copyright 2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 53, summer 2011

Capital limits on creativity:
neoliberalism and its uses of art

by Jyotsna Kapur

There was something perverse about the concept of “Creative Culture Industries/Creative Economy” that has become fully comprehensible in light of the ongoing economic crisis since 2008 and its roots in the shift towards neoliberalism and financialization since the 1970s.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Born in the centers of post-industrial capitalism (U.S., UK, and Australia) at the end of the 20th century, the Creative Culture Industries discourse is now a global phenomenon. Its opening logic was simple. According to one of its leading proponents, Richard Florida (2002), old manufacturing cities from the pre-Reagan era — like his own hometown, Pittsburgh — could revitalize themselves by reinventing themselves as hip, touristy cultural centers that would entice global elites to converge upon and, perhaps, even settle in.

In other words, museums, theme parks, cultural/heritage festivals, convention centers, hotels, casinos, artist studios, and cafes were imagined as engines that would pull local economies out of joblessness and declining access to quality-of-life factors such as, education, health care, and social welfare set in motion over three decades of neoliberal restructuring. The absurd irony is this: While the middle and working class struggle with declining incomes and fuelled their consumption with debt, the “creative economy” experts propose to further multiply the opportunities for private consumption. Legend has it that when the French people rioted for bread in 1789 the queen, Marie-Antoinette, allegedly asked, “Why don’t they eat cake?”[2] Meanwhile, the arts now reduced to an economic function have become answerable to the harsh scrutiny of the market — i.e., they survive only if they can pay for themselves. It is fitting, then, that faced with neoliberal cuts, veritable institutions of high art such as the Château de Versailles should put on the market a scented “let them eat cake” candle.

As Doreen Cajaval reported in the New York Times, struggling with declining endowments and public subsidy, museums in the United States and Europe have begun resorting to licensing, merchandizing, and turning their grounds into hotels.[3] It is an irony that should not be lost. Under the Creative Economy banner, the arts are supposed to revive the economy but instead find themselves struggling to survive. Now the savior needs to be saved!

Underlying this apparent paradox lies the real problem: neoliberalism and its use of arts and culture. Understanding this relation in the broader context of deepening capitalistic relations of exploitation, commodification, and abstraction can help explain the Faustian bargain that 21st century capitalism has imposed on the arts. While the arts get a new pre-eminence in public life, they have been completely subordinated to the market. In other words, they get a new lease on life but lose their soul. By turning the arts into a purely commercial enterprise, neoliberalism has attacked the very core of artistic expression. Art relies on a sense of imagination, resistance, and community that underlies it and exceeds the rules of the market.

By neoliberalism, I mean the transition of state policy, since the Reagan years, to 19th century principles of the free-market; i.e., to the belief that any intervention by the state towards social redistribution creates an unfair tax on the rich. Aided by new technologies (broadly characterized as ICT/Information and Communication Technologies) and business practices (increasing financialization that has made the flow of capital as well as speculation easier, and just-in-time leaner practices of production and distribution) over the last four decades, capitalists have enjoyed a high degree of freedom, moving jobs where labor is cheaper and buoying consumer demand at home through credit, thus sowing the seeds of the current economic crisis.[4]

Explaining the roots of the 2008 crash, David McNally (2009) recounts two simultaneous ongoing processes since the 70s — an increasing rate of profit for those at the top amidst stagnating or falling working and middle class incomes. Middle and working class incomes have declined as jobs were shifted overseas to cheaper sources of labor. This condition is easier as world-over restrictions on global capital have been eased with China, India, and East Asia opening up their economies to global investment. For instance, a data entry job in India can be done at 1/10th of what would have to be paid in the United States for the same work. Furthermore, the neoliberal argument for a weak government justifies both tax cuts for the rich as well as withdrawing redistributive social welfare programs. One of the strongest moves in this direction came in 1996 under Bill Clinton, a Democrat, with his “welfare reform,” which limited state payments to low-income families to five years and also discontinued increase in family welfare with the birth of a child. Such cuts have only exacerbated with the 2008 crisis, leading to drastic cuts in state funding to public education, retirement plans, and healthcare. To compensate for a decline in income, three factors have helped the working and middle class sustain itself since the 1970s. These include working harder and longer (taking on two jobs, all members of the family going to work), using credit and benefiting from Third World labor, whose production filled Walmarts and Toys R Us, etc., and helped subsidize consumption in the United States

Simultaneous with this decline in working and middle-class incomes, McNally indicates, the wealthy demanded more venues in which to invest their increasing profits. What distinguishes neoliberalism from earlier capitalist formations is the preponderance of financialization. A deregulation of finance started, as David Harvey (2010, 16) mentions, in the 1970s, and it became “unstoppable” in the 1990s, producing globally traded instruments of financial speculation. The rich invested in the stock market, betting on rising real estate values, commodities such as art and oil, and financial instruments, such as credit defaults. The low interest rates—particularly, for mortgage and credit—that working and middle class people were offered were a response to this demand for financial investment venues. According to McNally, by understanding how the expansion of financial speculation has been grounded in profits generated by neoliberal restructuring, we can correct a misperception, indeed fetishization, that capital has been generating capital out of itself rather than through class exploitation. In other words, working and middle class debt was an instrument of capital accumulation for the wealthy. More commonly, it has been seen just as a short-term strategy to fuel consumption in order to prevent the deepening of the slump that began in 1997, was reactivated in 2001, and reappeared in 2008.

The Creative Economy thesis was offered as a solution to the growing inequality which became apparent in the worn down blue-collar neighborhoods and towns, boarded-up businesses, foreclosed homes, and the erosion of a middle class lifestyle that the U.S. working class had been sold to as the American Dream. Commenting on the growing class inequality in the United States, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported that class mobility in the United States, i.e., the possibility that a child would move upwards from his/her parents’ class, is lower than in Canada and Europe but not as low as in Brazil.[5] With average student loans of $30,000 upon graduation, in a state school such as mine, one routinely hears working and middle class college-going young people admit that they do not expect to match their parents’ standard of living—the first generation in living memory in the United States to face a future of declining expectations.

Yet from the 70s onwards, the dominant ideology has been one of freedom, albeit one based on the freedom of market choices. Culture and the aestheticization of life has been a core commodity of this speculative, debt-driven economy geared towards private consumption. As David Harvey and others have explained, there has been an exponential increase, during this period, in marketing and advertising and the quantity and quality of goods, ranging from household gadgets to personal products. (1990) Not just products but consumers are being “invented” in increasingly smaller niche groups — such as tweens or empty nesters — or through the hydra-like growth of whole service industry categories — such as the personal fitness industry. This is the material basis of what cultural critics, like Guy Debord, have called the society of spectacle. (1983) Not only are the market-shelves filled with novelties that rapidly go out of fashion, but consumer culture encourage a subjectivity perpetually engaged in self-improvement and presentation, in designing life itself. From retail chains that call themselves “tastemakers” and “curators of people’s lifestyles, if not their lives” to fashion styles that entice us to, “Paint the town in pastel,” “Find the art in the everyday,” and “Express the real U,” we are all invited to invent ourselves and turn our life into a work of art, that is, if we have the money to do so.

The 2008 crash and the refusal of the neoliberal state to revise its course is beginning to pull the veneer off the liberatory pretensions of consumer-capitalism. The opportunities of private consumption remain, if not enhanced, in narrowing enclaves. But our social fabric is tearing apart from the palpable escalation in social inequality. In this scenario, when the Creative Culture Industries experts suggest that to revive our economies we need to dress up our towns and cities for the entertainment of the wealthy few, their ideas — to use that American phrase — amount to putting lipstick on a pig. The role of artists within these deepening capitalist relations is to serve as humble servants — set up studios, cafes and late night bars, create art to enliven the walls of corporate offices and banks — for a class that treats its hometown as a tourist destination and life as a series of adventures in shopping. For the wealthy, who can afford to wait out the slump, collecting art will remain a matter of speculative investment, and such opportunism, if it works, will be validated as a forward-looking, smart, and go-getting entrepreurialism. In this vein, at a 2011 auction, Andy Warhol’s self-portraits were expected to fetch around $40 million.[6]

A trickle-down theory underlies the Creative Economy thesis, and it implies the majority’s abject dependence on the charity of the wealthy. The theory is this: the wealthy will put their money toward creating jobs or increasing production for others. It has simply not proven to be true. First of all, capitalism cannot sustain full emplyment because the unemployed are necessary to drive down everyone’s wages. Ultimately, profits depend upon the ability of capital to lower wages. Second, the wealthy prefer to invest in ways that will raise the value of their investments, as in art such as Warhol’s self-portraits, rather than in increasing production, say, of education material for inner-city schools, whose profits are not capitalized. The whole point of capitalism is to suck up the wealth not to push it down. Unless the rich face an external pressure towards social redistribution of wealth, such as put by the state and popular movements, it makes more sense for them to make speculative investments in art rather than build social infrastructure or treat art as a public good rather than a privately commodity.

The results of the Creative Culture Industry policy have already started to come in. Kate Oakley, among others, has shown that in the case of Britain these policies have exacerbated rather than eliminated inequality. They have led to gentrification and pockets of wealth in the midst of disintegrating social infrastructure. At the same time, work in the creative industries has become increasingly precarious — that is, temporary, project-based, and competitive, putting artists and media people in a constant in search of work (2006). As Richard Shearmur has indicated, calling upon local governments to modify their policies, planning, and budgets in order to respond to the preferences of the creative class boils down to reinforcing and subsidizing elites to a kind of ‘talent welfare’ that is reminiscent of ‘corporate welfare’ (2006-7, 37). In the process, art’s entire social role is undergoing a profound transformation. From being considered an imaginative and critical outsider or a participant in social transformation, the artist is now presented as the model worker of the new economy.

Closer to where I live, in Paducah, Kentucky, a similar plan was launched in 2000. Called the Artists Relocation Plan, it invited artists to relocate to Paducah, giving them moving allowances as well as easy financing and low cost housing to revamp old, deserted homes in the lower-riverfront area. Right from the outset, the city planners seemed aware that local elites would not be able to generate the art buying necessary to support the artists. Consequently, the program sought artists who already had an established track record in online sales and could, therefore, continue to rely on that market. Explaining who would qualify for the program, their website stated:

“Qualifying emphasizes sustainability. PRA seeks artists that have achieved some notoriety in the art world. Qualified candidates are identified as persons in the field of art using a successful art business model. The artist must be able to demonstrate that their business produces sufficient sales and clients to support the artist while living/working in Paducah, KY. Special consideration will be granted to galleries and businesses that are ‘open to the public’ and maintain a minimum number of ‘open’ hours. Considerations may be given to artists that commit to making substantial contributions to the community through workshops or other highly desirable projects.”

In other words, local artists who had failed to find a market outside of Paducah and politically engaged artists whose subject matter or style was too radical and who may not readily sell their work need not apply.

Neoliberal urbanization, David Harvey tells us, is strongly interconnected with consumerism, a boutique style life, which has turned the quality of life into a commodity up for purchase for those who can afford it (2010, 175). Paducah has what is called “legacy money,” old wealth, but it too appears to have taken a hit in the current crisis. Today, Paducah’s lower-town area has coffee shops, art galleries, and studios but they wear a deserted look. Already some artist homes have been foreclosed, galleries open only one Saturday a month, and the area wears an air of desperation akin to tourist bazaars in the Third World, where a sale makes the difference between making that month’s rent, groceries, or any other basic necessity. The desperation rings in the efforts of artists to extend conversations so as to keep visitors in the gallery and entice them to buy. Visually, several places boarded up or for sale clash with the gentility and nostalgia of old wealth, insides of designer homes, and some truly whimsical art work. Visiting the area feels like going into a surreal, Alice-in-Wonderland enchanted world where you can walk through the looking glass to step from prettified appearances into a starkly impoverished life.

Despite its name, the Artists Relocation program is concerned not so much with developing the arts but boosting real estate values. This is evident in the pride with which remodeling is celebrated and ubiquitous information offered about home financing and construction services. One of the homes on the tour displayed “before” and “after” pictures of the reconstruction (pasted on the staircase) and another preserved a wall kept in its original condition. The artists’ homes themselves are hardly luxurious and some artists offer part of their homes as bed-and-breakfast places. A few miles away a local Walmart prospers. Its cheaper prices, made possible by Third World labor, helps subsidize the middle and working class people here just as in other parts of the United States

