Essay

Blue wedge

Art, culture and ‘the elite’

A STRANGE DISQUIET stalks the Australian arts and cultural community. It’s not just the very real effects of COVID-19 – it’s a deeper anxiety, a sense that something is happening here, but we don’t know what it is.

That the Coalition government’s response to the impact of the pandemic on this community in Australia has been woeful is generally recognised. But why? Given the repeated failings in private aged care, the vaccine rollout and the delivery of bushfire relief, incompetence cannot be ruled out. That incompetence is rooted in thirty years of hollowing out the public sector and a self-image among public administrators that only the private sector works efficiently. There’s also systemic corruption, the degradation of the ethos of public service, the symbiotic relationship between powerful lobby groups and politicians, and the assertion of ministerial sovereignty (‘they voted for us’) over the checks and balances of democracy (courts, parliamentary tradition, public administration, media, civil society). In an age of political capitalism – ‘a form of profit-oriented activity in which returns are largely the result of the direct use of political power’, according to sociologist Dylan Riley – the arts and culture sector certainly lacks a powerful lobby. There are simply fewer opportunities for politicians to engage in lucrative revolving-door arrangements than there are in fossil fuels, finance, defence, aged care, employment services and pharmaceuticals. As other countries have found, it’s a difficult sector for public administration to grapple with, not fitting the standard statistical profiles of ‘employed’ or ‘self-employed’.

Yet there is more here. Other countries got their emergency support measures wrong but then tried to correct them. This government did not attempt such a correction and remains adamant all is well. Basic ignorance? In many European and East Asian countries, cultural sector research is well resourced. In Australia, having abolished the cultural statistics unit at the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2013 and relentlessly cut federal funding to the arts (19 per cent per capita since 2008), we rely on the kindness of think tanks. The level of fine-grained sectoral understanding among politicians and administrators is low. Or perhaps they never hang out with artists, unlike the kinds of businessmen friends who helped Josh Frydenberg design JobKeeper. Government incompetence, lack of a powerful lobby, few opportunities for politicians’ ‘reward’, lack of understanding, no personal experience? Certainly. But there is a pervasive sense that this is personal. The Coalition does not like the arts and cultural sector. They are not indifferent to it, nor do they ignore it because there are no votes in it. They are actively antipathetic to it and seek to undermine it at every turn. Why?

Is this rooted in a longstanding Australian anti-intellectualism, the antipathy of a hard-working society to the gentility of string quartets and artists with floppy hats? As ‘Doc’ Tyden says to Jock in the 1971 film Wake in Fright: ‘It’s death to farm out here. It’s worse than death in the mines. You want them to sing opera as well?’ If this was ever true, then it was no longer true by the 1960s, at least not if you allow the Beatles and TV drama to count as art. In any event, the sentiment was more likely to be found in the Australian Labor Party than the Liberals, who, in Robert Menzies, represented an Anglo-European gentile culture par excellence. The ALP-led postwar reconstruction program – a classic example of what Marianna Mazzucato, professor in the economics of innovation and public value at University College London, calls ‘a moonshot mission’, in stark contrast to today’s policy stasis – ignored art and culture entirely. Nonetheless, the ALP managed to hold together an alliance of unionised working class and the professionalised middle class – workers by hand and by brain – in an evolving cultural formation that eventually came into its own. It took a lot of work, as much by the Communists as Labor and as much by working-class autodidacts as by bohemian lefties. The 1960s solidified the alliance via the civil rights movement coming in from the US. By the time of Paul Keating’s Creative Nation in 1994, the ALP ‘owned’ art and culture. Though sometimes it wished it didn’t.

Is this when the Coalition gave it up as a hiding to nothing? Under John Howard there was a bullish reassertion of traditional Australian values, and a ‘culture war’ set out to roll back ‘permissiveness’ and escalating demands for social diversity. However, this entailed not a rejection of art and culture but a demand for ‘excellence’, a poo-pooing of new-fangled inventions such as media arts and the kinds of modernist-popular (multi)cultural values articulated in the early days by the ALP’s creative industries agenda. In the 1990s, the language of cultural policy bipartisanship still held.

