Working Poor in the Creative Economy

Some day, he will be a butterfly

Donald Trump just unveiled an exciting new start-up—a crowdfunding website called “Fund Anything.” You can find your own way to the site if you care about such things. The heightened profile of crowdfunding—Amanda Palmer, the Veronica Mars film, and even Iron Sky—probably motivated Trump to dip his toes into this new variant of capitalization.[1] If Trump has a talent, it seems to be sniffing out opportunities to exploit, and the shift to crowdfunding now seems like such an exploitable moment. Whatever draws the ever-listening media to listen to him bloviate, he’ll embrace it—lest we forget his all-important announcement about the conditions of the President’s birth.

But the means by which Trump publicized this new venture reveals something important about the political economy of the current historical moment. Trump claimed that he was interested in helping the less fortunate. Indeed, he gave away nearly $200,000 to those who desperately needed the money. A family unable to cope with large medical bills, a small business owner, and an aspiring singer all received lump sums of Trump’s wealth. In addition, he gave away $5000 checks and had a money grab for others. Surely, the recipients are grateful and feel a sense of relief at having this money to help themselves and their families. The cash doled out amounts to no pittance to the recipients. But, as Leah Beckman has argued, Trump was not performing an act of pure charity, but rather of pure economic considerations with a measure of spectacle thrown in for good measure.[2] As Žižek has also noted (citing no less authority than the “good old Oscar Wilde”), charity might alleviate the momentary suffering, but it does little to ameliorate the cause of human misery in a modern capitalist society.

Trump’s little stunt reveals some interesting dynamics about the modern (or is it postmodern?) economy. First, the individualism that lives at the heart of the modern economy comes to the forefront in such stunts—not just of Trump, but of the individuals competing for these cash prizes. Second, the exploitative nature of the modern economy and just how far that gap has widened over the past few years becomes abundantly clear in such moments. The soul of neoliberalism might be found in the neo-pentacostal or modern evangelical movements of the 20th/21st century as Bethany Moreton has suggested,[4] but the heart can often be found in more secular, supposedly liberal-leaning individualism of the internet ethos. Many people today conceptualize a fulfilling bourgeois life as becoming a member of the “creative classes,” which means higher risk careers in the arts or creative sectors of the economy.[5] Higher risk meaning less certainty about a paycheck and health insurance, for example, and little chance of creating an effective nest egg.[6] In our modern eagerness to be a part of this exciting new economy, we ignore the very real danger involved in the “freelance lifestyle,” which more members of the middle class are being forced into as a means of making a living. The hollowing out of the middle class is proceeding apace.

The roots of the new creative classes are found in multiple places, most notably in the tech sector. In his book on the connections between the modern “net-utopians” and the 60s communialist movements, Fred Turner argued that rather than an amorphous whole that categorically rejected the Cold War order, the young of the 60s experimented with a variety of ideas about the modern world. Sometimes they embraced an understanding of the world that did not contradict the Cold War so much as reinforce it. One world view that emerged was a back-to-the-land communalism. Some well-heeled young people dropped out, moved to the countryside (or sometimes into major cities) to live in a world apart—a white, elite, patriarchal world, it turned out. It was individuals like Stewart Brand who helped knit this communalist world together. His Whole Earth Catalog, which eventually morphed into more of a network, helped to shape the way the internet functioned in the 1990s—an archipelago of countercultural communities ultimately aimed at liberating the individual in order to reach his or her highest potential. A flurry of new companies, looking to profit from the power of this archipelago, turned to similar models to organize their offices, a process which members of this Whole Earth Network facilitated and endorsed. As such, Turner argues, the logic of this movement proved more libertarian than leftist, though they need not be mututally exclusive.[7]

This sort of libertarian impulse cleaves closer to Ayn Rand’s self-centered individualism than it does to Emma Goldman’s anarchist rejection of the the nation-state. Goldman criticized the nation-state precisely due to the influence exerted by corporate interests on the nation-state—in her day this meant steel, oil, and finance capital as represented by Carnegie, Rockerfeller, and JP Morgan. Rand simply assumed the opposite—the real bad guy was solely state power, perverting entrepreneurship for the state. Rand spoke in terms of individual liberty, but it is the individual who already has the money and power who most benefits.