In fact, shifting labor to the Third World has been a key ideological justification for as well as a feature of neoliberalism. Neoliberal advocates, such as Thomas Freidman, have claimed that shipping the drudge work elsewhere would free people in the United States to “do what they do best, which is invent the future.” (2005, 389) The U.S. white-collar workforce was offered the idea that a post-capitalist economy had already arrived where the very nature of work was transformed, resembling the “flexible, open, interactive model of the scientist’s lab or the artist’s studio” rather than “the machine model of the factory or the traditional corporate office.” (Florida, 117) Posed against sunny windows and palatial homes, happily integrating work and family with complete autonomy over one’s time and place of work, these images suggest that the conditions of non-alienated labor are already here. All you have to do is reinvent yourself to fit the new economy.

In contrast, in its February 2004 (Issue 12.02), Wired like Time (June 2006) chose to represent the Indian IT worker in familiar Orientalized tropes that brush aside the anxiety and pain generated by outsourcing. The covers appears to gently mock anyone who would be so timid, shall we say unmanly, as to be threatened by such beckoning, seductive calls to give up monotonous work in exchange for the freedom to invent and create. Consequently, there is little sympathy expressed for a wilting U.S. white-collar worker pictured against a flurry of pink slips in the same issue of Wired. Inundated by pink slips, this white-collar professional, Wired seems to suggest, needs to get a grip and straighten up. Otherwise, he would be no different from his Indian male counterpart entangled in yoga poses and tied to the ground, as in this cover of The Economist (June 1st, 2006).

In this “new economy” U.S. workers, like artists, are expected to live as free-lancers who constantly updated their skills and knowledge. Not only do they have to retrain themselves but they are also expected to own their tools, such as laptops, cameras, and home offices. As Ursula Huws (2003) has clarified, simply owning the means of production does not make workers autonomous because they still need to be tied into a network in order to work. Ultimately there is a stick behind the carrot. Thomas Friedman and later Obama himself have warned U.S. children that if they do not work hard enough their jobs will be taken by Indians. “Buckle up! the Indians are coming for your jobs,” has been Obama’s refrain—and it echoes an old racist trope; at the same time it blames U.S. workers, in particular young people, for the new economy’s diminishing opportunities.[7]

As a consequence, a self-internalized sense of failure remains a major barrier to class outrage. This buried outrage is manifested, especially amongst white-collar professionals, in self-destructive behaviors such as suicidal self-blaming or wild conspiracy/paranoid theories, often obsessed with uncovering motivations of fellow workers.[8] It is also reflected in television series, such as The Office or Parks and Recreation, that mock the intrigues, ambitions, eccentricities, and relationship troubles of white collar workers.[9] While the series blank out the overall context of the diminishing role of white collar work, they dwell in great detail on personality quirks and unfulfilled individual lives, both playing out and socializing us to laugh at our own dimunitization. Parks and Recreation deals with a state agency in decline in a fictional town, Pawnee, Indiana. The Pawn(ee) office is in a constant battle with budget cuts; its failing attempts at “building community” is the source of ironic comment. The Office is set in Scranton, Pennsylvania in a paper supplier office with the absurd name of Dunder Mifflin, hurtling along in a losing battle against chain suppliers like Staples and Office Max. The series’ ironic tone comes from treating the office as a ship-of-fools lead by a petty and manipulative but not-bad-at-heart boss. In this scenario, everything, including the town-marker with which the show starts, appears ridiculously inflated.

If (on account of consumer-capitalism and a longstanding individualism) life in the creative economy may be turned into a subject of self-flagellating cynical comedy in U.S. television, its importation to India reveals its antagonisms in much sharper relief. In India in 2004, the Planning Commission set up a Creative Industries Division. This was a decade after the Indian state, under IMF supervision, formally initiated a process of neoliberal restructuring. The strongest advocate of this policy was the Chambers of Indian Industry (CII), the representative body of business interests, which also has its own creative industries section. One of outcomes of this state and business coalition is a Creative Economy discourse, which promotes a specific notion of Brand India (also known as India Inc., India Shining). Such a phrase connotes a major shift in governance. India as a neoliberal state has shifted away from social redistribution to invent itself as an executive body whose role is to market India as a good place “to do business with and in.” [10] To affect this shift, in fact, the Indian government has some of the mantras of the U.S. and European creative economy: youth culture, nomadism, cosmopolitanism, and urban regeneration and growth through tourism and entertainment.

