Is passionate work a neoliberal delusion?

The rise of the creative economy encourages self-interest over collective action in the arts, but all is not lost.

Angela McRobbie
22 April 2015

Credit: All rights reserved.

In the early 2000s, the ‘New Labour’ government in the UK warmly embraced an ethos of ‘Cool Britannia.’ ‘Creative work’ formed an important component of this ethos, emphasizing the role of the arts in the economy. In more recent times of austerity, the debate over creative work has taken on a key political significance in relation to the kinds of jobs that young people may be capable of ‘self-inventing’ as an alternative to unemployment, or to welfare-to-work jobs in stores like Poundland

One of the most perplexing issues facing social scientists and policy-makers is the sheer enthusiasm on the part of young people for ‘creative’ jobs they know in advance will require long stints of working, often through the night, for relatively low pay. Such enthusiasm is unabated even for those who are well-versed in the politics of precaritie, and this opens up important questions for the future of work.

In particular, does this ethos confirm Michel Foucault’s oft-quoted insight that power works most effectively when it is tied to the promise of pleasure and self-reward, in this case through ‘creative enterprise’ or ‘passionate work’?

One way of responding to the romance of passionate work is to consider how this youthful enthusiasm has been taken up by governments for the project of neoliberalism, through what one might call a distinctive ‘creativity dispositif’—an assortment of instruments, most of which have an emphasis on training or pedagogy. The aim is to develop a specific range of positive dispositions towards a new world of work which relies on self-entrepreneurial skills, offset by the promise of ‘pleasure in work’ in the form of unleashing uniquely personal creative capacities.

This dispositif oversees novel forms of job creation in times of unemployment and under-employment. It orchestrates an expansion of the (lower) middle classes following years of government sponsored growth in the higher education system. In supporting the creative tendencies of this sizable cohort it asks them to act as guinea pigs in testing out this new world of work without the raft of social security entitlements and welfare provisions that were the hallmark of the post-World War II ‘social contract’ in the UK between capital and labour.

By these means, the dispositif is an instrument of labour reform that by-passes the old world of trades unions by making available a pathway from ‘normal’ to ‘abnormal’ work. The inflation of numbers flowing into degree-level courses which come within the creative arts—4,000 fashion graduates per year in the UK alone, for example—is also fuelled  by the ambitions of first-generation college-educated young women to find work which carries the promise of high levels of job-satisfaction.

The term ‘passionate work’ describes a romantic imaginary of working through the night to complete a fashion collection, or to wrap up a film edit, telling  us something specific about what sociologists have called the ‘feminisation of work’—and what I prefer to describe as the ‘gender effect’ of post-Fordism.

How then to develop a feminist politics of passionate work without trampling on the dreams of young women?

Universities and colleges of further education, along with many of the new models of vocational training that are overseen, for example, by the European Commission, devote much attention to the devising of toolkits and instruments for encouraging ‘new business models’ to grow alongside more conventional ways of supporting creative provision. The idea seems to be that the two will dissolve into one another.

The recipients of these forms of training and education are encouraged to develop a distinctively lower middle class mentality. Most of all they must be highly enthusiastic and uncomplaining. They have to perform a more creative version of what Arlie Hochschild called ‘emotional labour’ when writing about the training of airline cabin crew in 1984.

So, for example, the figure of the ‘curator’ is typically immaculately dressed, well-spoken and with a pleasing personal style. To do well, at least in the start-up years, candidates must have the right kind of personality, so there is an ironing out of ‘bad affect’ or surly grumpiness, itself an irony since well-known artists and other creatives have long had a licence to behave badly—one need only think of Tracey Emin’s drunken appearance on BBC TV some years ago.

The point is to develop a professional robustness to keep going and not be thrown off course, like a form of strength training. In this process one could say that the lower middle class is being re-made through creative labour. But the long hours and low take home pay (for many) do not herald a proletarianisation effect, as some writers have claimed. In my mind this argument downplays the scale of social polarisation brought about by the neo-liberal regime.

Genuinely working class jobs these days are much more punitive. They carry little potential for job satisfaction (as Richard Sennett brilliantly showed in his The Corrosion of Character), while also being subjected to the normalisation of irregular work. This is often accomplished through so-called ‘zero hours contracts’—being called into work with short notice according to ‘demand.’ We do not do justice to the jobs that are done by the truly disadvantaged by implying that graduates in performance art have been proletarianised.

Meanwhile, the new middle class enhance the multi-tasking lives they must now lead by bestowing colourful titles on what they actually do like ‘information architect’ or ‘incubator manager’ or ‘visual merchandiser.’ Middle class lives are being scrambled and unsettled, re-arranged and re-calibrated in regard to long-term expectations.

The political question that arises from these processes is whether the partly-enforced move into creative labour brings with it a disavowal of social and collective engagements of the type that have historically been associated with organised labour—and more widely, with social democracy—in favour of sheer self-interest. Or might new forms of organisation emerge which support the idea of welfare and social protection inside precarious creative work? Or might it be the case that creative labour can be put to social use—for example in pioneering radical social enterprises rather than simply going along with the idea of the ‘social business model’?  

The most powerful factor inhibiting re-collectivisation is not just the widespread process of individualisation that so many leading sociologists have discussed, but more specifically the kind of self-interest which underpins what I refer to as ‘the artist as human capital.’ This phrase refers to the way in which the life of the artist has come to exemplify a model of neoliberal freedom.

In his famous lectures on Biopolitics, Foucault shows how throughout the 1930s, the German Ordoliberals wanted to de-proletarianise society and dismantle the welfare state which they saw as akin to Nazism. By contrast, they envisaged the resurgence of craft-type enterprises, which had the additional appeal of providing great enjoyment and spiritual reward—the equivalent of today’s ‘passionate work.’ Foucault deftly links these ideas with the more recent championing of ‘human capital’ by the economist Gary Becker, meaning personal asset-building in a highly competitive environment. In this context, today’s heroic artist (a la Damien Hirst) is someone who ‘lives dangerously.’

However this model is not uncontested. Recent studies of artists’ lives from high end global stars to the more ordinary artists interviewed by Stephanie Taylor and Karen Littleton show that the majority are people who value the idea of social welfare for various reasons, including the fact that so many of them have relied on it in one way or another. These studies show artists to be highly reflexive and critically engaged people, with just a few exceptions such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.

Another glimmer of light can be found in the increasing focus on critical pedagogy. Running alongside and sometimes in conjunction with the toolkits for business studies that have proliferated in the creative field is an intransigently embedded core of critical thought that is often requested by students themselves. Inside the universities and the arts schools there has been a recent flood of demand for courses, workshops, and seminars on Marxist aesthetics, critical fashion studies, and the history of labour organisation. Some of this energy then re-surfaces in imaginative ways, such as in the Scottish artist Luke Fowler’s 2013 film about the great radical social historian, E. P. Thompson.

By reminding young people and ourselves about the radical traditions that saw people want to work through the night on a project in previous times—such as launching a feminist magazine like Spare Rib or the Virago publishing house—we can go some way to re-define the meaning and practice of ‘passionate work’ for the future.     

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