumerism dominated by the car, shopping malls and television. Even the efforts of New Labour to recruit more working class people into higher education is nothing more than a reflection of the reality of the demands of modern production, the equivalent of the 19th century demand for a working class who needed to be able to read and write in order function in the factory environment (not that even this too wasn’t fought tooth and nail by some elements of the ruling class, who feared even a minimally educated working class and with good reason).

In part this process is also a reflects the destruction of ‘traditional’ working class communities with the loss of manufacturing especially that of mining, steel and transportation which produced our trade unions and with them, a truly working class culture rooted in factory life and the communities of working people that lived adjacent to the factories.[1]

This transformation has been thirty years in the making, in fact we can pinpoint its beginnings with the Thatcher counter-revolution in the late 1970s. It highlights the fact that as well as the frontal attack on the organized working class mounted by the neo-liberals, the importance of destroying (what’s left) of our collective memory and replacing it with an entirely erzatz one, based on a totally ficticious account of how we got here (let alone who we are).

Although my parent’s families for example (between them there were sixteen brothers and sisters) were all either socialists or communists, effectively they lived in two worlds. Left culture is inherently intellectual, a world of ideas, debates, books and learning let alone action and in this respect it has much in common with ‘middle class’ culture (and yes, many lefties are middle class, some even from the upper class), but do we share the same cultural values?

To some degree it’s a peculiarly English thing, but then that’s where I am. It was only when I moved to NYC that I actually felt ‘free’ of my class roots, not that the US doesn’t have classes but they express themselves in very different ways. In NYC I could simply be British and specifically a Londoner and I was accepted as such (even an ‘exotic’).

These issues are important becuase in a world filtered and shaped by a single, dominant media, the class that runs it shares what is called ‘high culture’. They even manage and shape so-called low culture because they also control the means of production and distribution.

The degree to which this is important, no central, to getting rid of capitalism has not been generally recognized by the Left, the notable exception (or is that the exception of note?) being the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and the role of intellectuals in shaping our perceptions and understanding of the world and how it works.[2]

Why this is important should be obvious. In the past, working class culture was simply ignored, denigrated or stereotyped, but with the creation of a hegemonic and now global, mass media that shapes how reality is presented to us, the issue of culture has taken centre stage.

This explains the transformation that the mass media has undergone over the past few years and the exceptional focus on ramping up a ficticious past, especially that of all the wars imperialism has launched with a never-ending flood of old war movies, underhanded appeals to ‘patriotism’, ‘documentaries’ and so forth. So for example, the ‘history’ taught at school consists almost entirely of WWII!

Indeed, the objective has been to rewrite history in its totality, a process that is reflected in New Labour’s onslaught on working class ‘culture’, a ‘culture’ that is ironically a construct of the middle class intelligentsia as projected through the mass media, and especially working class youth who have been demonized to the point that more than ever, resembles Victorian attitudes to the ‘great unwashed’.

More than ever before this reinforces the importance of our so-called alternative media and the need to counter the corporate media’s adoptance of ‘blogging’ and its sanitized version of ‘citizen journalism’ (after first ignoring and then denigrating it).[3]

It reveals just how frightened the ruling elites and their servants are of the independent media and the potential it has to open peoples’ minds to the truth. Even vaguely progressive journalists such as Robert Fisk reveal their fears of an independent media.[4]

“I despise the internet. It’s irresponsible and, often, a net of hate. And I don’t have time for Blogopops. But here’s a tale of two gutless newspapers which explains why more and more people are Googling rather than turning pages.” — Robert Fisk: ‘No wonder the bloggers are winning’, Published in the London Independent, 21 July 2007

With ‘friends’ like these, who needs enemies? And what, exactly is it that we’re ‘winning’? Fisk, like so many of the media intelligentsia are understandably fearful of a truly independent media, we threaten their comfortable and well-paid positions as purveyors and gatekeepers of ‘responsible’ journalism.[5] It goes even further, the new independent media made possible by the Internet takes us back several hundred years to the invention of moveable type and the printing press, to founders of ‘people’s journalism’ such Thomas Paine.[6]

This is why it’s not enough to expose the crimes of our leaders, we have to reveal their ‘tools of the trade’, how they manipulate our fears and desires in order to keep us in ‘our place.’


1. Ironically, what became ‘traditional’ working class life was itself the result of the complete destruction of pre-industrial culture as rural communities were forced into our rapidly expanding industrial cities, a process that was probably unique to Britain and accounts for the ‘memory hole’ that exists in the UK, totally unlike the mainland European countries where links to pre-industrial, indeed pre-capitalist culture have survived.

2. For an interesting and useful contemporary view of this see ‘The Communist Bugaboo’ By Gaither Stewart’.

3. I have never accepted the term ‘alternative’ media, it marginalizes and devalues our interpretation of the world, preferring instead the term independent media, independent that is of the dead hand of the corporate state. I’ve [been] writing about it for several years now. See for example, ‘Blogopopsicles of the world unite!’, Tuesday, August 7, 2007 and,

Flogging the Bloggers, Hobbling the Hip-Hoppers’, Tuesday, 17 April, 2007. www.williambowles.info/ini/2007/0407/ini-0482.html

4. ‘Letter from a far-off galaxy, a tale of two worlds’, Friday, August 3, 2007.

5. Just how frightened the corporate media is of independent news is revealed in the latest Media Lens piece, ‘MEDIA ALERT: NEWS INTERNATIONAL THREATENS MEDIA LENS WITH LEGAL AND POLICE ACTION’, July 10th, 2008.

6. ‘400 Years of Blogging’, 14 March 2005.

This essay is archived at: http://www.creative-i.info/?p=290

One thought on “High Culture – Low Values by William Bowles

  1. Pingback: Is the Fourth Estate a Fifth Column? By Bill Moyers « Dandelion Salad

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