One such plan initiated in September 2003, Vision Mumbai,  advocated turning Bombay into a “World Class” city by 2013. Commissioned by the Maharashtra Government to McKinsey International, the plan is typical of the neoliberal trend towards outsourcing governance to private capital. The favored term for this trend —which is now visible in all sectors, from rural development, education, medicine to the arts — is the euphemism public-private-partnerships (PPP). McKinsey identified one of plan’s main objectives to make Bombay fulfill its “yet to be realized potential of becoming India 's and, eventually, Asia 's consumption and financial centre."(2003, 15) Yet as Darryl D’Monte describes the plan while criticizing it,  it recommends shifting manufacturing away from the city to free Bombay to develop as a center for information technology/service industries and consumption. (2004) The four areas the plan proposed for development are financial services, healthcare, IT and ITES (IT enabled services) and media/entertainment. All require education and technical efficiency thus disqualifying a vast majority of the city’s working class, comprised of immigrants from rural areas, from earning a living in these new jobs.

Given the declining role of the State in building infrastructure and uneven development of the rural areas, the plan has been from its very inception a callous proposal to simply move the homeless half of Bombay’s population out of sight and lift Bombay out of India into the rarified atmosphere of a “world city.” This strategy became visible in Jan-Feb 2005 when a massive demolition scheme was carried out, displacing 300,000 people.[11] Unusually heavy rains followed and further exacerbated the miseries of those living on the streets. It became clear that plans for a world city had more to do with expanding roads for private cars and beautifying south Bombay’s business and residential areas rather than serving the people of the city as a whole.

In 2007 another phase of re-development was initiated, this time in Dharavi under another PPP — this one between the Maharashtra government and Mukesh Mehta, an architect returning from the United States. Renovating what’s considered the largest slum in the world, in the heart of Bombay, the project involved billions of dollars for investors. Mehta’s plan included a provision for re-settling the original inhabitants: highrise buildings would be built and each family would get a 225 square feet apartment for free. The catch was that for every square foot the builders constructed, they would get an equal amount of land for free. Thus the residents would have to close down the small businesses that sustained them in the area.

Socially, the consequences are serious. Dharavi is not only a residential area but also a workspace where small scale industries, such as recycling, embroidery, leather work, and printing, etc., are carried on from the home. Shutting down businesses in this area means effectively turning the residents into a large servant class for the wealthy in their new residences slated to be built on these premises. Subsequently, the plan was obstructed by organized protests by residents who saw this as a means of eventually driving them out of the area, killing their livelihoods, and pricing them out of the market. In contrast to Pittsburg, the construction of Mumbai as a center for consumption has to proceed with open and overt force and efforts to corporatize public policy met with organized resistance. In Dharavi, Slum for Sale (Lutz Konermann, 2010), one of the residents remarks that Dharavi is a test case for the future, for how people will live on this planet.

In a similar way, in a profound essay on the neoliberal architecture of malls built by the Pinochet regime in Chile after the brutal repression of the socialist practices and desires represented by Allende’s government, Jean Franco (1987, 63) wrote about the culture of death that the mallls embodied:

“…they [the malls] were built, as were the economic policies of all the military regimes, upon cemeteries, and the new citizens of the consumer societies browbeaten by torture and disappearance resembled the living dead rather than the upbeat Coke generation of American advertising.”

Brand India is driven by a similar logic. People are disposable commodities for a brand that must position itself as the global factory/IT/service center as well as a thriving market for global brands.

Another outcome of the new emphasis on creativity as a commodity has been a reorientation of government policy towards the arts. In its nationalist phase, the Indian government had defined its task as the “preservation” of the arts, maintaining a distinct division between high and folk art. The policy towards the high arts, for example, classical dance, music, and literature, followed the auteur tradition recognizing and awarding individual creators. The policy towards the “folk” or “traditional arts,” in contrast, identified entire communities rather than individuals for government recognition and support, placing the development of the arts within a broader framework of development, poverty alleviation, and preservation of tradition. Largely inspired by a Gandhian ethos of national self-reliance, preservation of the Indian arts was solidly entrenched within the logic of the welfare state. The recognition of these arts as Indian heritage accorded the artists a certain dignity. Leatherwork, dances, or embroidery from specific regions of India, for example, were constituted as the folk arts. The following pictures were taken at Surajkund Mela, a typical government-funded folk arts festival that is an annual event held close to Delhi, the nation’s capital. Artists from all over India are supported to come to the festival and show their work as well as sell it. Unlike the boutiques, there are no brands but traditions, and the prices very affordable to the middle class.

