English Culture is Dead

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English culture is dead. Or dying, perhaps.

This is something we have been led to believe by a multitude of Daily Mail articles and right wing extremists, usually with the finger of blame pointing squarely at immigrants, asylum seekers and the political correctness brigade.

In 30 years time, they tell us, we’re all going to be speaking Arabic because of those
bloody Eastern Europeans. And we can’t even have St George’s Day Parades like we
used to where everyone gets together in the town square and symbolically slays a dragon. Suddenly this voice has taken on a new ferocity with the false or exaggerated stories in the media about local councils burning national flags and shooting on sight anyone in an England football shirt. Or something like that.

The worrying thing is, these people aren’t as wrong as you might like to think. Admittedly, they’re a long way from being right, but they have picked up on a genuine problem. They just look at it through goggles of patriotism and reactionary right wing politics.

But English culture actually is dead. And someone killed it.

So, time for the post-mortem, because the cause of death is far from clear. To illustrate my point, the example I’ll give is the East End of London, my home. Sixty years ago it was a booming community of mainly dockworkers and their families. They’d been through the blitz together, everyone knew everyone else’s children and most of them were related in some complicated, partially incestial manner. There was a local dialect, a local way of life, a local butchers, a local pub, a local market. Kids played around on the streets until late, forming friendships that they would carry on into adulthood, the cornerstone of the next generation of community life. Ok, so it wasn’t a paradise, they were still pretty poor, a lot didn’t get a proper education, there was crime, housing problems and deprivation; in short many of the problems people in the East End face today. Then the government closed the docks and shifted them out to Tilbury. On the docklands they started building what is now London’s financial district. The local residents, many of whom lived in council housing schemes were evicted to make way and moved out to Essex. Out went the local butchers and the local market, in came Asda and Savacentre. Out went the local pub, in came executive flats for the new city workers. Out, in droves, went the alienated and unemployed local people, in came migrant workers, brought in as cheap labour for the few factories that were still open, or to drive the buses, clean the offices and work in the supermarkets.

And so the old culture died. And what killed it?

Did political correctness shut down the docks and drive up housing prices? No. Did
immigrants close the local butchers and open a supermarket? No. Was it asylum seekers who moved into the luxury flats that took the place of local boozers? No again. It was the rich. It was capitalism.

This process was repeated up North when that angel of rampant, merciless economic
growth, Margaret Thatcher decimated the mining communities. Bit by bit, it swept across the country. We became a consumer society, relying on television for our entertainment and superstores for our food. And somewhere inside that process, English culture died.
In some ways, at least in East London, a new culture has grown up out of the multi-cultural society that has been born there over the last few years. Again, we’ve developed a local dialect, a local way of life and we still have a local market. To me this is positive. I think I was lucky to grow up in an area that produced such an exotic melting pot of cultural experience. But to the older generation, especially those who were moved out to Essex and the fertile BNP breeding ground that is Barking, it’s all very different from how it used to look and sound. The pace of change has overtaken their lives, and a lot of what they used to understand has disappeared. These are the people who have borne the price of the developments. They’re the ones whose jobs have been swallowed up, undercut or shipped overseas. They’re the ones who have lost the culture which represents their roots and sense of belonging. And out of that comes the bitterness, the resentment, the reactionary racism. They’re lost in the modern world, casting around for someone to blame and pointing the finger at political correctness and Eastern Europeans.

But immigrant groups don’t kill a culture. Most of the time, they enter it, permeate it and contribute to it. This has been happening for years and is in no sense the death of English culture. The change, which has been occuring since the 80s, is the spread of big business. In many ways, the rise in immigration over the last few years is a symptom of that. There wouldn’t be a poverty stricken global south without capitalism and as a result there wouldn’t be immigrants. There wouldn’t be a need for hundreds of service industry workers without advanced modern capitalism, and if there wasn’t they wouldn’t be coming here. Immigrant groups have left their home, their family and their life to come and work doing menial jobs for poor pay in a country with rubbish food and even worse weather. You wouldn’t do that unless you had to. Like the unemployed former miner up north, your average immigrant is just an innocent person whose life has been overcome by economic tides they have no power to control.

