For most mainstream economists, culture is either a commodity like any other (and therefore subject to the same kind of supply-and-demand analysis) or a reminder term (e.g., to explain different levels of economic development, when all the usual explanations—based on preferences, technology, and endowments—have failed).
For Raymond Williams [ht: ja], culture was something very different.
Williams makes it clear early on that if he could pick only one term to investigate, it would be “culture.” The word comes from the Latin verb colere and originally meant “to cultivate,” in the sense of tending farmland. A “noun of process,” it gradually expanded to include human development, and by the late 18th century, people commonly used “culture” to mean how we cultivate ourselves. Following the Industrial Revolution, however, the word took on a new emphasis: It came to mean both an entire way of life (as in “folk” or “Japanese” culture) and a realm of aesthetic or intellectual activity that stood apart from, or above, the everyday (basically, what people parody when they say “culchah”). Over several hundred pages, Williams shows how dozens of writers developed these senses of “culture” in order to explain, and manage, the changes remaking British society in the 19th century—from rapid industrialization to the new markets it created for literature, and from land enclosure to overseas colonization.
Williams (along with, of course, many others, including Stuart Hall and Edward Said) redefined the meaning of culture, which provided “a record of change, and of the clashes of interest that drive that change.” Williams and the other “cultural materialists” of the time challenged both traditional humanities scholarship (which sought to identify and cultivate the elitist “finer values”) and traditional Marxism (according to which culture either reflected the “economic base” or, in its mass commodified form, forced workers to accept capitalist values).
Implicitly, Williams and the others also challenged mainstream economists’ version of culture, by emphasizing the idea that culture both registers the clashes of interest in society (culture represents, therefore, not just objects but the struggles over meaning within society) and stamps its mark on those interests and clashes (and in this sense is “performative,” since it modifies and changes those meanings).
That’s the approach I took in my presentation last year in my talk on “Culture Beyond Capitalism” in the opening session of the 18th International Conference on Cultural Economics, sponsored by the Association for Cultural Economics International, at the University of Quebec in Montreal.
The basic idea is that culture offers to us a series of images and stories—audio and visual, printed and painted—that point the way toward alternative ways of thinking about and organizing economic and social life. That give us a glimpse of how things might be different from what they are. Much more so than mainstream academic economics has been interested in or able to do, even after the spectacular debacle of the most recent economic crisis, and even now in the midst of what I have to come the Second Great Depression.
And it was in honor of Williams that I accepted the invitation to write the entry on “Capitalism” for Keywords for American Cultural Studies, and later, with Maliha Safri, to launch the Keywords series in the journal Rethinking Marxism.