By Tjen Folket, 20.04.2016.
What is red culture, and how is the culture of the society we live in formed?
This is one of several texts related to the slogan: “Fight back against oppression! Smash the individualism and garbage culture of the power!”. This text was published in conjunction with Red May Day.
1) What is capitalism?
Capitalism is a system of organizing production. Under capitalist production, goods are produced for sale with an intentional surplus so that the capital of the owner increases. If one looks at the history of human society, one will find that this is a relatively new system. It was first around 1900 that capitalism completely dominated the world.
The point of capitalism is that a small class—the bourgeoisie—makes itself rich from the labor of others. This class of capitalists and their helpers (politicians, bureaucrats, directors, and leaders) has the power over the production. They have power over their companies and they have power over their state. The government is in their pockets and it works to serve their interests.
Capitalism can continue because it continues to hunt successfully for more surplus value, and more profit. The reason money is invested in production is for investors to make more money. With more money, they can invest even more—and make even more. This is the motor of the entire system. Those who do not earn enough loses in the competition: they will get smaller, shrinks in, get bought up, or go bankrupt.
To make money is not a choice in capitalism. This is the only option available to companies that wish to survive. Those who have moral scruples tend to lose the competition to those willing to do anything to earn more. This drive is so strong that they are willing to kill people. It is so strong that they empty the sea of fish and hack down entire rainforests. The hunt for profits is so intense that even though everybody knows that the planet is slowly suffocating, nothing can be done to stop it as long as capitalism exists. Environmentally friendly measures become mere tactics to earn more money, and in this way simply increases investments in environmental destruction.
The need to earn money is so total that hundreds of millions of people do not get the medicine they need because the pharmaceutical industry needs to make money from HIV, AIDS, cancer and ebola. They would rather people die than lose any money.
This is our economic, social, and political system today. A system that from top to bottom has just one goal: more profit at any cost.
2) Why does capitalism create a specific type of culture?
Karl Marx wrote as early as 1848 that
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left remaining no other nexus (link) between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.”… In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
His point is that the system before capitalism was also oppressive, but that capitalism destroys the culture that covers this oppression with religion or romanticism and puts in its place pure money interests. Capitalism pushes away the old gods and customs and above them all there is just one “God”: money. Not just money in its normal meaning—cash, coins, and cards—but as all means used to trade and to enrich oneself.
Capitalism has created another culture than the old culture from Viking times or the Middle Ages. It is no longer the large family in the center, but the single individual. When capitalism grows, it is not only the old economy that shrinks, but also the old culture. Capitalism’s culture wins out—a culture where the motor is driven by making more—just like in the economy.
Even as a child, the focus is always on career. From kindergarten and primary school, children learn to fit into a “career” (capitalism). One is measured against and pressured to be a healthy and productive individual. This is in line with capitalism’s need for labor power, but also in line with how it splits people apart and puts them against one another. They want people to face the boss alone. They want students and workers who are obedient and think only of themselves and their careers.
Capitalists do not need to build this culture themselves. Egoism and individualism is logical within the bounds of this system. It is egoists and individualists who do “best” in this system—they climb to the top in public life and politics. One must not be fooled by their ability to adapt and their silver tongues, and think that they are like good athletes who puts the team first. They think only of themselves and their wallets before anyone else. This is the reason we have lawmakers—politicians—who create tax laws that everyone else must follow, but hide away all their own money in tax heavens.
Capitalism is built upon production and the purchase and sale of goods. It’s all about the goods. Everything that people made for themselves a hundred years ago is now bought from capitalists in the store. There are still people making these things—the working class—but before they can use them, they need to get their wages from the capitalist, go to the store, and then buy them. Where one once spun and knit their own clothes, plucked one’s own potatoes, caught one’s own fish, milked and churned and bottled and dug—we now punch in a PIN code.
Everything is for sale—not just things, but also life and death. Bodies are sold. People are sold. If one cannot buy slaves in Norway, it is as simple as going to a poor country and buying some women and children there. If you have money, you don’t need to clean your home yourself—just hire someone else to do it.
Even identity is for sale. “Who are you?” and “Find yourself” adorn shop windows—and we go in and shop our style. A couch, a shirt, yoga pants, a pair of shoes, a haircut, an education, a music genre, and so on. Even not following trends has become a trend (hipsters). Even building counterculture from below becomes big business (hip hop).
