The British film director Ken Loach is one of the most celebrated cinematic voices of our time. A deeply engaged artist and one of a handful of directors to have been awarded the prestigious Palme d’Or twice, Loach’s work often takes up social and political themes. His oeuvre has spanned the Spanish civil war (Land and Freedom), the Los Angeles janitors’ strike (Bread and Roses), the occupation of Iraq (Route Irish), the Irish war of independence (The Wind That Shakes the Barley), and the coercive side of the welfare state (I, Daniel Blake). While the so-called “populist revolt” has triggered much debate on the role of economic inequalities and social exclusion, Ken Loach has been one of the greatest narrators of working-class consciousness and its transformations under neoliberalism.
In this conversation with Italian writer and political activist Lorenzo Marsili, Loach looks at the role of art in moments of political transformation, the evolution of the working class, the meaning of class struggle today, and the left’s failure to inspire radical change.
The interview was recorded during the shooting of DEMOS, a forthcoming documentary in which Lorenzo Marsili travels across Europe investigating transnational solidarity 10 years after the financial crisis.
Lorenzo Marsili: The debate on the role of art in political change has a long history. Today we are clearly going through a moment of great geopolitical transformation and global disorientation. What would be your vision of the role that creativity can play in such a moment?
Ken Loach: In general I think that in art you only have the responsibility to tell the truth. Any sentence that begins “Art should…” is wrong because it relies upon the imagination or perception of the people writing or painting or describing what are different roles that art can play. We need to assert the fundamental principles of ways in which people can live together. The role of writers, intellectuals, and artists is to look at these as the core principles. This is the long view of history, of struggle, so while you may have to make a tactical retreat, it is important to be aware that this is still a retreat, and the core principles are what we have to bear in mind. This is something that people who are not involved in day-to-day tactics can do.
LM: In your work the human element is not merely an illustration of the theory, but really incarnates and becomes the political. Would you agree that art has the power of showing that, ultimately, there are humans behind the great economic and political processes?
KL: Absolutely. Politics lives in people, ideas live in people, they live in the concrete struggles that people have. It also determines the choices we have—and the choices we have in turn determine the kinds of people we become. How families interact is not some abstract concept of mother, son, father, daughter; it has to do with economic circumstances, the work they do, the time they can spend with each other. Economics and politics are related with the context in which people live their lives, but the details of those lives are very human, often very funny or very sad and in general full of contradiction and complexity. For the writers I have worked with and for me, the relationship between the personal comedy of daily life and the economic context in which that life happens has always been very significant.