For many on the broad left, Howard’s 1996 election victory was only a blip in Labor’s dominance of the culture agenda going back to Whitlam. Australia was getting into its stride of a quarter century of unbroken growth, and Australia’s arts and culture, along with the thriving academic playpen that was cultural studies, were fizzing with energy. Though out of power, the cultural penumbra of the ALP looked to UK New Labour’s ‘Cool Britannia’ as a re-tailored version of Creative Nation, set to return to Australia soon enough.

But the ensuing decade knocked the stuffing out of the ALP, as it did the arts and cultural sector. Wherever Tony Blair was going with their ideas – and Bill Clinton and Gerhard Schröder and other ‘third way’ politicians – Howard went somewhere else. He forged the ‘economic rationalism’ espoused by Hawke and Keating into a dagger aimed at the heart of Labor – transforming ‘tradies’ into the self-employed and setting up a middle-class welfare state that rewards asset owners at the expense of the ‘working poor’. This was the Australian version of Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism, in which an ideological hall of mirrors pitched working-class battlers against middle-class do-gooders, ‘real workers’ against unions and asset-holders against welfare bludgers. It was a configuration that was challenged by Kevin Rudd but to which, ultimately, Labor had no long-term solution. The party was hobbled by the fact that, unlike with Thatcher and Reagan, they themselves had been responsible for launching the neoliberal reforms with whose consequences they now had to deal. The Rudd–Gillard government was ended not just by infighting, or the fossil-fuel lobby, or even by Murdoch. For all Rudd’s social democratic learning and Gillard’s strong sense of women’s rights, by 2013 the party had become the Coalition-lite, or perhaps the Coalition-nice.

What happened to art and culture? Creative Nation had defiantly opened up the field of the arts to popular culture, and so connected cultural policy to a confident, republican, outward-looking, modernising multicultural nation. The price of that – though nobody ever signed the contract – was an ever-more pressing need to justify arts and culture in terms of its economic benefits. The creative industries as an actual object of policy never took off in Australia as in the UK, but it did the work of reframing the language of arts and culture into one of an industrial sector worthy of government attention. This is something still very present, with the language of creative industries used to incoherently describe an arts and cultural sector that flips between the talk of care, restoration, identity, gift-giving and sharing and that of Silicon Valley start-ups, competitive entrepreneurship, ‘Createch’, and launching a post-pandemic economic recovery into the GDP ‘jobs and growth’ stratosphere. None of which cuts much ice with the Coalition. Despite the panegyrics to creativity as providing AI-busting jobs readiness, university arts courses were axed, fees were hiked and more ‘useful’ jobs were flagged. The impact of COVID-19, generating endless consternation about why the government was not supporting such a high-earning, jobs-generating industry, has merely confirmed that repeatedly reaching for the economic arguments is tantamount to always crashing in the same car.

Why this failure to support a ‘$111 billion industry’ from the party of business and growth? Because the game had changed. Morrison’s notorious comment about the arts support fund not just being about the performers but the ‘tradies’ who worked in arts and culture chimed with his photo ops at the football, drinking beer in the changing rooms, hanging out at Bunnings. The Coalition has bent over backwards to get sporting events ‘back to normal’ while allowing arts events to wither. This concern for sport and unconcern for the live arts can be seen at state level, and not just from Liberal governments. But they have been the most egregious.

The new game began in 2009 when Abbott became opposition leader. Howard’s grand old man image masked the changes in the Liberal Party taken directly from the US Republicans. In 1995, Newt Gingrich declared war on the Democrats, an absolute hostility that refused all co-operation and weaponised every constitutional means and legal loophole. At the height of ‘third way’ Labour, a new kind of right emerged – one that the Democrats did not get, not Obama nor even the worldly-wise Hillary Clinton. They get it now. It is a new type of right-wing politics in which the super-rich pillory the ‘liberal elites’ in the name of the dispossessed, the losers from globalisation and de-industrialisation. The economist Paul Krugman, in dismay, realised only late in the Obama years that for Republicans ‘everything was political’. It was an ethos that informed Abbott’s undermining of Rudd and Gillard and his party’s adoption of a combative political ethos that Guy Rundle called ‘sheer bastardry and nihilism’. What many art and culture leaders failed to realise was that this would then be directed at them too.

 

TO GET AT what’s going on, let’s take a step back and look at two books, written exactly twenty years apart: Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology, published in 2019, and Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism, published in 1999.

