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02.03.2020

The Potency of Commoning

The academics Lara García Díaz and Pascal Gielen argue that the precarious condition that afflicts cultural entrepreneurs could be the fertile albeit, although dark seedbed for new forms of “commoning” which are able to overcome the tragic absence of stable economic resources in the cultural field.

 

Precarization on Four Levels
The race for individual security and nervousness about being exposed to existential vulnerability seem to have slowly come to overshadow possibilities of communal solidarity and collective political action. In the creative field, the prevailing self-employed status in which many artists and cultural workers are submerged and the project-based economy upon which the field is sustained hinder the ability of such artists and workers to engage in processes that could ensure worthy and trusting relationships among each other. Closely linked to the emergence of the creative industries, self-employment has, since the 1990s, been tied to entrepreneurship, primarily embodied in the creative field in the figure of the cultural entrepreneur[1] or “culturepreneur.”[2] Innovation, originality, flexibility, and mobility are regarded as characteristic elements of cultural entrepreneurship[3] and are distinctive aspects of a model of labor subjectivity based on risk-taking individualism.[4]
The cultural entrepreneur of today channels risk-taking with doses of personal insecurity, or, as we have detected throughout our research, with a feeling of growing precarization on at least four levels.[5] First, on the economic level, we see a growing competition that makes many freelancers take on commissions below cost value or even for purely symbolic compensation. In addition, people incur more and more debt, which also increases because the dismantling of the welfare state degrades other services, such as free or cheap education and study grants too. This means that recent graduates often start their first commissioned work while still paying off their student loans.[6] Cultural entrepreneurs take big financial risks as well since they usually have no health insurance or, in the rare instances that they do, have primarily cheap plans with limited benefits.
Furthermore, they put off saving for their pensions for as long as possible. In doing so, they effectively take out a mortgage on their future economic stability. Second, on the social level, increasing flexibility and high mobility have taken their toll on the social and private lives of freelancers. As Richard Sennett stated in The Corrosion of Character, freelancers and project workers are often forced to travel and move frequently. This means that they have less time to form deep friendships, invest in family relationships, or participate in networks of support within their nearest community. Professional network relations may increase markedly, while social relations that enforce forms of mutual aid and support may decrease substantially.[7] Competition among cultural entrepreneurs is also not conducive to the establishment of trusting social relationships. Thirdly, on a psychological level, we have detected an increase in stress and cases of burnout and depression. The combination of economic insecurity and social deprivation has led to a growing number of creative entrepreneurs seeking psychological support and engaging in all sorts of therapeutic coaching. Finally, on the political level, cultural entrepreneurs are quite underrepresented. Furthermore, in order to obtain commissions, the art system often makes it impossible for artists to critically address abusive labor conditions or voice their ideological preferences. In this last case, many project workers will often sacrifice their political integrity in order to be able to enter institutional circuits that will ensure their economic survival in the short term.

From Working Class to Cultural Entrepreneurs?
At first glance, the remedies for this existential anxiety and growing precarity seem to lie in solidarity and a move toward collectivization.[8] Like Karl Marx, who advocated for the (international) organization of the proletariat, which required the transformation of a Klasse-an-sich (class-in-the-making) into a Klasse-für-sich (class-for-itself), we may ask ourselves whether the solution for today’s precarious cultural entrepreneurs also lies in forming such collective class-consciousness. However, a number of fundamental differences between the proletariat and the precarious cultural entrepreneurs of today make it unlikely that similar solutions for improving social position would suffice.[9] One of the first divergences between these two groups is precisely the difference in origin and education. Whereas the proletariat of Marx’s day or the working class at the time of Pierre Bourdieu[10] consisted of semi- or unskilled workers whose parents also lived at the lowest social level, the present-day cultural entrepreneurs’ origins are more diverse. This group includes both the skilled lower class and certainly members of the middle or upper class, who have had access to higher education.       

