I wrote a book

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It is remiss of me not to mention it here, but last month I published a book. Available now from various Australian bookstores, my first monograph is entitled When the Goal Posts Move: Patronage, power and resistance in Australian cultural policy 2013-2016. It is published by Currency House as part of their long-running Platform Papers series.

The book is a short history of Australian cultural policy in the years 2013-2016, encompassing the end of the Rudd-Gillard Labor government and the first term of the Abbott-Turnbull Coalition government.

This was a tumultuous period in Australian cultural policy. Significant austerity was imposed on federal arts and cultural funding. Around $400 million was cut from the budget of the ABC, and around $300 million from the budgets of federal cultural agencies like Screen Australia the Australia Council for the Arts.

Most controversially, at least for the purposes of readers here, the federal government under former arts minister George Brandis, launched an audacious funding raid on the Australia Council in 2015. $105 million was subtracted from the Australia Council and given to a new cultural slush fund, revealingly entitled the National Program for Excellence in the Arts.

Brandis’ funding raid was about more than just moving the budget line around: it was nothing less than an assault on the institution of the Australia Council itself, and with it a four-decade tradition of arms-length funding decided by artistic peers. The politics were just as blatant: Brandis wanted to punish what he saw as undeserving (and politically suspect) art funded by the Australia Council, and redistribute the money to a palette of works and artforms that he liked: classical Western music and opera, by and large.

The pain of the Excellence raid fell squarely on the parts of Australian culture that many consider to be the most creative and innovative: the so-called “small-to-medium” sector of smaller arts companies, and the great bulk of individual artists and small collectives applying to the Australia Council’s grant programs. In a decision of remarkable cynicism, Brandis specifically ruled that the Australia Council must protect the funding of the 28 so-called “major performing arts” companies that make up the bulk of the Australia Council’s budget, thus making it inevitable that the funding cuts would fall on smaller players.

The Excellence raid revealed major schisms within Australian culture. The Australia Council and its board were shown to be impotent, even supine, in the face of the calculated political assault. Major cultural institutions that many thought would defend their colleagues were conspicuously silent; Opera Australia even welcomed the decision. The Australia Council’s board, which features media celebrities and well-known former artistic directors, said nothing.

The raid sparked national protests from artists and led to a Senate Inquiry, which took 2,700 submissions and issued a scathing report on the government’s actions. It also spurred a remarkable grass-roots protest movement from affected artists and small companies — one that proved surprisingly politically effective — called Free the Arts.

Why was the Australia Council so vulnerable? And what is the future for Australian cultural policy? This paper explores the broader socio-political environment that allowed a conservative government to launch the most damaging attack on the integrity of the Australia Council for forty years. It argues that Australian artists and so-called “cultural leaders” have largely lost or forgotten the vocabulary of public value that might be used to defend the public policy of culture here, a development not unlike that which has occurred in other parts of the public sphere, like universities and public science agencies.

The essay ends with a call to arms to rediscover the ethical and moral imperative of culture making, and the opportunity of convincing fellow citizens of that imperative.

Marshall Sahlins on culture, part 1

The death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779, by Johann Zoffany. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779, by Johann Zoffany. Image: Wikimedia Commons

I am no anthropologist, I freely admit. In fact I am often left agog by the radical multiplicity of contemporary anthropology, such that I feel in no way qualified to write intelligently about it. Of course, this is the fate of any intelligent human who wishes to extend her reading into fields she is not intimately familiar with. So I shall write about it none-the-less.

I have come to Marshall Sahlins ridiculously late, insupportably late, really, given the contribution he has made to his field, and, indeed, to the social sciences in general. It is not unreasonable to posit Sahlins as one of the genuine intellectual giants of our time, which makes it a little difficult to presuppose any meaningful assessment of his influence.

There is, for instance, a lively academic debate about the validity of Sahlins’ view on kinship, which are entirely vulnerable to some quite elementary criticisms. Can it not be true that at least some role must be inherent in biology in the formation of kin relationships? Surely biology plays a role. How far can you coherently press the idea of social construction? (In Sahlins’ case: all the way).

