Category Archives: precarious labour

Arts cuts, communities and more cuts.

In these dismal times, where cuts are everywhere, we are in serious danger of losing a lot of our access to independent and public arts and culture. In Sheffield, with £50 million in cuts announced yesterday, (on top of £140m over the last 2 years), galleries, award-winning theatres and libraries are all to have their funding cut alongside children’s services, services for vulnerable adults and 600 jobs. Independent organisations, like S1 Artspace, are already seriously under threat due to national arts funding cuts.

For individuals involved, this can be devastating: careers stopped short and ideas wasted, people who want to learn and be inspired given no chance. It also makes it harder for us (all of us) to share a rich, interesting, thoughtful society and culture. We are offered commercialisation and safe choices instead of experimenting and challenging – except for perhaps a narrowing elite, just talking to themselves.

Perhaps it’s hard to care about gallery closures when people are being sacked, made homeless, starved, care provision withdrawn, the NHS sold off? Things that make life bearable are recast as wasteful indulgences. Libraries for luvvies. But this is clearly just another opportunity for them to play divide and rule. Because it’s not about a choice between cutting disabled people’s benefits until they commit suicide or making culture the preserve of a privileged few. This government wants BOTH.

In this climate, how can arts organisations make arguments for their survival? I really care about the arts. They help me to think, reflect, learn provide spaces for making connections with people, things I think are important. But I know they are pretty, well, bourgeois. But…maybe they shouldn’t be. Not exclusively. Like so many things, instead of fighting to protect a status quo, there are opportunities here to think about what we want to fight for. They can also be a source of joy, something else that’s important. And it’d probably worth noting that visitor numbers to museums and galleries is at an all-time high. They should be reclaimed. Working class people want, deserve, and, I think, need bread and roses.

There are some really great ‘community arts’ projects, who produce some really good and interesting work (oh, if we could get away from using community as a euphemism for minorities and actually talk about people coming together, genuine collaboration and collectivity). People who are doing innovative things with technology and digital, who have learned through a culture of openness. But it’s always a separate category, something that’s over there. Like ‘women’s issues’ or ‘African American literature’. Why isn’t ‘community art’ just…’Art’? And why is some of the best art in Sheffield the uncommissioned, unofficial stuff of urban artists like Kid AcnePhlegm and loads of others that reclaims the derelict spaces of the city?




“The arts need to be more political”, I recently heard a prominent member of Liverpool’s arts establishment hold forth, over a pint, (before proceeding to slag off everyone he knew in the arts who was actually doing something political). “There need to be more people like me in the arts”. The outrageous narcissism aside, I couldn’t help thinking: aren’t you in a position to do something about that? But that’s not how bosses work. Workers in the arts are in very precarious positions, and that means being exploited. (I’ve written before about the arts and working for free).

I fear that most responses to threats in the arts mean playing the game more than ever – trying to be commercial, relying on sponsorship, philanthropy, and, of course, unpaid labour. My uneasiness about this is mostly about the individualistic nature of this approach. In a way, it’s playing into their hands. Crowdfunding and strongly worded letters to The Guardian are all very well, but what about a more radical response? What about working collectively? If you’re being moved out because you can’t afford the space, what about refusing to go? Occupations. Mass events. Alliances. This has happened in schools, universities, even adventure playgrounds. In response to nursery cuts in Sheffield, workers and parents are campaigning in a really inspiring way – staffing a daily stall outside the Town Hall, planning marches and rallies, spreading the word. Now these do provide vital services. There’s a lot of momentum behind some library campaigns too, like in Newcastle. Can this happen everywhere? Can the arts convince people they do too? Can they harness their creativity and energy to make themselves heard?

So, I had these questions in the back of my mind. And then I went to Germany.

I stayed in Hamburg with friends who live in Hafenstrasse, a large housing association and community. And from there I visited the Gangeviertel, another housing association developed from a squatting community who reclaimed unused property to create affordable spaces to live and work and make art. Here were open, communal spaces – exciting places to be in, even on a quiet winter day. They hold events and fiestas to bring people in; provide spaces for alternative conversations and ideas; participate in broader political movements (eg eyecatching interventions in public marches).



This is within the context of a movement for ‘the right to the city’, focused on affordable living space, committed to diverse, mixed communities. They are explicitly anti-gentrification, opposed to the soulless waves of corporate development that overtake inner-city residences (whereas in Britain the presence of artists in an area is often a step towards gentrification – the moving in of hipsters, ultimately to polarised, gated cities). Appropriating the tactics of high-earning tax dodgers, the artists of Gangeviertel threatened to leave the city if their homes and studios were sold off. Because people like coming to visit or live in cities with a thriving cultural scene, this is a threat with impact. These Hamburg artists work with working class communities; they are part of the solution rather than part of the problem. By working collectivity, they are able to harness – and demonstrate – their value to the city.



