Culture is everywhere. It is present in the factory, in the bank, in the households, on the stage, in the museum and in the school. It is in the books, in the consciousness of the classes as well as in the ways we understand the world. It is in the style of the buildings, in our gestures, in the logic of the ruling classes and in the taste of our favourite dish. It interlaces our material world just as much as our material world determines the kind of culture we produce via our institutional, industrial and everyday actions.
This is the establishing paragraph of issue #30 of the Journal for Social Theory, Fordulat (Turn), entitled ‘Culture and Capitalism’. The journal, although all in Hungarian, is not unknown to the avid reader of LeftEast, where reviews about the past couple of issues have appeared. Fordulat is published by TEK, the College of Advanced Studies in Social Theory (Budapest), and is the most articulate platform for social and cultural analysis on the Left in Hungary. Each thematic issue of Fordulat focuses on a burning socio-political problem or phenomenon in such a way that always strives to reveal the local specificities that stem from East-Central Europe’s (ECE) semi-peripheral position within the capitalist world-system. In recent issues the journal and its contributors have wrestled with the themes of “Climate Change and Capitalism” (#25), “Crisis and Hegemony in Hungary, 2008-2018” (#26), and the “Solidarity Economy” (#27), among others. Importantly, Fordulat has many on- and off-line events, such as issue launches and roundtable discussions, not only in Budapest but also in cities around Hungary and often beyond the border, making the journal a key player in building a community of the Left in the region. (Check out their Facebook page for more information: https://www.facebook.com/fordulatfolyoirat)
The current issue’s title, although timid, already gives away the position of the editors, namely: Emília Barna, Laura Bozsik, Virág Ilona Buka, Adél Csűrök, Lilla Eredics, Eszter Horváth, Sára Lefferton, Kristóf Nagy, András Papp, Zoltán Sidó and Márton Szarvas. They kick off with a statement arguing that culture is embedded in capitalism, that is, in our social reality, and that there is a complex, intertwined, and (thus?) dialectical relation between the two. It becomes clear from the short description of the articles in the issue that although methodologically diverse, the entries share a wide, anthropological and materialist understanding of culture, and analyze cultural arrangements as arenas of hegemonic struggles.
Issue #30 (as is usual by now) starts with a co-authored essay. ‘Culture and Capitalism’ is a well-written, detailed, and thorough study by Virág Ilona Buka, Kristóf Nagy and Márton Szarvas (all members of the Research Group for Public Sociology ‘Helyzet’). The piece is an illuminating introduction for what follows, offering four key methodological frames for Marxist cultural theory to help the reader navigate the troubled waters of the production and consumption of culture in the late capitalist world-system, where the material and intellectual elements of culture are in constant interaction with one-another, in a dialectical relation that determines the very system as a whole. This position is in sharp contrast to the canonical liberal understanding of a divided reality demarcated by experts of certain fields/areas, such as economy, politics, culture.
Drawing on Marxist cultural analysis, the authors argue that culture itself is material practice, and therefore, they speak about production instead of creation: artwork is a product and the artist is a cultural worker (a là Benjamin). The goal is, say the authors, to move beyond the normative aesthetic categories set by cultural elites. Evoking Gramsci’s theory of hegemony as well as Bourdieu’s concept of the field, they claim that taste and canon are produced by intellectuals who serve the interests of the dominant class, whose hegemony is being challenged constantly through class-conflicts. Capitalism conceals the nature of such conflicts and makes them seem to be mere differences of taste.The authors argue that class struggles are only understandable in their historical context, stating that, (1) given the conflicting positions within the dominant class, no hegemony is total; (2) and the opposition to the dominant culture is not homogenous, evoking Williams’ frame of alternative and oppositional kinds of counterculture.
Cultural hierarchies are established by the dominant elites in order to maintain hegemony. Since the onset of the capitalist state, this arrangement and organisation happens in institutions that have been playing a pivotal role in the production and consumption of culture (along with processes of evaluation). This institutionalisation has led to a professionalised field, a quasi-autonomous zone, which mirrors the inequalities present in a capitalist society, and is a competitive arena for a segment of the professional managerial class, due to the uneven distribution of resources.The authors don’t forget that we must not only scrutinise the state and supra-state cultural institutions, but also the global culture industry to understand the commodification of culture. Its value-chains follow the order established by the centre-periphery axis: platform capitalism helps the global integration of cultural production but it is built on the exploitation of already existing symbolic and material inequalities and their reproduction.