And yet this is the position Sahlins takes in his recent book What Kinship Is — And Is Not, and a remarkable exercise it is too. There is something almost Berkleyan in his anti-realism. As Andrew Shryock points out in a review of the book:

The idea that phylogenetic and other material constraints on human reproduction (defined as “biology”) do not, per se, have anything to do with human kinship systems is language designed to send us to battle stations. As Sahlins masterfully deploys it, the idiom is binary, winner take all, and it has the virtue of being utterly predictable in its analytic consequences. Since we are dealing with strong doctrinal positions, I should confess (apt word) that I also believe that human kinship is cultural. But I do not think that culture—of the discursive, internally constituted, symbol laden, and highly structured kind Sahlins has preached for decades—is enough to explain what kinship does, how it works, why it varies, or, least of all, how it develops historically and has evolved, as a discrete range of behavioral and interactive tendencies, over millions of years of primate evolution.

Sahlins is of course no stranger to controversy. Indeed, he is one side of one of the more famous skirmishes of the 90s culture wars — that strange period of academic ferment that, for a time, made scholarly disputes seem relevant to the politics of their time, in a way that hasn’t been the case in subsequent decades (although perhaps we are again returning to that situation with the influence of thinkers like Piketty and Graeber). This was the so-called “Sahlins–Obeyesekere debate”, in which Sahlins squared off against a fellow anthropologist, Ganath Obeyesekere, over the historical facts and meanings around the death of Captain James Cook.

The debate was sparked off by Sahlins, who in a series of books and papers (see for instance 1981’s Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities and 1985’s Islands of History) had developed a very powerful analysis of the events leading up to and including James Cook’s death. For Sahlins, the circumstances of Cook’s death are a kind of cosmic jigsaw puzzle, in which a bizarre series of coincidences conjoin to create the exact conditions for Cook to appear to his Hawaiian hosts as first a god, and second as a fraud worthy of dismemberment.

Sahlins’ thesis is remarkably well worked out, and backed up with copious evidence, including from the primary sources, both Hawaiian and English. It runs like this: Cook turned up in 1778 at the height of Hawaiian makahiki festivities — Hawaiian New Year. Makahiki is a time in which any war or hostilities are typically suspended; priests are temporarily in charge. Cook arrived, of course, in a rather impressive ship, but a particular quirk of the tall ships’ sails made them look remarkably like the Hawaiian symbol for the god, Lono. Lono was meant to turn up on that particular day of the year; Cook’s timing was almost hour-perfect. Just to make the resemblance to the myth even more convincing, Lono was meant to progress around the big island during the makahiki celebrations. Cook’s squadron also took a meandering course around the archipelago that seems to exactly mirror this progress. When Cook landed on the big island for a second time, he was taken ashore and made the central figure in a priestly ceremony, in which he was acknowledged, ceremonially at any rate, as Lono. He appears to have played along convincingly. Cook then sailed away, to all intents and purposes a Hawaiian god.

But fate intervened. Cook broke a mast sailing away from the big island, and was forced to turn back and anchor for a third time. Now, everything was rather different. Makahiki was over. The king was back in charge, and Cook was no longer sticking to the script. In contrast to the celebration and deference of his previous visits, now Cook seemed like an interloper, a fellow who had pushed his luck too far. Perhaps Cook was no longer in on the joke; perhaps he was mocking his hosts? Hawaiians started to swim out to his ships and steal things, culminating in the bold theft of the Resolution‘s long boat. Cook made a fatal error in reaction. Rowing ashore with a detachment of marines, he kidnapped the ruling chief of the islands, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, and attempted to take him back to the ship. But one of Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s wives raised the alarm, and Cook and his soldiers (still holding the king) were soon surrounded by thousands of islanders on the beach. After a scuffle broke out, muskets were fired and Cook was knocked to the ground and stabbed. The British staged a fighting retreat, leaving Cook dead on the beach. After a number of reprisal raids, the two sides made peace. Cook’s “hindquarters” were returned to the Resolution in tribute.

Space prevents me from exploring the intricacies of Sahlins’ argument in greater detail, or the considerable scholastic debate over his historical accuracy. But perhaps the most important aspect of Sahlins’ account is that it is structural. Sahlins is a symbolic structuralist, very much a follower of Boas and Levi-Strauss, and a contemporary of Geertz. (Adam Kuper gives an fine account of Sahlins’ intellectual development in Culture: The Anthropologists’ Account). Sahlins posits that Cook/Lono episode is a wonderful example of cultural structures imposing upon, perhaps even creating, historical reality. To quote Kuper, “Sahlins’ argument is, in short, that people enacted their interpretations of the past.” What we have here, in other words, at least i Sahlins’ exposition, is a convincing historical example of “mythopraxis”: of cultural determinism in its most pure form.

