Universalism and Difference: The Separation of Culture and Politics

By Inglis, Fred | British Journal of Canadian Studies, September 2006 | Go to article overview
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Universalism and Difference: The Separation of Culture and Politics


Inglis, Fred, British Journal of Canadian Studies


In present usage and understanding, 'culture' is a good, warming, humane sort of word, and 'politics' bleak and unaccommodating. To have a culture is to be fortunate, to be joined to others by common values and inclusive emotion; to have to face up to politics is to enter an alien atmosphere where harsh talking, blank refusal, and grim egotism will be mediated only by those unattractive necessities, the politicians, whose trade is not only stained by personal ambition and the necessity of lying, but who bring the corrosive effects of cynicism and conflict, the absolute incompatibilities of self-interests, and the grossness of partiality to bear upon one's own integrity, one's purity of heart, one's allegiance to culture.

Culture entails community; politics entails conflict. For some years now, in academic life and in the life of the street, the texts of politics have been dissolved into the contexts of culture, such that the hardnesses of such facts as class and its struggles, monster injustice and its only recourse, the courts of law, social barbarism and its violence, eradicable cruelty and vindictive envy, have all been obscured by the ointments of moral hypochondria and an intellectual preference for interpretation over criticism.

The Concept of Culture

The strength of the concept of culture has been to force our attention upon the self-interpreting nature of the human animal. That is to say, in the common emphasis of the policy sciences, whether in the worst detail of community development schemes or in the more fatuous reaches of managerial theory as presently promulgated by government and by vicechancellors, much has been made of the self-image of subordinates, the self-esteem of those experimented upon in the policy to hand, and of the value-attributes of what is characterised as the institutional culture, generally caught in some such round and empty slogan as the 'culture of failure', or 'a culture of passivity', of drug-dependence, or worse. At this point culture as a concept approaches vacuity. If the word designates (as the founding anthropologists tell us) a whole way of life, circumscribed, recognisable, inclusive, then it becomes no more than a loose and baggy classification into which we can throw any social manifestation, including politics. If Max Horkheimer1 could make, as he put it, metaphysics out of chewing gum, culture can be defined to include pretty well everything that is thought and confected by human beings. Edward Thompson, reviewing Raymond Williams' early discussion of culture, offered as his definition of culture 'handled experience', and substituted for way of life, 'way of struggle', but this, while separating nature from culture and replacing living-and-breathing with living-and-quarrelling, still leaves us with almost everything to do, if we are to give the word explanatory force (Thompson 1961: 47).

On the other hand, we are right to be reassured that, in dealing with culture, we may be hard put to distinguish conduct from expression, custom from symbol, gesture from idiosyncrasy, but in all these manifestations cannot doubt that we are dealing in human particularity and therefore in matters of ultimate value. Max Weber tells us that politics is the domain of authority, its legitimation and assertion, of centralisation (and its adjunct, bureaucracy), and - since the advent of the nation-state - of the determination of territory (1948: 77). The state, as distinct from society (still less from culture) distributes power, status, and rewards. For Weber, the defining attribute of the state is its monopoly of the means of legitimate violence.

By these tokens, culture is counterposed to politics as the repository of everyday value faced with the blankness of power. Power protects, of course, as well as coerces: indeed, the state's first duty is to defend its people's safety (hence the present necessity not just to detest but to defeat terrorism). Once we grasp the momentousness of this obligation, we are well on the way, at least in the democracies of Western capitalism, to sanctioning as absolute the distinction between public and private lives, largely devised according to liberal theory to decorate these accommodations, to effecting a correspondence between the public/private separation, and the political/cultural one.

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