Cultural Democracy is alive!

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I went to a Cultural Democracy symposium yesterday in Manchester. As part of the launch of the publication Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art edited by Alison Jeffers and Gerri Moriarty, in which I have a chapter.

I’m pleased to say the book is soon being made open access (free to download). More info to come on how and where to download.

Here are a few initial responses to the day, which I need to mull over some more. This is a working document! I’ll also endeavour to tidy up my presentation and post this on here soon too.

I have come back full of inspiration, ideas and questions and wanted to get them down before other things start to fill my head again. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by the event and emotional too as it was quite something to have so many people in the room working on a topic that has been pre-occupying me for some time. I also got to meet Owen Kelly, Cathy Mackerras, a member of the Cultural Policy Collective Glasgow and many other inspirational people, and got to hang out with Loraine Leeson on the way home, which made me very happy.

So, it turns out, cultural democracy is a thing other people are working on, unpicking, reworking and are seriously committed to. I have recently joined the Movement for Cultural Democracy as a way to channel my energies and research in this area. There are lots of other related initiatives on the go, such as the 2017 Kings College report: Towards cultural democracy: promoting cultural capabilities for everyone, the 2012-17 AHRC/Uni of Manchester Understanding Everyday Participation and the 2015-16 64 million artists report Everyday Creativity, commissioned by Arts Council.

However, it also transpires, unsurprisingly, that there are lots of people who still have no idea what this term means, its history or relevance today.

In hind sight, I wish I had spelled out my own understanding of the term and how, in terms of policy and institutional engagement it has, in my view, never really been accepted or understood. Democratisation of culture being the dominant discourse, practice and generally considered the right thing to do by those holding the purse strings and power (including Arts Council, Trade Unions and Labour governments). Cultural democracy threatens that.

For what it’s worth, here’s my working definition:

I understand cultural democracy as realising the right for everyone to be critical and for everyone to have the right to exercise that criticality as a form of political agency. If we take as an underlying assumption that art involves a process of self-reflection and critical inquiry, then cultural democracy is the extension of that to every person. This then leaves the question as to the role of the artist – a profession, with qualifications, daily rates and contractual obligations. How does the notion of the professional artist fit with cultural democracy or is this a contradiction in terms?

It was acknowledge by most people yesterday that there are different people ‘holding the umbrella narrative’ of cultural democracy, that there is not one narrative. I was reassured and pleased that at least some of these narratives were being explored. I’d like to do some more work on figuring out where the shared overlaps in thinking, ideologies, politics and practices are amongst these narratives, and where the differences lie.

Did we mention that we are working and living in really shitty times, and that is why cultural democracy is so relevant and important now, as a political project, which contests what democracy is, could, should be? There are things that enable and constrain cultural practice and freedoms. What prevents people from doing what they want/need to do? What are the structural inequalities that make cultural democracy difficult / impossible? How do we challenge the individualisation of society and the discourses of freedom? How do we collectivise cultural democracy?

Did we give enough examples of the kinds of counter-cultural critical moments of what cultural democracy is today (beyond the everyday, vernacular, expanded versions of cultural expression such as enjoying a football game or painting at the weekends)? Where and how is cultural happening in the gaps (the dark matter)?

A lot of what I heard was a very positive-spin on community engagement and impact, but what about negative impact? What about forms of cultural action which don’t fit comfortably with morally, socially correct forms of participation? What about the ASBO as an unofficial certificate of cultural democracy? What about the embarrassing encounters, the awkward bits?

Andrew Miles talked about the ‘cultural ecosystem’ research they’ve been doing as part of the UEP project and Nick Wilson and Jonathon Gross talked about they ecological nature of their research. What do these organic metaphors offer, what do they loose? I like that this allows a more holistic approach to thinking through relational, ‘dividual’ aspects of cultural practices (it might de-hierarchies things), but how do we also acknowledge the power structures, battles and structural inequalities that influence, inhabit and infest these ecosystems which are fraught with complexities and struggles? Also, it feels like there is still an imperial nature to the research and practices going on – who is doing the discovering and the uncovering, the documenting and narrating? Where are the feminist, queer, decolonial, embedded approaches to research and practice? 

Can everyone read Barbara Cruikshank’s ‘The Will to Empower’ please? 

There was a call for a glossary of terms – let’s do it!

Governance came up a lot – seems crucial to any discussion about democracy! What forms of democratic governance are out there that we can practically re-purpose, e.g. co-operative, egalitarian structures?

There was a call to hold these seemingly opposite, polarised positions in tension – the dialectic position of not collapsing these opposites.

Importantly there was an accusation of institutional racism of the cultural democracy movement of the 1980s. Kooj Chuhan pointed out how the Black Arts Alliance grew out of and in opposition to the CD movement in the 1980s. There is need to decolonise cultural democracy.

The day left me enthusiastic about the need to share resources, archival material and research (a bit like but for community art/cultural democracy)? What can we do to be open and non-territorial about collating this material? Which archives (e.g. Bishopsgate Institute, Mayday Rooms) might be interested in holding archives of cultural democracy and community arts which might be lost otherwise?