Now culture has emerged as a core commodity of Brand India. It is to be marketed globally, open to global competition. Subsidies to artists are being withdrawn. The traditional arts are now increasingly integrated into a culture industry that crosses films, new media, marketing, advertising, music, magazines, and fashion. Here, I am using the term “culture industry” in the Frankfurt School sense, in that the capitalist production of culture produces a network of commodities that reinforces subservience to capitalistic reverence for money, commodity culture and alienation from self and others. For example, Tanishq, a subsidiary of Tata, the large India-based multinational, trans-sectoral, and trans-industrial megacorporation that has stakes in finance, manufacture, construction, and communications launched its new jewelry collection in the big budget commercial Hindi film, Paheli/ The Riddle (Amol Palekar, 2005) and repeated that presentation with another big budget release, Jodha Akbar (Ashutosh Gowarikar, 2008). Both films glamorize the elites’ conspicuous consumption and justify that kind of personal consumption as an exercise in Indian tradition. Jewelry in these films is not part of the mise-en-scene, a prop necessary to the film’s narrative and design. Rather, the film and the narrative are a prop to showcase the real star, that is, Tata’s wares and thus to uncritically present the worship of gold as “our” tradition.

Traditional Indian designs are also incorporated into global fashion trends mediated by fashion designers, boutiques, brands, and multinational chains. The process started in the 80s when designers moved into the handicrafts business, opening up boutiques and transforming ethnic traditions for a global market. It led to the transformation of villages such as Hauz Khas, on the outskirts of Delhi, into touristy venues where air-conditioned boutiques and restaurants were built in the middle of village, turning its people and social life into a living museum, for free. A travel web site describes the village this way:

“Back in the village, wander through the narrow lanes to experience a medley of old and new structures — expensive shops and art galleries in a medieval warren. In the 1980s Hauz Khas was designated an upscale tourist destination, but (fortunately) the process of redevelopment was never completed, so some of the village character persists. After exploring, stop for a meal at one of the village's restaurants, particularly Park Balluchi (in the Deer Park), Naivedyam, or the Village Bistro.”[12]

Other tourists, not so charmed by underdevelopment as this one, complain of potholes, dust and stares from the local inhabitants. The “rustic charm” of Others is good insofar as it is a sight to behold for the tourist and does not interfere with the pleasures of the shopping gaze, the omnipotent fantasy that all one sees may be owned and bought.[13] [14]

In a careful study of the transition of folk arts from the village to the bazaar to the malls and the boutiques, Nestor Canclini described shopping malls as

“…those anonymous and sumptuous storehouses where commercial abstraction reaches the height of ostentation—where the owner is concealed from the salespeople, where each worker is reduced to his/her role—salesperson, supervisor or guard, the closed and aseptic space lit artificially day and night.” (1993, 73)

Here, Barbero observes, the artisan is completely erased so that “one can buy without abandoning the specular narcissism which guides one from article to article.”[15] The irony in contemporary India is that such insularity has to be built and preserved through obvious displays of force. These air-conditioned malls are heavily guarded by armed security and under surveillance not only of cameras but ubiquitous salespersons. Such a phenomenon is a global one, also observable, for example in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Istanbul. The freedom of the market is fragile, maintained by force.

Furthermore, the fashion industry is highly volatile, open to global fluctuation, making the artisan vulnerable to what Albert Hisrschman has called Capital’s “exit option,” its ability to pick up its business and move elsewhere. (1970) Indian fashion is relatively new on the global stage with the first fashion industry show held only eight years ago. It has since found an international market in exhibits such as Lord & Taylor’s Into India, which presented clothes by Tarun Tahiliani, Rina Dhaka, Vivek Narang and Manish Arora. The individual artisan fashion designer, unlike the larger fashion houses, will never accumulate enough capital to wait out a market slump and s/he will fall into the ranks of the unemployed when disconnected from capital. The poverty of the Indian artisan, then, becomes a resource in the global market, culminating ultimately in children’s labor. Thus, in an all too common scenario, a few years ago, young children as eleven were found working in Gap sweatshops embroidering cotton dresses.[16] Furthermore, numerous high-fashion global designers such as Giorgio Armani, Ferre, Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, Christian Lacroix, Emmanuel Ungaro, Jean Paul Gaultier, etc., contract various Indian artisans and designers to hand-embroider their creations, which are ultimately priced at a thousands of dollars each.[17]

