Rather than surrender it to private business or dismiss it as a shill of neoliberal exploitation, coworking is better grasped as contested: it assists growing numbers of independent workers in navigating precarious employment. The question is whether coworking spaces can do double-duty, or, help sustain livelihoods and advance economic alternatives. One path to push back against coworking’s capture by corporate capital and to move beyond the pressures of individualisation on coworking members is co-operativism.
Informed by interviews with coworking space operators and members, this article assesses coworking as a response to precarity. We argue that social and political ambivalence is intrinsic to the culture of coworking. First, we situate coworking in a political-economic context, claiming that coworking emerged as a worker-developed response to changing economic conditions but, in its current form, is increasingly commodified and ultimately reinforces labour flexibilization. Second, we survey meanings attached to coworking, highlighting tensions between coworking’s counter-corporate identity and its recapitulation of neoliberal norms. Third, we address subjectivity formation, proposing that coworking spaces are a stage for the performance of network sociality. We conclude by considering coworking’s political potential as a platform for collective action.
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.
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.