Another fundamental difference is the ways in which these groups may confront their employers: a working-class may do so collectively, united by their shared status as employees, while today’s cultural entrepreneurs are faced with a stalemate that results from their prevailing status as freelancers: they are at once employees and their own employers. This creative employer-employee has no clear oppositional social class at which they may point an accusing finger. After all, the reason for their precarity lies partly in the risks that cultural entrepreneurs take upon themselves. Philosopher Isabell Lorey has addressed such forms of self-oppression as “self-precarization.”[11] Nowadays, cultural entrepreneurs are responsible for self-controlling, self-economizing, and self rationalizing their own labor time.[12] They become responsible for ensuring their survival and they are themselves both the source of their own exploitation and the producers of existential anxiety.
Another important distinction between the proletariat and the cultural entrepreneurs of today that is important to highlight here is the huge influence that feminist theories and practices have had since the late 1970s on the reconsideration of forms of oppression that go beyond the sole category of class. Gender, for example, has today become a crucial category through which to address how systems of power are organized intertwining different axes of oppression. Furthermore, it was in the late 1980s when the term intersectionality or intersectional feminism began to further address how different aspects and categories of identity intersect or overlap. Today, intersectional trans*/feminisms have opened up a spectrum that reveals how cis-heteropatriarchy has imposed, through the modern/ colonial order, socio-cultural constructs onto gender, race, sexuality, body capacity, among other categories that have come to play an important role in thinking about forms of collective protest. In this way, the demands of cultural entrepreneurs today not only need to address issues of class—as was the case for the proletariat of previous decades and centuries—but must also address gender and racial inequality, among others.   

Overall, the differences between the proletariat and cultural entrepreneurs suggest that the political challenges that this current moment presents demand other forms of revolutionary agency and new methods of organization than those apparently used by the proletariat described by Marx. As pointed out before, one possible remedy—specifically, the reconfiguration of collectivity and forms of mutual solidarity—may nonetheless be quite similar. Leaving aside current politics of pure victimization, Lorey suggests that we counteract constituent power through “political practices based on the multiplicity of the precarious.”[13] Very much building on the work of philosopher Judith Butler, Lorey suggests precarity as a “unifying factor” as opposed to a depoliticizing characteristic. In other words, the individual, independent of social group or class, becomes part of the precarious collective and hence acquires political agency through shared vulnerability. The common is produced through the communication among singularities[14] and precarity becomes a unifying commonality that allows agency; a fearsome mode of constituting that facilitates the search for alternatives and the invention of new forms of immunization that directly negate contingency.[15]
It is crucial to emphasize at this point that both Butler and Lorey understand  “composition” as a moment of resistance, a form of coalition in contemporary politics based on “bodies in alliance”[16] against a common economic precarity. Taking this point of departure, we would like to propose precarity as a point of articulation, a negative moment of insubordination, towards the formation of a society based on common principles. Put another way, a common precarious condition becomes a starting point from which to start testing new collective identities and forms of organization, creative platforms of resistance, and more collaborative social forms, which brings us to principles of commoning.
Articulation, Self-organization, and Commoning
In keeping with the revision of Marxian class theory, ideology has had an important role in the process of theorizing class consciousness. By relating ideology to the goals of social groups, Marx observed how the dominant classes could maintain and reinforce their interests through the use of a concrete ideology. Following Marx, Georg Lukács made a distinction between “false consciousness” and “true consciousness.”.[17] On the one hand, false consciousness derived from the upper classes, which presented economic laws as universal. On the other, true consciousness came from the proletariat which was able to perceive itself as a consequence of historic capitalism.                                                                                                                                                                                    
Overcoming the class reductionism that resulted from upper class “false consciousness”, Italian theorist and politician Antonio Gramsci[18] broke and opened Marxist understanding of ideology by including the idea of hegemony and, in particular, the concept of the “organic intellectual.” Within this framework, ideology does not belong to a unique economic class structure. Instead, ideological systems navigate between different social classes through discourses and other cultural elements. Such different ideological elements are organically arranged in a social system in which a class not only holds economic supremacy but also successfully articulates essential elements of its values, morals, and cultural attitudes through the civil society, ultimately achieving social hegemony or power. Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is therefore based on the success of the dominant classes in presenting their definition of reality and in the acceptance of that reality by other social classes and subaltern groups as “common sense.”   