When Thomas Piketty’s earlier work Capital in the Twenty-First Century appeared in 2014, it was hailed as one of the most important economic books of the decade, one of the few such to become a bestseller. Its focus was the rise of inequality since the 1980s, as the progressive taxation and redistributive welfare state of the postwar trente glorieuses were rolled back, returning us to levels of social inequality last seen in the ‘gilded age’ of the 1890s. Its dense pages of exhaustively researched statistics, leavened with insights from Balzac and Austen, ended any doubts that ‘trickle-down economics’ was a cover for the rich to get richer and confirmed David Graeber’s pithy ‘we are the 99 per cent’. The financial crisis of 2008–12, revealing global capitalism’s systemic dysfunctions along with the ability of its perpetrators to emerge even richer than before, seemed to put inequality back on the political agenda. Neoliberalism, a somewhat marginal term until 2008, was called out in mainstream media. Ground-up left-wing parties began to talk about taxation, social ownership, public services and regulation. Many on the centre left who had cleaved to the ‘third way’ agenda in the 1990s began to trim their sails to a new social democratic wind.

But something else happened. Capital in the Twenty-First Century was followed by a period in which the blame for the growing inequality, for the impoverishment and degradation of services and the public realm, for insecurity and low pay, indebtedness and corporate gouging, was laid, by large sections of the population, at the feet of the ‘elites’. Brexit, Trump, Oban in Hungary, Law and Justice in Poland, and similar authoritarian swells across the EU and Eastern Europe became a familiar political phenomenon from 2016 onwards. Including in Australia, where the Coalition lurched further right. Metropolitan cultural elites, ‘progressives’ or ‘liberals’ (the growing use of this term outside of the US is telling), qualified professionals (‘experts’): these rapidly became words of abuse. Rather than referring to the super-rich (‘the one per cent), ‘elite’ stood for middle-class professionals. Right-wing anti-elitism stoked anger against the self-satisfied hypocrisy of those who had, it seemed, arranged the system to benefit themselves and yet, at the same time, positioned the losers as less worthy, as morally deplorable.

It is in these changed circumstances that Piketty’s new book, Capital and Ideology, emerged in 2019. It sets out to explain how the fact of widening inequality – so obvious to any statistician – is politically justified and normalised as an acceptable state of affairs. Piketty deals with historical regimes reaching back into feudal times and across the globe. He explains how the undoing of full employment and the redistributive welfare state, undertaken in the last forty years in the name of the rights of property owners and the ‘free market’, was achieved. Yet the resurgence of stark inequality has not resulted in the return of social democratic parties.

Piketty suggests that the late nineteenth-century political framework of left and right, organised around distinct social classes or class coalitions, has broken down. The increase in inequality, with all its dire consequences for secure jobs and public services, has seen political participation plummet, with a widespread sense that no mainstream party represents the ‘losers’ anymore. His portrait of a disenchanted, technocratically managed ‘post-political’ democracy is now widely shared. What Piketty adds is a statistically informed analysis of why social democratic parties have failed to appeal in enough numbers to people whose income has stagnated, whose quality of life has been eroded, and who are more distant economically and socially from those on the top rungs of the ladder than at any time since the 1920s or even 1890s.

In short, for Piketty, the working classes have been abandoned by the parties of the centre left, starting after the rise of neoliberalism in the early 1980s and accelerating after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989–92. This was not only a familiar story of ‘betrayal’, of left-wing parties being ‘bought off’ by the ruling class, ‘seduced’ by power. The process was deeper and more corrosive. It uncoupled the industrial and post-industrial working class from its longstanding connection to modernisation and ultimately from any social worth. In the same gesture, social democracy conferred the mantle of progress – the ‘new economy’ – on the educated classes, who increasingly made up its political cadres and its primary electoral bloc. Piketty’s analysis of these electoral shifts shows similar patterns in France, the US, the UK and Western Europe. Until the 1970s, the more educated you were, the more likely you were to vote for a right-wing party. Left-wing parties received a majority of working-class votes. Since then, the more educated you are, the more likely you are to vote for the left. And it is this educated, professional class that now dominates centre-left parties and their agenda.