Neo-liberalism continues the capitalist logic of making labor invisible. The artisan is deskilled and turned into a property of the capitalist/brand — without the latter the former cannot produce. The signature of the fashion designer brands the work, turning the folk artist into a process worker or executor while the designer emerges as the creative genius. Simon Evans, an advocate of creative industries, justified what is essentially a theft of labor as follows: (2005 )

“Think of Nike, or Coca Cola. What do these companies actually do? They don’t make shoes or drinks, they get other companies to do that. Their whole manufacturing process is outsourced. It’s appropriate for them to do this because the shoe and the drink are incidental to the real sales offer — which is a lifestyle. Companies like Nike and Coca Cola do not manage factories, they manage narratives. And the language that they use is not analytic and impersonal, but intuitive and aesthetic. It is the language of the storyteller, the entertainer, the artist.”

However, as Ursula Huws points out, without the shoe or the drink or other commodifed services, such as entertaining or haircutting, there would be nothing to sell. (2003) You have to have a product, whether an object or a service, to produce consumers.
Ultimately, capitalism has to produce both workers and consumers, although following Marx, the better term would be buyers rather than consumers. Marx was careful to show that producers and consumers were not identical, that producers did not simply morph into individuals who could choose freely in the market. Rather, they were products of their social relationships and their purchasing power depended upon their position in the market.[18] He clarified, for instance, that although workers/producers consumed raw material and machinery in the production process, they could never buy these means of production — rather they could only buy some of the commodities they produced. In the repeated cycles of overproduction that capitalism was prone to, when prices fell due to gluts in the market, the producers were blocked from both producing and consuming. Ultimately, they became, Marx said with bitter irony, part of a “temporary surplus population" because they were surplus workers who had produced a surplus of things.[19]

Yet, capital cannot do without the creativity of labor. In fact, the dynamism of the system depends upon novelty, innovation, and invention as a means to revolutionize production, reduce labor costs, and maximize profits. As the Marxist theorist, Ernest Mandel explained, innovation is necessary to fight the law of diminishing returns. (1978/1987) Certain kinds of intellectual labor then, can lay claims to intellectual capital, to the originality of designs, ideas, or innovations, and thus assert higher market value in negotiating with capital. It is in the interest of capital to limit and confine such claims, to separate intellectual from manual labor to the utmost limit possible, and posit capital as the creative element in production. Capital tends towards producing a homogeneous work force by breaking it down into specialized parts so that exchangeable units, now spread across the globe, can become part of a system or machine. What that means for human creativity is that one’s own labor-power becomes an alien, living outside of the self, to be pressed into service only when bought by capital. In Marx’s words (Capital V I, 482):

“If in the first place, the worker sold his labor power to capital because he lacked the material means of producing a commodity, now his own individual labor-power withholds its services unless it has been sold to capital.”

Such proletarianization on an international scale, which depresses wages worldwide pitting one set of workers in competition against another, is justified by a gendered and racialized discourse as we are seeing in the representations of Indian IT workers. Marx’s critique of capital’s exploitation of labor, both as a source of surplus value and its crippling effects on humanity, is also a theory about the limits imposed by capital on creativity: about why and how capital produces the aesthetic as a separate sphere of life, detaches it from labor and politics, and offers it instead for consumption as a commodity.

Marx’s humanist ethic, Terry Eagleton indicates, might well be called an aesthetic, in that it holds as a fundamental human value our need to be creative for its own sake, with no instrumental or utilitarian value attached to it. (1999) Its goal is, “To put humanity where art is.” (Eagleton, 21). For Marx, this meant not that “each should do the work of Raphael” but that “…anyone in whom there is a potential Raphael should be able to develop without hindrance.”[20] Leon Trotsky expanded on this idea, integrating the aesthetic with the human, imagining humans who would be “immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler,” whose bodies would become more humanized, movements more rhythmic, and voice more musical:

“The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.” (207)

Trotsky’s imagination of creativity as universalized self-realization is eons away from the functional use of art as commodity; the artist as the model precarious worker of neoliberalism; and the subordination of labor to capital.

