On October 17, Max Haiven, a post-doctoral fellow at Mount Saint Vincent University, led a critical anti-capitalist discussion on the marketing of creativity and the idea of “creative cities” in light of this weekend’s Nocturne events. Increasingly, governments, policy-makers, and corporations, claim that events like Nocturne contribute to the creative economy and attract a “creative class,” leading to improvements in our communities.
The discussion, which took place at the Roberts Street Social Centre, addressed the way that events like Nocturne and the co-option of art in the interest of corporations contribute to community displacement, and is part of a broader process through which capitalism increasingly commodifies social relations. Comments at the discussion looked at how communities, including artists and activists, both contribute and resist displacement and commodification.
Below is an interview I did with Max about some of the themes addressed in his talk. You can also check out some photos of Nocturne here.
KK: Could you give a summary of what you discussed in your talk?
MH: I was trying to do two things. The first was that I tried to give a bit of a history of the role of the idea of the arts and the artist in the history of western capitalism. The second thing was to give a few anti-capitalist concerns about this celebration of creativity, creative cities, and creative mega events like Nocturne.
KK: What are some of the anti-capitalist concerns with large events like Nocturne and the marketing of art in that way?
MH: The one thing I wanted to get away from, in terms of all the concerns, is an opposition we make that is way too easy – that art is always completely opposed to capitalism. On one hand you have business, which is only concerned with making money, and on the other hand you have art, which is only concerned with the expression of the soul or the heart or the mind. This is a really ahistorical and bad way of looking at [art and creativity] because it allows us to uncritically celebrate art and creativity for their own sake without looking at the way that they play or are made to play certain political and economic roles. Specifically, new roles in a time when global capitalism has become much more savvy about how it co-opts and harnesses our creativity and our forms of affinity and our forms of solidarity.
I tried to identify five different levels of concern that went slightly beyond the commodification of art. Art has always been commodified; there has always been a struggle around the commodification of art.
The first is that the new focus on creativity and creative cities is a neoliberal answer to social problems. After several decades of neo-liberal assault on the public sphere, the city, the province, and the country no longer have the capacity to run effective social programs and sponsor communities in the way they once days. Creative cities emerged at this time to act as an alibi for doing actually very little. The city or someone else can throw a little money at a creative project and they assume that there are going to be all sorts of positive social and economic benefits without actually doing very much. There are a number of studies that show how the creative cities thesis is completely false. It doesn’t actually lead to the economic benefits it is supposed to. It certainly doesn’t lead necessarily to the social benefits we think of, which are supposed to be better social cohesion, economic development, the attraction of a creative class to a city, all these things. What it does allow people to do is look like they are trying to do something about these issues, when they are actually spending very little money and when politicians and policy makers are not confronting the underlying problem, which is this neo-liberal assault on the welfare state.
My second criticism was that it contributes to the gentrification of urban spaces. Creativity is being used often against the will of artists, many of whom are extremely poor and working in really terrible conditions, to improve neighbourhoods and to raise property prices, which fall in the interests of property developers and landlords. It also works to break up communities of resistance by making it so that people who have lived in certain neighbourhoods have to move out. Downtown Halifax is a really acute site of these politics going on right now.
The third thing I wanted to point out is that the whole move toward creativity is part of a broader transformation of the global capitalist economy to what critiques call cognitive capitalism. Where the system isn’t just interested in harnessing the physical labour of people to create commodities. It’s interested in harnessing our minds and our souls, our forms of affinity and solidarity to invest itself in social relationships. The easiest place to see it is in the rise of service sector. All of these forms of human interaction that used to be provided by communities or later were provided by the state, are now provided by corporations. Creativity is a big part of this because creativity is that force by which we create those sorts of relationships. This whole new corporatized focus on creativity sponsored by banks is part of this broader shift.
The fourth, is that this comes at a time when the whole capitalist economy is reeling from a massive overproduction of goods and needs to keep on devising more and more ways to sell people things, more and more commodities to sell, and more ways of commodifying social life. Creativity becomes a watchword for the reorganization of the economy towards more and more commodity production, creating new ways to sell people things. The connection between arts and advertising and marketing has been established for a very long time.
The final criticism, is that I think it enshrines a really limited notion of creativity, which is that creativity is a thing that you see once a year at Nocturne or you go to a gallery to see. This comes at a time when our actually ability to be creative in terms of our ability to change our society is more and more constrained because we lack political power, it is sewn up by corporate interests. There’s more alienation and separation of people in a commodified landscape, so as the actual creativity which is about being able to collectively and collaboratively change the world is disappearing, we get the emergence of individualized notions of creativity.
KK: What do you think people should be doing to mobilize to resist the movement to coginitive capitalism and the taking up of creativity by corporate interests?
MH: The problem with cognitive capitalism is that it is already a response to people’s resistance. In the 1960s people were revolting against a better form of capitalism, a Keynesian form of capitalism where there is at least a welfare state, because it didn’t provide enough opportunities for real creativity, real affinity, and real solidarity. It was fundamentally oppressive to people of colour, to women, to queer people. and all these types of resistance emerged that saw people doing really creative things and demanding real creativity in their lives. Capitalism responded by developing new forms of control over creativity and networks towards the commodification of things like queer resistance, the integration of feminism into liberal frameworks and the corporate world. The first part is acknowledging that capitalism isn’t just a megalithic thing, it’s very adaptive, and it adapts to our resistance. We can’t believe that one particular thing will work against it.
It’s important to see that in things like Nocturne, there is a lot of corporatization and commodification, and there is a lot of cooptation of artistic resistance, but there are still good things about it. It is a place where people come together, experience the world new ways, experience their relationships in new ways. Resistance starts with at least acknowledging the good side of it, and picking up those pieces of the good part and trying to show people the way life could always be like this. Life could always be about creativity, about doing interesting things in the street, and being together in ways that is not just sitting at home in front of your TV. We could always be sharing new ideas with each other. It’s important to find way to really politicize these events, but more generally, I believe the best way to resistance creating those alternative anti-capitalist spaces where people can be creative and have forms of solidarity resistant to the capitalist ordering of our lives.
KK: Do you think the Living Theory discussion was a success?
MH: I think there was really good discussion, and I hope there are more of these events. One of the problems on the Left, especially amongst anti-capitalist groups, is that we don’t tend to get together in pluralistic groups and talk about broader, theoretical problems enough. We tend to only talk with our friend or the immediate groups we belong to, if we even talk within those groups about the broader questions, so having a form like this is important. It’s not enough, but getting together and talking about theoretical problems is essential and has been essential to any revolutionary anti-capitalist movement in the past.
This discussion was the first presented in a series entitled “Living Theory.” Look out for announcements about more discussions in the coming months.