Corporations today sell us the utopian vision created by Brand, John Perry Barlow, and Kevin Kelly in slices of the web and in magazines aimed at promoting their vision of a libertarian society. Today’s digital economy “robber barons” include the former heads of  Microsoft and Apple, the retired Bill Gates and the late and much lionized Steve Jobs. Joining them are Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page and the big kahunas of numerous social media sites that have come to dominate our social landscape, most notably Facebook, founded by Mark Zuckerberg. Turner points out the contradictions still inherent in the digital/information “new economy” — not only is it not yet evenly distributed, as William Gibson argued, but it tends to empower the same sorts of individuals that the “old” economy benefited—upper middle class white men, who dominate the most profitable sectors of the economy. Another sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling recently took those who run start-ups to task on this very issue at this year’s NEXT conference in Berlin.

This is not just about chastising the net-utopians, but rather about the scope of this “new economy” we are all living in, and whether it is all that new. Maybe this economy which depends so heavily on various kinds of contract labor is just a new form of the outsourcing that has plagued numerous sectors of the economy in recent years. While Donald Trump threw money at the underprivileged masses, yet another factory collapse played out in Bangladesh. A week after a the collapse of an eight-story factory in the town of Dhaka, Reshma Begum, who worked as a seamstress, was pulled out of the wreckage—miraculously, amazingly, beautifully—alive! The officer who heard her banging on a pipe said he heard her saying, “Sir, please help me.”[8] Her polite pleas to save her life could have come years before she found herself under a rubble of concrete and callousness. I doubt we’d hear it from here. There are constant reminders of the nature of outsourcing when one goes to the local Target or Wal-Mart. Most goods display “made in somewhere-that-is-not-here” labels. Further, while those of us a bit higher on the economic ladder have choices on where we buy our clothing, spending a bit more for American made clothes, what choices do the working classes have but Wal-Mart or the thrift store? Overseas manufacturing and industry is a fact of life by now. In 1984 nearly 2,000 lives were lost in Bhopal, India in 1984 at the Union Carbide plant.[9] These events bring to mind labor struggles in the late 19th and early 20th century. The infamous Triangle shirt fire comes to mind, but it hardly stands as an isolated example of the deplorable conditions the working classes faced in the early days of the industrialization/proletarianization of the Western European and American work force.

The creative destruction of capitalism at work

Nor are the American working classes faring so well now, in terms of finding a job that pays a living wage. Factory workers in the United States face some similar challenges as those in the global south. Accidents such as the one in Dhaka do happen. Mine collapses seem to be on the rise—the Upper Big Branch collapse is one example.[10] More recently, a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant nearly wiped the town of West Texas off the map.[11] In addition to the dangers of accidents in factory work and mining, the working class and working poor face a number of other economic challenges. The service industry notoriously doesn’t pay nearly as well as industrial work and is harder to unionize (not that unions are a be all, end all of solving the problems faced by working class people). Working class towns, neighborhoods, and cities also face environmental challenges. The environmental problems of the Keystone Pipeline illustrates one such example of the environmental pressures facing inhabitants of “failing” cities, in this case, everyone’s favorite punch line, Detroit.[12]

As the recent death of my father made clear to me, factory work could be the cause of the failing health of many older factory workers. Although my dad was pretty much a life-long smoker, he also worked in two factory settings that could contribute to cancer—a factory that made tire wire for some 30 years, and he worked in a factory that made carpet for almost a decade. My stepmother mentioned what seems to her to be the large number of incidents of cancer among her co-workers, not the least of which was my father’s illness—around 7 that she knew. Whether or not the working environment caused a mini-cancer cluster is beside the point. What can these vulnerable workers do about it? Much like coal miners living up and down Appalachian chain, what choices do they really have, especially when more and more industrial work is filled via temp agencies? Libertarians love to point out that regulation fails to protect anyone from these evils and in fact causes these problems. The truth of the matter is that federal organizations like OSHA and the Department of Labor are woefully underfunded and as such, even when they have the best of intentions to protect workers from exploitation, they rarely have the means to do so. Deregulation led to a lack of oversight, which means constant cutting of corners in the work place.

In addition, another slow motion accident faces the baby boom American working class. The 1950s pension and life-time employment for loyal workers have given way to volatile 401ks and the expectation of worker’s mobility.[13] What labor unions built up, the Great Recession seems to have finally put to death. The working classes are often pitted against each other, as they compete for fewer industrial jobs with decent pay. More often than not, employment in said jobs is funneled through third party employment agencies–permanent employment through these middlemen not guaranteed. Not even the vaunted Affordable Care Act, often maligned on the right as “Obamacare,” provides much protection for those in industrial work. It continues to undermine the working classes by placing the onus on both employers and the individual to take care of health insurance. Often the individual can’t afford their own insurance and employers pass the buck by routing through the aforementioned temp agencies or hiring only part time work. The service sector especially cuts hours in order to cut cost—never mind that those employees now work longer hours,  at other part-time jobs, just to cover the rising cost of living for the basics (rent/mortage, food, clothing, etc). While the case of retail is well known, logistics have recently come under scrutiny for the use of temp labor.[14]