After discussing the underlying social and institutional conditions of the production of culture, the authors turn our attention to cultural work itself, the characteristic of which, they claim, is that “it produces meanings through products or action”. These can serve to reaffirm a hegemonic order or to challenge it via strengthening a counterculture. The authors assess that the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ has not left the realm untouched. It amplified the vulnerability of cultural workers through flexibilisation and digitisation (in comparison with both the postWW2 welfare era in the West and the modernising period in state-Socialist CEE); although, importantly, they note that non wage-labour forms of employment in art have historically been more prevalent.
The authors conclude that although cultural production plays a central role in sustaining and reproducing capitalist relations, the motivation behind the majority of cultural work is not to maintain the system itself. Even without planned mass organising and Leftist strategies, ideas and practices continue to emerge which challenge the logic of capital, despite its tendencies to co-opt all possible resistance. And since culture is something through which we make reality, its production and consumption will not disappear but rather change in a post-capitalist world. We can contribute to envisaging and building this world insofar as we see that the material and intellectual realms are interconnected.
One could think of this opening essay as a manifesto that applies the foundational tropes of Marxist cultural analysis to the context of CEE’s reality, but it also argues for a wider application of such understanding. This, in my view, makes it (what Brian Holmes would call) an extradisciplinary piece, for it seeks to go beyond the realm of understanding our reality and thrives to imagine an other, post-capitalist world and the role of culture within it.
Given the fact that cultural theory most commonly focuses on so-called elite or high culture, the dominant cultural forms and norms of the ruling classes, a wider, anthropological understanding of culture these authors present is a vital contribution to this too often one-dimensional discussion.Certainly, this piece will be read and debated for years to come amongst the younger generation of cultural workers, social scientists and students (which is not to say that it is for students, but rather that the already established practitioners seem to already have a too solidified, rigid and narrow scope that is likely the result of their respective positions and symbolic cultural hegemony).
An important mission of Fordulat is to make key texts for thinking about each of its themes available in the Hungarian language. Fordulat #30 presents three translated pieces, two of which follow here. Raymond William’s cardinal 1973 essay, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” translated by Márton Szarvas, comes first. I will not review it here, given that it is a well-known text within the English-speaking part of the field. I’ll just say that the translation is of very high quality and, apart from mediating Williams’ points, Szarvas managed to preserve the style, as well.
Éva Bárdits’ translation of a chapter from Katja Praznik’s recently published “Art Work: Invisible Labour and the Legacy of Yugoslav Socialism” (University of Toronto Press, 2021) follows. In this chapter, entitled “A Feminist Approach to the Disavowed Economy of Art”, Praznik articulates her claim via an analogy between housework (or domestic labour) and artistic labour to show that mainstream discussions about art’s autonomy render artistic labour and its material and social necessities invisible, aiding in the (often extreme) exploitation of cultural workers. While this act of invizibilisation is very similar to the way housework is rendered invisible, the author makes clear that this is an analogy. She doesn’t simply discuss the similarities but also sheds light on the major differences between cultural and domestic labour. The gender norms of our society, Praznik states, determine the different modes of exploitation both in the realm of housework and cultural labour. She gives deeper insight into the gender-based hierarchies in this latter realm analysing pivotal terms such as autonomy, creativity, genius, etc.
The two translations are followed by three studies, each of which evoke distinct time periods while creating a historical overview of the intertwined nature of culture and capitalism in Hungary and the region.
The first, “Hegemony, Workers’ Culture, Paternalism” takes us all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century. Author Eszter Őze examines museum representations of ‘the social question’ by comparing two ‘social museums’ which focused on body-consciousness, illness, and the politics of public health established at the beginning of the 20th century: the Social/Health Museum in Budapest and the Social and Economic Museum in Vienna. She writes that it seems almost too far from our current reality to even imagine an institution like a ’social museum’, a truly modernist endeavour, founded on industrial capitalism’s notion of uninterrupted development, and held together by the unquestionable belief that changing/shaping the future is possible. Őze shows how the principles of caring about the collective body of the population are connected to control and the disciplining (of the bodies) of the labour-force, and how this connection is presented in state-run institutions. She uncovers the way in which care from the state is linked with disciplining and regulating the labour-force and the control over workers’ bodies.
