Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Flight of the Creative Class

I recently finished Richard Florida's The Flight of the Creative Class. I read Rise of the Creative Class a few years ago. Richard Florida's conclusions have influenced and bolstered my arguments. His work as an urban planner / demographer / consultant is a different scope than the more abstract philosophical issues I'm dealing with, but crossing the two is interesting.

Florida has observed great economic growth in cities that foster a lively street level culture. He's found a strong correlation between growth and creativity. From Florida's perspective the most creative people (artists) primarily serve to attract high-quality laborers. These artists create street level culture, which attracts people and benefits to cities and the individuals and corporations within cities.

I am interested in what might happen when the most radical members of the creative class instead work for themselves. What if we stopped letting our culture be co-opted, packaged and sold to encourage growth for cities and businesses and instead create a culture and economy for ourselves? Artists are not receiving anything like a full return on the economic benefits we create. Why don't we find a way to maintain a hold on these benefits? If we can direct the economic growth we stimulate inward, back to the artistic communities, rather than allowing capitalist institutions to direct them into investor's pockets, what changes will that bring, not only in how we work, but also in how we effect the rest of society?

Florida goes beyond merely saying that street level culture attracts the best people to cities, he considers many of these professions creative in themselves, and tracks the economic benefits that creatives (whether they be artists, software designers, or hairdressers) produce. His conclusions are based on extensive sociological and demographic research (p 29).

He describes the rise of the creative economy:

"Like a turbocharged engine... in search of the institutional and social
arrangements that can unleash it's full potential. The real challenge of our
time... is to complete the system we have given rise to - to build the full
creative society that can channel the creative economic energy we have
unleashed. The potential is immense. Today, for perhaps the first time in human
history, we have the opportunity to align economic and human development.
Indeed, our future economic prosperity turns on making the most of each and
every human being's talents and energies (p 241)."

There are many challenges Florida associates with the new creative economy. Primarily finding ways to include more people in the benefits: "creative economy is reinforcing economic inequality producing a greater divide between regional haves and have-nots and also generating greater inequality within the leading creative centers" (p 20). I'd argue that this inequality is not particular to the creative economy and not the fault of the creative class. It is the fault of the capitalist class. Increases in inequality result from any economic growth in capitalism, the more rapid the growth, the more severe the inequality.

Florida suggests a number of policy solutions to answer this problem. He compares the current challenges to the industrial revolution and calls for a sort of new deal, one that's tailor made for the current situation (p 242-243). A New Deal is one option, but the social welfare and Keynesian aspects are not particular to the industrial age, and other New Deal projects, such as unionization won't apply well to the creative age at all.

Part of why the New Deal succeeded is that it altered the labor market by empowering the manufacturing class through unions and public works projects. But, more than any of these projects World War Two met the needs of the transition to an industrial economy. By removing many laborers from the system and increasing factory-based production, WWII opened up opportunities for the labor force who had been left out of the boom. It's hard to imagine something having a similar effect on the creative economy.

Florida's other solutions are more generic; the typical ways capitalism averts impending class warfare. Government regulation, Keynesian economics and Bismarkian social welfare to appease the poor are old tricks that grow less effective over time, and have been gutted by ideological attacks in the past few decades. Even if we did resurrect these policies, i doubt they'd handle the expanding class divide and heightening class antagonism.

If we look at this situation in terms of class dynamics, a more radical solution presents itself. I think our current economic transformation is more like the rise of capitalism than the Industrial Revolution, and the "political solution... required to fully realize the potential of a new economic and social order" will be more like the American and French revolutions than the New Deal (p 229).

There are three classes involved: the Bourgeoisie, the Proletariat (or maybe more appropriately, the Service Class) and the Creative Class. Currently creatives are allied with the bourgeoisie. Creative output is mediated and legislated by the ruling capitalist class, and so it is feeding into and exacerbating capitalism's inherent tendencies for inequality, instability, and alienation.
If creatives shift their allegiance to the lower classes we may see a rapid change. The rise of capitalism presents a historical precedent for such a shift. The bourgeoisie (then the insurgent class) initially allied with, but eventually betrayed the nobility, after running up against the monarchy's obsolete political and social systems. The bourgeoisie responded with a new ideology (Locke's right to life liberty and property). They sold this ideology to the serfs, as a political cause and then staged a revolution.

Florida describes similarly obsolete political and social systems. He says "neither party seems very well positioned to describe, let alone harness, the postmodern value system that comes with the creative age (p 216)" and "we can count on neither trickle-down economics nor conventional social-welfare programs to save us (p 193)". Our elections and other political system's utter failure is self evident. It's only a matter of time before creatives recognize the barriers these obsolete and failing institutions create and set to changing them.

