It’s now over half a century since CP Snow delivered his ‘The Two Cultures’ Lecture (the ‘Rede’ Lecture 1959) in Cambridge. Though persistently argued over and misunderstood ever since, it is proving uncannily prescient of our contemporary malaise.
He was exercised by what he saw as the dangers, in the UK, of a society so split between divergent cultures – at that time, that of the confident, forward-and outward-looking ‘ scientists’; and that of a traditionalist establishment (inadequately labelled at first ‘ the literary intellectuals’ but closely allied with the keepers of the ‘governing culture’ of the time ). Each seemed incapable of understanding or meaningfully communicating with the other.
Such ‘cultures’ were not so much about the minutiae of their different reading habits or common room dialectics ( though sometimes trivialised into this by critics, commentators and occasionally Snow himself ); but about divergent world views and sensitivities particularly towards the known needs of the hungry, suffering and deprived both nearby and across the wider 1950s world.
We have the know-how to do what is needed, was his plea…
“Before I wrote the lecture, I thought of calling it ‘The Rich and the Poor’ and I rather wish I had not changed my mind”, he subsequently wrote in ‘The Two Cultures: A Second Look’ (1963).
Through the years, Snow’s ‘Rede’ lecture has supplied rich, red meat for many literary critics, academic commentators and political scavengers to dine on; but its persistent, if flawed , genius survives in its evocation of the dangerous and frightening realities for a ‘free’ society, when it divides so deeply on the direction of its social aspirations and its interpretation of fairness and moral behaviour, that its whole necessary community of shared ideas, language and understanding begins to unravel.
And when this process moves beyond an assumed, mis-match of language, towards a deliberate construct of political intent, we move beyond the relatively benign – if misunderstood – warnings of a Snow towards the more blood- chilling admonitions of his contemporary, Orwell and 1984.
Yet this is the parlous scenario we now seem to be creating in the UK and the wider ‘globalising’ world, fed by intensifying ideologies of unregulated corporate and market power and mainly dated in our own era from what Michael Sandel in his brilliant 2012 Penguin book ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’ labelled ‘The Era of Market Triumphalism’.
“The years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008 were a heady time of market faith and deregulation – an era of market triumphalism… it began in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher proclaimed that markets, not governments, held the key to prosperity and freedom.”
Yet sadly, Sandel’s suggestion that “Today that faith is in doubt. The era of market triumphalism has come to an end” has already proved deeply flawed, or at least premature. The in-power, free-market ideologues here, and across the West, have successfully re-written the narrative of the 2008 banking/financial collapse and embraced acute austerity and deficit reduction as the more solid buttresses of their market philosophy in its programme for shrinkage of the democratic state.
We have just witnessed it in full aggressive flow, and with its characteristic neo-liberal insensitivities, in both the recent UK election – which further enshrined austerity/deficit reduction and socio/income inequality in our own society; and, more recently still, it has upheld the dubious interests of a coterie of unelected bankers and ‘creditors’ over the sovereign and democratic will of an already impoverished, and humiliated, Greek nation.
The Greeks, to their credit, put up a struggle; but one of the great, unanswered questions of our age, which Snow was asking of his own, is by what perversion of cultures within our societies have we come to isolate our ‘individual’ from our ‘social condition’ – whereby we are currently acquiescing in avoidable, deeply punitive, social, educational and economic deprivation for so many around us?
“The (individual condition) isn’t all”, Snow argued, in another generally mis-interpreted aspect of his moral argument.
“One looks outside oneself to other lives, to which one is bound by love, affection, loyalty, obligation: each of those lives has the same irremediable components as one’s own; one that one can help, or that can give one help. It is in this tiny extension of the personality, this seizing on the possibilities of hope, that we become more fully human: it is the way to improve the quality of one’s life: it is, for oneself, the beginning of the social condition”
(The Two Cultures: a Second Look)
So the elitist fog around some common-rooms and high-tables which long threatened to reduce The Two Cultures to a silly beauty contest between science and literature is well-wide of the mark – and, more crucially, misses its great contemporary relevance. Snow, of course, had a firm foot in both these ‘cultures’. It is their fusion, not exclusion, for which he is looking, and a more interactive educational strategy required (and still is). Predominantly, however, he was delivering a moral message based on a more progressive mix of social awareness and empathy; and a more extroverted, full-blooded, dissemination of needed and available knowledge and skills.
In spite of the plethora of recurring comment since 1959, it seems the full import and significance of Snow’s critical analysis and warning may have been missed. What Sandel, David Marquand (in his devastating ‘Mammon’s Kingdom’ – Penguin/Random House 2013) and others have graphically described, is much more threatening than a mere policy change.
It is a massive, deliberate “culture shift” intended to create an irreversible breakaway from a previous, more liberal and socially oriented, view of state and society.
Snow was reminding us that deep conflicts of culture and the dying of dialogue – even in the more egalitarian society of the post war consensus- was a dangerously toxic mix; how much more so for us now than in 1959, as inequalities of income, education and social mobility are being deliberately converted into our new cultural norm.
Which culture do we want ?