The comparative method helps Őze to reveal that, despite the (physical and political) proximity of the two cities, the museums differ significantly, the causes of which are manifold. In Vienna, the state’s social infrastructures were developed systematically, and ‘Bildungspolitik’ was a key element of the Austro-Marxist agenda, playing an important role in the ‘Red Vienna’ epoch. In Budapest, however, despite the progressive political atmosphere, the government never managed to move beyond single-transfer social aid, which blurred the horizon for a social reform that rests on the shared direction between the working class and the political leadership.
The Hungarian museum focused on the depiction of the worker’s body, and given that only wage-labourers were considered worthy of any state support, the construction of that body became a norm-setting, canon-creating visual tableau, driven by a desire to give shape to societal unity (including the formation of ‘the new man’) manifested in paternalistic state practices which were connected to notions such as philanthropy, pity/compassion and the labour market.The Viennese museum, on the other hand, was a statement against such paternalistic practices (which were also present in Austrian politics): it was an institution resting on the notion of societal unity, thus connecting cultural, pedagogical and political goals in a way that was able to accept the cultural practices of the workers instead of striving to reprogram their behavioural patterns through social engineering.
The next study, by Imola Püspök, takes us to the arena of miners’ culture in Roșia Montană (Hungarian: Verespatak), Romania, a settlement famous for its gold and silver mines from the Roman period onward. “Where is the Mine-Elf? Miners’ Culture and Capitalism in Verespatak” follows the changes in the character of the mine-elf, a very strong cultural reference in miners’ folklore. It analyses the root of the changes by looking at the underlying political, economic and social circumstances. The mine-elf is a creature with immense powers: as the guardian of the precious metals, it can see into the miner’s soul and rule over life or death.
Relying on Tim Ingold’s definition of dwelling, Püspök considers culture to be dynamic and ever changing, something continuously produced by and through social relations and processes. This is an important critical distinction from positions that, given anthropology’s historically colonial character, treat culture as homogenous, static and object-oriented. Dwelling means to understand culture in an integrative way, that is, as interrelated with the social and ecological environments.
Historically, the mine-elf has been an organic part of the social imaginary, playing an active role in many social, ecological and economic relations. Püspök shows that the role played by the mine-elf started to change via the nationalisation of the mines (and land) during the Socialist period. It continued to shift after the regime change characterized by deindustrialization and privatization), when a Canadian mining company began operating in and around Verespatak, all of which significantly altered the economic as well as the ecological contexts of the locals who lost ownership, direct access, and connection with the land. It is not the case, the author reminds us, that the mine-elf has become obsolete. Rather, locals are alienated both physically as well as symbolically from the surroundings, from the mine and the land, therefore the previously active and dynamic relationship with the mine elf has been vanishing. In a sense, the jurisdiction of the elf has been outsourced to the corporation.
Bea Hock’s essay follows, contributing to the vivid critical discussion centering around the role of international NGOs -especially within the field of arts- in ECE since the regime change. “Philanthropy or Plutocracy?” adds some new points to this debate through a discussion of the history of the Soros Foundation and Erste Stifftung. Hock points out that prior to the Hungarian government’s recent anti-Soros campaign (a ‘foreign agent’ propaganda campaign orchestrated by Viktor Orbán, filled with slurs and hate speech), the figure of the Hungarian-born American billionaire (oligarch) had already become well-known. Liberal elites worldwide rushed to support Soros, and this solidarity frenzy rendered critical voices silent or less visible, even though they have been present ever since the start of the foundation’s operation (one of the issue’s editors, Kristóf Nagy’s long term research is of utmost importance here).
Soros set-up a pilot project in Hungary as early as 1985, the ‘success’ of which paved the way to the SCCA network (Soros Centers for Contemporary Arts) that, at its peak, was an 18 branch- strong network of art NGOs in the post-Soviet realm that were often referred to as “alternative ministries of culture”. Erste Stiftung’s ‘tranzit’ network started later, in 2003, around the time that Soros’ endeavour shifted its focus, leaving the contemporary art scene to instead support civil society actors for a more direct socio-political impact.
Hock writes that both Soros and Erste are complicit in establishing a liberal hegemony in the field of art, while the founders’ philanthropy has helped legitimise their neoliberal methods of profit-making. This does not mean that their presence did not provide much needed resources. Soros’ support especially appeared in a vacuum of state capacity to care for institutions of art. The activities of the two foundations also resulted in the professionalisation of the scene and the onset of managerial practices. The role of the curator became central, and a rather small group of artists whose work seemed to be easily exportable to the Western centers were privileged. Hock further argues that the direction of the scene’s development was influenced via the uneven promotion of some art forms over others, based on what seemed to be the cool in the centers of the West.
The label of plutocracy becomes applicable to these NGOs if we accept that through establishing and supporting an emerging liberal elite in the field of arts, these institutions have (had) an impact on (cultural) policy, as well as on civil society – on politics as such. Hock points out that there are two main obstacles to articulating critical positions that thinkers on the Left must overcome. On the one hand, ‘philanthro-capitalism’ and this plutocratic system do not only establish a liberal canon but they also set and guard its borders. On the other hand, she argues, any criticism from the Left has to battle with the co-optation of its own resources by ultranationalist populisms, striving to hijack radical/critical ideas, such as identity-politics, feminist advocacy/activism, post-and-decolonial perspectives, (etc.) and use those in a perverted manner that supports Right-wing, conservative hegemonic projects.
The next block of 3 essays focuses on our contemporary reality and the role the production of culture plays within it, analysing ways in which the cultural sector works in the context of the Orbán regime (in power since 2010), and outlining key differences from its predecessors.
“Rampaging Mainstream” investigates the connection between populism and popular music in the context of post-2010 Hungarian society. Authors Ágnes Patakfalvy-Czirják and Emília Barna examine how popular music may support populist discourse in todays’ Hungary, and the interplay between the aesthetic form of music and the artists’ social, economic and political positions. What makes this long-term research stand out is its methodology: the authors carried out focus-group listening sessions and discussions (group analyses) in eight Hungarian towns with diverse audiences. The groups analysed 13 songs, three of which are discussed in the essay. The authors argue that popular music plays an important role in the consolidation of the Orbán-regime. It is a valuable (though underestimated) asset in the hegemony toolkit, for music affects listeners on both cognitive and emotional levels. Before getting to the actual songs, the authors draw up a brief introduction to the popular music scene and its beneficiaries within the Orbán.. After that, the findings on the three songs and related listening sessions follow. One song is written/performed by a celebrated conservative musician, who, during his decades on the stage earned the status of a public intellectual, and as such has been, directly or indirectly supporting the Orbán-regime’s agenda. The second song is by a band that is not considered to be one of the regime’s favourites, yet which accepted funding from the Ministry of Defence for the sake of the benefits such a ‘partnership’ could entail. The third song is by a musician with a successful career dating back to the 1960’s who has been vocally opposing the current regime. The authors conclude that in all three songs, populist discourse is detectable, manifested in an us-them polarising rhetoric. The first two examples depict a battle between the local conservative values and ‘foreign’ forces that attack them,the patriotic Hungarian middle class, and its fight for sovereignty against the liberals. The third song turns against those in power from the perspective of an elite intellectual whose cultural values are attacked by the current hegemonic regime. The authors show that the Orbán regime has been playing a key role in music industry’s economy via its cultural and media policies: it rewards those who’re willing to align with/support its conservative populist agenda through various financial opportunities, that is, existential stability in an industry marked by exploitation, uncertainty and scarcity.
