This paper argues that Marxist political economy is a useful framework for understanding contemporary conditions of cultural work. Drawing on Karl Marx’s foundational concepts, labour process theory, and a case study of freelance writers, I argue that the debate over autonomy and control in cultural work ignores exploitation in labour-capital relationships, which is a crucial process shaping cultural work. To demonstrate the benefits of this approach, I discuss two methods media firms use to extract surplus value from freelance writers: exploitation of unpaid labour time and exploitation of intellectual property through aggressive copyright regimes. I argue that a Marxist perspective can uncover the dynamics that are transforming cultural industries and workers’ experiences. From this perspective, cultural work is understood as a site of struggle.
Internships have gained critical attention in Canada, thanks largely to the efforts of intern labour activists, who have generated media coverage, lobbied and advised politicians, conducted education and outreach, and advocated for an end to the proliferation of unpaid internships in Canada. This roundtable interview with intern labour activists Ella Henry, Andrew Langille, Joshua Mandryk, and Claire Seaborn was conducted by Nicole Cohen and Greig de Peuter in Toronto on March 1, 2015. Follow up interviewing was conducted over e-mail in May 2015. The interview has been edited and condensed.
The figure of the self-reliant, risk-bearing, non-unionized, self-exploiting, always-on, flexibly employed worker in the creative industries has been positioned as a role model of contemporary capitalism. Although the notion of the model worker is a compelling critical diagnostic of the self-management of precarity in post-Fordist times, I argue that it provides an insufficient perspective on labour and the so-called creative economy to the extent that it occludes the capacity to contest among the workforces it represents. This article thematizes salient features of select collective responses to precarity that are emerging from workers in nonstandard employment in the arts, the media, and cultural industries. Collective responses to precarization in the creative industries are at risk of being overlooked if the research optic on workers’ strategies is focused upon a single sector or a particular profession.
Earlier this month, about twenty people gathered on a hot London evening at The HUB Islington for an event called “Freelancers Unite! What rights are we fighting for?” Taking inspiration from recent efforts in Berlin to ignite a freelancers’ movement, this event was part of the space’s “50 Days of Freelancing” series. Speakers gave a big-picture view of the spread of independent work and zeroed in on the flipside of making a living in a flexible labour economy. Among concerns that participants shared were clients who don’t pay, pressure to do work for free (or almost free), and uncertain access to contracts following maternity leave. One of the things that the “Freelancers Unite!” event demonstrated is that coworking spaces are promising places for gathering members of a workforce whose trademark dispersal can make it tricky to reflect—and act—on livelihood issues collectively.
“Fuck your unpaid internship.” This was one of the more colourful slogans scrawled on a sign at the peak of the Occupy movement. Held up by young people who stand to lose large from financial-crisis fallout, placards like these are refreshingly frank refusals of the mantra that we must be willing to do “more for less” nowadays. A 21st-century update on Bartleby’s famous reply to the duties assigned by his boss – “I’d prefer not to” – the intern invective expresses the frustration bubbling among youth facing mounting student debt and diminishing prospects for employment.
This article sets out to both illuminate the precarious conditions of nonstandard workers in New York’s vaunted creative sectors and identify emerging collective responses to precarity in this city. Three areas of labour activity are focused upon: fashion industry frictions, art world agitations, and independent worker initiatives. Under each of these headings, the article profiles two organizations that are variously exposing, resisting, and mitigating precarity among flexible labour forces in the arts, the media, cultural industries, and beyond. Challenging the assumption that getting by in informal cultural labour markets obliges individual coping strategies, this article reveals scenes from a metropolitan laboratory of precarious labour politics. These initiatives are inklings of a recomposition of labour politics in which flexible workforces in creative industries are important participants.
Working as a model has always seemed to promise a lifestyle of fame, fortune, and luxury. Remember supermodel Linda Evangelista’s famous quip, “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day”? The Model Alliance aims to disrupt these superficial assumptions and expose the decidedly less glamorous aspects of modelling, which are deeply tied to issues of workers’ rights. The Model Alliance is a non-profit labour organization founded by model Sara Ziff, who after co-directing the 2010 documentary Picture Me, decided it was time to do something about the labour challenges models face. […] In December 2011, Ziff was interviewed by Greig de Peuter. They spoke about working conditions, organizing strategies, and the challenge of making concrete change in an industry built on images.
If you’re among those who regularly shell out the equivalent of office rent at coffee shops to get a bit of work done, it’s easy to imagine a typical scene at The Common, a café in Toronto’s west end. Located in MP Andrew Cash’s Davenport riding, The Common was an apt venue for the NDP politico’s launch of his Urban Worker Strategy campaign in May. Working in a flexible labour market brings challenges bigger than snagging a spot to plug in your laptop, which is why Cash is presenting a more comprehensive response. Cash’s approach – working through the state to secure a better deal for precarious workers – is at odds with neoliberalism’s preferred qualities: high self-reliance and low expectations from employers and the state. The Urban Worker campaign zooms in on policy, a mostly invisible yet materially significant social frame that enables or constrains our livelihoods.
Crunching numbers during a marathon board meeting lacks the drama of an artist reclaiming his sculpture from New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But Takis’s heist, which in 1969 inaugurated the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), is not entirely disconnected from the budgeting policies developed by the activist group Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.). The group’s project – to certify non-profit art institutions that pay artist fees – is informed by lessons from the AWC archives, some of which, incidentally, are today housed at MoMA. The short-lived AWC and its disparate supporters voiced a multitude of demands, ranging from better representation of artists of colour to making museum admission free and extending artists’ control over the exhibition of their work. W.A.G.E.’s gambit focuses on one specific goal: getting artists paid.
In May of 2012, cultural workers in Milan occupied an abandoned 31-storey skyscraper in the northern part of the city. Named MACAO, the new space was intended to give workers in Milan’s creative industries a space in which to pursue their labour without being subject to the finnancial austerity and precarious working and existential conditions gripping the city’s cultural sector. Cultural Workers Organize interviewed one of the workers in the organizing group, Emanuele Braga, shortly after the occupation to find out more about this audacious collective gesture.