How “neoliberal” are the creative industries?

Above: "Creativity" proved an attractive label for the business press in the mid-2000s. Source: Fast Company

Today I’m having a look an important recent paper by Stuart Cunningham and Terry Flew, entitled “Creative Industries after the First Decade of Debate” (it’s a paper published this year in the journal The Information Society 26: 1–11, 2010).

There’s no doubt that the “creative industries” debate is one of the most prominent in the cultural policy sphere. You might remember that in September last year I had a look at Toby Miller’s paper, “From Cultural to Creative Industries” [Cultural Studies, 23(1): 88 — 99]. In that paper, Miller examines the academic claims and policy rhetoric  of the various proponents of the creative industries idea, like Richard Florida and the QUT school, and attacks them for their “neo-liberal” ethos:

[The creative industries discourse] has offered humanities intellectuals already interested in cultural policy - often for reasons of cultural nationalism - the opportunity to go still closer to the heart of power, shifting their discourse to a comprehensively copyright-inflected one that focuses on the language of comparative advantage and competition.

Flew and Cunningham’s paper can be read as a direct riposte to this attack. The substance of the paper is concerned with nailing down the ever-shifting definitions of the “creative industries”, and distinguishing them from the “cultural industries”, but of greater interest to the cultural policy researcher is a concluding section, subtitled “Creative Industries and the Great Neoliberalism Debate.” In this section, Flew and Cunningham examine the intellectual label of “neoliberalism”  (a term barely acknowledged by many economists, it must be remembered, who find little new in the Ricardian principles of the Washington Consensus – but I digress), with particular reference to Miller’s paper and David Harvey’s 2005 monograph, A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

Flew and Cunningham argue that left-wing critics of the creative industries school have mis-characterised the discourse:

The association of the creative industries concept with “New Labour” governments in Britain has enabled critics to tie the concept to a wider meta-narrative about neoliberalism as a political-ideological project of dominant economic elites, with terms such as the “new economy” and “creative industries” as ideological obfuscations designed to disguise the extent to which they had essentially accepted the policies of their conservative predecessors. Both Hesmondhalgh (2007) and Freedman (2008) structure their analysis of media policy since 1980 in precisely these terms, and it is the dominant approach taken by political economists more generally (see, e.g., Curran 2006; McChesney 2008).

They point out that “The notion that we have been in an era of “neoliberal globalization” or “neoliberal capitalism” since the 1980s has become something of an intellectual truism” and is not backed up by a nuanced understanding of global macro-economics, citing the growth of state-sponsored capitalism in China as a counter-example.

I think this is a pretty thin argument, actually; the jurisdictions where the creative industries discourse originated and was taken up by policymakers are the same ones – the UK, Australia and the US (at a local government level) – are indeed the jurisdictions that have seen the development of a broadly neoliberal  consensus on economic policy. Since 1980, the US, the UK and Australia have all dismantled tariff protections and many aspects of the social democratic welfare state, and pursued financial market deregulation, privatisation and anti-union industrial relations policies. For example: Reagan’s trickle-down “voodoo economics” tax cuts; Thatcher’s privatisation and union-busting policies; Clinton’s welfare reforms and abolition of the Glass-Steagall act; and in Australia the Hawke-Keating government’s floating of the dollar, financial market deregulation,  industrial relations reforms and tariff reductions. It’s also worth pointing out that the keystone cultural policy of all three nations, the US in particular, has been the maintenance and extension of strong copyright and intellectual property regimes, especially in international trade negotiations.

Flew and Cunningham, in contrast, contend that the growing focus on small-to-medium enterprises and independent artists  in the creative industries leads to different conlusions:

As these individuals and small groups are relatively new and not highly concentrated, and as “portfolio careers” characterized by multiple jobs across different sectors are often the norm for these segments of the creative workforce, they lack the political power and lobbying clout of big corporations, established trade unions, and traditional arts organizations. Yet there is growing evidence that such loosely configured creative networks are a core source of innovattion in the arts, media, and culture, and the challenge has been raised of how policy frameworks can best support such networks that differs from the traditional large-scale institutional domains of media and cultural policies and politics.