The culture is dictated by capitalism’s methods—buy low, sell high, grow yourself, step on others. It is only logical if one understands the society that Marx described: how we think is based on how we live. How we live is based mainly on how we produce. Capitalist production leads to a capitalist life and a capitalist mindset. Capitalist economy must lead to a capitalist culture.
The reason production is so important is that humans must produce to survive—and we must produce together (in a society). We are not a type of animal that hatched out of an egg and does just fine on our own. Even the “fittest” need a society. Even explorers and hermits take factory produced glass fiber skis, tents, thermal clothing, stoves and supplies with them. We cannot check out of all forms of society entirely. As long as we are a part of the system, the system is part of us.
3) Who produces culture in this society?
On a very low level, every human is a producer of culture. Every time we speak, we exercise culture (language). When we think, we think within cultural frames. When we feel a certain way, culture is often at the heart of how we feel. When we are upset, or feel something is unfair (or fair), it is the result of culture. When we write, we do culture. When we raise children, we exercise culture.
But we live in a class society. The ones on the top and the ones in the bottom are not equal when it comes to cultural production. Some people work full time—use their entire lives—to set the standard for culture. Some have all their productive work tied to influencing the collective culture, or the culture of a more limited group. Part of the so-called “middle class” are the most important producers of culture. Authors, musicians, singers, game developers, journalists, priests, politicians, bloggers, celebrities—most of these people stand somewhere in the middle of the society, between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and their job is first and foremost to produce culture.
But whose culture do they produce and reproduce? Do they take as much from the working class as they do from the bourgeoisie? It is no problem for them to take forms of culture from the poor and working class. Many elements of popular culture have come from the oppressed. We have seen it clearly in music: blues, rock, punk, hip hop—all have roots in the culture of the masses, especially among the poorest and the most oppressed. We have also seen clothing fashions developed as counterculture, but transformed into popular culture. Cultural producers will gladly take form from below, but the content comes principally “from above”.
Cultural producers as a rule do not work to serve the people, but to earn money—and to serve the bourgeoisie. Even if they wish to be independent from this, they will find the most powerful influence comes from those with power, rather than those without power.
Ruling class culture has in all times been considered to have high value, as in “high culture”. Before capitalism, this culture was exclusive to the ruling class—Mozart played in the court of the king, not in the city square. In capitalism, culture has become a product just like any other and under capitalism, it has become possible to spread any kind of culture to the masses—through radio, then TV, and now the internet. Even if culture is now for everybody, it is still the rich that sets the standard for what is “high culture”. Interior design magazines and bloggers praise the rich for their “good taste” (that is, money to afford designer furniture and advice from architects). Meanwhile, TV shows routinely puts the poor on display for being stupid (getting pregnant at an early age, get themselves in debt) and for being ugly, fat, and vulgar. Culture and taste have an obvious class character and the culture that is spread to the masses is the culture that praises the elite.
This is a logical development based on which class it is that dominates the society. This is also more direct when considering who it is that buys cultural production. Even though they are a “middle class”, they must still earn a living. They sell their labor power like goods and they take orders. Journalists write for bourgeois newspapers and they must write stories that sell. Editors like to claim they are independent, but they are still employees and employees can be fired. But the capitalists don’t need to threaten them with unemployment. The editors themselves are rich. They are themselves a part of the ruling class. They go to the same parties, the same restaurants, and they often have relationships with the same people as others in the ruling class. It is in their interests to run the paper in the service of capitalism. At the same time, they get funding from the state, which binds them even closer to the system. This is the case for all cultural production in Norway. Even if the church and religious authorities are less important as cultural producers than they were 100 years ago, they are also tightly knit into the system. They stand for a sort of “counterculture” that’s clinging on by a thread from the time before capitalism. Nonetheless, they still encourage peace among the classes, calm and order, and they preserve the oppressive structures of sex and family. They are completely sponsored by the class state.
Music, trends and blogs—all are financed by advertisements and their ability to sell a product. They are produced as products from an assembly line by professional producers. Singers are often reduced to a pretty face that sing somebody else’s words over somebody else’s melodies, preferably with all types of technical help to produce the best singing voice.
The individual producer is perhaps motivated by a dream of making a living on something they love to do (singing, writing, drawing, speaking), but the investment in their talents is motivated by the same as all other production: more profit—more money—for capitalists.
4) All Culture has a Class Character
Classless culture is an illusion in a society where everyone is divided into classes. However, a single class need not be represented by a single cultural form. Even though the ruling class today appears strangely identical all over the world (dark suits and dresses), their thoughts and attitudes can be presented in different ways.
