The Creativity Hoax: Precarious Work and the Gig Economy

The Creativity Hoax: Precarious Work and the Gig Economy

by George Morgan, Pariece Nelligan


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Politicians, educators and business leaders often tell young people they will need to develop their creative skills to be ready for the new economy. Vast numbers of school leavers enrol in courses in media, communications, creative and performing arts, yet few will ever achieve the creative careers they aspire to. The big cities are filled with performers, designers, producers and writers who cannot make a living from their art/craft. They are told their creative skills are transferable but there is little available work outside retail, service and hospitality jobs. Actors can use their skills selling phone plans, insurance or advertising space from call centres, but usually do so reluctantly. Most people in the ‘creative industries’ work as low-paid employees or freelancers, or as unpaid interns. They put up with exploitation so that they can do what they love. The Creativity Hoax argues that in this individualistic and competitive environment, creative aspirants from poor and minority backgrounds are most vulnerable and precarious. Although governments in the West stress the importance of culture and knowledge in economic renewal, few invest in the support and infrastructure that would allow creative aspirants to make best use of their skills.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783088447
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 06/22/2018
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

George Morgan is associate professor at the Institute for Culture and Society and the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University, Australia.

Pariece Nelligan is adjunct fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University, Australia.

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The adjective 'creative' and the abstract noun 'creativity' have been on a wild ride just lately. Where once they referred almost exclusively to artistic practice, in recent times they have become the buzzwords of new capitalism. There is hardly a corporate vision statement, a 'master plan for restructuring', or job advertisement that does not refer to creativity. Additionally, it has become a lifestyle zeitgeist in an era of increasingly precarious employment. The shelves of bookshops in hipster neighbourhoods are littered with self-help and career-advice books with creativity in the title (Barton, 2016; de Bono, 2015; Ingeldew, 2016; Judkins, 2016): Liberate your creative instincts! Take control of your life! A word that once signified independent self-expression has now become both a motto of neo-liberalism and a panacea for its consequences.

In one sense, there is nothing remarkable about this semantic slippage. Language is never fixed; all words change meaning through use. But this particular transition is historically important: it is symptomatic of capitalism's epochal quest to reorganize relations of production and reconstruct labour power. However, as we argued, the brave new world of the creative economy is as yet more planned than realized. Its proponents point to digital renewal, and in particular the success of Silicon Valley 'unicorns' like Apple, Google, Amazon. But there is little evidence of widespread social benefits from the tech boom. The core creative workforces employed by such companies are very small when compared with the numbers employed by Fordist enterprises in the mid-twentieth century. So without widespread reasonably paid creative employment it is difficult to argue that the benefits of the sort of economic restructuring craved by policymakers will flow to workers.

The quest to marry art and economy is formidable. In bridging the void that separates the old and new economies, employers and policymakers face the problem of how to conscript cultural energies and practices that, as Bruno Gulli (2005) has argued, were traditionally situated outside the wage relation. Creativity is not easily summoned up by strict managerial direction. How does capitalism harness workers' ludic and imaginative impulses, and their intellectual curiosity, to the project of building the new economy? The inexorable logic of twentieth-century capitalism, with its high-handed management techniques, was such as to banish culture and creativity from the field of productive labour. We will return to this question in Chapter 7. In this chapter we will explore the different appropriations of creativity by labour and capital. To understand the magnitude of the task of economic renewal, it is helpful to consider the etymology of culture and creativity.

Genealogy of Culture and Creativity

Although archaeological evidence – such as cave paintings and carvings on animal bones – suggests that the human capacity for symbolic communication is primordial, it was only around ten thousand years ago that the material conditions emerged for cultural practice in a modern sense. At this point, in the region known to prehistorians as the Fertile Crescent, roughly congruent with modern-day Iraq, human beings began to plant crops and establish sedentary communities with complex divisions of labour. Such arrangements gave people time for symbolic practice and intellectual life separate from labour, and associated with personal enrichment. Indeed, Williams (1988, p. 87) charts the connection between culture and cultivation:

Culture in all its early uses was a noun of process: the tending of something, basically crops or animals [...] From [the early sixteenth century] the tending of natural growth was extended to a process of human development.

