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What do we talk about when we talk about creativity?

Neoliberal logics are increasingly being applied to the ways in which we talk about ‘creativity’. The new dogma of ‘creativity’, far from ushering in an age of horizontalised power structures, masks powerful processes of elite capture and capitalist development.

 “Loft in the Red Zone” 2011 art exhibition “Loft in the Red Zone” 2011 art exhibition, inspired by Occupy Wall Street. Demotix/Shameel Arafin. All rights reserved.

According to a recent essay by Adam Lent for the Royal Society of Arts, the last 250 years or so have been the most “creative” in history, and “all hell is breaking loose”. Lent argues that since the Roman Empire, human history has been interrupted by “brief explosions of inventiveness”, but the average wage earnings from the first century AD stagnated right up until the 18th century. Then the industrial revolution happened and everything changed. We live in “creative times” now, where traditional firm hierarchies and the compartmentalisation of R&D, marketing and the more 'creative' aspects of firm activity is on the wane. Lent argues that the capacity of governments and corporations to "enforce their will is spectacularly diminished when compared with 30 or even 20 years ago". Eulogising the “power to create”, Lent’s essay demands that governments, businesses and civil society embrace the revolutionary power of this new kind of creativity by not trying to regulate it. 

Lent’s writing, while appearing to espouse a more revolutionary tone by arguing that creativity should be 'unleashed' in governments, businesses and society more widely, is sadly all too reminiscent of the kind of policy rhetoric that has actually increased inequalities and social injustices, rather than ushering in a new society of equitability and horizontalised power structures. Such a discourse is part of a wider dogma of 'creativity' that is being spun to mask more tacit, soft and affective, but no less powerful processes of centralisation, elitism and neoliberal capitalistic development.

There are two main reasons for this way of talking about creativity. Firstly, a neoliberal logic is applied without reservation to the full gamut of human development. Creativity, Lent argues, has somehow exploded in the last quarter of a millennia or so (despite also stating that "the ability to create is a fundamental part of what it is to be human"), largely because it is only since the industrial revolution that creativity has begun to be capitalised upon. However, such a view is entirely centred around the fundamental history of capitalism. Lent foregrounds this by arguing that, "in the first century AD, most people could expect an income of around $1.20 a day". Attaching the value of current currency to the previous 2000 years or so of human development is a practice that serves to showcase the pervasiveness of the powers of financialisation. Late neoliberal capitalism thrives on the marketisation of everything (hence we are now seeing the rise of ideas like 'the sharing economy').

In Lent’s vision, it seems we can now monetize the activities of people throughout history. By applying such a logic, and hence seeing no rise in income for 1,750 years, the obvious conclusion is that they must not have innovated because there were very few rises in income. But such a viewpoint fails to consider anything beyond that which can be codified. Moreover the creativity Lent talks about seems to be anchored to digital ability. Just because they could not code in the Medieval period, does not mean that they were not creative. Such thinking applies a logic of contemporary capitalism to a society which operated far beyond such a remit. It argues that creativity, if not 'used' to create something that increases economic productivity, is not creative. This is sadly the narrative which is indicative of modern day evangelists of creativity: we are all creative, but only if you employ this in a contribution to economic growth. 

The second reason manifests itself in Lent’s argument that creativity is subverting the hegemony of the established order. He argues that "establishing a world where millions can apply their ingenuity to solving problems is far more likely to bring about adequate solutions than one where this power is delegated to an exclusive elite", conjuring up images of the lone maverick fighting the established order. However what he fails to acknowledge is that the very creativity he is festishising is the power of the elite. He bemoans Google, YouTube and Facebook for monopolising the “power to create”, yet champions Uber for following the same logic of firm growth. He lambasts attempts to ban Airbnb but argues that there is a need to support those who “lose their jobs”. Such conflicting argumentation serves to highlight the anachronism of his argument and inherent flaws within it. If we are to support creativity that sees the proliferation of start-up apps, then another Google will always be the result. We have Airbnb and Uber now, so of course we are much more creative than the Romans ever were.

Such a narrow, blinkered view of creativity gives no merit or worth to activities that do not go toward maintaining economic elitism, and only serves to enforce a logic of neoliberalism and the centralisation of power. What about community empowerment? What about subculture? What about social activism? What about charity work? The suggestion that we are living in creative times is a red herring, when it merely veils how creativity is a new term for unequal development. The reason Lent 'sees' creativity blossoming in the last 250 years is that since then, power structures have been refined in order to exploit true creativity for capitalist development (and the inequality it creates).

There are many ways in which this narrative can be deconstructed. But perhaps more importantly, we need to guard against the kind of policy that such thinking is inculcating. Creative cities that are hyper-gentrifying, and creative industries that are not diverse, are but some of the by-products of the self-determining worth of 'creatives'. 

Creativity is the power to subvert those institutions that dominate, oppress and create inequality. Creativity is very much fundamental to our human nature, but it has became co-opted by powers looking to hijack it for the development and maintenance of the established order. We are no more creative than we used to be; it is just that now, hell really has broken loose, because people have become so very good at channeling that creativity into creating hegemony, centralised power and injustice. 

About the author

Oli Mould is a lecturer in Human Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. You can read his blog at www.taCity.co.uk and he tweets at @olimould and @urbansubversion.


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