Does “being creative” just mean maintaining the status quo?

Whether it’s Theresa May lecturing EU leaders, or bosses lecturing employees, it seems everyone’s being urged to be more creative these days. Meanwhile true creativity is marginalised.

Oli Mould
21 September 2018
grow heathrow.jpg

Image: Grow Heathrow. But this isn't the kind of creativity that our leaders and bosses are urging. Credit: Transition Heathrow.

On Friday, Theresa May gave a hastily put-together and rather terse speech doubling-down on her recent position that it’s the EU to blame for the ‘impasse’ as she described, in the negotiations. Yet only a year ago, her Florence speech made numerous references to conciliation and cooperation, and notably how the EU should be ‘creative’ in its attempts to find a deal with the UK. The Prime Minister didn’t actually give much detail as to what she meant by ‘creative’, but then again, she didn’t have to. We all knew what she meant right? By simply invoking that most caustic of c words, she was drawing on the tacit understanding that by being creative, you are being inventive, hard working, and generally trying to achieve the best results.  

This is because we are constantly told to be creative. In work, at home, by our bosses, teachers and yes, even by our leading politicians – we are urged to think creatively and, it’s implied, untold innovations and riches will follow.

But what does it mean to be creative? Really creative? Moreover, what actually is it that is being created?

When our bosses tell us to be creative in the workplace, what they are really saying to us is to be more productive. Creativity in our working lives involves coming up with a new product that can be sold, a new service to offer, or finding ‘efficiency’ savings in production (which more often than not translates into job losses). Often, being ‘creative’ at work involves being more adaptable, working longer hours or even foregoing a secure contract for an alternative ‘flexible’ working arrangement, or perhaps even seeing your work ‘outsourced’.

When tech companies build ‘creative’ products that supposedly ‘disrupt’ traditional business models, what they are really doing is making us all more addicted to their machines. And the recent backlash against the labour practices of the ‘gig economy’ comes from exploitative models that deliver below minimum wage work and precarious zero-hour contracting. While this may well be championed as providing flexible working arrangements, such benefits are only really enjoyed by those already secure enough to take on such precarious work. Being creative therefore is nothing more than simply working towards increasing the bottom line.

We are bombarded with how-to guides, Ted Talks and self-help books that all claim to show us how to be more ‘creative’ and perhaps emulate the multi-billionaires of this world by coming up with an original idea. For example the US psychologist Adam Grant tells us that these ‘originals’ (giving the example of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs) procrastinate a bit, aren’t always the first ones to implement the idea, and actually have a back catalogue of distinctly average ideas. Yet, by following in their footsteps, perhaps we too can harness our inner creativity to create a world-changing product.

But what is never articulated in these narratives is the context in which these ‘originals’ occur. They are typically white, educated in elite institutions, and/or have received huge grants or parental help. Not to mention that the end goal of all of these creativity evangelists is to produce more stuff, more ‘growth’, economic or otherwise.

And in politics, when leaders like Theresa May tell us to ‘be creative’, what they are really telling us is to do more of the things that governments used to do, for ourselves. Austerity politics in the UK has exposed this form of ‘creativity’ for over a decade now. As central government continues to slash funding for public services (from the police to public libraries), the accompanying rhetoric is to ‘do more with less’, or in other words, be creative with what you already have. But such policies can have hugely detrimental, if not fatal results for those dependent on funding for everyday survival.

After the financial crash of 2008, caused by the lack of proper regulation on so-called ‘casino banking’, the banks were bailed out to the tune of US$3.6 trillion globally. Yet the response to this has been further deregulation of banking services, justified by the rhetoric of creativity and entrepreneurship.

So what is really meant by being creative is maintaining the current status quo of capitalist accumulation under neoliberalism. It stems in part from what the Marxist economist Joseph Schumpeter in the ‘50s called ‘creative destruction’, the idea that for capitalism to create, it must first destroy. These days, being creative as it is currently understood is little more than a pseudonym for more of the same – more precarious labour models, more unravelling of social bonds, more selfishness, more austerity, and more income inequality.

A better vision of creativity

So what does it actually mean to be creative? What about all those people who are creating entire social and economic systems that don’t fit this narrative? There are myriad examples. In Argentina, we’ve seen the recuperadas working co-operative that fired their bosses to create a more equal working environment. Closer to home in Walthamstow, there are artist collectives printing their own money to pay off the crippling debts of local residents. Self-build communities, like Walters Way in Lewisham, are real alternatives to the housing crisis.

And even more creative than that, there are eco-squats that have created entirely self-sufficient societies, such as Grow Heathrow. They produce their own food, energy and entertainment, and recycle everything including their own waste.

Yet all of these movements and organisations are not included in the ‘official’ creativity rhetoric. In fact they are actively marginalised and destroyed. The Argentinian co-operatives are being dismantled by the new right-wing president. Self-build housing estates are under pressure from developers. Grow Heathrow is constantly under the threat of eviction. And the continued criminalisation of squatting makes alternative, radical living models increasingly difficult.

And what of creative people? Are the tech entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley really pushing the boundaries of creativity? What about disabled people who are creating entirely new experiences of the world? People who are deaf, blind, or bipolar, for example, are experiencing the world in radically different and creative ways. Take synaesthesia for example – a condition in which the senses are fused, and people can see music or hear colour. People with synaesthesia include the musicians Pharrell Williams, Tori Amos and the artist Melissa McCraken. They are using their different perceptions of the world to create artistic interpretations of a world the rest of us will never be able to experience.

Yes, these experiences are bought and sold, but they stem from people who have a radical interpretation of the world. Disabled people glimpse parts of the world others do not, they show us new experiences and emotions that otherwise would not exist. Is that not really what it is to be creative? Rather than placing them at the margins of society, cutting their benefits and excluding them from our public spaces with hostile architectures and austerity politics, they should be at the forefront of society, showing the rest of us what experiences there are to be had in this world.

We face multiple omnicidal threats in this tumultuous world – planetary environmental catastrophe, the re-emergence of institutionalised fascism, and technological dystopia. In order to think through these problems, we can’t just think ‘creatively’, we first need to radically rethink what it means to be creative in the first place.

Oli Mould's new book Against Creativity is published by Verso on 25 September, and Oli will be speaking about it at Foyles in London on Thursday 27 September 7pm.

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