Owen Kelly has  helpfully put Community, Art and the State (1984) and Culture and Democracy the Manifesto (1986) here

There was a call to also include the recent shifts and changes in cultural politcy, politics and practices (1990s onwards) as this is part of the story and needs to be told so that younger practitioners are aware of how and why things have developed in certain ways.

There is a need, I think, to tie these discussions into specific campaigns and policy developments (I’m thinking here of the Cultural Democracy manifesto + movement mentioned above). Get involved!

How to make sure these concepts, tools, tactics are built on and made available for others at local, national, international levels?

How to keep the cultural democracy movement radical, countercultural, ethical, decolonial, transparent, relevant?

How to make links between these cultural democracy and community art histories and politics and the (perhaps less politicised?) socially engaged practice folk? Are these art histories being taught in current art schools?

Apparently cultural democracy needs social democracy. But I think it needs socialism. (Again, up for some discussion on this!)

What are the roles of cultural policy and cultural institutions in cultural democracy? Abolition? Reform? Take over/revolution?

More soon…

image: Cathy Mackerras’ membership card for Telford Community Arts

Can I have a P please Bob?

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I tend to glaze over and my mind wanders as soon as pensions are mentioned. I’ve potentially got at least another 26 years of work ahead of me and I struggle to think about what’s happening next month let alone in the year 2044! The current changes proposed by Universities UK are forcing us employees in higher education to become experts in pensions so here’s me trying to get my head around what the hell is going on. It’s also a way of me finding that nugget of anger that I feel I need to sustain me for 14 days of picketing! 

Most of my friends don’t have a pension. As freelance cultural workers they can’t necessarily afford to pay into one. I became a salaried employee for the first time in 2010, aged 33. That was the first time I could afford to join a pension scheme. There are precarious generations heading into pension black holes.

Birkbeck relies a lot on hourly paid teaching and scholarship staff. Many of them have uncertain futures in terms of employment and pensions (they aren’t putting as much in and so won’t get as much back). The most precarious workers are unsurprisingly the worst off in terms of financial long term security. This is worth baring in mind as we enter 14 days of unpaid strike action.

My pension is called the Universities Superannuation Scheme. It is the largest private sector pension in the country.

Universities UK (UUK), ‘the voice of universities’, has proposed changes​ to this scheme. ​

Currently as an employee 26% of my salary goes into the USS defined benefit pension scheme (8% from my salary and 18% from my employer). These pension benefits are based on each year’s salary throughout the period of my membership to the scheme.

UUK wants to close this scheme and transfer our investments into a full defined contribution fund.

It’s really important we understand the difference between these, as this is what the strike action is all about.

As far as I understand it, a defined benefit scheme places the financial risk on the employer (that’s what we’ve currently got) whereas a defined contribution plan places the financial risk on the employee. So you can see why this move is popular for UUK and the university employers they represent.

According to Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of UUK: “Without reform now, universities will likely be forced to divert funding allocated from research and teaching to fill a pensions funding gap, or if they did not, they would risk the sustainability of USS. The option of no reform is a dangerous gamble. It is a risk that employers cannot take.” 

The UUK proposal is to shift this risk onto the individual employees leaving the university more able to survive the turbulent times ahead. Pension pots invest in the markets to make interest, enabling them to pay people back the salaries they decided to defer when they can no longer work (I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but that’s how I understand it). It’s a risky business, the questions are where does that risk lie, who takes that risk and at what cost? The defined benefit pension means as employees we are protected from the fluctuating profits and losses of those markets – our employer is still responsible for paying us that pension, no matter what how the investments perform. We know we will have a guaranteed, fixed amount once we retire.

Changing the scheme to a defined contribution fund would mean as employees we are likely to have less income from this scheme when we retire. Employees “may be faced with a decision to delay retirement or find a source of supplemental income when they retire” . According to First Actuarial “lecturers who started working in 2007 and have 10 years of service will lose out on £131,000, a loss of £6,100 annually, while staff with 20 years of service could lose out on £35,000 in total by the time they retire in 2027”.

I can’t imagine ever retiring, but at some point I imagine I will have to stop working. As a parent of a 2 year old with learning difficulties, in 25 years time when I am 66 and Alice is 27 I may well still be a carer. If a defined benefit pension scheme is one guaranteed way I can support her and others who haven’t had the benefits of being able to pay into a pension so far, then that is definitely a fight worth having, in my opinion. Especially given the demise of disability benefits and state pensions. 

We had a high turn out at Birkbeck in our ballot for industrial action over this. 53.7% of members returned their ballot papers (I wish it had been higher, why did so many not return their ballot?!). Of them, 93.7% voted to strike. We had the first of our weekly meetings at Birkbeck to organise which was really well attended. People are angry and now I’ve found my nugget of anger in this sly shifting of risk, I hope even more of my colleagues will get angry too.

By joining the picket lines from 22 Feb I am prepared to lose pay for the days I am striking as I want to stand alongside my colleagues and fight these changes publicly and loudly.

I hope those who voted to strike will join us on the picket lines (if you work at Birkbeck email to be added to the picket rota).

I hope those who aren’t members are encouraged to join UCU and stand with us in this fighting this threat to our terms and conditions of employment.

Email me on sophiehope[at] if you have any edits to suggest, facts to add, or stories to share on this matter!

Disclaimer: These are my own thoughts and ideas on the matter, best check your union branches and employers for more info. 


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