The corrosiveness comes not just from a skewing of the policy agenda away from the interests of the working classes – Bill Clinton taking an axe to welfare, Blair pursuing de-industrialisation or wages stagnating after the Hawke-Keating reforms. It also stems from a sense that in this new competitive world, the main aspiration should be to leave the working classes. Those who remain un-socially immobile have, for the most part, only themselves to blame.

Piketty identifies a cleavage among the ruling elites. On the one hand are those who primarily work in commerce (‘the merchants’) and benefit from asset-based wealth. On the other are those whose income derives from professional success, which in turn is overwhelmingly determined by educational achievement (‘the brahmins’). The latter have benefitted from the growth of the professional and service sector, buying strongly into globalisation as both an ethical idea and as opening up new employment opportunities. Piketty suggests that while parties representing the ‘merchants’ still hold to neoliberal reforms – read any edition of The Economist or Financial Times – a section of the centre right, prodded by the far right, has been able to politically profit from the failure of social-democratic parties to speak to the concerns of the working classes. Parties dominated by billionaires and the hyper-global financial elite articulate a politics of ressentiment organised around ‘nativist’ themes of strong borders, neo-mercantilist protectionism and a well-resourced but highly selective (for natives, not immigrants) welfare state.

This populism cannot be explained by an ingrained working-class racism or a chaotic outbreak of irrationality that needs to be contained by a ‘sensible centre’. It speaks to a deeper material deprivation and demoralisation, a combination the French call le misère. After the Thatcher and Reagan reforms there was talk of how a competitive society would inevitably produce ‘losers’. For the ‘merchants’ this was inevitable but served the greater good: economic growth was spurred by competition. The welfare state (now heavily means-tested) would pick up the collateral damage. For the brahmins, things stood differently. Their values preached that rewards were for talent and hard work. Inherited wealth and like forms of privilege distorted what should be a level playing field. Those who succeeded deserved to do so on their own merits, not on what their parents did. The expansion of the service sector and the professions from the 1960s onwards in countries moving forward to a ‘higher stage’ of development would usher in a meritocracy at the expense of regressive quasi-feudal privilege.

It is this meritocracy that has been the focus of a growing critique in the last few years, and not just from Piketty. One critical point is that the playing field is not at all level. This is especially so in education, which reproduces and reinforces existing inequalities of economic and cultural capital. The idea that those who attain excellence in education have done so through their own merit does not survive close scrutiny. The leading universities are heavily skewed to students from wealthier families. But the real problem was identified already in Michael Young’s 1958 satire The Rise of the Meritocracy, which first popularised the term: even in a baseline situation of complete equality, merit-based success creates its own divisions. For when losing a race can be blamed on the unfair advantages of others, failure can perhaps be accepted impersonally. But when you have lost because you aren’t good enough, and the winners claim they deserve their success – how does that make you feel? Rising levels of ressentiment should therefore come as no surprise, fuelled by a very real sense that the interests of the working- and middle-class professionals are opposed. As Dylan Riley wrote following the last
US election:

Thus, the college educated have an interest in policies that reward expertise, which often entail public expenditure. Those without a degree are likely to be suspicious of expertise and of the state funds that reward it. The conflict between ‘college-degree holders’ and those without is thus, among other things, a distributive conflict.

This does not completely explain the difficulties faced by the left in the past thirty years. But it is a powerful underlying current in our present situation, one that has allowed the right to drive a wedge between the alliance of ‘workers by hand and by brain’ that was a key strength of twentieth-century social democracy.

 

THE BREAK-UP of that cross-class alliance, where a proportion of white-collar workers joined their blue-collar comrades, both electorally and as cadres within the workers’ movement (trade unions, political parties, alternative civil society organisations), was the subject of a widely read book published in France in 1999: Boltanski and Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism. The ‘new spirit’ referred to Max Weber’s influential 1904 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where the role of the protestant religion in the rise of capitalism was to be considered alongside the more direct economic transformations identified by Karl Marx. Boltanski and Chiapello saw the transformations of the 1980s as an epochal shift. A post-1945 managerial capitalism replaced the inefficient family-driven capitalism that led to the Great Depression. New, rationally organised corporations took control from the owners and gave it to jobs-for-life ‘company men’ integrated into the bureaucratic hierarchical machine. They worked in tandem with an organised working class who negotiated wages and conditions, including the social benefits of the welfare state, in exchange for giving over control of the workplace to managers. But in the 1980s, a new spirit emerged – one driving a spatially mobile, highly networked capitalism that favoured those able to adapt, to re-create themselves not as ‘company men’ but as ‘creative selves’. This new ‘creative’ spirit relied not on hierarchies and rule-bound bureaucracies but on fluid, self-determining agents able to fuse their own values into the work process (‘I am passionate about…’), melding work and play, labour and life.