Next, “I Hope Next Time You Will Manage to Apply ” grapples with the issue of ‘independence’ in the film industry and its dilemmas within the contemporary Hungarian scene. Due to limitations such as language and the still miniscule private capital involved, film production (a grossly expensive form of culture) in a small country like Hungary has been historically funded by the state through an ever-changing institutional framework. Author Máté Konkol shows that, surprisingly, during the ten years of the existence of Orbán regime’s funding body, the National Film Fund (NFI), almost 30% of feature-length films were ‘independent’ productions. This was due to the fact that NFI allocated most of its budget to popular productions aligned with the regime’s ideological values, benefiting a small and interconnected slice of the field, leading to a wide-scale refusal of filmmakers to apply for state funding. Konkol focuses on this 30%, examining ‘independently’ produced films through a Bourdieuian lens, where independence refers to the productions’ funding schemes (as opposed to aesthetic decisions, regarding which the author discusses the term autonomy and concludes that it is always-already a ‘relative autonomy’ one can talk about, given the interplay of various dependencies in the production process). Due to the lack of financial resources, these indy productions have been forced to adapt to conditions of scarcity. Using the social and cultural capital of the already well-known filmmakers, many of them managed to access the technical means of production for (almost) free, and employed staff based on ‘deferred payments’ or on a volunteer basis (free labour). Konkol offers real-world insight to the reader by analysing the production (and distribution) of a feature he worked on as the director’s assistant. The case study reveals that, although the director (Szabolcs Hajdu) was already locally and internationally renowned, the film had a very low production budget Hajdu did not apply for NFI funds). The film was produced by the free labour of the director’s students (at a private art university), and went on to win the Karlovy Vary film festival. The author claims that the students who made the film did not feel that they were exploited in the production process, as the lack of remuneration was compensated with gains in cultural capital, and thus, future opportunities.
In his conclusion, Konkol identifies the urgent need for a movement that would oppose the structures and standards of the film industry set by patriarchal capitalism. He claims that for this, a new network ought to be organised that is integrated into a wider network of the ‘solidarity economy’, is open, and allows for the participation of those currently outside elite circles.
I cannot agree more. For this to happen, I believe, we must confront not only the far-right, ethnonationalist post-fascists, but also the liberal elites who still claim the position of the makers of ‘good culture’, while remaining blind to the slew of exploitation they perpetuate for the sake of the end product and success for the few.
The last piece in this block investigates the deep structural changes that have been occurring in the field of Hungarian fashion under the Orbán-regime, which cannot be understood without investigating the sector’s embeddedness within the capitalist world-system. It is the latter that determines the opportunities of local producers, argues Rita G. Bonifert in her essay “The World of Fashion’s World-System”. Bonifert claims that it is crucial to differentiate between the actual/material and the symbolic layers of fashion, especially when looking at the (semi)periphery, given that here, luxury products are only affordable for the very few. However, she recognizes that the industry does have a wider socio-cultural impact (that is, on the symbolic level)through images in the (social) media. The author first sketches a concise map of the fashion industry which shows that the realisation of profit and of cultural capital happening in the core countries where most of the industry is ‘based’, while production is outsourced to the periphery (fast fashion) and the semiperiphery (high fashion). Due to the lack of financial resources, the disadvantage of not coming from the centre and the relatively still low local purchasing power that could help a producer to kick off their career, designers in Hungary (and CEE) cannot sustain their presence in the global fashion market. Bonifert describes the position of the semiperipheral designer via notions such as self-colonisation and the “East-West slope”, a concept developed by Attila Melegh. This is where the role of the state comes in, which allocates money to the industry in a way that supports producers willing to use the symbolism allied with the regime’s ideology. The case of the fashion competition, “Re-Button It!” clearly shows how the state, when acting as a funder, privileges certain aesthetic directions. Bonifer points out, however, that these directives have changed recently. Instead of pushing the folksy, national(ist) heritage aesthetics, the government began to support already established brands/designers to enter the global markets. This new directive means that the redistribution of public money has become ever more uneven, while the incentive is now to showcase an image of a stylish and very “contemporary” Hungary abroad. This is a kind of cultural export aligned with the double speech the leaders have been exercising, while it also can be seen as an investment in the global culture industry.
This text importantly unveils how the Orbán regime reaches practically all sectors of life in its attempts at consolidation, even the fashion industry. I was, however, left with the feeling of lack, insofar as Bonifert does not provide a critique of the global fashion industry itself, allowing the reader to perhaps conclude that without the Orbán regime’s interventions or the center-periphery divide, things would be going all right. Thus I await the continuation of this intervention, with thoughts on the role of fashion in anti-capitalist countercultures as well its function in a postcapitalist society.
