[House of Welfare]
Text by Jaime Stapleton, 20th of August 2013

California Scheming:
Wake Up and Smell the Patchouli!

1. The Dark Before Dawn
Mushrooms flourish freely in the dark. But surely only a foolish mushroom would compete to outgrow the others who share its dark little tower? Surely every mushroom realises that if they go pursuing their own freedom their tower will collapse leaving them all in the light? Humans too have grown used to a certain idea of individual freedom. We are very used to the notion that freedom of expression is unconditional, that what conflicts or impinges on an individual’s freedom to express themself must be some kind of despotism. Surely, art and culture must be free? If not, so we have come to believe, the very concept of freedom is at risk. But is this way of thinking about freedom as individuated accurate, or even true? Where did we get this belief? And more importantly, might it, in some bizarre way, have come to undermine our welfare? Just how is it that society came to believe that individual expression is an unconditional value, and that communal welfare must be conditional and restricted?

The answer is not philosophical or moral, but historical. And, let’s be blunt: right now, there’s no point looking at mushrooms. They’re thick and these ones are fucked. Their house will fall, and in the light, they will die. We cannot learn from them.

2. Modernist Universalism and Welfare
Many stories can be told about the origin of social security – what Americans call welfare – from ancient poor laws, Cromwell’s commonwealth, the growth of the modern state, the development of income tax and the history of pandemics, to the problem of discharged soldiers and, later, those who were spared the trenches of the First World War because of the common diseases of poverty. But the history of public welfare – unified social security – cannot be separated from the social history of universalism itself. And that history is rooted in war.

The conflict that raged in Europe between 1914 and 1918 is still sometimes remembered as The Great War. Although a number of different national interests were involved, it only became a ‘World War’ in retrospect. The war of 1939–45 was fought on multiple, shifting fronts and entailed, for the first time, different ideological as well as national allegiances. That Modern, universalising war created its own precedent: in retrospect the Great War became the First World War, and the 1939–45 conflict, the Second. That universalisation deprofessionalised conflict, ensnaring civilians in battle both practically – through aerial bombardment – and also ideologically. Between 1914 and 1945, political speech became increasingly fixed, reproduced and amplified by electricity, and ever more carefully composed by the new ‘scientists’ of propaganda. It became possible to wage total war on an ideological abstraction – Nazism and fascism, generally – rather than on a people or a country. (2) That abstraction later enabled the war to be ‘cooled’ into a conflict with communism. In the Modern era we fought not for kings, territory or a singular religious belief, but for our concept of how the world should be. (3)

However, embroiling entire populations in conflict is tricky. They might ask the question: ‘What are we fighting for?’ And, where the sacrifices are large, war makers need something better than ‘for our king and country’ or ‘for our way of life’, since it cannot be guaranteed that the majority are comfortable with the status quo. Those who declare war on an idea had better have their own idea to defend, and that idea must necessarily appeal to the collective will of the majority.

In Britain, the post-war government met that abstract question with a new political settlement, a vision of social security for all. (4) The ‘Welfare State’ was not a peculiar invention of the left, but was part of the universalising urge that defined the Modern era and that had its natural partner in Modernism’s ambitions for art. (5) The primary institutions of social welfare gained political recognition in Europe more or less in tandem with artistic Modernism. By the interwar period, the avant gardes of Montmartre had gathered under the name ‘International Style’. Modernism ushered humanity towards a new and better world that recognised universal needs and the need for universal values. The universalism of the era, however, was intimately entwined with, and often in conflict with, totalitarianism. The desire for complete solutions underpinned not only the International Style, but also eugenics, Hitler’s ‘final solution’ and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Post war, that urge towards universalism also split ‘East’ from ‘West’.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948 was a product of that modernising tendency, projecting a unified vision of all humanity, no matter where, no matter what culture or economy. (6) That universalist vision was, however, the direct consequence of US involvement in the Second World War. In January 1941, Roosevelt’s State of the Union address laid out ‘Four Freedoms’ for humanity in general – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear and freedom from want. From the beginning, freedom of speech was balanced by other rights that included freedom from want. Freedom of speech (which is now more generally called expression) marched hand in hand with what Americans call ‘welfare’ and the British, more properly, call ‘social security’. (7) When the US entered the war in December 1941, those freedoms were adopted as the official ‘war aims’ of all the Allied forces. They later re-emerged in the preamble to the UDHR. (8) That document entwined a particular vision of social order, economy and art in a progressive compact. By claiming those provisions as universal it followed that those rights must be good for all people at all times. Thus a particular view of the interrelations of social, political, economic and artistic activity was stripped of historical specificity and context.

That had profound consequences for art. A particular historical pattern of concepts was raised to a universal, cross-cultural status, enshrined in Article 27 of the UDHR, laying out the rights of authors and audiences, and Article 19, protecting freedom of expression. (9) Artistic rights and freedom of expression thus became central planks of the post-war ideological consensus.

In the immediate post-war period the universalising claims for art underpinned the development of public funding in many of the European states. During the war, the economist John Maynard Keynes was Chairman of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA). CEMA brought classical music to working-class audiences in factories as part of the propaganda effort. (10) Keynes was both intimately and intellectually involved with Modernism; in the early part of his life, he had been part of the Bloomsbury Group. (11) His General Theory (1936) challenged the assumption that markets were self-organising, self-sustaining, organic entities. (12) As human constructions, they had human frailties, suffering from vagaries of confidence and cultural and historical variation. While humans had universal needs, the means to meet them were not universal. On occasions, markets simply collapsed. When that happened, the state must intervene to correct the failure.

In the three decades following the war, that vision of economics went hand in hand with political programmes that sought to unify pensions, social security benefits, healthcare and housing – what we came to call the Welfare State. That package was underpinned by the principal ideological assumption grounding Keynesian economics, that the state had a responsibility to guide the economy towards full employment – a view that even British Conservatives shared until the late 1970s.

The reality of market failure and the universalising context of the Welfare State underpinned Keynes’s post-war invention, the Arts Council. His July 1945 speech on BBC radio drew on his own experiences, and argued that these demonstrated that the public demand for art outstripped supply. (13) Market failure should therefore be rectified by the use of tax revenue to support the production and distribution of art for the benefit of society at large. For Keynes, art was a component in a better way of life, a life to which many aspired, an aim that the state had a duty to help facilitate. Critically, the system he oversaw was at ‘arm’s length’. The state supplied money through the Council but did not prescribe the kinds of art to be made. Thus, while the system was universalising, it demanded no particular ideological or aesthetic commitment from the artist. (14) Keynes recognised that Modernism was largely a ‘metropolitan’ concern, thus his support for it was balanced with support for ‘localism’. (15) Overall, that system simply recognised the frequent disjuncture between what free markets supply and what people need.

Although Keynes died in 1946, Keynesian economics, or variants of it, dominated European and North American politics until the late 1970s. It was axiomatic that states had responsibilities for the welfare of its citizens. In Europe, general welfare also included art: Keynes’s Arts Council was emulated in many western European democracies. Civilisation was for all, not just the few. To understand how that all unravelled, we must return to the Second World War and recount another story of Modernism.

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