What’s important here is that, just as Weber discovered an emergent capitalist ethos curled up inside obscure theological debates around predestination and earthly signs of salvation, the new creative spirit was to be found in the rhetoric of one of its fiercest critics – what Boltanski and Chiapello called the ‘artistic critique’ of capitalism. Running alongside the ‘social critique’, which focused on capitalism’s inequalities and destructiveness of solidarity, the artistic critique was more concerned with disenchantment and inauthenticity, standardisation and loss of meaning – what we might call ‘alienation’ as articulated by bohemian artists and intellectuals. These two – the workers movement and the artist-intellectuals – bumped along together, truculent fellow travellers, though it was the social critique, backed by mass labour organisations, that was the dominant faction.

The 1960s saw an upsurge in artistic critique, especially among the educated and the younger workers affected by the counterculture. This came to a head in 1968, when it seemed that the artistic critique, after being the junior partner for so long, would now act as capitalism’s ultimate nemesis. In 1968 the workers movement effectively lost control of the workers. Negotiating social demands – wages, labour conditions, holidays – could not head off an upsurge of discontent with the alienating conditions of work itself and of traditional authority relations right across everyday life. Selling your labour was exchanging freedom for money, a meaningful life for a means of consumption. The passionate self-fulfilment of work-as-play, the ideal of free creation, now became a new ‘impossible’ demand thrown at bemused managements. What Boltanski and Chiapello chart is how, at this historic moment, managements were able to ‘buy off’ younger white-collar workers. They offered them new forms of control over the work process, more flexible authority and career structures, to accommodate their desire for fulfilment at work, mobility and self-development. All the hallmarks of ‘creative’ capitalism.

The connection I am making here is between the subsumption of the artistic critique into a new spirit of capitalism and the pivot of social democratic parties away from the workers’ classes towards educated professionals. Boltanski and Chiapello’s account is problematic in many ways. The ‘artistic critique’ was always about more than ‘bohemian’ values and freedom of expression. The concern with authenticity and meaning, as well as the discontent with the domination of work, has a long history in the workers’ movement. Neoliberalism may have valorised creativity, but it was also, as Piketty shows, a reassertion of the rights of ownership. In many respects it involved a loss of power by the professional class to the financial elites, to the ‘merchants’. While the brahmins might be on the rise in a general sense, the creative professionals who bought into neoliberal rhetoric were not the prime beneficiaries of it, nor did they set its agenda. The 1980s saw a massive expansion of media and communications and a globalisation and consolidation of the large cultural industry corporations that favoured the owners of capital far more than professional creative expertise – as the career of Rupert Murdoch has shown.

However, it seems clear to me that the ‘creative’ shift in the spirit of capitalism did attract a high level of buy-in from the educated professional class. The new capitalism gave them levels of autonomy and self-fulfilment that allowed them to live the 1990s not as a betrayal of their youthful ideals but as their realisation. Against the collapse of the Soviet Union, which demolished the historical enterprise of the left for a generation, it provided a new ethical ideal of progress. This was one in which the artistic critique had finally come into its own, not just as a new meaningful relation of the self to work, but as a narrative of historical progress in which those with ideas and the creative capacity to utilise them would inherit the Earth. It was a narrative in which the working class no longer figured.

The transformation of capitalism in the 1980s is often presented as a grim war on the working class and its institutions. And it was. But for many aspirational creatives it was also a moment of utopian transformation. It came with the vision of a new creative future: one in which work was self-fulfilment, the age-old war of culture and economy was ended, and the two combined to make a post-industrial world where creativity, meaning, experience – life itself – was at the centre, not the bohemian periphery. This utopian hope, a ‘creative imaginary’, drove the transformation in understanding of art and culture in the 1990s. While ‘economic rationalism’ is used to describe the Gradgrind-like bean-counting of output and impacts, it ignores the waves of enthusiasm coming from the cultural and creative industries themselves, the empowered view of popular culture, the valediction of the once-despised cultural jobs of the 1980s, and the confluence of the ‘new economy’ with the grassroots creativity of super-cool urban centres where being true to yourself and ‘making it’ were not opposed. This utopian vision of arts and culture carried on, over that cartoon cliff, into the twenty-first century.