It should be noted that all of this makes the middle class, especially the creative classes, more vulnerable too, even as a thin strata of it benefits. Some members of the new bourgeoisie continue to push for policies that disproportionately benefit them—tax cuts, privatized healthcare, privatized education, among others. The members of the new creative classes find themselves more able to deftly navigate this new economy and the opportunities created by the internet/world wide web, but with diminishing returns for a fewer number of them. While various sectors of the economy, such as manufacturing, grind to a halt, the tech sector booms. Even after the dotcom bubble, a number of start-ups cropped up to carve out a niche between social media and the new security state. A computer science degree is the new business degree, cranking out mediocre programmers to fill these new jobs. These are well-paid, to be sure, but in many ways still deeply exploited positions. Workers in the tech sector are salaried (from the low to mid-six figures). But they often work long hours of overtime with little extra compensation. More of their pay goes to cover inadequate insurance plans. Still, they live in a more privileged space when compared to factory workers who find themselves hopping between temp job and temp job, with even less security.

Serf’s up

Although one could argue that the internet has done some leveling and democratic work in the past few years—just as Marx argued that the original bourgeoisie proved to be the most revolutionary force in history—there is little evidence to suggest this has “trickled down” to the great mass of humanity in the same way some net-utopians promised. Critics such as Jaron Lanier point out the contradictions of netutopianism, even while embracing it.[15] Racism and sexism still rears its ugly head regularly on message boards, where at least some middle class white men screech about their loss of privilege, while still being deeply privileged. Many online magazines and blogs, even those that go out of their way to highlight major issues on racism, sexism, and general inequality are populated by upper-middle class, white men and women, and originate in the coasts, especially in more densely populated urban areas such as New York and L.A. Not only that, but this blogging model of online communications—flexible, creative, snarky, and a bit self-centered—is the template for blogs and websites all up and down the internet pecking order. Social networking only reinforces the self-centered nature of online interactions. On one hand, we have a broader sense of how individuals feel about the state of affairs in the modern world. Expressing your opinion online is not just about you—it’s about who financially benefits from your digital outbursts. Nearly everyone who inhabits these “series of tubes” waits in anticipation of that moment when their clever comment goes viral, generating page hits for themselves and for numerous corporate websites around the net. Our pithy comments, gifs, posts, tweets, and videos generate page clicks for any number of other blogs and aggregate websites that exists to generate wealth from our pithiness. But our views are no longer our own, especially if they generate page hits—it is a capital generating machine, as Tiziana Terranova has argued.[16] Maybe we should even question just how much liberation these corporate/government technologies actually carry.

Which brings us right back around to the creative classes, Trump, and crowdsourcing. Obviously, the exploitation in Trump’s spectacle needs no real elaboration—he was never a subtle man. He has a long history of grandstanding in the public eye in ways meant to enrich his bottom line. But even more well-meaning projects can be seen as employing spectacle to enrich the few over the many. One could argue that Amanda Palmer’s various kickstarter project and her embrace of a “we are the media” ethos does indeed enrich her and those within her circle. Her million dollar kickstarter campaign to fund the production of her most recent album, Theater is Evil, and the subsequent tour with her band the Grand Theft Orchestra, launched a thousand celebrations and even more recriminations.[17] Although she certainly did not pioneer making a direct connection with fans, she brought it new cachet, made it a part of the public conversation about creativity and capitalism. This conversation has long been ongoing in punk circles. But is this in part at the expense of other workers within the music industries? This is not to single Palmer out as somehow especially pernicious in her activities. I’m certainly a fan of her work. But her success reveals some of the ethical dilemmas in this new economy. There are consequences—not all positive—to circumventing the middle man in favor of a direct relationship between fan and musician. Individual musical communities are strengthened, but what about those in the community who make their bones by selling music that is not their own—indie labels and record shops especially? Sure, the exploitative major labels might take a hit, but they are more likely to morph to fit these new conditions, allowing them to reap more of the bottomline once the supply chain is streamlined.[18]