Individualism can take the form of Protestantism (“personal Christ”), new age religion (“find yourself”), drug culture (“free your mind by disconnecting from reality”), fitness (“become the best you that you can be”) or thousands of other identities and cultures. Careerism, egoism, class collaborations, racism, hatred of the poor and so on and so forth can be expressed through poetry, songs, slogans, school curriculum, party programs, skits, stand-up comics, memes, movies, photos, commercials and more.
That all culture has a class character does not mean that all cultural expressions are purely bourgeois or purely proletarian. It also does not mean that everything is completely red or completely blue. It does not mean that there are no artists working for the capitalists who may also produce things that are good for the people. For that matter, it does not mean that all radical artists create good art. Just as in nature and the rest of society, culture is full of different inner conflicts, transitional stages, and transitional phenomena. Things change. But generally speaking, the tendency in all cultural production is to serve either one class or another.
In a society with class struggle, those in power benefit from those who choose to be neutral. “Those who remain silent, agrees,” as the saying goes in Norwegian. The artists that do not take a stand against oppression, but rather work for the oppressors – that person then objectively works for those in power.
This does not only apply to professional cultural producers. This applies to all of us. If we do not take a stand against oppression, or simply reproduce it—by bullying people, by having sick obsessions with our bodies, by laughing at poor people and calling them stupid, by telling racist jokes at work, by delegating household responsibilities to the women in our relationships, by acting homophobic or transphobic—we serve the interests of those who have the power. If we do so, we go against our own interest as working, poor and oppressed people, the interest of uniting against all oppression.
5) We need counterculture to create counter-power
A people who are split into individuals who cannot trust one another, who knock each other down, who think more about their careers than their friends, more about themselves than the collective, who follow the ruling class’s styles and dreams of riches and luxury—can never rise up and smash oppression. If we want to do away with capitalism, we cannot simply rebel against the hunt for profits in production. We must also rebel against the capitalist culture!
As long as capitalism dominates, the capitalist culture will dominate. History has shown that even if we make revolution and build a socialist society, capitalist culture will survive and rear its ugly head there too. It is a pipe dream to think that we can defeat capitalist culture in such a short term. It is an extremely long process. We do not need complete control over the culture to build a counter-force against today’s rulers and we can begin this process today.
We need a counterculture to create counter-power. This requires attitudes, theories, thoughts and feelings that stand in direct conflict with capitalism’s culture—to be able to build organizations and red areas that stand in conflict with capitalism’s economy and policies. Groups that foster individualism cannot gather the people. Groups that allow for sexism cannot organize the people against the oppression of women. Groups that facilitate religious conflicts cannot bring Christians and Muslims together for a collective struggle. Without a red culture, we cannot build red power.
There has been a tendency among the “left” to choose between two equally false extremes. On one side, there is the unilateral focus on economic needs: wages, pensions, and contracts. These people have only contempt for cultural struggles and “identity politics”. These followers of economism have hidden themselves behind Marxism as materialism and claim that since Marx meant that economy and production are the foundations of society, Marxists should first and foremost focus on wages and economical demands. On the other hand, there are people who make culture the primary theme in all questions. As a counter-reaction to a toothless “left” and trade unions who have given up the struggle for political power and cultural hegemony, and the feverish campaign to organize people around one single issue: “more money for the workers”, these people have opted for “identity politics”. Everything is about identity: gender, sexuality, race, language, and so on.
Additionally, economism have created its own variation of identity politics in “workerism”, and ideology where the working class is defined by those who listen to “popular” music, wear “popular” clothes, eat “popular” foods, drink “popular” drinks and have “popular” interests and life goals. This “populism” they dress themselves in, becomes a parody of the working class that has never been as one-dimensional and homogeneous as they believe.
Both extremes, economism and identity politics, are examples of where the “left” have given up the struggle for political power. The revolutionary communist worker’s movement had the goal of making the proletariat a political force and organizing them to seize political power. The working class movements of the 19th and early 20th century weren’t limited to economic questions. They studied and popularized socialist theory, philosophy, and economy. They created schools and theaters for the people. They organized libraries, film screenings, dance recitals, poetry readings, newspapers, and magazines. Singing songs were like a red line throughout the movement. The worker’s movement’s culture became a culture for the masses. This was a necessary for separating the proletariat from the ruler’s political influence and constitute itself as an independent political force. These were the conditions for the successful Russian Revolution in 1917 and the unsuccessful communist revolution in Germany in 1919.