Some were not convinced. Foremost among them was Ganath Obeyesekere, who assailed Sahlins’ acount in a biting 1992 polemic entitled The Apotheosis Of Captain Cook : European Mythmaking In The Pacific. Obeyesekere took Sahlins at his word, examining what might have been going on Hawaii in 1779, and decided that the real myth-makers here were not the Hawaiians but the British. Was Cook really considered by the islanders to be a god? Of course not, Obeyesekere argued! What had occurred was the clever manipulation of historical custom to frame the European interlopers for reasons of pure realpolitik. Cook arrived at the helm of a powerful squadron, with soldiers and trade goods that could be extremely useful to the elites engaged in Hawaiian power politics. What’s really going on here is the paleo-imperialism from Sahlins, who has fallen for the myth of the noble savage himself. Obeyesekere, a Sri Lankan, knows a thing or two about the British empire. Sahlins is simply repeating Rousseau’s old fantasy: “the Western idea of the redoubtable European who is a god to savage people.” Coming, as it did, at the height of the culture wars then engulfing the US academy in he early 1990s, Obeyesekere’s book aroused considerable interest. Sahlins was so enraged by what he saw as a gross misrepresentation of his position, that he wrote an entire book in response. Disciplinary godfathers such as Clifford Geertz wrote it up. Ian Hacking devoted a chapter of his wonderful The Social Construction of What? to the controversy.

How can we adjudicate the Sahlins/Obeyesekere debate? Ultimately, as both Kuper and Hacking concede, the nitty gritty of the history must be debated by the specialists. This is difficult. The primary sources are patchy and plagued by mutual incomprehension: the British had little or no Hawaiian, the Hawaiians little English, and the Hawaiians did not even leave written sources at the time — these were in fact written a generation later by British missionaries. The priesthood that mediated the Lono ceremonies had dissolved in the years after the British arrived. So, in common with so much history, we can’t really be sure. So, while Hacking ultimately sides with Sahlins, Kuper does not.

But fear not! Sahlins has another move to make, which is to displace “history” and “what really happened” from the debate by insisting that they actually add up to culture anyway. Thus, history is radically and indivisibly cultural, and can’t be separated from the cultural preoccupations and symbolic architecture of the historians writing it. And this, in turn, becomes a fascinating demolition job of much of what we might call “historical realism”, or “realist historiography”, or, let’s face it, “international relations.”

And it is to Marshall Sahlins’ view of history as itself fundamentally cultural that we will next turn.

 

 

 

 

Economics imperialism and its discontents

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Flyer for George Stigler’s 1984 lecture, ‘Economics – the Imperial Science’. Reproduced in: E. Nik-Khan and R. Van Horn (2012) ‘Inland empire: economics imperialism as an imperative of Chicago neoliberalism.’ Journal of Economic Methodology 19(3): 259-282.

In his widely-read blog, Noah Smith has a post today entitled, rather bluntly, “A new age of econ imperialism is coming.”

While not quite as triumphal as the title makes out, the thrust of his post is plain enough: economics will continue to try and invade and occupy the other social sciences.

Much of the discussion about econ methods these days revolves around the “credibility revolution”, and the broader rise of empirics in general. Despite scattered protests from various quarters of the discipline, there looks to be no stopping the transformation of econ into an empirical, evidence-based field.

But the shift isn’t just healthy – it’s also a golden opportunity for economists to do what social scientists love best, which is to go on a giant raid and conquer the other social sciences! The new empiricism is the amphibious assault ship that will carry hordes of Econquerors (heh) to the vulnerable shores of sociology.

 

Leaving aside Smith’s colourful and amusing language, there seems little doubt that he is expressing a pretty common trope in the attitudes of many economists towards the other social sciences. This is the view that economics, equipped with superior tools of mathematical and empirical analysis, is simply better than the social sciences it might supplant. Continue reading

Jürgen Osterhammel’s macro-history

This review was first published in Overland.

I’ve been reading Jürgen Osterhammel’s history of the nineteenth centuryThe Transformation of the World. What can you say about this breath-taking kaleidoscope of narrative (and meta-narrative) history? It’s almost as impressive and various as the century it dissects.