This block on the Orbán regime is followed by Márton Szarvas’s review of Mary N. Taylor’s book, “Movement of the People: Hungarian Populism, Folk Dance and Citizenship” (2021).
Taylor discusses the history of the Hungarian folk dance movement and its political significance, an analysis of the social space created by experiencing the national cultural heritage through a political economic lens. The book starts by scrutinising the 18th century collection of folk songs and folk dance as a colonial practice linked to the emergence of the Hungarian nation state; then shows how the network of cultural institutions in the interwar period lifted the representation of folklore into the level of state politics that resulted in folk dance to become official culture. Discussing the decades of socialism, Taylor shows how the institutions of civic cultivation became the space of folk dance, which, as a result of decentralisation occurring in the 60’s, turned more independent, leading to folk dance becoming part of the counterculture, where people experienced being part of a community through “social dance”. In her discussion of the post-1989 period, Szarvas writes, Taylor shows that the elite factions claimed that the growing social inequalities had cultural causes. Her conclusion, according to the reviewer, throws light on the importance of community while arguing that experiencing cultural practices in a way that does not lift them out of their context may be the foundation of an anti-systemic cultural practice that does not stem from aesthetic preferences but rather helps us understand how oppression can operate through community.
Szarvas points out that the main strength of the book is that, thanks to its wide historical scope and its ethnographic methodology, it reveals both the processual nature of hegemony as well as the political potential rooted in cultural practices. The reviewer claims that this analysis helps us understand the Right’s counter hegemonic organising embedded in the environment of liberal hegemony, that is, the process through which folk dance has become the terrain for the political mobilisation of the conservative middle class.
The concluding essay of the issue is a translation of a lecture by Jean-Louis Fabiani, entitled “Is There an Exit from Cultural Capitalism?”. Fabiani discusses the problems and challenges of considering culture as a ‘common good’. For a society to come where culture is a common good, he argues, we ought to start questioning the modernist notions of art (and culture). While it is never going to be as direct or concrete as the way we address ‘environmental justice’, Fabiani continues, still, we must advocate for ‘cultural justice’. Until communism á la Marx actually blossoms, he suggests that we agitate for a less unequal division of labour between the artist and the spectator. The fact that the author provides only one example –Ivo van Hove’s directorial approach to Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies– for such a position is a pity, given that since the 1960’s, a revolution has been unfolding in the extended field of arts which puts forward approaches that precisely seek to make the division of labour more equal. There are thousands of examples of participatory, “community-based”, and “socially engaged”, “art/commons” and even “postartistic” practices that are relatively well connected via transnational solidarity networks on and off-line. As the author says with reference to Marx- in the near future, “there will be no artists and spectators, one day we might wake up as artists but will become spectators in the afternoon to finish the day with a pint of beer after getting very tired of critical theory”.
All in all, issue #30 of Fordulat is a pivotal contribution to the discussion on culture in contemporary Hungary, the region, and the pan-peripheries. Its main strength lies in the authors’ shared methodology: each text treats (the various fields of) culture as part of our material reality, embedded in the capitalist world-system and intertwined with realms such as politics, economy, etc. In doing so, the essays in the issue manage to provide a perspective capable of the critiquing not just the Orbán regime and its perverted ideological constructions but also that of the symbolically still prevalent liberal doctrines that tend to focus solely on so-called high/elite culture, one that exists in its own vacuum-like autonomous realm. The broad range of topics covered within the issue makes it an outstanding collection, regardless of the reader’s specialisation or interests, it is likely that one will find a large amount of new information. If I would have had an opportunity to give just one advice to the editors, it would have been to ask the authors to be a little more detailed on the possibilities of counterculture today.t always seems to be easier to imagine the culture(s) of a post-capitalist society, whereas, in my opinion, the emphasis ought to be put on envisioning a closer horizon for cultural production able to challenge the incumbent hegemony, or to provide a collection of practices that are already put to work.
Gabor Erlich is an artist/activist (a postartistic practitioner) from Hungary, currently a Marie Curie early stage researcher at the FEINART programme, where he investigates the possibilities and challenges of counter-hegemonic, anticapitalist practice in the Eastern European semiperipheries. (FEINART has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.)