Following Gramsci’s consideration of ideology and taking, as argued above, precarity as a point of articulation, we would like to consider forms of organization and collectivization based on a number of levels. First, the level of articulation develops when questioning and criticizing precisely this hegemonic “common sense,” which refers to the current dominant economic, social, and political system. In that sense, articulation forms when alternatives start to be formulated. Such articulations mainly take place in public and discursive space, where ideas confront each other in dissent. Theaters, museums, festivals, and biennials may nowadays offer important platforms where the articulation of critical practices can operate in one way or another.[19] However, ideas alone may not produce practical results in daily life. Secondly, therefore, cultural entrepreneurs would need to take action and start  experimenting with forms of self-organization, or, in the parlance of Lorey and Butler respectively, start building compositions[20] based on “bodies in alliance.”[21] Self-organization, however, mainly arises out of the proximity of its members, who usually inhabit the same locality and thus share similar concerns. As we have seen in other occasions, such forms of self-organization sometimes tend to address a relatively small and primarily closed community. In order to aim for structural interventions, alternative models must be distributed and especially shared beyond local borders. This is, in the third place, what we propose as the process of commoning. Alternative economies or networks of support and exchange should demonstrate their effectiveness to others if they are to generate structural effects. This necessitates the preferably free or very low-cost sharing of accessible information and knowledge, of materials and logistics, but also of business models and new structures of solidarity based on trust and mutual support—all, of course, without reproducing colonial logics of imposition.
Reflections on The Potency of Commoning
It seems obvious to argue at this point that cultural entrepreneurs are in need of new forms of collective protection. Indeed, that is probably one of the reasons why more and more artists and cultural workers literally “collectivize” their activities, configuring collectives in which they share materials and studio space as well as social contacts, thereby cutting costs. In some cases, this even leads to more complex systems of solidarity in which participants in cooperatives for example set up an alternative health insurance and provide other forms of social security. Interestingly, more and more young and still budding initiatives are exploring the wasteland between market and state, between commercial value and political-cultural value. Overall, what these initiatives have in common is that they set up alternative systems of exchange (e.g. a sharing economy) and structures of solidarity in which, under certain conditions, goods and services are exchanged for free or at least more cheaply than in a free market economy. This also concerns ways of working that require designing and enforcing copyleft[22] and other legal regulations, such as the Creative Commons license.                                                                                                                                                                   
From Wikipedia and Peer-2-Peer foundations on the Internet to off-line organizations such as Culture 2 Commons in Croatia, Recetas Urbanas or Zemos98 in Spain, Fora do Eixo in Brazil, and Ex Asilo in Italy, they all confirm a growing number of creative initiatives that are generating completely different forms of working and organizing. Despite their great diversity rooted in each projects’ specificity, what all these initiatives have in common is that they are built within the civil domain. That is to say, they all start with a civil initiative for which a government has not, or not yet, designed regulation or subsidies and that is not or not yet of commercial interest to the free market.[23] We consider such initiatives as practices or processes of communing, which generate free knowledge by launching debates and sometimes activist discussions in art academies, or which analyze their own social position from an economic, political, ecological, and social perspective during artist-in-residencies or open studios. In addition, they penetrate the market itself by introducing alternative economies (via, for example, cooperatives) and alternative laws or regulations (such as the already mentioned Creative Commons license).[24]            
Commoning organizations do not only share that they develop, simultaneously, activities in the most divergent fields. They also freely mix formal and informal relations, public and private, politics and labor, in how they are structured. Such organizations attempt to solve very practical and daily problems through mutual agreements and a division of tasks. A practical illustration of this may be the following: while one artist “works the market,” another artist within the same organization has time and space to experiment and develop new work since the latter is temporarily exempt from earning money through a system of reciprocity. In any case, we have observed that the collective labor model seems to provide other opportunities than those provided by the dominant freelance model of the creative industries. After all, this latter, post-Fordist labor model only recognizes and thus economically rewards production time, while other things such as education, intimacy, reproduction, or reflection are more and more shifted to the private sphere where they are relegated to each individual’s personal responsibility.

By contrast, a collective and heterogeneous commoning labor model tends to diffuse the boundaries between the spheres of production and reproduction, recognizing their equal importance and addressing hence all four levels of precarization detailed at the beginning of this text.

With a direct reference to the long legacy of feminisms, it also contemplates the important sphere that tends to remain outside of wage exchange and yet ensures the well-being of every member of the collective: reproductive labor.                                                                      
The potential advantages of the heterogeneous and collective organization that we are trying to bring forward, however, do not protect it from certain problems. For example, the typical heterogeneity and hybridity of its social organization can also carry the seed of dysfunctions we are familiar with from traditional mixed (family) businesses, such as nepotism and fraudulent tendencies. Moreover, such organizations are not only threatened from the inside but from the outside as well. Self-organizing makes it easy for (neoliberal) governments to relieve themselves of public duties that were originally theirs. Governments may find it easy to ignore their cultural and educational responsibilities if these tasks are already spontaneously being taken care of by volunteer initiatives. However, less government involvement also means that it becomes more difficult to develop a broader social support based in the civil domain. Organizations of the commons—especially in the field of art—are therefore at risk of becoming relatively closed peer communities of insiders or “connoisseurs.” In addition, commercial parties can then pass on a large part of the labor costs to these commons and only reap the lucrative benefits. Further research will have to be conducted to reveal what the values and traps of these creative collective labor models are. What, for example, are fitting legal and political conditions for the optimal functioning of institutions of the commons?                                                                                                                                 
As long as we don’t have the exact tools to predict the future at the moment, it is hard to be sure whether these diverse commoning labor models will be able to survive in the long run. However, the observed potential of such collectives and organizations for generating more sustainable creative labor makes further research necessary, to say the least. The capacity of these hybrid practices to question and dismantle the oppositional framework of public and private, production and reproduction, individual and community, are worth exploring, especially when the boundaries between those spheres have changed considerably. In that sense, the potency of commoning relies on its ability to experiment and practice with heterogeneous forms of organizing creative labor, but first and foremost, on its will to envision more sustainable forms of living together.
Lara García Díaz is a cultural activist and Ph.D researcher at the Antwerp Research Institute for the Arts (Antwerp University) and the Culture Commons Quest Office (CCQO). She is one of the members of the feminist collective Larre based in Barcelona. Her research focuses on the politics of precarity and cultural practices with commons-based approaches studied through the lens of feminist theories.
Pascal Gielen is a full professor of sociology of art and politics at the Antwerp Research Institute for the Arts (Antwerp University–Belgium), where he leads the Culture Commons Quest Office (CCQO). Gielen is Editor-in-Chief of the international book series Antennae: Arts in Society. His research focuses on creative labor, the institutional context of the arts and cultural politics.