Transformation of the world coverThe Transformation of the World attempts at once a synthesis and a critique – you might even say an exegesis – of contemporary historical scholarship on this most vital and arresting of periods. ‘The histories that interest me,’ Osterhammel writes, ‘do not involve a linear, “and then came such and such” narrative spread over a hundred or more years; rather they consist of transitions and transformations.’

By training, Osterhammel is a specialist in Chinese history, but he clearly knows a thing or too about the burgeoning field of ‘macro-history’. His command of the historical literature is staggering. Each chapter reads like a self-contained essay, often of startling originality, on topics such as ‘energy and industry’ and ‘imperial systems and nation-states’. His turn of thought is inquisitive but also rigorous, and his approach to various topics is by turns surprising and provocative. Beginning his chapter on economic history, for instance, Osterhammel is confident enough to approach the industrial revolution by writing, in a teasing tone, that ‘it may be appropriate to place an essay on industry and energy at the beginning of the third part of this book’ (p. 637). The chapter is a crystalline masterpiece of historical writing. ‘It is time to decenter the Industrial Revolution,’ he quips. My response: hey, why not?

Osterhammel’s method is syncretic and panoramic. His chapter on cities, for instance, harks back to the classic work of Asa Briggs, while his chapter on the frontier wars that everywhere pressured and subjugated Indigenous peoples in the period is a masterpiece of historical scholarship and mordant style. While one reviewer has criticised ’a drastic mismatch between the immensity of scale and the modesty of argument’, for mine it is precisely his humility and polyglot historical philosophy that makes this such an enjoyable book.

Osterhammel concludes with another surprise: a rather optimistic perspective of the century’s achievements. Ideas, resources and people became more mobile than perhaps any time in world history since the break-up of the western Roman Empire – not always for the good, certainly, but dynamic and transformative nonetheless. Despite the century’s atrocities, it was also an epoch in which liberal tenets of equality and liberation made great strides, culminating in the miraculous year of 1863 when serfdom was abolished in Russia, and slavery emancipated in the Union-controlled United States. The century produced a global capitalist system and vast empires that spanned the globe. But it also incubated new ideologies of dissident ideas: socialism and anarchism, Jacksonian democracy and liberal constitutionalism. In the case of socialism, this ideological movement created an entirely new sort of state.

Finally, Osterhammel decides, the nineteenth century was a time of emancipation, which survived an era of rapacious colonialism and imperialism to flourish in unexpected places, particularly in Africa and Asia. Gazed at across the smoking ruins of Europe in 1918, ‘the world of yesterday’ described by Zweig seemed to have vanished forever. But the seeds of the social flora of the later twentieth century – Osterhammel names liberalism, pacifism, trade unionism and democratic socialism – had demonstrably been sown in the nineteenth.

Robert A. Caro’s narrative sociology

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Robert A. Caro in 2013. Photograph: Michael Loccisano.

In recent weeks I’ve been working my way through historian Robert A. Caro’s majestic biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, The Years of Lyndon Johnson.

Enjoying them is easy. Caro is a hugely readable narrator, is in effortless command of his sources, and has one of the most complex and dynamic politicians of the 20th century as his subject. The result is quite simply some of the most compelling history I’ve ever read.

Unpicking why Caro is so interesting, though, is a lot harder. In doing so, I think we can learn a little about the practice of history, which this work avowedly is, as well as of sociology, which would seem to be further afield from Caro’s core discipline.

Firstly, a little of Caro’s craft. This essay by Chris Jones from 2012 in Esquire gives you a flavour on the man’s work practices and his almost unbelievable dedication. Caro has been working on the Johnson books since 1975. His book The Power Broker on Robert Moses, the New York planner and freeway builder, has just been republished, with revisions.

The essay by Chris Jones helps us understand the sort of historian Caro is: he is a kind of journalist.

Gottlieb has questioned the veracity of Caro’s reporting only once. There was a single paragraph that stood out on what would become the 214th page of The Power Broker. In it, Bella and Emanuel Moses, Robert’s parents, were depicted at their summer lodge at Camp Madison, a camp for poor and immigrant children that Bella had helped found. There, they were leafing throughThe New York Times one morning in 1926, Caro wrote, when they learned of a $22,000 judgment against their son for illegal appropriations. Caro included a quote from Bella Moses, who was long dead: “Oh, he never earned a dollar in his life and now we’ll have to pay this.”

How, Gottlieb asked Caro, did he get that quote?

Caro told the story. Moses had instructed friends and close associates not to talk to him. Shut out, Caro then drew a series of concentric circles on a piece of paper. In the center, he put Moses. The first circle was his family, the second his friends, the third his acquaintances, and so on. “As the circles grew outward,” Caro says, “there were people who’d only met him once. He wasn’t going to be able to get to them all.” Caro started with the widest circle, unearthing, among other things, the attendance rolls and employment records from Camp Madison. Now some four decades later, Caro tracked down, using mostly phone books at the New York Public Library, every now-adult child and every now-retired employee who might offer him some small detail about Robert’s relationship with his parents. One of the employees he found was the camp’s social worker, Israel Ben Scheiber, who also happened to deliver The New York Times to Bella and Emanuel Moses at their lodge each morning. Scheiber was standing there when Bella had expressed her frustration with her deadbeat son, and he remembered the moment exactly.

“So that’s how,” Caro told Gottlieb.

But Caro is more than simply a reporter, of course, because his books have a subject over and above the men he writes about, and that subject is power. Caro is therefore, in a very real way, a theorist of society, and in particular the power relationships within a society.

A good example is the second half of Caro’s second Johnson book, Means of Ascent. In it, Johnson uses the classic compare-and-contrast structure of the seasoned essayist to explore the 1948 Texan Democratic primary race between Johnson and veteran Texan Democrat, Coke Stevenson. At that time, Texas was a lock for Democrats, so the winner would become the state’s junior senator.

Caro’s biographical sketch of Stevenson and his career — he was the most successful Democrat in the state, and had earned himself the sobriquet ‘Mr Texas’ — is a miracle of historical prose. But Caro uses the primary battle between the two men as a metaphor for the evolution of modern American politics. Stevenson had a reputation as a man of total integrity: he had never taken a dollar of lobbyist money. Stevenson was so old-fashioned he campaigned by turning up in small town squares and introducing himself to citizens;  he didn’t even issue a policy platform, because he believed politicians should run only on their records. In contrast, Johnson poured more money into the race than had ever been seen in a Senatorial primary. He hired a helicopter and barnstormed around the state in it. Johnson also won the support of the Democratic machine in rotten boroughs in the state’s southern counties, which allowed him to capture crucial votes with what were almost certainly stuffed ballot boxes. When Stevenson challenged the result in court, Johnson won — again largely because he was able to manipulate the Democratic Party machine. 

What we see in Caro’s Means of Ascent is therefore a masterpiece of historical narrative. Caro is not merely chronicling a particularly interesting American state election in 1948. He is in fact developing what Daniel Little would call a social explanation of power — an explanation a good deal richer and “thicker” than the descriptions sometimes offered by sociologists and anthropologists when they turn to the nature of power in democratic societies.

A final point is worth making about this remarkable project. If and when Caro eventually publishes the final book in the series — we can only hope that he lives to complete the series — he will have been working on it for nearly half a century.

I think it’s fair to say that a project of such longevity and ambition could no longer be produced by a working academic (the conditions of the publishing industry suggest that it probably can’t happen in trade publishing again, either, though that is a different story). Five books in forty years? No historian would continue to hold employment with such a track record, even if a few papers were churned out to buttress the monographs, even if the books she eventually produced were as successful and feted as Caro’s have been.

And yet, on any meaningful measure of what history and the social sciences purport to be about, the work of Caro is at the pinnacle. It is both deeply serious and widely popular (his book on Moses was a bestseller, for instance). Caro has provided the single most important source of scholarship, both primary and secondary, of Johnson and his political surroundings. Even a specialist historian who merely set out to be the acknowledged expert on a single president would struggle to match Caro’s impact, and yet a professional historian who published as little as Caro would soon find herself bundled out of the faculty.

It’s a sobering realisation for any working academic that the conditions of academic working life are now such that the working academic can no longer realistically aspire to producing the kind of serious, important work that academia claims to be about.

Philip Schlesinger on the “creative industries orthodoxy”

This blog is a long-time fan of the University of Glasgow’s Philip Schlesinger, so it was with great interest that we stumbled across his 2015 lecture to the London School of Economics on that most controversial of cultural ideas, the “creative industries”.

I’ve embedded the video of it below but I’ll make a couple of quick points here:

  1. Schlesinger’s analysis is not new (there have been plenty of descriptions of the way the idea of the “creative industries” has infiltrated many aspects of cultural policy making from the last 1990s onwards)
  2. But it is an excellent summary of the development of the idea and the current state of play. (No doubt critics of this kind of analysis like Terry Flew might beg to differ).
  3. Make sure you watch to the end, because you get a bonus discussion from Angela McRobbie.

 

Back up and running

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Well, it’s been quite some time, but I’ve decided to get the Cultural Policy Blog back up and running.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been heavily occupied in a series of shorter- and longer-form projects, including a book and way too much time on Twitter.

But it’s time to get the band back together. I was particularly inspired by the high quality of cultural policy scholarship still being published in the academic and popular journals, and by the continuing example of awesome bogs like Crooked Timber.

So, here goes. I’m sure there aren’t too many regular readers left, but I’m hoping that with some diligence over coming months, I can again contribute to a vibrant international conversation about cultural policy.

– Ben

Murdochology

James, Wendy and Rupert Murdoch front the British Parliamentary Committee on Media, Culture and Sport, 2011. Image: Sydney orning Herald.

James, Wendy and Rupert Murdoch front the British Parliamentary Committee on Media, Culture and Sport, 2011. Image: Sydney Morning Herald.

Over at the Sydney Review of Books, I’ve got a long-form review essay on two of the latest books out on Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and the British phone hacking scandal.

I won’t re-post here, but rather direct you over to the site, which is publishing some very fine work at the moment.

However, the guts of my argument can be summarised as follows:

Back in 2004, reviewing a previous wave of Murdochology that had washed ashore the sandy beaches of the London Review of Books, John Lanchester, following Frederic Jameson, argued that the man himself personified a kind of ‘cultural logic’ of postmodern capitalism. ‘Rupert Murdoch is not so much a man, or a cultural force, as a portrait of the modern world,’ Lanchester wrote, ‘he is the way we live now; he is the media magnate we deserve.’

Lanchester wrote that Murdoch’s singular attribute is his flexibility: a ‘flakiness’ in which ‘the all-over-the-globe nature of the News Corp empire seems to be paralleled by a personal all-over-the-placeness in Murdoch.’ Like the ‘hot money’ of the international currency markets, his energies and attentions flow unpredictably and suddenly, to wherever the opportunity lies. He understands, in the end, perhaps only one lesson: that symbols are powerful, and that in a democracy, this power can be used. One of the things that Murdoch likes to do with his media power is, of course, to make money. But he also likes to acquire more power: for instance, by gaining the ear of prime ministers. You never know when you might need a regulator to sign off on your next deal.

Just like capital, Murdoch can be channelled and regulated, stymied here and divested there. But, like some protean force of nature, he can’t really be stopped. He is too powerful for that, too wealthy, too smart. This is why the common attribution of Murdoch as a ‘media baron’ is so apt. Unlike his deputies, or the CEOs of truly globalised media corporations like Vivendi or Time Warner, Murdoch’s power derives not just from his occupation of a top ‘command post of the social structure’. Like a feudal aristocrat, he also enjoys considerable privileges and resources that attach to his person and family. As long as he keeps hold of those special voting shares in his various corporations, the Bermuda bank accounts and the key trusts and holding companies, he will retain his over-mighty stature. When he dies, of course, all bets are off. The trusts will vest and his children and ex-wives will struggle for control. But for now he is unassailable. As Wolff wrote recently, ‘2014 is going to be a good year for Rupert Murdoch.’

Jo Caust on Australian cultural policy under Labor

Respected South Australian academic and consultant Jo Caust has a new paper out in the International Journal of Cultural Policy. Entitled “Cultural wars in an Australian context: challenges in developing a national cultural policy,” it’s the first detailed academic examination of Australia’s tortuous journey towards a national cultural policy during the six years of the Rudd-Gillard Labor government of 2007-13.

Regular readers of this blog and of my arts journalism will know what a rocky road that was. Labor originally promised a new cultural policy in opposition, under charismatic arts spokesman and later Arts minister, Peter Garrett. By the time that the eventual policy, Creative Australia, was finally announced, it was 2013. Garrett had come and gone as Arts minister, and Labor had also replaced Kevin Rudd as prime minister with Julia Gillard. Creative Australia ended up being the policy of the land for only seven months, with Labor losing the 2013 election.

Caust’s paper covers this history, and analyses the development of Creative Australia and the legislative reforms to the Australia Council that passed the Australian Parliament in 2013. Perhaps her single most salient insight is the degree to which the Canadian model of arts funding has influenced the current reforms. For those who covered the issues on a daily basis for the last six years, there is much that rings true. Although there is nothing particularly new in what she observes, she has done everyone a service by putting it all together in one place. As a result, her paper is a fine summary of the troubled and turbulent political environment under which cultural policy was made during the last government. For international readers in particular, this is a useful ‘first draft of history’ with which to begin the discussion of Labor’s cultural policy legacy. (Disclosure: Caust cites my work frequently in the paper, so I may be biased).

Caust concludes her paper with the following remarks:

From the early part of this millennium there has been much public discussion about the framing and delivery of cultural policy and arts funding in Australia. When a Labor government was elected in 2007 this resulted in a conversation with a select group about the concept of a ‘Creative Australia’ followed by a series of government initiated reviews on aspects of arts and cultural delivery, culminating in the publication of a Creative Australia in March 2013. This document shifted the conversation about cultural policy to embrace a broader definition of culture as well as update, to a limited extent, current approaches to arts funding. At the same time another government initiated review recommended significant changes to the national major arts funding body, the Australia Council. In this process, there was a shift towards more government influence over the workings of the Council while at the same time there was a recommendation for increased funding. However, a change in government 6 months later made the implementation of all of the recommendations unlikely.

In fact in the new Coalition government there is already evidence that there may be significant cuts in funding, and in this likelihood, the high arts would be given preference. In addition a broader embrace of cultural policy issues is unlikely under a Coalition government given their stated resistance to this paradigm. So in the short term any perceived shifts in understanding and valuing of arts and cultural issues in the Australian context, as an outcome of the latest approach to developing an Australian Cultural Policy, may have a limited tenure. Certainly the framing and content of national arts and cultural policies continue to be a political issue in Australia as they are elsewhere. Even so there is also a possibility that the present Coalition Government, while publicly rejecting the framework of Creative Australia, may still embrace aspects of it, if it should suit their political agenda.

$7 billion of neoliberalism

The Stationers' Company mark

The Stationers’ Company: an early example of government cultural policy. Image: Wikipedia.

Australian economist Jason Potts has restarted an important debate about cultural policy in this country with an article entitled “You’ve got $7 billion – so how will you fund the arts?“. I just wish he hadn’t analysed Australian cultural policy from the sort of instrumentalist, neoliberal position we find so familiar in many other spheres of policy debate.

I’ll say right up the top that I’m a fan of Potts’ work, and think him a pretty clever fellow. His work on evolutionary economics is in its own way quite heterodox, and a far cry from the sort of automatic and reflexive market worship we often associate with both the RMIT Economics school, and the Institute for Public Affairs, which he is apparently doing some work with.

On the other hand, his op-ed in The Conversation on cultural policy  is not one of his more perspicacious efforts. Justin O’Connor has already written a useful response, but I thought I’d add a few points of my own, set forth below.

Let’s start by setting forward Potts’ argument. Then we’ll move on to a critique.

Last year the Australian Bureau of Statistics did the maths – government spends about A$7 billion annually in Australia on arts and culture. The exact dollar figure varies depending on what we count, but it includes heritage, broadcasting and botanical gardens, along with all the usual suspects: performing arts, literature, film, visual arts, and so on.

This is apples, oranges and all sorts of random fruit.  “Heritage” funding, for instance, includes such things as war memorials, botanical gardens, zoos and some national parks expenditure. That’s a pretty different sort of thing to grants to game design companies or tax incentives to Hollywood movie studios. Does it actually make sense to treat all of these things as the same sort of expenditure?

Anyway, moving on:

To make this exercise fun, let’s suppose that no political horse-trading was involved in reaching this figure. Let’s assume this figure is the result of disinterested economic calculation of the size of the positive externality in the production of a public good, all wrapped in willingness-to-pay studies, and tied with a big bright cost-benefit ribbon.

So what’s next?

Do we put away our box of shiny economic tools and turn to grubby political compromise to allocate the exact market-failure correcting amount of public funding?

In Australia, as in Europe, this is more or less what we do. Economics to justify an economically efficient level of spending – and politics to implement it.