All this may well be true, but it rather tends to reinforce a point made by many critics of the creative industries idea, which is that “portfolio careers” are not, in of themselves, necessarily such a great thing. Indeed, the precarious labour conditions of much small-scale creative enterprise are often marked by considerable levels of exploitation (including self-exploitation), as a range of writers such Andrew Ross and Angela McRobbie have noted.

I’d make a further point, which is that the idea of “innovation” that Flew and Cunningham underpins the creative industries discourse is not itself always a good thing, either. The MP3 was a wonderful innovation from the point of view of music compression, but it contributed to wholesale value destruction in the record industry. Google news is a wonderful innovation in terms of the ability to quickly and easily surf news, but it has also led to the inexorable decline of news rooms and the loss of many thousands of jobs for journalists. Similarly, the increasingly horizontal and ephemeral nature of the small firms feeding product into the creative industries conceal large pockets of working poverty, unstable and precarious labour, and shattered artistic dreams.

In this respect, the struggles of hollowed out post-industrial American cities to reinvent themselves as “creative cities” while the chief salesman of that idea has moved on to greener pastures resembles nothing so much as Sinclair Lewis’vision of the small town American businessmen campaigning for the imprimatur of a symphony orchestra. Likewise, the “portfolio careers” mentioned by Flew and Cunningham are all too redolent of the barely-respectable proletarian writers unforgettably depicted by Balzac in the first age of liberal capital. Perhaps the creative industries are not so much neoliberal, as simply liberal in the 19th century sense of the term.

I suspect that a glimpse inside the Chinese factories making the iconic products of the creative industries – the ready-to-wear fashion garments, iPhones and laptops – won’t look too different to the dark satanic mills of Industrial Capital 1.0.


3 thoughts on “How “neoliberal” are the creative industries?

  1. Thanks for this summary and the links. Those sections of Flew and Cunningham’s essay where they sum up theories of neoliberalism and the neoliberal critique of their positions, is pretty sketchy. Tellingly, they refer to the neo-Foucauldian accounts of neoliberalism (Nikolas Rose’s 1999 work is the only reference I can find) but ignore his concept of governmentality. They assert that neoliberalism is an ideology but ignore the Foucauldian argument that neoliberal reasoning comes in an assemblage with neoliberal practices and techniques. So, you can have a thorough critique of neoliberalism as an ideology like Rudd’s in The Monthly, while neoliberal techniques and practices continue to govern how the ways the economy of power works in Australia.

    Neoliberalism can be seen as the cultural logic of finance capitalism in the age after Keynesianism, so it’s interesting to see the concept “portfolio career” used. A portfolio of investments in one’s human capital is good for some, but, as you point out, the underside of a portfolio of jobs is precarity and depreciation.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful counterweight to Flew and Cunningham. Without commenting or building on anything you have submitted regarding cultural and creative industries (much of which sounds very meritous), I wanted to briefly disagree with the concept of innovation as potentially negative.

    In my perspective, innovation is inevitable, and will take place in whatever environment is most conducive to creativity, knowledge diffusion and absorption, realizing economies of scale, and any other variety of factors associated with innovation.

    All innovations are disruptive in that they, as Schumpeter and Marx (whichever ideological background disarms the most) both agree, are destructive to existing institutions, systems, processes, etc. – more importantly though, it is the very thing that moves capitalism forward at all. Schumpeter and Marx disagreed about the final outcome, but this much is true – we can’t have capitalism without a minority inventing new ways to make things faster and cheaper and someone else finding a way to collect rent on keeping things running that way. Your example of the MP3 contributing to the “wholesale value destruction in the record industry” does not necessarily indicate any negative outcome. Perhaps it is time for a little “creative destruction” in recording – an industry that received its status and power only post-recording innovations not really that long ago. There are now new ways to collect rent from music – the MP3 has not hindered that aspect of creativity – and should we be inclined to believe some of the more attractive promises of technological advancement, may very well more individual creative contribution under a “participatory media” paradigm.

    While unconvinced by Flew and Cunningham’s disassociation of the cultural and creative industry wave from neoliberal policies, I do not think that a reliance on innovation is necessarily a theoretical weakness in this paper.

    Thanks for the blog in general – I have subscribed and hope to continue reading 🙂

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