Recommended Read: “The Cultural Front” by Michael Denning

A history of the New Deal provides lessons for workers in today’s imperilled arts world.

Whether out of economic necessity or ideological design, it is clear that the relationship between the state and the arts is being reassessed. Within the coalition government's first 100 days, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport warned that a number of our public bodies are set to be "merged, abolished or streamlined" amid attempts "to cut costs and increase transparency, accountability and efficiency".

The proposed closures of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), the UK Film Council and the Advisory Council on Libraries are only the most high-profile cases in the government's initial efforts to cut 25 per cent from the Arts Council fund.

All this makes for an intriguing political and cultural context for the forthcoming second edition of Michael Denning's Cultural Front. Released to academic acclaim in 1997, The Cultural Front is a panoramic examination of the challenging popular front culture that emerged in 1930s America in the context of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and the Works Progress Administration.

Denning argues that this period, far from being "the brief moment when politics captured the arts, when politics went left, Hollywood turned red, and painters, musicians and photographers were 'social minded' ", in fact witnessed a deep and lasting transformation of American culture that outlived the politics of the New Deal.

This momentous legacy is the success not only of Roosevelt's New Deal liberalism, but of the left as a whole. Indeed, what is significant about The Cultural Front is its relative silence on Roosevelt and congressional politics. Duke Ellington and Woody Guthrie feature far more prominently than do FDR and the WPA.

The agents in this decisive cultural period are not so much organised political groups or coalitions, but countless members of a self-conscious left that represented "a radical historical bloc". Orson Welles, John Dos Passos, Ralph Ellison, Billie Holliday, Walt Disney and Richard Wright developed the mass cultural practices of film, theatre, literature, radio and music that came from, engaged with and were genuinely popular among working-class and ethnic-minority populations. These are, for Denning, the instigators of American modernism, to whom our inheritance of jazz, blues, country music, ghetto pastorals and gangster movies is owed.

The phenomenon of the cultural front and the particular forms it took were, of course, the result of a confluence of trends and events which cannot be replicated. But The Cultural Front should resonate with all interested parties in today's debate on the coalition cuts.

To policymakers, it is a rich account of the cultural (and, indeed, economic) fertility of investing in the arts at times of economic hardship and social fragmentation. While today's vulnerable arts bodies may yearn for the relief projects and federal investment of the New Deal, the cultural left as a whole can surely learn from the lasting success its ancestors achieved by engaging with emerging cultures through emerging art forms.

Above all, though, Denning's book is a reminder that culture can surpass the minutiae of government policies. Whereas many have viewed the radical art of the 1930s as a fleeting triumph of the left that was soon suppressed by the red scare of cold war America, Denning has identified its continued presence in the mass culture of Bob Dylan, Jay-Z and Martin Scorsese that we now value so greatly.

Ralph Ellison remarked in Shadow and Act that the blues "are an art form and thus a transcendence of the conditions in the Negro community by the denial of social justice". That his legacy endures is testament to the power of such art forms over even the gravest of political errors.

A new edition of "The Cultural Front" will be published by Verso (£20) on 18 October

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain