Reclaiming economics for cultural commons

Image: The Room for London on top of the South Bank Centre. Ironic because it is an elite space for invited performers and paying guests, yet also connotes a future time of sea level rises and a flooded city that will affect everyone. 

I like the timely mission of the Cultural Value Network in reclaiming cultural value from the ‘econocrats’. I agree with Ben Walmsley and also with Fiona Hutchison that attempts to give financial proxies to cultural activity can be ridiculous. I’ve been one of the voices calling for time and space for cultural work to take root and have unpredictable and untraceable effects. I can get frustrated when contracted to do evaluations of cultural projects that, to fulfil funding requirements, we must pre-ordain outcomes and measure impacts before the ripples have even spread.

Our debates get stuck in an endless to-and-fro between prioritising either the harder economic or the softer spiritual or relational outcomes. Those of us who share common distaste at hard economic measures can also be caught up in other dichotomous debates between the importance of measuring instrumental social outcomes and a wish to place culture otherwise, outside mechanistic and measurable realms. The claim of otherness evades description, causing difficulties in making the case for culture. We get frustrated because we are chafing at the bind we are in, which is global capitalism. This is both bind in the sense of tie and bind as quandary. The capitalisation of the commons provides us (the lucky ones, temporarily) with incomes and cheap goods. How do we break out of that without collapsing?

To move the debate on, I suggest that our main challenge is reclaiming economics from the capitalist ‘econocrats’. Economics is a way of analysing values of goods so that their accumulation and exchange can be efficient, fair and sustainable. However, the current global system of accumulation and exchange is so inefficient (or utterly wasteful), unfair (or socially unjust) and unsustainable (or ecocidal) it is destroying both the natural commons and cultural commons. (Culture of course is not distinct from nature, but an integrated part of it.) We can blame particular Economic schools for promoting this destruction, but not Economics itself. Economics can be a valid tool in a circular restorative system. Indeed, the discipline of economics and structures for accountability may even be vital in shifting us towards a circular economy.

The key principles of a circular economy are:

  • measure the quality of systems rather than components
  • create industrial systems that mimic ecological systems
  • waste is energy (or food)
  • diversity creates resilience
  • regenerating the biosphere should be the primary reason for any activity.

All of these principles are very fitting with philosophies around the arts and heritage: complexity, flow, reinvention, creativity, diversity and conservation of past knowledge. Cultural organisations and practitioners have much to offer in supporting this. I don’t mean this in the simplistic sense that art can communicate messages, as critiqued here by Jeppe Graugaard writing about Cape Farewell. I mean that cultural organisations can change the way we design our world, can open our eyes to its diversity and soften antagonisms, and a great deal more. You might ask – how can I measure and prove this? You only have to imagine your world without songs, jokes, metaphor, games, stories, tools, designed shelter, gardens, cookery, clothing etc etc to know why they matter, and that these are all as they are now because of the contributions of creative people. It makes sense too that we need cultural infrastructure, whether it is informal community or formal institutions, to give us the most inclusive and excellent access to these things.

I don’t believe the cultural sector should retreat from political realities in wanting to evade financial or instrumental measurement. It should bring the powers of culture to change our lived and political reality. There are risks of course, especially that organisations may risk losing funding if they are seen to be against Government policy. But, it doesn’t have to go that way. The Happy Museum project is an encouraging example. It funds small action research projects into how museums can promote a high wellbeing, low carbon society. At first the stream was funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation but now it has £146,000 support from ACE. Moreover, the long term risks of not shifting our political and industrial model towards a circular economy are very great. Even if we cease emitting CO2 today, the sea will still rise 3 metres. If we don’t stop emitting CO2 within a few years, it is highly unlikely that human civilisation will survive through the next century.

I’m aiming to shift my work from short term evaluations and projects, to supporting cultural organisations to travel into this unstable future while helping stabilise it. As a resource for this, I’m developing a ‘value ecosystem’ model for the cultural sector. (You can see an initial sketch in this post. In short, it aims to describe the value of work that feeds planetary, collective, institutional and individual wellbeing nested one within the other. It also suggests that we flip our meanings of hard and soft, so that ‘hard’ becomes the essential work of sustaining culture and ‘soft’ becomes lazy abstraction from the real world.)

In doing this I’ve wondered about the difference between ‘evaluation’ and ‘valuation’ as both a difference of scale and purpose. Evaluation is gathering evidence to describe the value of any project to participants and stakeholders. Valuation is usually the evidenced quantification of the value of investments or assets in a comparative (aka competitive) marketplace. Put like this, valuation sounds very harsh. However, it could be reframed as the valuation of assets and acts of stewardship within a commons. If the context changes to commons, its meaning changes from a market value to common values. Perhaps because valuation happens when an organisation or service is under question or threat, we are more wary of it. It’s like when a marital home and assets are valued at divorce. Perhaps we try to shield cultural services from this brutal treatment because we feel they are somehow like children who can’t be valued as if to be packaged up, only loved. We know the difference between pricing something and loving it.

Culture (as the creative flowering of the demos) is not loved by the powerful, because it benefits power to weaken the public spirit of resistance which might protect local places, traditions, freedoms or diversity. We hear the powerful say ‘if people value culture, or health, or education, people will pay for them’ so in turn cultural organisations scramble to mobilise public support for what they offer. As part of this we’re seeing a flowering of participation in cultural organisations, inviting public to comment on, co-create and contribute to services. This is to be applauded, but it is important for participation projects to be critically engaged. I’ll end on a little exchange on Twitter from today’s Museum Ideas conference. The new Director of the Museum of London, Sharon Ament, spoke admirably about how museums need to tackle problems like climate change and was enthusiastic about the moves by museums and libraries to be more participatory. She was quoted to say ‘At no time has an individual had such a chance to be heard’. Quick as a whip, Tony Butler, who leads the Happy Museum Project mentioned above, responded ‘At no time have the powerful been more unwilling to listen’.

We need to aim for a circular economy to reclaim economics for a commons culture. In doing so, we need to set up circular systems within and beyond our cultural organsiations so that people can have more than just a chance to be heard, but have political agency to make a difference.


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