February 11, 2010

Precarity and Paternalism


The recent discussion of elitism (a topic also broached by Adam Curtis's film on Charlie Brooker's Newswipe this week) brings me back to the question of what - in the continuing lack of any alternative term - I must still refer to as "paternalism". I think Taylor Parkes got to what is at stake in these discussions in his rather moving Quietus piece about Trunk's Life On Earth release:

    Hard to credit now, but there was once something paternalistic, almost philanthropic about the Beeb, spreading the cultural wealth of the educated classes through housing estates and comprehensive schools. This kind of evangelism rarely sits well with self-conscious champions of the lumpenproletariat, whose right to live in shit, they believe, outweighs their right to not live in shit - for some, being patronised is worse than being brutalised. But then people can be very naïve about the motivations of those who give the people what they want, relentlessly and remorselessly. And while the Corporation was sometimes guilty of gross assumptions and a very real stuffiness, I don't like to think how I might have grown up - stomping around in the middle of nowhere - had it not been for Life On Earth, or Carl Sagan's Cosmos, or James Burke's Connections, or the gentle guidance of the BBC Childrens' department. Years ago, I interviewed the men in charge of "youth programming" at Channel 4, goateed and bereted and utterly insistent that their race to the bottom was a noble crusade; they railed against the BBC's "eat-your-greens" approach, and spoke of gallons of liquid effluent, coursing through the pipes of British culture, in terms of freedom and some strange colour of egalitarianism. Here was the future, banging its drums, and even then it made me blanch. As controller of BBC2 in the late 1960s, David Attenborough had a different vision, rooted in what was, for all his personal privilege, an (enduring) belief in inclusivity. If the so-called Golden Age of Television could boast its fair share of shoddy, overlit crap – and my God, it could – at best it was truly empowering, and its passing has screwed us all to some extent. We can still choose to watch BBC Four, I suppose (assuming it's not another show where ex-NME writers smirk at Mud's trousers), but then this is an age of choices, few of which have much to do with freedom in the long term. No one's going to stumble onto culture any more, not like I did, or my dragged-up mates did. It's worse than a shame.

It's worth reminding ourselves of the peculiar logic that neoliberalism has successfully imposed. Treating people as if they were intelligent is, we have been led to believe, "elitist", whereas treating them as if they are stupid is "democratic". It should go without saying that the assault on cultural elitism has gone alongside the aggressive restoration of a material elite.

Parkes touches here on the right way to think about paternalism - not (just) as something prescriptive, but in terms of the gift and the surprise. The best gifts are those we wouldn't have choosen for ourselves - not because we would have overlooked or rejected them, but because we simply wouldn't have thought of them. Neoliberal "choice" traps you in yourself, allowing you to select amongst minimally different versions of what you have already chosen; paternalism wagers on a different "you", a you that does not yet exist. (All of which resonates with J J Charlesworth's illuminating piece on the management of the ICA in Mute, with its attack on the assumption that "what the audience wants is merely what the institution should do.")

Neoliberalism may have been sustained by a myth of entrepreneurialism, a myth that the folk economics of programmes like The Apprentice and Dragon's Den have played their part in propagating, but the kind of "entrepreneurs" that dominate our culture - whether they be Bill Gates, Simon Cowell or Duncan Bannatyne - have not invented new products or forms, they have just invented new ways of making money. Good for them, no doubt, but hardly something that the rest of us should be grateful for. (The genius of Cowell was to have plugged a very old cultural form into new machineries of interpassivity.) And for all the bluster about entrepreneurialism, it is remarkable how risk-averse late capitalism's culture is - there has never been a culture more homogenous and standardized, more repetitive and fear-driven.

I was struck by the contrast between Parkes' piece and an article by that Caitlin Moran wrote in the wake of the announcement that Jonathan Ross is to leave the BBC. "After [Ross's] £18 million contract," Moran wrote,

    ... endless fretting pieces were written, asking whether the BBC should ever try to compete with ITV1’s salaries.

    The real question, however, is “what would happen to the BBC if it didn’t?” If the only people who work for the BBC are those in it for the sheer love of it — those who would piously turn down double the wages from ITV — the BBC would rapidly become the middle-class liberal pinko panty-waist institution of the Daily Mail’s nightmares, and, I suspect, fold within five years.

Really? ITV's high salaries, when they could afford to pay them, were hardly guarantees of quality; and the idea that Ross is "one of us" because he was "quick, edgy, silly nerd-dandy, into Japanese anime and rackety new guitar bands" presupposes a model of the "alternative" as shopworn and discredited as New Labour. Note that Moran fully accepts the neoliberal logic whereby "talent" is only motivated by money. (The return of the concept of "talent", with all its depunking implications, was perhaps the most telling cultural symptom of the last decade; while the application of the word to bankers was its sickest joke.)