And this helped me understand some of my unease. A single-issue campaign against arts and culture cuts is, in the current climate, a bit tasteless. So, broaden it out. In the exciting days of the 2010 student movements, arts against cuts did some good stuff and got some attention. In Liverpool, I saw there were some people who situated cultural institutions within a broader context and were willing to start off conversations, at least. They were willing to take collective action on specific issues that would affect them (eg campaigning successfully against licencing for buskers).  There are lots of arguments made for free, accessible culture and education. There are movements against cuts, and for housing. We even have housing projects that promote a social mix. This government’s cuts are a concerted ideological attack, and the more we connect our struggles, the more likely we will be to succeed.


PS. All this said, please donate to S1’s crowdfunding campaign if you can. But please also sign the children’s services petition and come on the march. And be prepared for more to come.

On working for free. My experiences and some thoughts.

Work. We associate it with receiving wages. Of course, nothing’s that simple (never has been), and it’s all becoming unstuck. Now unemployed, I’ve become a sort of ‘reluctant volunteer’ (even now, looking for new projects to get involved with). My experiences, the recent furore around workfare, and conversations about arts funding raise lots and lots of questions for me. I am interested in what they say about the meaning of work and reward. There are two different but entangled strands – working for free as a ‘route’ to something, and working for the love of it as reward in itself.

I’ve been happy volunteering at arts and music festivals – one-off occurrences that create temporary communities rather than endemic systems of unpaid labour. As a volunteer usher at unity theatre, I exchange my time to see plays. I have learned a lot, met good people and had some good times. Yes, I’m concerned about being complicit with ‘the big society’, but working unpaid can also offer opportunities to ‘resist’. (Most activism, is work, but unpaid.) I’ve spent some time at a centre for asylum seekers and refugees, probably through a (selfish) desire to atone for/work against the system I was part of for so long. It didn’t really work out for me and I feel guilty about dropping out. This destructive emotion plays too big a role in society; I know from friends working in public service, higher education but most especially charities that guilt’s overused as a tool for disciplining and getting more out of workers. Volunteering means a lack of clarity around hours, conditions etc, not having the contract or union support(!) of ‘proper’ paid work, and for a cause you want to succeed. As an experience, volunteering varies massively – Threshold was particularly enjoyable for me because of an inclusive relationship (knowing noone was really making any money protected me from feeling exploited). Being unpaid often puts strain on the enthusiasm though, as was made very clear by one of the bands performing. As The Double Negative put it:

 Relying on lashings of goodwill and in-kind support from industry professionals, those in the know will tell you to develop thicker skin. Said goodwill only goes so far, and there inevitably comes a time when people quite rightly want to get paid for their time and expertise. But what is the tipping point for this?

The changed employment terrain has had massive implications for ‘volunteering’ as a route into work. When I was a student, a minority of people did this kind of stuff for their careers. I think I know one person who did an ‘internship’. People who did CV-boosting activities (joining pretend job societies instead of learning interesting things, having fun, or campaigning for a better world) generally seemed to be wankers. For most it was enough just to get by. Students now – I’m astonished by them. They work at their degrees, still do paid jobs and mess around and that, but also volunteer and do all sorts to ‘boost their employability’. For example, a woman I met volunteering at AND not only blogs in several forums, but has set up an online magazine to showcase extra-curricular talents of fellow-students – and they have so many! They’re partly driven by fear, no doubt, as the chances of getting a job are much lower than when I graduated in the heady boom of 2004. A lot of them have anxiety problems; I’m not surprised.

I always said I wouldn’t do internships, unpaid work – these are exploitative, unethical practices, used to maintain and increase privilege. Even if I could afford to, I didn’t want to play along. Childish ideas about ‘desirable’ work went out the window in my teens – written off as ‘too competitive’, thanks to unpaid work experience (as well as low confidence). It became apparent, living in London, with friends on the edges of these professions – that there’s an army of young (often privately educated and wealthy) who want certain jobs and so will do them for no or low pay. Oversupply means if you don’t do free/cheap work in precarious, exploitative conditions, someone else will. I’ve even been turned down for unpaid work (a good candidate but there were just too many volunteers)! Lots has been written about these practices in the arts, charities, media, fashion… With the ‘Big Society’, this government wants to extend this much further. But professionalism means salaries. They also mean working class, non independently wealthy people can participate. A good historical example is the MP salary – integral to c19th radical democratic campaigns. Politics had been just another amateur diversion for the landed gentry (like other unwaged pursuits – philanthropy, art, and so on. Sound familiar?).  This one, funnily enough, probably won’t be rolled back – although if it takes public school, Oxbridge PPE and internships in party HQ or think tanks to get there, that £67k salary doesn’t look so open to all. Also, if pay isn’t your motivation, what is? (vital services carried out by charities, such as adoptions, sex & relationship education – surely no agendas to push there?)

Why pay professionals when you can use ‘the Big Society’?