Florida anticipates my thoughts and responds: "I'm not saying capitalism has got to go. Far from it: What i argue for is a new kind of market-based society, one that fosters human creativity more broadly, more directly, and across all social and demographic strata. (p 77)". But, such a society is not compatible with capitalism, he's looking for a paradox. Florida's descriptions match Marx's predictions very closely.

Marx predicted that capitalism would over time, tend toward ever greater inequality. Florida describes many ways that "inequality has consistently worsened (p 186)" and that "social mobility is decreasing (p 192-193)". Capitalist markets are based on price, profit and a particular sort of labor relation. According to Marx, these markets will always produce a situation in which owners who maximize their profits by minimizing their labor costs will win out. Florida's description of a minority of creative workers who "download stress and anxiety" onto themselves and "depend on a veritable army of [low paid, unfulfilled] service workers to tend to the things they don't have time for (p 203, 187)" is consistent with Marx's prediction. Capitalists would rather squeeze all the work they can out of a small group of workers who then have to spend their earnings on restaurants and house cleaners, than pay a larger number of people for a more reasonable time commitment. This is in the bourgeoisie's best interest, and will always result from a capitalist society. But, when everyone's interest is taken into account, it is much less efficient, and it works against the creative class, as well as the service sector and lower classes.

Fortunately, the paradox lies in Florida's overbroad definition of capitalism. It is but one type of market based economy, one defined by certain social norms and labor and property relations. It's possible to have a market without capitalism, indeed Florida's "new kind of market-based society" is, by necessity non-capitalist.

Florida's presciptions for change are also in common with Marx's. Both thought that change is not a "top-down or centralized endeavor, but needs to emerge organically (p 246)." Florida has studied changes of this type. He describes many instances when the traditional labor relation that (in my opinion) actually defines capitalism has come under question. In Flight of the Creative Class he describes how "people love to do creative work (p 27)" with many examples, from musicians (p 89) to industrial designers (p195) of alternative labor relations proving superior. I remember a seemingly endless list of empowered workers changing the workplace in The Rise of the Creative Class (citations forthcoming). In Flight, Florida sums up his and many others' data: "the majority of research on the subject finds that intrinsic rewards are far more effective in motivating creative people than money alone (p 77)". Workers are demanding not only more fulfilling and exciting work, but also more benefits, including profit sharing, flex time and radical workflow rearrangements. They prefer free agency and sub-contracting to solid employment. At what point do these changing relationships stop being capitalism?

The changes in labor demands go hand in hand with changes in consumer demands (trends toward citizen-consumers) to indicate a changing mindset society-wide. Florida mentions how Max Weber's "protestant work ethic... helped to usher in modern capitalism" (p 68). If this is true, then Florida's discussion of Ron Ingelhart's "postmaterialist" culture (p 40), the rise of irreligiousness, and how today people have "redefined the idea of morality itself (p 216)" indicates that there is a new ethic ushering in a replacement for the now obsolete capitalist norms.

Meanwhile, Florida has identified inequality is an inefficiency (p 188) and concludes that "it's impossible politically and economically to build a fully creative society when just 30 percent of the workforce reaps the full rewards of that economy's productivity (p 217)." He also demonstrates that "our society is not engaging even a fraction of the creative capital at it's disposal... doing a poor job of motivating the 30 percent of the workforce fortunate enough to make up the creative sector... [and] systematically neglecting the creative potential of the 70 percent of the population that lies outside the creative class (p 36)." If this wasteful inequality is built into the capitalist mode of production, as Marx claimed and history demonstrates, then it seems natural that capitalism will either have to change so much that it stops being capitalism, or it will be replaced by a radically new mode of production.

We are existing in a marketplace based on very different assumptions than the marketplace described by traditional economics. We can either call both these markets "capitalism" or we can say that we're entering something new. It depends on how broadly you want to define capitalism. The difference is merely semantic when describing current economic trends, but it becomes a defining assumption when looking into the future. Florida's hesitation to look outside of capitalism closes off the most creative and revolutionary approaches to "the great challenge of our time" leaving him to focus on goals and projects that are either too vague and unrealistic or too particular and small-scoped (p 246-266).


Jeff said...

Ben, I've been working on a response to your manifesto; these are a few preliminary comments designed to point up what I see as the most serious vulnerabilities of your argument, as well as its potential to expand.

Trade exists in all societies, so trade is not necessarily capitalism. What I see as the biggest problem with your creative-class-driven culture change is: How will artists achieve the same kind of financial power that the new merchant and manufacturing classes had at the beginning of the modern era? They got their power largely from new technologies and the ability to produce superior goods on a huge scale-- incidentally putting family-based cottage industries out of business and building a new wage-slave class. I frankly don't see how homespun clothes and live performance can possibly compete with the immense variety of mass-produced entertainment. To my mind you do not consider the role of technology enough-- UNLESS you are supposing a society-wide Luddite movement to reject mass-production/consumption (which would be a very good idea, thank you Daniel Quinn). To achieve such a movement would require education, not to say propaganda, on a huge scale.