And it’s not just English culture. The disease is global. Farmers and rural communities in the third world have had their land taken away by multinational businesses and been forced to get a job in a sweatshop and live in an urban slum. All over the world, local communities and local ways of life are being swallowed up by economic growth. Everyone becomes a worker or a consumer. And because of that, everywhere, even in England, culture dies.

So don’t listen to those who tell you it’s because of the immigrants and flag bans and the lack of St George’s Day parades. But equally don’t listen to the liberals who laugh at the idea that there’s a problem. Just look for who the real enemy to English culture is.

Ironically enough, it might be the man who owns the paper telling you it’s someone else.

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Discussion15 Comments

  1. avatar

    My first graduate job was in Basildon, the epicentre of the East End exodus to which you refer, and a town notable for having one of the first Savacentres and (counting Pitsea as part of Basildon) the first Tesco Extra. Paranoia relating to immigration is still hugely prevalent in the area, to the point that in one of the local constituencies both UKIP and the BNP retained their deposit this year. The whole of South Essex is now an utterly soulless place, populated by the families who left the East End and also by commuters, and there is a cultural void filled essentially by consumerism.

    I lasted four months.

    I learned so much about myself, and quite a bit about Britain, in those four months.

  2. avatar

    It’s not just English culture either, it’s cultures across the globe being homogenised into one tedious monoculture of consumers, rather than diverse polycultures of people. It’s very useful for those who profit from this shift that we blame different people rather than see the shift for what it is, otherwise we might just stop playing along with it…

    Pete
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    Exactly true David. I had a couple of paragraphs about that, but I trimmed them down because I think it needs another article to really do justice to it.

  3. avatar
    Azeezat Johnson

    Great article and I agree with the comments made, but I do not feel that English culture as it were is dying. Rather it’s a western culture of consumerism which makes all the traditional english or larger british traits disappear into a melting pot of capitalism which for me creates the real problems within western societies. Whilst developing nations can clearly see the Westernization (or rather large businesses that wish to homogenise their culture e.g. GAP, Coca-Cola, etc.) of their culture and so form a defence of their culture from a very real enemy, we in the West find it hard to identify the ‘enemy’ as it has permeated into all aspects of our lives as was noted by Pete.

    But to say that English culture as it were is dying or dead, it would be necessary to define it. This is a difficult task as there are never any clear indicators of what should or should not be seen as a cultural trait. With regards to immigrants, the English culture has always been permeated with immigrants who come in and encourage change within the culture. Where would English culture be without Marks & Spencers created (in part) by a Polish refugee of the 1900’s? Or ODEON which was started by a German Jewish refugee? As cultures evolve, they adapt to modern circumstances and change in accordance with it. Therefore, unless there is a mass genocide, it is hard to specify whether a culture has ‘died’ or not. I would argue instead, that English culture as it were is attempting to adapt to this new globalised culture of consumerism and that is where the problem lies.

    Peter Apps
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    “I would argue instead, that English culture as it were is attempting to adapt to this new globalised culture of consumerism and that is where the problem lies.”

    In fairness Azeezat, this is really the point I was trying to make… perhaps unsuccessfully. I may redraft slightly…

    Peter Apps
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    Ok, I have now added a paragraph which hopefully brings the article closer to what I was trying to say.
    On the issue of defining English culture, I take your point, which is why this wouldn’t pass a sociology exam. Really, when I say culture, I mean culture of a local kind on a community level, the day to day life which gives people their identity and sense of belonging. Whether you can call that “english” or not is debateable, and there certainly isn’t one “english” culture which is repeated all over the country.
    I’m really using the expression for effect in an attempt to turn round the typical daily mail point of view. Strictly speaking, I should say, the many cultures that make up England are dying. As they are in the rest of the world.

    Azeezat Johnson
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    Yeah, I just read it over again and I think we were saying pretty much the same thing except I still don’t think the word dying is necessarily true because it implies the extinction of the culture which I don’t think is ever really possible. But again, I see your point about using the term as a twist on the typical Daily Mail/ The Sun point of view. It’s a really interesting issue to raise as you do wonder whether there’s anything that can be done to change the Western culture of consumerism or whether it is too intertwined with our very existence in society (as has been noted by some of the others posts).