The worker’s movement, with all its problems, was likewise not as homogeneous and one-sided as one might think. They had their youth organization, their women’s movements, their organization of intellectuals—there was a diverse range of cultural expressions. It was not just one single style. It was everything from the movie producer Eisenstein and the author Berthold Brecht, pioneers of film and theater that are considered “high culture” today, to amateur theater and drinking songs. Nonetheless, they had the same driving force: an art by and for the masses that encourages cooperation and the collective—one that does not look up to the elite, but rather lifts the tired and poor that labor in the “nameless army”. Instead of raising “strong” individuality, this culture cultivate the strength in the mass and in the collective.
This ran parallel to nation-building and the national democratic culture in relation to the concept of national independence in the 19th century. Without a strong national culture movement, Norway would not have liberated itself from Swedish domination in 1905.
Europe’s strongest labor movement was the social democratic party in Germany and for a time, it was considered a “state within the state”. The Norwegian labor party was not far behind it, with its own real estates, cooperative enterprises, people’s housing projects in the smallest of cities, newspapers, sports teams, and even militias at some point. The political “capital” they accumulated was never used to smash the bourgeoisie’s government and state, but to lift social democratic leaders within the institution. It became a spring board for careerists who objectively became the bourgeoisie’s most important servants. Today, they have been completely integrated in the bourgeoisie. The social democratic leaders in Europe go straight from the government to top positions in industry these days. Or from industry to government—whichever one suits them best. Where the social democratic leaders once build their power to represent their people and electors and were preferably from working class backgrounds themselves, today’s social democrats are a part of a political caste that is steadily divorced from the masses. This culture and movement that once lifted social democracy forward are now so weak that during any crisis, these parties are simply pulverized—like what happened in Greece, for example. Mao Zedong maintained that to build political power, one must build a political opinion. Without a cultural struggle, this is impossible. It will not do to simply build a broad, strong, and independent worker’s movement if it operates exclusively by using the ruling class’s own ideology. People who only dream of personal riches will never give up all their time and energy to build a counter-power.
Capitalists have their money, but the poor have capital in organization. It is unthinkable to have a strong organization without a strong political culture.
6) We need a counter-movement because revolution is necessary
To build a counterculture and counter-power is not a goal in itself. An island of socialism and community beset on all sides by capitalism is no final goal at all. Such an arrangement would not last long anyway. In the end, the waves from the capitalist sea will erode our shores and our island will be lost like grains of sand in the ocean.
Neither is any abstract “counterculture” a goal either. The nobility’s counterculture against capitalism, through maintaining elitism, knighthood, and inherited privileges was not a counterculture for the people or people’s power. The “counterculture” of jihadists is not an alternative that serves the people either. The so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS/Daesh) is a cult of death that has built a kleptocracy in the political vacuum left by US intervention. They have a counterculture like that of criminal gangs in the US, with gang symbols and drug culture. There is a thin layer of ideology, religion, or “community” slapped over a macho crime culture to recruit new members to their gang.
Jihadism is, like many other “countercultures” developed over the last 50 years, based on a form of nihilism and glorification of death. “Life is not worth living,” implying that one might as well sacrifice life and health. One can piss on “the others”. We also see this in the conspiracy theory communities, where the masses are depicted as “sheeple” who are led by an all-knowing power. We can see it in parts of the old hippie culture and punk culture (“sometimes anti-social, always anti-fascist”). We see this in the black metal community that glorifies destruction and depression.
These are not examples of a revolutionary culture that serve to build a revolutionary counter-power. These are reactionary cultures that only hinder efforts. There are of course some revolutionaries among Muslims, punks, metalheads, and hippies. Not even the reactionary environments within these cultures are entirely reactionary. They do not only spread negativity. There exist class struggles within these cultures as well.
What we need is red power within many cultural expressions. Red punk and red metal. In the people’s war in China there was an entire Muslim brigade in the red people’s army. In the Soviet Union, Stalin developed socialist culture within independent national movements—and worked hard to ensure that the smaller nations of the Soviet Union developed their own written languages and developed their own culture in the service of the people.
We must build red culture to build red power. To struggle for power must be a protracted struggle for the masses. Only small groups can coup or sneak their way into power. This kind of elitism only works for those who are already rich and powerful, or for those who have no ambitions for people’s power. Communists can never come to power by these means. The working class’s struggle must be a long series of struggles, with some victories, but mostly defeats that we can learn from. To develop leaders, organize them, bind them together with the masses, organize large populations, and popularize the insights into capitalism and communism takes time. The old worker’s movements took a hundred years to build itself to its peak. The new proletarian movement must also be build up over a long time before it can be a real force.