Although Palmer positions herself neatly within a punk rock genealogy, the heart and soul of punk culture was and remains community—not just the band-fan continuum. Punks built up an alternative in the 80s to the mainstream music industries—college radio, indie record shops, alternative distribution chains, and a variety of boutique labels.[19] Even taking into account a variety of political opinions within punk circles—from anarchist, such as with British band Crass, and leftists, such as Joey Keithley and Jello Biafra to more conservative political views, such as the Misfits or the Ramones—it is not a stretch to call punk communal and localized at its core. Independent punk and postpunk labels morphed out of the inability to get punk a fair hearing in the mainstream music industry. More conventionally successful punk bands in the 80s often left behind the term in order to sign with labels with clout. Even though most consider the Ramones, for example, punk as fuck, their film vehicle Rock and Roll High School makes it clear they were a rock band, not punk. The Go-Gos’ early shows were at punk gigs in Los Angeles, including a performance at the infamous St. Patrick’s Day Massacre in 1979 with bands like the Zeroes and Germs.[20] Their pop gems of the early 80s showed barely a hint of this punk background. But punks created wide-reaching networks, and although they often privileged certain people over others without a doubt, the individuals who created the platforms through which punk spread into the 80s (including labels, distribution hubs, record shops, and media such as zines) did so with a community in mind. The local scene remained at the center of discussion on punk, even as it globalized, hence the trans-local nature of punk rock.

Palmer and others embracing new techologies likewise create and network with a community in mind, but these communities are often more truncated, with particular individuals at the core, rather than the scene or community as a whole. Although Palmer consistently promotes the work of friends via the new media, the entire Boston music scene of the late 90s and early 00s does not reside at the center of her network—she herself does. It is the elevating of the individual, at times at the expense of larger networks which I argue undergirds the new economy—we all have to be self-promoters and entrepreneurs to get by now. This does not really undercut the major label system as Palmer claims—after all, numerous more “mainstream” artists employ teams of workers to promote themselves as individuals on the internet, and “connect” with their fan base. If there is a difference between Palmer and say Lady Gaga or Rihanna, it’s that Palmer makes it a point to actually connect with her fans and supporters. Her ninja gigs are the stuff of legend, for example. Nor should we see Palmer as a greedy capitalist exploiting her fanbase for personal gain. Rather she is merely an example of the new economy in full swing—she emerges as an example of neoliberalism, though I’d argue not self-consciously so, more a visible symptom than an architect. It’s not as if she came from the working classes—she graduated from Wesleyan University, after all. Like many others who have benefited from the “new economy,” she was in a favorable position to do so.

What does all this mean for the rest of the economy, and what does it tell us about the shape of the it? As we’ve already seen, now more than ever, workers in many industries are expected to bear a larger portion of their health care, among other things. Even education is being privatized, often at the behest of angry middle class parents. It is not a big secret that many consider our public education system to be failing our kids. In an emotional and angry plea, a young man in a Texas high school by the name of Jeff Bliss went viral when his rant about his teacher’s teaching style. Bliss points out that the only thing his teacher really did was to hand out worksheets in a world history class. Hardly exciting stuff, of course—and heartbreaking for those of us who love and teach history. The internet has heaped accolades on the young man for his bravery in the face of being sent out of class for his disruption, all the while heaping scorn on the teacher and the public school system in general. Likewise, recent public school testing scandals focus on the pernicious role of supposedly well-paid, lay-about teachers, who spend their summers presumably lounging in the Tuscan sun or contentedly hiking up Manchu Picchu, rather than working (a lie, as any teacher will tell you).[21] But how much blame should an individual carry, such as this world history teacher, when an entire system is continually pushed out of whack by claiming the problem is the system and the solution is only to be found in the individual? This ignores how neoliberalism consistently asks for collective support on one end, while enriching only a few on the other. By hoisting the individual into a position of privilege, it helps destroy the communal good.