Really? Last time I looked, in most nation-states, including most democracies, politics is almost always the over-riding factor in the way  budget priorities are set. Sure, politicians and lobbyists and ordinary citizens use economic arguments to make the case for this spending increase or that tax cut. But the process is always and by definition political. On the really big picture stuff, economics arguably can’t really help us. For instance, how much should Australia invest in national defence, or climate change mitigation? The answer depends on inherently political judgments, such as whether you think global warming is real, or the likelihood of a major war.

Indeed, ‘economic efficiency’ is itself an inherently political argument, because it applies a very particular set of assumptions to public policy — namely that Pareto efficiency can actually hold in the first place. In markets in which there is imperfect information — and cultural markets are amongst the most opaque of all — Pareto efficiency may well be impossible. Potts knows this, which is why his quip about the “exact market-failure correcting amount of public funding” strikes me as disingenuous.

So let’s get to the guts of Potts’ argument:

… modern economics suggests that it would be better if we turned the process upside down. Let politicians determine the level of funding in a given area – and let economists determine the allocation.

Why? The political model of funding allocation is very bad at creating – or even recognising – new knowledge. In fact, political allocation mechanisms cause incentives that reward lobbying and punish experimental or innovative thinking.

Only by weakening those incentives can arts and cultural funding seek to be more than a rearguard preservation exercise or sinecure for vested interests.

I suppose it’s something of ad hominem attack to point this out, but it’s just a tad ironic that the person making this argument is a Federation Fellow of a publicly funded Australian university. A person writing for a website, by the way, also funded by universities and the government, using a medium — the internet — that was created almost exclusively by public investment in research.

“Political allocation mechanisms”, by which I think Potts means governments making budget decisions, certainly create incentives that reward lobbying. Then again, so do market mechanisms. Markets require the state to provide a level playing field via such basic institutions as property rights, police forces and courts of law. All of these create incentives for vested interests to plead their cause.

This is no trivial point, by the way: the cultural industries are completely dependent on intellectual property rights such as copyright and patents. The very fact that many cultural goods are non-rivalrous and non-excludable creates huge incentives for content industries to lobby governments to create and strengthen IP regulations — as has been well documented by researchers such as Lessig. When property rights become unenforceable, digital goods become a whole lot less valuable. Anyway, Potts’ claim was that public spending creates lobbying, which is bad. On this analysis, many of the cherished market mechanisms of the cultural industries must also be bad, because they were created via lobbying.

This points to a further naievete: the implicit belief that cultural goods and services are just like any other industrial product.

Even a moment’s reflection shows us this isn’t true. The products of cultural industries are not like any old widget or commodity: they are not even really the same thing as an iPhone or an operating system. Cultural industries produce symbols, and symbols are powerful (or at least highly influential). An aluminium ingot or a wind turbine cannot affect the democratic judgment or voting intentions of millions of citizens. A newspaper empire or television network can.

It doesn’t really matter whether you think that the power of media companies to swing elections is illusory. The history of modern media policy tells us that governments certainly do think symbols are powerful. Media has generally often been heavily regulated, sometimes on the grounds of public interest, but more commonly for naked reasons of political expediency. Even in the US, with its famous First Amendment, successive Washington administrations have had no qualms about controlling spectrum, imposing stringent copyright regulations, and spying extensively on their citizens’ communications. Hosni Mubarak turned off the internet in Egypt for a reason. Whether it’s internet filters or the Stationers Company, the political nature of cultural industries means they can’t be divorced from questions of power.

This curious ignorance of the symbolic reality of culture is often found amongst unsophisticated approaches to cultural economics — much as economics as taught in the modern university tends to ignore key aspects of sociology. As a result, when economists issue prescriptions for cultural policy, they tend to propose cures that are far worse than the supposed disease.

Perhaps this is why Potts misconstrues key facts about real-life cultural policy. For instance, he seems to think arts funding is about “inputs, not outputs”, when in fact nearly all Australian government arts grants are legal contracts specifying outcomes, allowing the government to recoup the funding if not properly acquitted. He also equates prizes as some sort of gold standard of outcome, which is strange because prize committees show exactly the sort of “bullshit” he decries in grant panels.

Similarly, when he argues for “tax credits to anyone – private citizen, corporation, foundation or NGO alike – for spending on arts and culture”, he seems to imply these don’t currently exist. In fact, they do. An individual donating to a DGR-status cultural organisation already receives a tax credit, while a non-profit NGO or foundation already pays no tax beyond the GST.