Only now do we look down.

 

IT IS CLEAR that the educated professionals were not the winners they thought they were, especially the younger generation. As assets and rents dwarf income, as merchant-oriented careers not only pay more than a brahmin one (they always did) but are seen as more worthy, as education costs go up with less and less return, as the new generation is locked out of housing, as the dominating heights of the cultural sector become the province of the merchants and not the brahmins – perhaps it is time to look back at what happened. The rhetoric of meritocracy did not serve the working class well. It is now evaporating before the eyes of the middle class, as Piketty’s proprietorial neo-feudalism swells daily. The removal of a sense of worth from those who did not, would not or could not ‘leave’ the working class to shin up the ladder to success, a removal with which the brahmin left was complicit, has come back to bite them.

A recent speech by the federal arts minister shows how this goes: the inner-city elites of Melbourne and Sydney have had more than their fair share of cultural investment. Where are the symphony orchestras ‘based in Blacktown or Liverpool or Penrith or Broadmeadows or Logan or Elizabeth or Rockingham’? The major arts organisations, long pilloried by the heavy-lifting small and medium sector, should be made to compete for funding like all the rest. Accessibility is the order of the policy day, and those artists in traditional art forms, with their cosy funding arrangements, need to get with the new priorities, or else. The arts are for all Australians.

The reality of the ideas expressed in this speech may be judged against the backdrop of the government’s broader ideological and political agenda. However, the major arts organisations have left themselves open to this line of attack, shoring themselves against their ruin by annexing the big end of town to their boards and trustees, ready to dump the rest of the sector when a minister – like George Brandis – offers them the King’s shilling. But Paul Fletcher’s shot across the bow is not to be seen as an embrace of the small and medium sector. They’re elitist too. Actually, while it is not clear what culture the minister has in mind, his speech should be seen as a wake-up call. There is a massive funding shake-up in the offing. The pressing question is how the arts and cultural sector wants to negotiate it: as passive victims or active protagonists. As with higher education, another bastion of the brahmin left that is under concerted assault, there’s just no ducking the fight. It will require a new kind of language, a new framing of the value of art and culture that reappraises their role in a contemporary society moving from one epoch into another.

Donald Trump, and the disturbing resonances of his four years of global strutting, can give a glimpse of one outcome of this transitional period. As of 2021 we have a more hopeful vista in which Joe Biden’s economic stimulus plan marks, according to economic historian Adam Tooze, a definitive end to the era of neoliberalism. The EU’s stimulus, linked to a Green New Deal narrative, is not as large and is somewhat fraught, but it will also go forward. In a different register, China too is accelerating its state-led investment in infrastructure – social and physical – linked to action on climate change. The three primary global economic zones are becoming something else, while Australia reverts to a regressive fossil-fuel mercantilism and war-mongering nationalism. But let’s imagine that this will pass. What kind of political landscape will emerge, and where is art and culture in all this?

These are big questions that require some sustained thinking from the arts and cultural sector. That muscle has not been exercised for a while. As journalist and publisher Katharine Brisbane wrote recently, ‘The arts have been put into their own special territory and made harmless over the last twenty or thirty years and government regulation, along with government money, has contributed to that.’ The money too has now disappeared. Leaving that ‘special territory’ will be tough, but of existential importance.

For us to light out for cultural territories new, a deep account-taking of the last thirty years needs to happen. The current transformations in our thinking around gender, race, class and anthropocentric resource extraction must go beyond the politics of representation to grapple with political economy and, indeed, politics with a capital P. We need to take note of the political configurations of neoliberalism and its current transmutations, recognising that the arts and cultural sector has been both victim and accomplice. The erosion of working conditions for much of the sector is now widely recognised, but wages, compared with profits, are generally at a historical low, with Australia at the lower end of the OECD ladder. The biggest job losses in the sector over the last decade have been in ‘blue-collar’ cultural occupations: printing and distribution, cultural manufacturing and retail. Small-scale urban manufacture is as much a victim of gentrification as creative space. Precarity is as rampant outside the cultural sector as it is inside. The erosion of trade union rights has run in parallel with the gradual reduction of the autonomy of public art and culture to the fiat of the minister.