Notes


[1]    You can see the varying degrees of success of crowdfunding projects. For AFP, see Scott Steinberg, “Amanda Palmer on Crowdfunding and the Rebirth of the Working Musician,” Rolling Stone, August 29, 2012, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/blogs/gear-up/amanda-palmer-on-crowdfunding-and-the-rebirth-of-the-working-musician-20120829. There are plenty of critical articles about Palmer and her approach. For Veronica Mars, see Rebecca Fishbein, “’Veronica Mars’ Kickstarter Closes Today, Smashes Crowdfunding Records,” Laist, April 12, 2013, http://laist.com/2013/04/12/veronica_mars_kickstarter_closes_to.php. For Iron Sky, see “Crowdfunding – The Hard lessons Learned by ‘Iron Sky’,” Popcorn Taxi, April 24, 2012, http://www.popcorntaxi.com.au/2012/04/blog/crowd-funding-the-hard-lessons-learned-by-iron-sky/.
[2]    Leah Beckman, “Groveling for Dollars: A Journey to the Pit of Hell With Donald Trump,” Gawker, May 8, 2013, http://gawker.com/grovelling-for-dollars-a-journey-to-the-pit-of-hell-wi-496239945.
[3]    David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, (Cambrdige, MA: Blackwell, 1990).
[4]    Bethay Moreton, “The Soul of Neoliberalism,” Social Text, Vol. 25, No. 3 92, (Fall 2007), 103-123.
[5]    For arguments on the new middle class, see Timothy B. Dalton, The Sounds of Capitalism:Advertsing, Music, and The Conquest of Culture, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), and the classic Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
[6]    See for example the members of the indie rock band Grizzly Bear discussing their financial insecurity, Nitsuh Abebe, “Grizzly Bear Members Are Indie-Rock Royalty, But What Does that Buy Them in 2012?” Vulture, September  30, 2012, http://www.vulture.com/2012/09/grizzly-bear-shields.html, (accessed May 27, 2013).
[7]    Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, chapters four and six.
[8]    Max Read, “Survivor Pulled from Bangladesh Factory Rubble After 17 Days Trapped,” Gawker, May, 10, 2013, http://gawker.com/survivor-pulled-from-bangladesh-factory-rubble-after-17-499595583. For the collapse itself, see Julfikar Ali Manik and Jim Yardley, “Building Collapse in Bangladesh Leaves Scores Dead,” New York Times, April 24, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/25/world/asia/bangladesh-building-collapse.html?_r=0.
[9]    For the still ongoing consequences of the explosion that killed 2000 people, see Julien Boussiou, “Why the Bhopal Disaster Site, 28 Years Later, is Still A Toxic Killer,” World Crunch, October 8, 2010, http://worldcrunch.com/culture-society/why-the-bhopal-disaster-site-28-years-later-is-still-a-toxic-killer/india-bhopal-dow-contamination-toxic/c3s9764/.
[10]  See Howard Berkes, “Two Years After W. VA.Mine Disaster: Grief, Anger and questions Linger,” The Two Way, April 5, 2012, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2012/04/05/150062936/two-years-after-w-va-mine-disaster-grief-anger-and-questions-linger.
[11]  Chelsea Carter, “Cause of Catastrophic Texas Explosion Remains a Mystery,” CNN, May 17, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/16/us/texas-explosion-probe.
[12]  Max Rivlin-Nader, “Koch Brothers Dump Three-Story Pile of Toxic Byproducts on Detroit,” Gawker, May 18, 2013, http://gawker.com/koch-brothers-dump-three-story-pile-of-toxic-byproduct-508489766.
[13]  “The Retirement Gamble,” Frontline: PBS, http://video.pbs.org/video/2365000843/.
[14]  Dave Jamieson, “The New Blue Collar: Temporary Work, Lasting Poverty and the American Warehouse,” Huffington Post, December 20, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/20/new-blue-collar-temp-warehouses_n_1158490.html and Mac Mclelland, “I was a Warehouse Wage Slave,” Mother Jones, March/April 2012, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/02/mac-mcclelland-free-online-shipping-warehouses-labor?page=1.
[15]  Scott Timberg, “Jaron Lanier: The Internet Destroyed the Middle Class,” Salon, May 12, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/05/12/jaron_lanier_the_internet_destroyed_the_middle_class/ and Jennifer Kahn, “The Visionary: A Digital Pioneer Questions What Technology Has Wrought,” The New Yorker, July 11, 2011, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/07/11/110711fa_fact_kahn.
[16]  Tiziana Terranova, “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy,” Social Text, Vol. 18, No. 2, 63 (Summer 2000), 33-58.
[17]  The album itself can be downloaded for free from her own website, where she encourages fans to pay what they can and to share the album with friends, http://amandapalmer.net/producttypes/featured/.
[18]  For more on the economic implications of Palmer’s model, which makes clear that this is not just about her, but the business that she has built around her work, see Joe Berkowitz, “How Amanda Palmer Broke Records—and Other Music Industry Stuff—on Kickstarter,” Co.Create, http://www.fastcocreate.com/1680968/how-amanda-palmer-broke-records-and-other-music-industry-stuff-on-kickstarter.
[19]  Alan O’Connor, Punk Record labels and the Struggle for Autonomy: The Emergence of DIY, (New York: Lexington Books, 2008).
[20]  For information on this event, see Dewar MacLeod, Kids of the Black Hole: Punk Rock in Postsuburban California, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), 107-109.
[21]  The scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools is but one of the many, but certainly one of the most prominent in recent years. See Kate Brumback, “3 Dozen Indicted in the Atlanta Cheating Scandal,” Yahoo News, March 30, 2013, http://news.yahoo.com/3-dozen-indicted-atlanta-cheating-scandal-214241949.html.

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