As Moran suggests, the BBC's real rival now, evidently, is not the ailing ITV but the Mail and New International, and if public service broadcasting is to defend itself against what an assault that will only increase in ferocity, it will need rather more than Ross's sexual suggestiveness, warmed over hipness and occasional wit at its disposal. (It's far harder for the Mail to attack the likes of Attenborough than trivamongers such as Ross or Graham Norton; and did Attenborough ever get the equivalent of Ross's 18 million I wonder?) It's not only unjustifiable that public money be spent on exorbitant salaries for presenters and executives: it also plays into the Mail's agenda, which is all about maintaining the negative solidarity which has been crucial to neoliberal hegemony. Call me old fashioned, but I firmly believe that only those who would work for the BBC for the sheer love of it should be in the job. More than that, being motivated by money ought to be a reason for people not getting senior public service appointments. This is not, grotesquely, an argument for low wages - but it is an argument for the more equitable - and creative - redistribution of money in the public sphere. Imagine if Ross's 18 million were instead spent - risked - on what British television most sorely lacks, writers. You could pay scores of writers a good wage for years ... The BBC ought to be in a position to cushion its creative staff from the pressures of producing immediate success - and, contrary to the neoliberal logic which insists that people are best motivated by fear and money, it is that cushioning which facilitates a certain kind of cultural entrepreneurialism.

The non-paternalist elite hobnob at the ICA, via

After all, people will do worthwhile things if they are not paid or if they are paid poorly. The interesting side of Web 2.0 is just this - not the vacuous "debates", but the impulse to share that is a significant part of the motivation for writing blogs, uploading material to YouTube and and updating Wikipedia. If anything is the work of the multitude, it's something like the salvagepunk archive that is YouTube. It's intriguing that capitalism realism co-exists with the emergence of new forms of culture which can be commodified only very incompletely. At one level, commodification is total, and, in Jeremy Rifkin's phrase, all of life is a paid-for experience; yet there are whole areas of culture which are effectively being decommodified (does anyone seriously think that any recorded music will be paid for at all in a decade?) As a cultural worker, this is something I am ambivalent about, to say the least ... I seem to achieve success in things at the very moment that it's not longer possible to make money from them....

When I was in Dublin a week or so ago talking about Capitalist Realism, a member of the audience asked why I was talking about public service workers when my own situation has shown that it's better to leave full-time employment and enter the precariat. This is a reasonable question on the face of it, since I've done pretty well since being made redundant from my FE teaching job. Yet in some respects all that has happened is that I've swapped the NuBureaucratic stress of public service employment for the perpetual anxiety of hyper-precarity, and had my income massively cut in the process. One of the ways in which negative solidarity plays out is by exploiting the opposition between permanent employees and precarious workers. Permanent employees tend to be quietist to keep (what they think of as) their job security, whereas precarious workers, being expendable, have no power at all. A while back, Tobias van Veen gave a very powerful account of his own experiences of precarious labour:

    there is an ironic yet devastating demand being placed on the labourer: while work never ends (as one is never out of touch, and always expected to be available, with no claims to a private life or other demands), you as a worker are nonetheless completely expendable (and thus a member of the precariat: and so one must sacrifice all autonomy from work so as to keep one’s job). ...

    This contemporary condition of on-call ontology or on-demand da-sein produces an emotional economy of stress. To live under such instant-demand duress is stress-inducing indeed. Life becomes a series of panic attacks in the face of never being able to live up to such workplace demands without completely dismantling ‘life’ itself as distinct from ‘work’. The managerial class uses techniques of guilt/loyalty to enforce workers to labour at a moment’s notice, scheduling with less than a few hours or days time, without hope of a raise, without benefits or reward, and all for a minimum wage.

The precarious worker is doubly punished: not only do they have no job security, they also get paid less than the permanent employees for doing the same work. When I switched from being an hourly paid lecturer in Further Education to having a permanent contract, I was doing exactly the same work, but suddenly I was both paid hundreds of pounds more a month and got paid for holidays too. Back in the precariat, my total income since the tax year that began in April - for all the teaching, supervision, writing and editing I've done, when I doubt there's been more than two weeks that I've worked less than fifty hours - is the princely sum of eleven grand, which works out at significantly less than minimum wage. All the work I've done depends upon my not being in full-time work, so, no matter that my hourly rate for some work seems quite high, in effect I'm always working for minimum wage. (Much writing only pays mimimum wage any way.) All this, in conditions where it's impossible to turn down any commission, no matter how short notice it is given to me, where I'm on-demand at practically all times and there are no guarantees that I will keep getting the work. The kind of hustling I'm required to do involves a kind of "creavity", I suppose, but "getting creative" about how I can monetize my activities doesn't seem like the best conceivable use of my time. What the broken, piecemeal time of precarity precludes is engagement in long-form projects. It's very hard for me to devote any time to finishing my next book for Zer0 because I will always privlege any work that pays immediately. But full-time employment also precludes the engagement in long-form projects: Capitalist Realism, for instance, was written after work or at weekends.

I say all this not because I want sympathy - I still think I'm incredibly fortunate to be making any sort of living out of what I do - but more because my situation is symptomatic. And now that the high-rolling, business ontology-driven model of cultural provision is finished, surely there's a better way to fund cultural work?

Posted by mark at February 11, 2010 06:31 PM | TrackBack