He observed that in 1605 philosopher Francis Bacon wrote of the 'culture and manurance of minds', suggesting a metaphorical connection between the enrichment of the soil and the cultural improvement of the self. The word 'creativity' comes from a different root – from the Latin creare (to generate, or give birth to). Prior to the Renaissance, as Williams (1988) states, the modern notion of human creativity was largely unthinkable. For the most part, 'create' appeared in the past tense to refer to God's handiwork. The word 'creatures' was derived from the same root as creation, and, from an ecclesiastical perspective, no creature (including man) could itself be a creator. Only during the Renaissance did the role of artist-creator become legitimate, and with it the idea of people as originators of knowledge and culture rather than as ciphers of the divine. The romantic idea of creativity, of the cultivation of aesthetic sensibility, treats the work of art as a revelation of self, an expression of emotional interiority (Abercrombie et al., 1986).

Under the conditions of the Industrial Revolution, work and creativity became antithetical. As Marx observed, the inexorable logic of capitalist enterprise was to rob workers of any sense of fulfilment. Gone was the Ruskinian calm of craftwork and the satisfaction of producing the complete product because industrial labour alienated the proletariat from the products of their labour, reducing them to functionaries on a production line. At the same time, capitalism concentrates production in certain times and places. It separates work and home and orders working time around the quotidian rhythms of factory production, by contrast with the seasonal imperatives that organize agricultural labour (Thompson, 1963). Where once many of the necessities of life were produced at the household and small, local workshop level – for example, foodstuffs, textiles, clothing – gradually and inexorably these things came to be replaced by manufactured commodities.

As workers were yoked to machines, so households became primarily places where labour power was reproduced: workers nourished and rested, children raised. Feminists have observed that it was usually women who performed the tasks of sustaining and nurturing and that their life worlds were never congruent with the public/private and work/leisure divisions of space and time associated with capitalism. Despite this, the model of the nuclear family household, as primarily a place of repose and retreat, first emerged within the Victorian bourgeoisie but was gradually proselytized amongst working people in the emerging urban centres in industrial societies. The idea that cultural, ludic and leisure pursuits were separate from work has been central to modernist and utilitarian thinking, but later, as workers achieved reductions in working hours through collective action, they found themselves with more time to put to such pursuits (Clarke and Critcher, 1985).

New labour process techniques of the early and mid-lwentieth century compounded worker alienation. Taylorism emerged as a creed of scientific management in the service of Fordist mass production (Braverman, 1974). It sought to achieve greatest efficiency by breaking down the production process to its smallest components, instituting a highly refined division of labour where workers perform specialized repetitive tasks. But Taylorism was also an industrial-political project, geared towards undermining the power of blue-collar trades, their skills and solidarity, and indeed the last vestiges of craft satisfaction in work. It located the scientific manager at the centre of the productive universe. In Fordist enterprises, white-collar workers grew in number and power at the expense of those on the production line and the blue-collar resentment towards those who sought so ruthlessly to divide mental and manual labour runs very deep in class memory (Watson, 2015). Ironically, at least some part of the popular reaction to Fordism's modernist hubris, to lives of scripted monotony and drudgery, has now been taken up by capital. But, as we shall see, the creative aspirations of capital do not necessarily match those of workers.

Conscripting Creativity: The Digital Bonanza

A great lathe operator commands several times the wage of an average lathe operator, but a great writer of software code is worth 10,000 times the price of an average software writer.

