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McKenzie Wark on class, gender, and creative industries

At Public Seminar, McKenzie Wark does a deep dive on a intriguing new book about labor in the culture industries: Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries by Angela McRobbie. As Wark writes, McRobbie’s book aims to update established theories on flexible labor under late capitalism, adding a much-needed emphasis on gender and fleshing out the ways that creative work today substitutes for lost fulfillment in other spheres, such as family relationships and romance. Here’s an excerpt from Wark’s piece:

While I am skeptical as to how useful a concept neoliberalism might actually be, it does help account for some aspects of how class is subjectively lived today. Following Foucault, McRobbie traces neoliberalism to the ordo-liberals, German state functionaries and intellectuals who had kept their heads down during the Nazi years, and came up with a more palatable right wing philosophy after it. One that, in an irony of history McRobbie doesn’t mention, displaced the state-socialism of those intellectuals who had rallied to the British state in the cause of defeating the Nazis. The ordo-liberals redefined the human not in terms of labor but as an entrepreneur of its own life-force. It is a kind of market-vitalism, which proscribes a narrow set of rules for human conduct, the sole objective of which is, in every sense, self-appreciation.

While political theorists may dream of such a neoliberal subject, what actual subjects end up thinking and feeling and doing may be a bit more complicated and interesting, and that is McRobbie’s bailiwick. “I see passionate attachment to creative work as comprising ‘lines of flight’, embedded family histories of previously blocked hopes and frustrations.” The class politics of the parent culture that is submerged in commodification used to reappear as subculture, but now (post) subculture is no longer an injection of noise against the hegemonic order but the seeding of new information for it to commodify. Meanwhile the industriousness sustaining the creative industries is provided by a ‘risk class’ without permanent jobs. Creativity promises the reward of realized self; insecurity appears as part of the adventure.

This all seems to confirm the work Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski did on how the ruling class responded to the challenge to its hegemony in the sixties by resisting one line of attack yet incorporating the other. The line resisted was the labor critique, in the form of wildcat strikes and factory occupations. The line that was incorporated was the artistic critique, which spoke not of labor but of alienation. It turns out that extracting value out of labor could function just fine without rigid, externally imposed discipline and uniformity. McRobbie: “While the prevailing value system celebrates the growth of the creative economy and the rise of talent, the talented themselves are working long hours under the shadow of unemployment in a domain of intensive under-employment, and self-activated work.” McRobbie works this observation through a study of the work of Richard Florida, Ricard Sennett and the Italian ‘workerist’ school and its descendants, such as Paolo Virno, Franco Berardi and Maurizio Lazzarato.

McRobbie offers a less rosy view than that of Richard Florida, with his celebrations of the creative class that populates prosperous cities, for whom the old working-class districts become gentrified playgrounds. McRobbie points out that Florida’s sunny vision is the flip side of what for Loic Waquant is a decline of sociological explanation about how urban space actually functions. The occupation of the city as a space for creative class play takes place against a background of mass incarceration which criminalizes a whole other urban population. On the one hand, part of what was subculture can become the creative industries; but on the other, a part of it no longer gets the social-worker treatment but goes straight from school to prison.

Image: A sculpture by Lorenzo De Alemeida from the exhibition “Creative Labor: Queer-It-Yourself (QIY) Expo and Faire,” SOMA Arts, San Francisco.