Notes

  1. In this particular text, we will be consistently using the term “cultural entrepreneur” to refer to a type of freelance worker operating within the fields of art and culture, who has been integrated into a specific form of cultural economy based on self-employment.

  2. Annet Jantien Smit, “The influence of district visual quality on location decisions of creative entrepreneurs,” Journal of American Planning Association, vol. 77, no. 2, 2011, pp. 167–184.

  3. G.T Lumpkin and Gregory G. Dess, “Clarifying the Entrepreneurial Orientation Construct and Linking It to Performance,” Academy of Management: The Academy of Management Review vol. 21, no. 1, January 1996, pp. 135–172.

  4. Josephine Berry, “Agents of Objects of Discontinuous Change? Blairite Britain and the Role of the Culturepreneur,” Kunstlicht [Cultural Policies: Agendas of Impact], vol. 37, no. 1, 2016, pp. 25–36.

  5. Lara García Díaz and Pascal Gielen, “Precarity as an Artistic Laboratory for Counter-Hegemonic Labour Organization,” Precarious Work, Precarious Life: Frame Journal of Literary Studies, vol. 30, no. 2, December 2017. And Lara García Díaz and Pascal Gielen, “Precariat–A Revolutionary Class?,” in Commonism, eds. P. Gielen and N. Dockx (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2018), 169–182.

  6. David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (New York: Melville House, 2011)

  7. Lara García Díaz, “Precarious Recipes: Networks of Subsistence” in García Díaz, Prekari>art, Bilbao: Universidad del País Vasco, 2018, pp. 235–258.

  8. David Neilson, “Class, Precarity, and Anxiety under Neoliberal Global Capitalism: From Denial to Resistance,” Theory & Psychology, vol. 25, no. 2, 2015, pp. 1–18.

  9. Lara García Díaz and Pascal Gielen, “Precarity as an Artistic Laboratory for Counter-Hegemonic Labour Organization,” Precarious Work, Precarious Life: Frame Journal of Literary Studies, vol.30, no. 2, December 2017.

  10. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of Taste, trans. Richard Nice, London and New York: Routledge, 1984.

  11. Isabell Lorey, State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious, New York: Verso, 2015.

  12. Ulrich Bröckling, The Entrepreneurial Self, Los Angeles and London: Sage Publications, 2015.

  13. Isabell Lorey, State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious, London; New York, 2015, pp. 109.

  14. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, New York: Penguin Press, 2004.

  15. See Lorey and Hardt and Negri.

  16. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London; New York: Verso, 2004.

  17. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics; London: The Merlin Press, 1971.

  18. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London and New York: International Publishers Co., 1971.

  19. This argument should be taken with caution depending on the context in which those theaters, museums, festivals, or biennials are operating. We are very much aware that not all countries have the same freedom of expression and how, in some regions, a clear political position can lead to judicial or criminal penalties. However, what we want to highlight here is how platforms such as biennials—as in the cases of the Istanbul Biennial in 2013 or the Sao Paõlo Biennial in 2014—have served, in some occasions, as spaces for political experimentation, articulation, and demonstration even if they are linked to hegemonic sponsoring.

  20. Lorey, State of Insecurity.

  21. Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, pp. 66–98.

  22. Copyleft, as opposed to copyright, is the practice of offering the free circulation of a work in its original and modified form with the provision that derivative forms maintain this offer.

  23. Pascal Gielen and Philipp Dietachmair, The Art of Civil Action, Amsterdam: Valiz, 2017.

  24. Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture: How Big Media uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, New York, 2004.

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