Toward a Progressive Understanding of Culture: Language, Policies and Vision

Culture : Progressives should recognise its potential in three main ways.


To build public faith in democracy throughout Europe, Progressives must deliver policies of redistribution as well as recognition. Culture is key in this regard.


When they are asked about their vision for the future – both for their states as well as for the European Union – Progressives immediately mention decreased inequality. Yet building more just societies requires policies not only of redistribution but also of recognition, to use the terminology of the philosopher Nancy Fraser. That is, in order to build public faith in democracy throughout Europe and to continue to gather public support, Progressives must design policies and programmes that deliver both. Culture is key in this regard. Progressives should recognise its potential in three main ways.

A Progressive Language Around Culture

First, the Progressive opposition towards trickle-down economics is well known. However, this is often accompanied by a pervasive belief in forms of trickle-down culture, which must be overcome. In the same way as wealth doesn’t trickle down from tax cuts to the rich towards the poor, culture cannot be built top-down. The European Union is a good example of this. Despite numerous speeches by EU leaders about the importance of culture in building a shared sense of identity, both concerted policies and a serious commitment to investment in that direction remain absent.

Participatory cultural projects create and activate relationships that are often directed towards engaged civic action in local matters.

The belief in trickle-down culture is also at play in the lack of a systematic Progressive response to culture wars, which are increasingly prominent in political debates. If Progressives want to win these conversations, they must take an active stance in them. Yet this is not to say that they must accept the assumptions that circulate around culture.

For example, culture and immigration are often – and wrongly – conflated in political discussions. UNESCO’s definition is clear: Culture is “the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and […] it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs”. That is, culture is a crisscrossing of modes of living, values, and practices; it is much more than the place from which an individual originates or their religious identification or lack thereof. Identity is fluid and this should be celebrated.

To do so, Progressives must change the focus of these debates away from the logic of a zero-sum conflict between static identities defined around preexisting differences, and toward the development of relations within a heterogeneous community that is connected by a set of shared goals. Doing so may not only contribute to healing political discourse but is also fundamental to recognise the value of all citizens and their diverse experiences.

Progressive Cultural Policies

Second, Progressives should support, develop and implement cultural policies that are grassroots-oriented. This requires acknowledging an ongoing paradigm shift in the cultural sector. Although there will always be artists who work individually in their studios, contemporary art practices are increasingly participatory if not collaborative, and cultural leaders increasingly discuss the best ways to ensure the democratisation of the sector’s governance.

In other words, many artists and arts organisations are interested in developing work with and not just for audiences. This work has consequences in terms of community-building. Indeed, evidence shows that participatory projects create and activate relationships that are maintained for many years thereafter, often directed towards engaged civic action in local matters. Furthermore, as many post-industrial and rural communities feel abandoned by decision-makers, supporting participatory cultural programmes outside of urban centres would contribute to addressing this problem. But while the nativist right uses culture to legitimise nostalgic, belligerent, nationalist narratives, Progressives could harness its potential to celebrate the value of towns and people, and to strengthen and develop new ties within communities.

Culture is a crisscrossing of modes of living, values, and practices; it is much more than the place from which an individual originates or their religious identification or lack thereof.

However, to make this happen on a large scale, professional practitioners need to be encouraged. Instead of high-cost investment projects, a progressive cultural policy would focus on supporting grassroots organisations, namely by providing thousands of small grants in each EU country and region. Such funding could be targeted to areas with few cultural activities, which would address territorial inequity. Unfortunately, both small-scale funding for community projects and the idea of directly addressing inequities with cultural investment are rarely among the top concerns of cultural policy makers at national and at EU level.

Culture in the Progressive Vision for the Twenty-First Century

Third and finally, the era of popular support for managerial politics is over. Progressives must develop, propose and implement a bold, inclusive model of development that responds to the challenges not only of today but also of tomorrow. For example, instead of simply aiming to correct existing patterns of inequity, Progressives should aim to preempt the future reinforcement of such tendencies.

One iteration of this idea, focused on redistribution: even if experts disagree regarding the likely impact of robotisation on the number of jobs that will be available in the future, they tend to agree that routine occupations will decrease. At the same time, creativity will be increasingly important to ensure quality employment. Yet access to creative education is becoming a privilege of the wealthy. Rather, to preempt the reinforcement of existing inequalities of access to the labour market, Progressives should invest in the skills necessary for the jobs of the future.

Another example, this time on recognition: the centre-left has failed to develop a vision around cultural identity that acknowledges the value of being a member of a state (being British, French, Portuguese…) while also opposing the nationalism of populists and nativists on the one hand, as well as the globalised, de-situated identity of neoliberals on the other hand. The centre-left cannot build support for, say, an effective global governance of climate change (which requires understanding that international collaboration can be the best way to defend the national interest) without upholding an understanding of identity that is both internationalist and community-embedded.

Culture can help Progressive leaders respond to many of our current and future challenges. They should embrace it.

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