    Pete
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    Is there anything that can be done about Western consumerism? Sadly, probably not. It would take a complete shift in our collective psychology as well as a restructuring of our entire society.
    Western consumerism, like most empires, will probably destroy itself in the end. Whether by running out of raw materials, wrecking the envrionment or oppressing the third world to the extent that they organise and revolt. Although there is no guarantee that whatever society followed that would be any better. For the time being I think all we can do is be the change in our own lives, explain the issues to others, try and build a new community locally, and fight the expansion of the modern world where we can… (the crown and sceptre pub for example :-))

  4. avatar

    English culture is not dying its changing. Just like how it has change a hundred years ago and a hundred before that. Its natural. You make it sound like there is some static thing called English culture when in fact it has been evolving for many years and has changed many times.

  5. avatar

    I don’t think english culture is dead, I’ve just come back from leaving abroad in america. English culture is everywhere from the way we cross the road to the length of our adverts, and a lot of places with their own butchers and where every knows your name still exist.

  6. avatar

    Very well written article Pete. It brings to mind an essay by George Orwell called ‘England your England’ where he tried to define British culture. Part of it goes as such;
    ‘What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the matelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.’

    Although you identify consumer culture as the problem it’s not something that can really be altered, its become much too intertwined in our daily life. But I do agree with the last poster. The only way to really notice English culture is to travel and experience first hand other cultures. But then you also realise that humans are pretty much the same wherever you go, with more or less the same problems and ambitions.

    Pete
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    You are probably right. I remain hopeful about our chances for changing the current philosophy of society, but that’s probably because I’m a slightly naive optimist who reads too much left wing literature. I hope there are some people left in the world who take a different outlook on life, I’m sure there are some who see the importance of cultural interaction a lot more than we do….
    Nice Orwell quote by the way, opens up a ton of philosophical questions about our concept of self, but on the whole seems pretty true.
    Thanks for reading adriano! Gave me a bit of a shock when your name popped up on the comments list.

  7. avatar

    I really like this, it feels clear to me that when it talks about ‘English culture’ he means the grassroots communities, personal experience, groups of people in a similar geographic region who all know each other because they are employed at the same factory/mine and drink in the same pub etc etc… this experience did exist and it is ‘dying’ (and its death is being blamed in immigration among other things).
    Obviously the solipsism in our culture plays a part (communicating via technology rather than face to face etc) but it’s hard to know whether that’s a cause or effect.

    I think there is also a sense of rootlessness in British people who live in areas that have seen their populations change significantly due to immigration- a sense that this place is ‘home’ to you whereas to everyone else who lives there it is simply a transient and temporary place, there was somewhere before and there will be somewhere after. It is never really home in the eyes of anyone else and so there is a feeling that everyone comes from somewhere else, and that you don’t come from anywhere. You have nowhere recognisable as a location of cultural identity.
    I’m not saying this justifies anti-immigration feeling, or makes any coherent sense, but I think it’s the reality of some people’s experience. I think it’s at least partly why people become militantly attached to their sense of an ‘English’ culture.

  8. avatar

    Its an interesting idea that Capitalism has eroded much of national cultures of the developed world, creating homogenised nations. The only thing I would add to what others have mentioned is that culture is a dynamic thing, created anew almost with each generation, the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s all had their own expressions of culture. Unfortunately for the UK, since 2000 it seems to have become a real nanny state, obsessed with security and with terrorism laws. The UK has been engaged in 2 wars that a lot of people didn’t support. Its been spending more and more on equipment and software to monitor and track citizens, rather than spending increasing amounts on arts crafts and cultures. That has become our culture and identity as a nation, and its not something to be proud of. We are now left with symptoms of mistrust between neighbours, and government, and other nations.
    The one chink of light I did see for this generation is the Web, how we have created a world anew with some very creative outputs such as Youtube, Blogs, Flickr, Wikipedia and many others. There has also emerged a file sharing culture, as mentioned negatively in the CIBER report carried out by UCL. Sadly a lot of the creativity and re-use of works could have been nipped in the bud with draconian laws like the recently passed Digital Economy Act, that prevents most commercial material from being used, re-shared or even linked to without prior permission of the copyright holder. Culture is worth preserving and creating anew, but it is through ideas, communication and governance that people will be able to express it. Culture of past has been replaced by something a lot worse and its up to us to change that, starting today if possible by creating things of value: promoting our language, building creative works and creating friendships based on trust. Then we will have some semblance of culture we can be proud of.

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