Bill Gates (founder Microsoft Enterprises)

If the omniscient manager was central to twentieth-century production, today new technologies have thrown a digital spanner in the mechanical works. The wealth derived from intellectual property in the digital economy vastly outstrips anything that can be obtained by selling high-quality analogue products in the marketplace. Having reduced workers to machine minders, with little autonomy and fulfilment, capitalism now needs access to vernacular culture, and must reconstruct its relations with workers accordingly. No longer can it rely on the expert in the suit as the source of all wisdom.

The decentring of management power is, of course, not completely new. The Kaizen system instituted by Toyota in Japan, and emulated elsewhere in the late twentieth century, sought to draw on workers' insights and expertise through establishing quality circles driven by the goal of 'continuous improvement' of production techniques and products. But creative capitalism effectively renounces Taylorism, and the idea that bureaucratic expertise is the unique engine of innovation, instead expecting it to emerge from below. Outside of the lush techno-burbs of Silicon Valley and a few metropolitan hubs, the creative economy remains a work-in-progress rather than something ready made and achieved.

Politicians and employers can frequently be heard lamenting the 'skills shortage', suggesting that those who graduate from education and training institutions are not equipped to match the corporate ambition. This is not simply a technical statement about matching skills to jobs, but an ideological one, a symptom of the impotence of grey-suited, leaden-footed managers trained in the dark arts of the MBA. Such people are generally ill-equipped to provide the innovation required for global competition, and they seek to shift the onus of responsibility for leading this process of renewal to those they employ (whether conventionally or through various subcontractual arrangements). In the digital age 'fast capitalism' is impatient for the next big thing, but is unclear about where it will come from.

Paradoxically, this impatience is reciprocated. For their part, workers trained in creative skills also express frustration at the lack of creative satisfaction they derive from their jobs (Haukka, 2011), claiming that their jobs do not draw on their skills and bear little resemblance to the position that they thought they had applied for. The advertising copywriter's hyperbole, once only used to sell things, is now increasingly common in staff recruitment ('Are You Passionate about Pet Accessories?'), and this serves to inflate the expectations of those who are appointed to such jobs. This suggests that the creative economy remains essentially a dream of regeneration that is yet to deliver fulfilling and challenging employment to all but a few.

A central myth underpinning this corporate impatience – explaining why the white-collar workers continue to court and humour the 'no-collar' workers – is that of the eureka moment. This describes the flash of insight – in technological, scientific or aesthetic terms – that leads to the production of vast wealth. Such stories are part of the mythology of Silicon Valley, as it has been popularized across the world. Their central characters are usually geeky, dysfunctional outsiders, people not generally suited to the rigours of the corporate career, and often not academically successful. The wayward geniuses of corporate folklore, like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, emerge from out of the blue to challenge conservative ideas about wealth accumulation. Such narratives fuel new capitalism and help to attract venture capital. The eureka myth means that there is money available for the geeks, misfits and their harebrained start-up schemes. It legitimates managerial faith in trailblazing but obscure research, based on the belief that there are things we can't understand about such work and that the spin-offs are potentially unforeseeable. And this means wearing the cost of the failures. For every epochal breakthrough there are a thousand ideas destined to fail.

But capitalism's needs for creative labour are not restricted to, or wholly invested in, the eureka-moment innovation. It must also enlist the support of those who can track, shape and tap the mercurial consumption patterns of late modernity By contrast with Fordism's standardized products for mass consumption, post-Fordism generates variegated and niche-market goods and services. It is characterized not only by productive flexibility but also by complex consumption patterns, in particular because (as cultural theorists have long known!) the meaning of a commodity is transformed as it is consumed. While the standard commodity might have suited the age of mass production, contemporary consumption is now more difficult to steer and marshal. It can be characterized by irony and bricolage. Marketing is less about manipulation and more about sniffing the breeze of popular culture.

