Labour history and cultural studies

A theme in my current research is the question of what capitalists do (some early thoughts are in my recent Labour History conference paper, although it gives almost no attention to the vast economic sociology tradition of which I knew little at the time of writing). Via Terry Flew some interesting comments on cultural studies from Chris Rojek at a recent symposium which are relevant to considering the relation between the decline of labour history and the new capitalism:

The CCCS [Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies] were, he argues, reluctantly to be “optimistic” or put forward concrete proposals for change. They were very reluctant to look at corporate culture – focus was on class, race and the state – ignored the rise of what Rojek calls “neat capitalism”, or solutions proposed by global corporations that present themselves as more effective than the state – doing good while stamping the brand – “the brand is everything” (Richard Branson about Virgin).

What “the project” of CCCS was about was:

  • class consciousness
  • struggles over ideology
  • Western Marxism (esp. Gramsci and Althusser)
  • how to move the state towards meeting popular demands.

What CCCS did not deal with:

  • feminism
  • Michel Foucault
  • what corporations actually do
  • cultural citizenship (what can be done?)
  • what a future society might look like?

Achievements of Birmingham School:

  1. Rigorous insistence upon the importance of popular culture (fashion, youth culture , pop music, television etc.);
  2. Linking culture to politics in a sophisticated way (now largely absent from the field);
  3. Made idea of resistance legitimate;
  4. Developing an alternative publishing stream in face of publishers’ indifference – appeared “cutting edge” and alternative;
  5. Creating jobs in cultural studies – a new establishment.

Defects of Birmingham School:

  1. Backed the wrong horse in embracing tradition of Western Marxism, which led it to overly focus upon the white working class and the state, and slow to understand identity politics or corporate capitalism. It made it less receptive to globalization, and exaggerated the importance of the nation-state;
  2. Insistence on relevance promoted a need to be an expert on what is happening now, which gets in the way of better grounding its own approach and developing a string disciplinary base – leads to a recurring tendency to “reinvent the wheel” intellectually;
  3. Tendency to produce cultural relativism – failed to develop an adequate position on cultural value – “everything is important”;
  4. Never linked its intellectual work to a viable form of politics – resistance, protest and challenging privileged over organisation and leadership – proposes an “unlikely rainbow coalition to deliver the goods” that avoids the nitty-gritty of political work.

Q & A

  • Rojek notes that cultural studies people do not come across as intellectuals, but only as “moaning critics” – he proposes “learning from the new capitalists” in how to appear able to concretely address real issues – stop just bemoaning “bad capitalism”;
  • Both Liz Ferrier and Jason Jacobs argue that geographers have a better feel for the issues Chris Rojek raises than cultural studies people do;
  • Stuart Cunningham asks about cultural value – is the point that “the emergent” is of more implicit interest to the resistive scholar than “the traditional”?
  • Publishing experience for Sage and Routledge is that textbooks are selling much better than ideas books (response to John Hartley);
  • Mark Gibson notes a “pre-Marxist” moment in British cultural studies in the 1960s, with early Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart;
  • I asked a question about undergraduate cultural studies. Chris thought that, at least in Britain, they may be a “lost cause” for cultural studies;
  • Chris Rojek notes that Jim McGuigan’s forthcoming book Cool Capitalism will deal with how corporate branding has incorporated elements of counter-cultural critique;
  • Tom O’Regan asked about a “stepping in the face” ethos in cultural studies, where the impulse may now be to “kill the father” that is now Stuart Hall (used to be Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams).

These comments to me seem quite applicable to much of labour history and some of the industrial relations scholarship informed by labour history. Many on the left still struggle with the idea that two people can make an exchange and both be better off (whilst many on the right think that the argument ends there). There has to be an alternative to nostalgia for an imagined working class and to the power-worship and tiny horizons of the third wayers.

One thought on “Labour history and cultural studies

  1. rojek says:

    [...] said Dr. Keith Rojek, Northlake, Ill. The people in these towns were respectful and very happy …Labour history and cultural studies Geoff RobinsonNovember 17th, 2009 | Tags: Birmingham School, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Chris [...]

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