We need to find solidarity with the ‘non-creative’ population, whose work we accept as grim and meaningless because that’s the way the world is. We need to reinsert, if you like, the ‘artistic critique’ back into the heart of everyday life. With the rise of precarity and a relentless erosion of workers’ freedoms – exemplified by images of Amazon warehouse workers with their tracking devices – the artistic critique is now more relevant to the working class than ever. Yet still we make claims about ‘creative jobs’ being ‘robot-proof’ – such claims not only have little basis in reality but throw the rest of the ‘non-creative’ population under a bus. We are all precarious now, and an ever-increasing competition to get into those last few creative jobs, saddling ourselves with more and more debt, is not a progressive cultural politics.

Nancy Fraser, American philosopher at The New School, has recently tried to identify what a new progressive politics might look like, taking examples from Bernie Sanders’ campaigns. It would involve a politics of ‘recognition’ (social justice for a range of different minorities) and a politics of ‘redistribution’ (LGBTQ rights and free healthcare). It is possible to see how this might work in light of the various manifestos for a post-pandemic recovery that have come out since last year. The working class is no longer (if it ever was) about white male-centred native-born households – neoliberalism, immigration, de-industrialisation and the expansion of services has seen to that. Calls for a ‘care-centred’ recovery, where social service infrastructure is now revealed as ‘essential’ (though underfunded) and as the best way to stimulate real wages growth, are more than simply calls for increased welfare spending. They suggest the need to reconceptualise the economy as providing social foundations and assuring planetary sustainability. Relocating art and culture here, rather than chasing the divisive chimera of high-growth, high-innovation creative industries, is a far better way of aligning them with a progressive politics of sustainable redistribution and social justice.

But ‘recognition’ should not be set in a separate social space to ‘redistribution’. As Guy Standing (co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network) and others have argued, initiatives such as Universal Basic Income (and Universal Basic Services) are about recognising the rights of citizenship, promoting positive ‘republican’ freedoms to do and uncoupling the value of work from its restriction to paid labour. It is here that art and culture must surely find their place as contributions to the social foundations of a liveable society and as creativity given back to the everyday and the everybody – as in Raymond Williams’ The Long Revolution of 1961 – rather than being stripped out and inserted into the industrial creativity machine that has served us all so badly. The recent Regen Melbourne network, which aligns art and culture with education, health, gender equity, social services and so on, is surely a harbinger for the future.

We have to move out of advocacy into politics, relearn old skills while acquiring some new ones. To do so will not be about a demand for more funding but about finding a new voice for culture, one that can be a spur to reinventing the social as part of the foundations of our common life. One thing we know: just as you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight, you don’t bring a spreadsheet to a culture war.

To shape a new epoch we need a new language, only elements of which are currently available. In this way, we must be guided by a new imaginary. In the 1930s, artists from all walks – writers, painters, sculptors, playwrights, filmmakers, actors, radio journalists, set makers, designers, fashion writers, textile workers, magazine editors, printers, journalists – were galvanised by the upsurge in working-class protest and organisation after the Great Depression, gaining a momentum that took them all the way to the 1960s’ civil rights era. We are faced now by the combination of climate emergency and accelerating inequality, ramping up tensions on our evermore tightly connected globe. If art and culture are for anything, they are to help reimagine a future, a habitable future, and they must do that alongside those who have most to lose if we fail.

 

References

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Benanav, A (2021) Automation and the Future of Work. London: Verso.

Brett, J (2021) ‘The Bin Fire of the Humanities’. The Monthly. March.

Brisbane, K (2021) On the Lessons of History. Platform Paper 63. New South Wales: Currency Press.

Bureau of Communications, Arts and Regional Research (2019) Creative Skills for the Future Economy.
https://www.communications.gov.au/departmental-news/creative-skills-future-economy

Burke, K (2021), ‘Australian Artists Face a Black Hole of Doomed Hope’ The Guardian. March.
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