Culture is the key area where such a movement will battle, build up its own expressions, and grow the positive elements of popular culture among the masses.
7) Good collectives, not perfect individuals
Individualism is extremely strong within capitalism. It has been typical since the Enlightenment to praise the individual. Leading bourgeois philosophers have built a whole philosophy around the focus on the individual (“social contract” and “do to others as you would have them do to you”) and the old Christianity (Catholicism) that grew strong under feudalism in Europe is modernized with a more personal and individual-oriented variation (Lutheran Protestantism).
The complete focus on the individual is a heavy burden for most. One must be healthy, well-trained and beautiful. At the same time, one must have good grades, get a good job, and build a career. On top of that, one must find a partner, have children, and buy a nice little home. But even this is not enough, as most find out, and one must also find themselves, “live”, travel, and be free. It is obviously impossible for everyone to do all these things, especially if you are not rich. And it is of course impossible to do all these things while setting aside time and energy to do revolutionary organizing. If you want to be a revolutionary leader, you must at some point set some of these things aside. In any event, one cannot do this within a cookie-cutter life.
Most people can crack under such pressure. If we are to also motivate ourselves to serve the people and struggle for communism, we will be pressed extremely hard if we do not prioritize away some things. It is also necessary that we underline that building red power and revolutionary counterculture does not involve training the “perfect communists”. This would be allowing bourgeois elitism to slip into our movement. This would only put unnecessary and inhumane pressure on people; to create unrealistic demands and expectations. This will also lay the foundation for a movement consisting only of white, healthy, heterosexual cis-men with a stable job and income and a wife that takes care of the home and children. These characteristics are almost the condition for “super-cadres” who are strong in theory, very active, and have their jobs, physical and mental health, and families in order. It would also give an advantage to those who come from well-off families and an economical safety net.
The ideal of an elite party consisting of elite communists is not a proletarian one. This is not red culture. This is bourgeois, or at least petit bourgeois elitism, which necessarily discriminates against women, poor, sick, and trans people or others who cannot match that ideal.
Our political movement, Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM) is for a vanguard party. We are for building a revolutionary leadership that can struggle in the forefront. We are for a party that can be the general staff of the proletariat in a people’s war for power. Such a party is not for everybody. But bourgeois elitism is at least as dangerous to the party as those who cannot match the elitist ideal. A communist party at its core must be a party for the oppressed, and therefore will contain many people who have issues getting their life in order. It must consist of sick people, poor people, and people with all kinds of issues. Revolutionary communist organizations must be strong. They must be good at organizing. They must therefore defend against chauvinism, drug abuse, harassment, the “don’t give a shit” mentality, and people who cause severe conflicts or can easily be persuaded by the police to become informants. The organization should make it easier for people to train, study, and to be activists. But the angle is primarily collective, not individual. It is a collective culture to build red power and a red culture that can counter the power’s garbage culture and individualism.
8) It isn’t easy
In theory, everything is easy. On paper, you can change lives with a stroke of a pen. But this is not how it is in reality. When one moves from theory to practice, anything worth doing is difficult. All work that creates real richness will be difficult. To go to war against capitalism might be the most difficult thing a person can do. To build a counterculture and a counter-power against a system that dominated the entire world will necessarily require huge sacrifices. Even when one works at a low level of a small movement, it is difficult. It is not possible to do this without a strong motivation. For some, it is enough to have a burning hatred for injustice. For others, “anything else” is better than the system we have today. But most people need a lot more than that. It requires not only political-ideological education and studies, but for many, it requires a sense of belonging and community. It requires stories that light the flame within people and inspire them to sacrifice their time and energy. It requires poetry, dance, and film. It needs a collective spirit. Simply put: red culture is not a surplus product left over from organizing, but a crucial part of a revolutionary movement.
Life is not easy. Revolutionary struggle can make people’s lives better sometimes, but in some periods, it will also make it harder. In those times, culture’s role is essential in making sure people do not crack under the pressure, or give into bourgeois culture. We know that humans need more than food, water and air to survive. As long as humans has existed as a species, we have created culture. Not just for fun, but to hold out against the trials life hands us. Culture has not been important for the individual, but also the flock. Stories, songs, teaching, games—they have all had an essential value for us as human beings. Hunters need hunting culture, warriors need warrior culture, the oppressed needs a culture to survive, and red power needs red culture.