“The exclusive concentration of artistic talent in particular individuals, and its suppression in the broad mass which is bound up with this, is a consequence of the division of labor (emphasis mine). … In a communist society there are no painters but only people who engage in painting among other activities.”
— Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (417-18)


[1] There is considerable debate over the terms, Cultural Industries and Creative Industries. Toby Miller (2009) and David Hesmondhalgh (2002) argue convincingly for retaining the term Cultural Industries in order to refer to the commercialization of culture in capitalism. The addition of “creative” is, on the one hand, a straightforward conflation with the notion of Creative Economy, such as John Howkins’ The Creative Economy: How People make Money from Ideas (2001). Later on in the essay, I discuss the assumptions underlying the "creative economy" and its relation to the uses of culture in neoliberalism. It is also, with John Hartley (2008), on the other hand, a way to distance from the leftist critique of capitalistic deployment of culture implicit in the Frankfurt School's term, the Culture Industry. UNESCO distinguishes between Creative Industries and Cultural Industries. According to this policy, cultural industries are those whose products can be copyrighted, such as films, music, intellectual property, etc. By creative industries, the policy refers to broader set of activities within which these cultural industries play a major role, for example, advertising or antique/tourist development. In this essay, I choose the term CCI/Creative Cultural Industries Policy because it has become common parlance in India and, I believe, also in East Asia. In India, both the critics and the proponents use the term CCI Policy and it is the suffix, policy, that indicates that there is a programmatic direction in the use of culture by the state. Broadly speaking, the term CCI policy includes both digitally-based intellectual labor (software, info tech) and the traditional arts and crafts, which are then packaged and branded to create a competitive edge for India in the global economy. [return to text]

2. This is a lose translation from the French, Qu'ils mangent de la brioche, i.e., Let them eat brioche. Brioche, unlike plain bread, was enriched bread the wealthy ate, and the queen’s comment indicates her complete incomprehension of the peasants’ impoverished life.

3. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/24/arts/24squeeze.html?_r=4

4. David Harvey is one of the best resources for a clear definition of neoliberalism. See most recently, A Short History of Neoliberalism and The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. You may also see some of the lectures online here:
David Harvey Lecture "A Brief History of Neoliberalism" part1 | Audio.isg.si

5. Cited in Derrick Z. Jackson, “A Steeper Ladder for the Have-nots” The Boston Globe. (May 18, 2005)

6. Art by Cynthia: Andy Warhol Auction

7. Buckle up! the Indians are coming for your jobs

8. Costa Gavras’ The Axe (2005) is a bitterly ironic rendering of this subjectivity. An executive who is downsized goes about murdering his potential competitors in a bid to get the one remaining job.

9. Outsourced is another TV series on office work whose overtones of race and nation call for a deeper analysis.

10. See India Brand Equity Foundation

11. http://dupb.blogspot.com/2005/01/tsunami-like-devastation-hits-mumbai.html

12. http://www.fodors.com/world/asia/india/delhi/review-160193.html

13. http://www.delhiscoop.com/story/2009/7/24/32749/8331

14. http://twitteling.com/2011/02/creative-corner-of-the-narrow-village-streets-hauz-khas/

15. Martin J. Barbero cited in Canclini. 73

16. Jyotsna Kapur. Ghost of Christmas Past Rising from the Gaps of Capital, Monthly Review Zine, December 25th 2007.

17. http://www.theindian.co.nz/testing/default.asp?page=544

18. Poverty of Philosophy, Chapter 1.

19. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts [Chapter XVII] Ricardo’s Theory of Accumulation and a Critique of it. (The Very Nature of Capital Leads to Crises).

20. The German Ideology, Chapter Three: Saint Max.


I am indebted to the editors for their thorough review and guidance; Mike Covell for photos of Paducah, Kentucky, and the Surajkund Fair, Delhi; and to the Union for Democratic Communications Conference 2010 where the ideas here were first presented.

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