The creative class may actually depend on the existence of the capitalist/technological infrastructure as detailed in Maslov's hierarchy of needs.

Second, your connection of art with the personality of the artist is a historically recent invention; Only in the Renaissance did artists names begin to carry cache; art exists in every human culture, but generally not as a commodifiable product, rather as a non-specialized human activity or a socially suspect profession. I wonder how your future artists will be able to support themselves in any but the beggarly position of Medieval traveling troupes, doing shows, singing and dancing for a meal and a place to sleep. All of the performing artists I know get most of their support by selling recordings. I think you should consider the role of technology more.

The last point I'll make right now is philosophical. I know you want to base your argument on "cold, objective reason." But there is some reason to consider that objectivity IS itself an emotional stance: one of suppressing the emotions that link and connect us to the world. The epistemological flaw of rationality is that it forgets the indeterminacy principle: one cannot somehow get out of the world in order to describe it; one is always already in the world, and objectivity is always to a greater or lesser degree a mask, a dramatic persona with its own effects and consequences.

I find the idea of a mass transformation of society both compelling and plausible. I could see other forms of government than trickle-down or welfare state arising, something along the lines of socialism that supports the arts as the WPA did, as well as other necessary but unprofitable social needs.

I wonder what an example of a transformative work of art would be? (hint: I don't think it's either "Paint the Town" or Peter Wood's music, much as I respect and appreciate them!)

best wishes,


Rex Winsome said...


Thanks for your response. You definitely bring up concerns i need to address. Here are my preliminary responses:

"How will artists achieve the same kind of financial power that the new merchant and manufacturing classes had at the beginning of the modern era? "

New technology and new consumer demands indicate a shift going on in our economy. The merchant class partially acheived power by riding the rise in demand for material goods, today there is a rise in demand for arts/entertainment. Artists have an opportunity to ride this rise in the same way.

"can possibly compete with the immense variety of mass-produced entertainment."

I start with the reasonable assumption that artists make better art than corporations. This is supported by evidence. Last i checked (and it was a while ago) The top five music companies were all losing market share to indie bands.

"you do not consider the role of technology enough"

the role i see technology playing in this is two fold:
1) a leveling of the affordability of the means of production, reducing the barriers to entry into the arts and entertainment industry. When new technologies make recording music, video, and booking and promoting tours less expensive, artists gain ground.
2) the digital/virtual reproduction of recordings is seriously reshaping the landscape in the opposite ways that mechanical reproduction reshaped things years ago. Mechanical reproduction turned music (for example) into a commodity. Virtual reproduction/distribution has taken the profitability out of recorded music. Investment in these mediums will go down as costs (including cost of lobbying with the RIAA to make new laws) go up and returns decrease. Meanwhile quality will also go down. YouTube epitomizes both the democratization and mediocritization of video. As recorded mediums become more and more mediocre, audiences will look toward live performance (concerts, theatre) in greater numbers.

I am not an absolute luddite, i just see a shift in the balance. Rather than tours supporting the release of a new record, records will serve as merch at live performances, people are more likey to give money for records that they could download for free if they associate the artifact with the experience of seeing the live show, they are even more likely to do so if the artist themself is sitting at a merch table.

"I wonder how your future artists will be able to support themselves in any but the beggarly position"

Again, i'm observing a shift, again, music is the best example. The old system is one where a tiny number of artists "make it" and are granted contracts, widely distributed and end up milionaires, and everyone else struggles and becomes beggars. The new system is one where many more artists are able to be modestly successful. Where we start out with day jobs doing music almost as a hobby, but (due to abovementioned technologies) are able to tour and release records, eventually (if we're good) we can quit our day jobs and while not becoming millionaires, can sustain ourselves on income from our art.

This transition is self-reaffirming, as it progresses the rate of it's progression will increase.

On the philosophical question: i don't view objectivity as a stance, as much as an attempt at having common ground necessary for building consensus. Our emperical observations and reasoned arguments are more likely to match accross the population than our emotional responses or spiritual beleifs.

The criteria of "transformative work of art" has less to do with the content, or even the form of the work of art, than with the economic practices underwhich it is produced.

I see the theatre i do as potentially transformative or as contributing to the transformation for two reasons: 1) the DIY music scene is far more advanced in anti-capitalist practices and community building than theatre, and i'm not a very good musician, so i try to produce theatre for the DIY music community 2) theatre as an art form is in an unusual position. it is a "dying" art, but (for reasons described above) it stands to rise in prominance among entertainment mediums. This means now it is open to new ideas and new producers. You might say it is vulnerable to an insurgency. It also means that soon it stands to rise in relative importance to the arts and entertainment sector, and that sector is rising in importance to the general economy. Our little theatre insurgency can ride that wave to greater economic power.