9 Fables of the Reconstruction

The existential crisis now facing artists, performers, technicians, educators and many other freelance workers in the cultural industries has been growing all summer. Although lockdown has eased, sanitary and economic conditions still make it impossible for very many of us to do our usual work. The only certainty is that the longer this situation continues, the worse will be its effects on people’s lives. And the saddest thing, let me say before going further, is that these were viable jobs – not always paying well, but enough to enable millions of people to live, use their skills and, by bringing innocent enjoyment to millions of others, to do some good in the world. They were viable, and they are only so fragile now because much of the cultural sector, like most of the economy, was turned by its leaders into a fragmented, commodified market in which those who produced its central product – cultural artefacts and experiences – were deliberately weakened in the cynical knowledge that there were always other suppliers willing to accept still worse terms.

There is much talk now of not going back to the world before, though it is impossible to do so anyway. But fables are being reconstructed as I write. There is no guarantee that that those who promise to ‘Build Back Better’ imagine a world that you or I would consider better. Will it be fairer, kinder or more just? Will it value those who heal, care, teach or create joy better than it did? Will it ask more of those who speculate, downsize and outsource? Nothing inevitable about it. A political struggle is coming over what kind of society, nation, world we want to be, comparable to that which came after 1945. Anyone who cares about how those questions are answered had better be ready for it. 

Last night, Arlene Goldbard and I completed our little project looking at some experiences of 20th century public employment programmes and what we can learn from them about the difficulties that face us now. We hosted an online conversation joined by about 40 people interested in sharing ideas and experience. It was, to my way of thinking, a rich discussion, admirably moderated by Arlene. If you’d like to listen in, there’s a recording here. Now, as we draw this chapter to a close (this will be my last post on the subject, at least for now), I want to note the most important things I take away from it. 

First, it’s worth making a distinction between emergency help and reconstruction. The first is needed now, to stop hundreds of thousands of freelance workers going under. Government help – at least in the UK – has been principally directed to cultural institutions, and especially what the secretary of state calls ‘the crown jewels’. Self-employed people (and I read that they are 70% of the cultural workforce) have had much less help. The  Self-Employment Income Support Scheme is important (it’s helped me) but an estimated two million people do not meet its criteria and have only welfare to fall back on. But saving theatres, museums, concert halls and galleries will be a pyrrhic victory if there are no artists to programme. Emergency support for all freelance cultural workers is needed now, even if it’s offered in exchange for appropriate work: I can’t imagine anyone who’d be eligible for this who isn’t desperate to be working.  The government did that for artists through ENSA and CEMA during WW2: there’s no reason a contemporary version shouldn’t be put in place now. In the long run, it is always less costly to prevent people falling into destitution than to pick up the pieces afterwards. It’s also more humane and just. 

But what about the reconstruction? In my view, that depends on two key conditions, that were met in the programmes that Arlene and I discussed. Any reconstruction programmes must be:

  • Dedicated to the creation of social goods (infrastructure, training and community development), recognising employment itself as a public good. 
  • Universal, accessible to all people who need work.

The creation of such programmes would be a break with 40 years of policy and cannot happen without widespread public support. That support may well come in the aftermath of the pandemic but it will come only to initiatives that are open to all and create clear social value.  Any sector that argues only for its own needs will find little sympathy – and that is as true of the arts as of aviation, tourism, retail or the night-time economy. We are interdependent and we get through this together or none of us do, except those who can retire to tax havens and gated compounds.

Is such a change possible? It was striking that the only politician quoted in last night’s discussion was Richard Nixon, not someone often admired by artists. The historian Rutger Bregman tells how Nixon tried to introduce a universal basic income in 1969 and 1970:

The following August, President Nixon presented a bill providing for a modest basic income, calling it “the most significant piece of social legislation in our nation’s history.” According to Nixon, the baby boomers would do two things deemed impossible by earlier generations. Besides putting a man on the moon (which had happened the month before), their generation would also, finally, eradicate poverty. A White House poll found 90% of all newspapers enthusiastically receptive to the plan.

Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There, Bloomsbury, 2018, p. 40

Three years later, as one of last night’s participants reminded us, Nixon succeeded in introducing CETA, which, though scrapped by Reagan in 1980, enabled many young artists to start their careers and  embedded community art practice in the USA for a generation:

I am signing into law today the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973. I do so with great pleasure, as it is one of the finest pieces of legislation to come to my desk this year. This act makes Federal monies available to State and local governments for their use in providing a wide array of manpower services to their citizens, thereby putting an end to the patchwork system of individual, rigid, categorical manpower programs which began in the early 1960’s. 

President Richard Nixon, Statement on Signing the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973

It is a sign of how things have changed that we must turn to Nixon for examples of how we might respond to the unemployment crisis being created by the pandemic. But if that argument is to be won, it will be because of friends and allies throughout society can build an irresistible pressure for change. 

I’ve never thought art needed saving: I have much much confidence in it, and in human beings, than that. Artists do need help, but not because they’re artists: because they’re people, and a decent society rallies to protect all its members, whatever their class, gender, race religion – or job.