The past few weeks, we’ve seen big noise about workfare. The government attack critics as ‘snobs’ and/or ‘the hard-left’ (in some hilarious pieces). Aside from the ridiculousness of those people deploying the word ‘snobs’ (see Suzanne Moore’s blistering piece), focussing on this small example risks decontextualising broader arguments. It’s just a tiny part of the picture of exploitation (as argued brilliantly here) and most people criticising this scheme are just as critical of other forms of exploitation. Where people are willing to do some types of work for free (museum) and not others (Poundland), I think there is some element of snobbishness (I include myself, by the way). But there is something alarming about shifting from ‘working for free to rise above one’s peers’ (elitist but sort of optional) to ‘needing to work for free to stay alive’. Politicians talk about making work more attractive than benefits by cutting benefits. They rarely consider the flipside: making work less unattractive. People have multiple needs and motivations for doing things. Most jobs don’t allow people to think, to exercise creative energies, and take up too much time to allow space to do that outside of work. Most jobs, especially in the South, barely (or don’t) cover living/rent costs. The way we demand human people ‘do service’ is often humiliating, made worse by this government’s dehumanising rhetoric. Employers often tread a balance between keeping a workforce just desperate enough to keep trying harder, and offering a few morale-boosting scraps to prevent mutiny. With rising unemployment, these conditions are no longer an inevitability. If, in “the current climate”, we’re all starving, we may as well be starving artists.

What does this do for quality and equality?

There’s a long-running tension between the romanticism of the starving artist vs the ‘freedom’ that money (and a room of one’s own) brings. I don’t think anyone could express that better than Cosmo in Singin’ in the Rain:

Cosmo: Talking pictures, that means I’m out of a job. At last I can start suffering and write that symphony.

Simpson: You’re not out of a job, we’re putting you in as head of the new music department.

Cosmo: Well, thanks, R.F.! At last I can stop suffering and write that symphony.

In the face of funding cuts, ‘the arts’ face questions around work, reward and funding, whether the allocation of public money via bureaucratic, (and diminishing) routes, corporate sponsorship and the associated relations of power and complicity (with companies like BP!) or the commercialisation and privatisation of culture: intellectual property rights and the ethics of charging for (or pirating) a ‘cultural product’. Reliance on the state for funding comes with constraints (e.g. politically), but can relying on broader audience appeal discourage experimenting and challenging work too? (There’s a reason they call it ‘selling out’.) Plus, we want free content, and there are so many people competing who will supply it. It doesn’t guarantee quality, but actually some really good things are achieved that way. Liverpool is strikingly full of people just getting on and doing things they are interested in, without making much money from it (who likely wouldn’t be making money anyway). Perhaps they can be made commercially viable. Perhaps new models will emerge from these disparate practices (crowd-funding, for example). We’ll see.

All this free work, whether enthusiastic cultural production, well-meaning charity work, subsidised labour for big companies, or social reproduction, shows the cracks in the logic of the supposed free market. Ultimately, it takes a staggering unlogic to argue that making people work without pay will somehow change the fact that there are not enough jobs.

In which I found work and lost it again

I have recently experienced a spell of employment, which is now over. I have also run out of money.

I  am not going to blog about the work, mainly because I am not an idiot and the agency made me sign a thing saying I wouldn’t. All I really want to say is that I had thought my standards were quite low, but it turns out my tolerance for tedious routine work is not as high as I had thought (or as it used to be). My mum was delighted I had a job, any job, and, exasperatingly wanted me to be happy to experience ‘the dignity of work’. Conversely, I found it useful, politically, to experience first-hand the indignity of precarious, poorly paid, repetitive process work. The mechanisms of control, close monitoring, scrutiny, divide and rule tactics, the humiliating rituals, the dismal surroundings of the ‘technology park’, the terrible coffee. Not to mention the casual routine sexism (and other forms of hate) of the workplace.

The experience, like many I have had since giving up my job and moving to Liverpool, has forced me to face up to my privilege.  I can’t honestly describe myself as poor. I have some of what might be called social and cultural capital, more than enough material possessions and friends and parents who would not let me starve. I am able to come away feeling confidently ‘I’m too good for this work’ and hope, eventually, I will find something less shit. Some of my colleagues were more upset and worried than me about their return to unemployment, and did not deserve to be kicked out, and I feel outraged, and guilty about this unfairness.

But I have also been forced to realise the limits of my privilege, as I have actually run out of money. It’s not really surprising, but the rational knowledge that it would happen soon has not prepared me for the feeling. I feel guilt, for being so spoiled, but also know that many of the ways of making my life more enjoyable cost money.

So, back to the applications, back (more assertively this time) to the dole office.

In the meantime, I wrote two poems about the experience.

The Sack (For Jack)

End of contract
Don’t come back
There it is in black and white
there it is there’s no use fighting it
Some of the others were hit with grief
I just feel a big relief.


The naughty kids were taken in
and told the bad news one by one,
but when she came for Liam
we all wondered ‘what’s he done?’

When we were chatting about cake,
it was Liam who got told off;
the others were not picked on,
but then, we’re not from Toxteth.

I know that when we’re unemployed
I’ll stay in bed ’til three,
but in his orange swimming kit,
he’ll swim in Wavertree.