Reset #3: Art, Culture and Heterodox Economics

Recording available here

[Reset: To turn a piece of computer equipment off and then on again when it does not work correctly, to make it start working correctly again.]

For the last thirty years art and culture have sought to align themselves with the prevailing economic orthodoxy.  They presented themselves as an ‘industry’, a contributor to GDP, part of a fast-growing ‘knowledge’ or ‘creative’ economy driven by an entrepreneurial private sector. Government’s task was to facilitate private sector-led growth, outsource public services to the market, and incorporate its efficiencies into its own practices. Public funding for arts and culture was about ‘market-failure’, for those who could not hack it commercially.

Since 2008 this economic orthodoxy has been challenged on several fronts. Rising inequality, stalled growth, job insecurity, wage stagnation, hollowed out public services and the escalating environmental crisis have undermined its claims to be uniquely capable of delivering prosperity. GDP is no longer seen as an adequate measure of prosperity, the ‘free market’ repeatedly failing to deliver on its promises. Economics’ claim to mathematical precision was revealed as hubris. The utility-maximising individual consumer turned out to be less the building block of society and more its systemic disruptor. In the wake of the pandemic, values of care and community, social equity and sustainability, well-being and belonging have come to the fore, the calls now for the economy to serve society not vice-versa.

New heterodox economic ideas are now gaining momentum – how are arts and culture to locate themselves in this new landscape? To begin to answer some of this, we presented three conversations with leading voices in this heterodox approach.

Kelly Dombroski (University of Canterbury, Aotearoa New Zealand) part of the Community Economy Research Network (CERN). Joint editor (with Katherine Gibson) of the Handbook of Diverse Economies. Discussion led by Tully Barnett (Flinders)

Kelly began by speaking to the work of J.K Gibson-Graham, whose 2006 book Postcapitalist Politics has been widely influential. This argued that focusing on a monolithic ‘capitalism’ not only bred a kind of fatalism or ‘all-or-nothing’ approach to social change, but actually misrecognised the range of activities that were not capitalist: gift exchange, barter, unpaid labour, co-operatives and practices of the commons. These were not just found in developing countries but could sit cheek-by-jowl with hyper-connected capitalist economies. Out of this work has come work on diverse economies, seeking to identify and understand this range of non-capitalist practices, as well as the ways they might be nurtured. This has informed the activities of groups such as the Community Economy Network, of which Kelly is a part. Working with this group, Kelly highlights the key concerns of a community economy as being around things like how individuals and groups might survive well, how surplus might be distributed appropriately, what kinds of care commons require. spoke of her work with the group, and how this might have pointers for the arts and cultural sector – picking up themes from the last Reset#2 on co-operatives and basic income. Using a diverse economies approach enables us to understand a much broader set of practices as economic activity and to have a different perspective on how economic activity supports or detracts from individuals’ capacity to survive well.

Steven Hail (University of Adelaide) talked about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and its implications, the rise of heterodox economics, and his work with the Sustainable Prosperity Action Group. (Led by Julian Meyrick, Griffith University)

After talking about how he became increasingly sceptical – as someone who used to train bankers – of mainstream economics, Steven introduced the core ideas of Modern Monetary Theory. MMT relates back to Keynesianism, sharing its goal of “true” full employment, and the need for economically interventionist government. But it goes beyond Keynes in important ways. It takes its original inspiration from heterodox economist Hyman Minsky, and his ‘non-foundational’ approach to state finance. Most vitally, this demonstrates how, for currency-issuing countries like Australia, the national economy is not like a household economy – i.e. debt “bad”, surplus “good”. This fiction has underpinned neo-liberalism’s attempt to cut public spending over five decades, reaching a high-point in the post-2008 austerity measures of the UK, the US and the Eurozone (that were so disastrous and counter-productive). Stephanie Kelton’s The Deficit Myth, a NYT best-seller, has explained why this is so to a wide readership. Important for us is how MMT opens up scope for spending-oriented policy programmes longed dismissed as impossible and irresponsible, with the “stagflation” of the 1970s (mainly caused by the OPEC oil price spike anyway) used as a cautionary tale. The kinds of spending initiatives currently being rolled-out by the Biden presidency, the EU and other countries in the wake of Covid-19, is suggesting to many economists that the era of neoliberalism may finally be drawing to a close. MMT kick-starts debate around true full-employment, job guarantees and (more controversially) Universal Basic Income, with a mainstream audience. This has important consequences for proposing an entirely new kind of arts and cultural policy.

Julie Froud and Karel Williams (University of Manchester) members of the Foundational Economy Collective (led by Justin O’Connor, University of South Australia).

The work of the FEC began around 2013 and has evolved significantly since then. It began with two clear ideas. First, that economic development should focus on the basic infrastructures, services or ‘reliance systems’ that underpin decent, civilised life. Second that these basics or foundations were themselves ‘an economy’ – not just a ‘taxpayer expense’ – and provided good jobs, useful services and collectively provided social benefits that could be as important for quality of life as wage income. Based on the disaggregation of ‘the economy’ into different zones, the FEC began a programme of statistical and policy analysis as to how these foundational services might be supported, extended and, importantly, updated for the 21st century. More recently they speak of a ‘foundational approach’ which involves folding in ecological considerations absent in the great age of municipal and national services. They also emphasis new more democratic and distributed ways of providing these. As such, like Kelly and Steven, Julie and Karol spoke of a new approach to the economy which broke with the GDP-centric orthodoxies of the last 40 years, identified spaces of social life not subject to competitive, transactional capitalism, and looked to forms of political economy that could build on these in an age of climate emergency.

To the question ‘are arts and culture part of the basic or foundational economy’, the answer in general was they are essential to any concept of the civilised life, but they are highly diverse and delivered by public, community, small scale local and large corporate actors. This is what makes them a distinct challenge. One of the FEC collaborators from Milan wrote:

“Beyond the debates around foundational economy vs tradable economy vs everyday economic taxonomies, I think there is a broader ‘foundational approach’. This is about recognising basics in a variety of areas – culture, sociability, sustenance, material comfort, physical health etc. – and make those basics accessible to all. For culture this means thinking about what the ‘cultural basics’ look like in a modern society and think about the organisations, systems and business model required to make those basics as accessible as possible. Here markets, social production and public provision have a role to play.”

This is the challenge for Reset.

This event took place on Thursday 17 June 2021at UniSA  

Published by tully

I am a Senior Lecturer in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University working on two projects: Laboratory Adelaide: The Value of Culture and Digitization and the Immersive Reading Experience

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