These changes are captured in the concept of the social factory – drawn from Italian post-workerist theory – which recognizes that rather than production and meaning issuing from a single point and author, this process is ongoing and diffuse. Consumers are also, in a sense, producers (e.g. as in online gaming) and that labour happens away from the factory floor in the traditional sense. The writings of cultural theorists effectively anticipated this process of improvised consumption and production of meaning (Harney, 2010; Hall, 1980). The challenge for capitalism is to discover how to profit from this dispersed creative production.

So new skills are required, new workers are pressed into service – style hunters to report on these semiotic shifts, those who design/author/perform new cultural products and those who market and sell them. Such people play a central role in the production chain because symbolic and knowledge inputs contribute much more to a commodity's value than does the labour of those on the assembly lines. As Andrew Ross (2009) has argued, art and artists once the idiosyncratic opposites of Henry Ford's and Frederick Taylor's obedient machine watchers – are now the exemplary figures of new capitalism. They have skills and habits that were of no use on the production line but are now prized: symbolically innovative, iconoclastic and with fertile intellect. But at the same time, the definition of creativity has been stretched to include a sort of practical problem-solving savviness and, most importantly, the entrepreneurial spirit. So the new worker must not only be flexible, mobile and possessed of 'transferable skills' but prepared to lay art at the service of profit.

Capitalism's co-option of the idea of creativity is one of the more spectacular discursive operations of recent history (Reckwitiz, 2017, ch.4). Indeed, the very idea of the creative economy has erased the Enlightenment legacy in which creativity is unencumbered by either commercial or ecclesiastical direction. It also conceals the bohemian tradition that associates art with resistance to capitalism. As Justin O'Connor wrote,

Capitalism is animated by the principle of unlimited accumulation at the expense of all other values. 'Art' or 'culture' has always been one of the limits on, or protests against, this principle. (O'Connor, 2007)

As Bourdieu (1971), Becker (1982) and others have argued, artists' anti-commercialism has always been somewhat disingenuous: they have always relied on sales of their work, although this is often achieved with the assistance and intervention of dealers, agents and cultural brokers of various sorts (DiMaggio, 1977). This affords them a measure of insulation from the sullied world of commerce. In the larger sweep of history, the adoption of creativity can be seen as capitalism's response to the Left's post-1968 critique of Fordist alienation: suburban moral conformity, mass production and consumption, an alienated nine-to-five working life. Boltanski and Chiapello, in their landmark study The New Spirit of Capitalism (2006), argued that the key to capitalism's durability is its ability to absorb critique and deflect the social movements that challenge it, while safeguarding the core interests of the capital-owning class.


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Table of Contents

Preface: Rustbelt Aspirational; Acknowledgements; Introduction; Chapter 1: The Creative Imperative: Remaking Capital/ Remaking Labour; Chapter 2: Post-Industrial Pedagogy; Chapter 3: Leaving Covers- Land: The Metropolitan Journey and the Creative Network; Chapter 4: Do Give Up Your Day Job; Chapter 5: Labile Labour; Chapter 6: The Just- In- Time Self ?; Chapter 7: Beyond the Social Factory: Reclaiming the Commons; Conclusion: Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You; Bibliography; Index.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

‘A great blend of the personal, the political and the empirical – this is an essential volume for anyone who wants to understand work and the problems of work in our society.’

—Kate Oakley, Professor of Cultural Policy, School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds, UK

‘This is a wonderful and important book in the best tradition of cultural studies. It explores what “autobiographies of uncertainty” feel like in contemporary capitalism. Morgan and Nelligan’s notions of “just-in-time workers”, “labile labour” and “promiscuous aspiration” look set to become key points of reference for future analyses.’

—Rosalind Gill, Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis, City, University of London, UK

‘In The Creativity Hoax, George Morgan and Pariece Nelligan unleash a scathing, and timely, critique of the promises and fantasies of the “gig economy”. Most poignant are the book's diverse voices, drawn from interviews with those at the coalface of new forms of precarious work.’

—Chris Gibson, Professor of Human Geography, University of Wollongong, Australia

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