The Oikonomic Value of Culture

At the end of April 2013, Maria Miller gave her first speech after 7 months in the role as Minister for Culture. In this, she was adamant that the Cultural sector should focus on generating wealth for the nation. This has yielded a flurry of responses, basically saying ‘we’ve been telling you the arts make money for the UK for years’, including this from ACE enumerating how arts and culture does indeed make a contribution to the economy.

Soon after, DCMS published A Holistic Approach to Valuing our Culture, by Dr Claire Donovan, who was on a 6 month fellowship exploring this topic very openly with a broad community of stakeholders. It’s a really good collation and reflection on a variety of economic and non-economic methods of valuing culture. However, I want to ask some awkward questions of it: Is it really holistic? Is it possible to have a non-economic method of valuation?

I can’t help asking awkward questions so I like this response to the issue by Eleonora Belfiore on her Cultural Value platform, in which she stresses the importance of asking awkward questions. However, after reading it, I still ask the awkward question: how exactly can we articulate value (or practice economics) outside the narrow, financial and  monocultural ways of valuing culture?

Why does this topic of Cultural Value rumble on so contentiously and unsatisfyingly? I believe it’s because we never get to the ground of the debate. We argue between either intrinsic or instrumental forms of value. We push either financial or social value. We become ever more sophisticated in our differentiations or mergings of these, but we’re dancing round a chasm in our understanding.

I argue it makes no sense to distinguish between economic and non-economic valuation approaches. Culture is an entirely productive activity (if you see product in the broadest terms) and valuation is an entirely economic process. There is another, more meaningful, distinction to be made and that is between two ways of doing economics.

The underlying reasons why so many people in the Cultural sector (and Environmental sectors) object to the financial valuation of our heritage ‘assets’ and creative ‘outputs’ are to do with the growing extremity of the Neo-liberal Capitalist framework within which economics operates. In the UK, this framework has become alarmingly extreme.

Economics is, broadly, a system for understanding and controlling the values that feed and arise from any activity to ensure maximum efficiency and generation of goods from it. However, economics is not as it should be. We understand and carry it out wrongly, and we even spell it wrongly. Economics comes from oikonomics, from oikeios.  This is short for oikeios topos, or ‘favourable place’.  Oikeios is home, kith, place, belonging, where we are fed, where we are not lonely and where we make meaning of the world. It’s not just our houses and streets, but the Earth, our only favourable place. Species of life thrive in favourable places and connect together to form ecosytems. So, economics is semantically and rightly to do with the dynamic relationship between species (mainly humans) and their environments (other species and materials). A new oikonomics would be about applying rational methods to ensure an abundant and healthy relationship between humans and the oikeios.

I agree with Belfiore and F.S. Michaels, the source she cites, that we’ve been overwhelmed by a financially-driven monoculture. However, as an escape from this monoculture, we hear talk about ’embracing other ways of valuing’ or ‘getting beyond the economic’, without defining clearly what this other is. Models that attempt to be more holistic perform an addition sum: they simply tell stories or provide data about both money and people, or about money and proxies for it.

When clear water is drawn between, for example, Financial and Cultural value, these distinctions arise from different world-views that prioritise certain interventions or outcomes. Maria Miller privileges Financial value, or actions involving investment of funds, exploitation of assets and generation of (quick) profit. A community health worker might privilege Social value, or actions that diagnose and serve needs of certain groups of people. And, it’s similar for people who prioritise Environmental or Cultural value. Each type of advocate believes that their domain has the greatest powers to disseminate benefits more widely. So, for the Financial value advocate, the best work is in generating profit (exploiting Social, Cultural and Environmental assets), assuming it will trickle down to benefit all people and public services. Social value people will advocate for the wider impacts of skilling people and eliminating injustice, that this reduces the cost of public services and increases active citizenship.

Advocates for either Cultural or Environmental capital have a much harder time being understood, partly because both Culture and Environment are more complex and harder to engineer and quantify than Financial or Social capital. It may also be that they have more fundamental and widespread benefits than Finance or Social capital, but are slower to yield benefits. Mainly, these advocates struggle because Cultural and Environmental values are subordinate to the generation of Financial Value, which in turn is seen to yield Social value.

The problem with quantifying the value of the environment is that it is not separable from anything at all. The natural environment is the life-world for humans but also for millions of other species. Efforts to quantify the Financial value of ecosystem services might seem useful but are only really meaningful if we multiply their value to humans by the number of all other species sharing it as a habitat. (Result = priceless.) Moreover, the more strongly that Financial value is prioritised the more we are likely to destroy the environment while we transfer it as quickly as possible into this rapid exchange tool.

The problems with quantifying the value of Culture are similar to those in quantifying Environmental services. One problem is that culture is the same as diversity. (Culture is the myriad ways that humans construct meaning from their connection to, and create novelty and change amidst, the natural world.) The main problem is that human culture is actually enfolded within nature. Jason Moore in his essay ‘From Object to Oikeios Environment-Making in the Capitalist World-Ecology’ says “Nature-as-oikeios is…not offered as an additional factor, to be placed alongside culture or society or economy; it is, rather, the matrix within which human activity unfolds.”

What I’m trying to work out here is a truly ecological system of valuing culture, rather than one in which we use terms such as ‘ecosystem of cultural funding’ in only metaphorical ways. Capitalist market economics are an abstract confection, ignoring the realities of planetary boundaries. Therefore, I don’t think it is unrealistic to expose the possibilities of a more oikonomic way of valuing Culture.

In a more oikonomic system, time becomes a significant factor but one where we don’t privilege speed. We see that fast action for maximum accumulation of capital or value may be superficially efficient but it is not sustainably efficient. It could be possible to give a monetary or numerical/proxy valuation to every activity, eventually. The fastest yields occur when money acts upon itself, in the money markets (but while speculating on commodities from ecocidal landgrabbing or deforestation, and which causes hunger). The very slowest yields are when we regenerate natural environments that might take 1000 years to recover from human destruction. Somewhere between the two are yields from Social and Cultural interventions. Social interventions are more rapid because they can involve providing material human needs in a timely way. Cultural interventions can similarly see quick results in terms of joy or conversation, but these may take some more time to translate into Financial or Social value. They may translate through a very long ‘food chain’, which gives rise to subsidiary benefits that weren’t originally planned.

I believe that Cultural interventions are the most valuable (and therefore, the most economical) of all possible interventions. At their most excellent, to use ACE’s language, Cultural interventions have everything to do with oikeios:

  • Cultural activity helps people cope with the loss of oikeios (whether this is displaced, enslaved or migrant peoples, or in fact all of us now facing the collapse of our global ecosystem).
  • Cultural activity helps oikeios-making or placemaking: arts and heritage can help places thrive and help people gain a ‘sense of place’.
  • Cultural organisations and expertise help to protect and conserve artefacts (or knowledge) that has become separated from its oikeios, for example the language, plant knowledge or material skills of indigenous peoples.
  • Cultural activity can involve the virtual creation of oikeios, for example, digital learning communities, or the digital cultural commons, or literary/imagined places or reconstructions of lost places in the past.
  • Cultural activity can enhance our own natural assets, in the form of our brains and bodies, through play, sport, dance and outdoor exploration.
  • Cultural activity, such as sustainable craft or design, or arts-in-the-landscape, can contribute to the regeneration of oikeios, or the conservation or rewilding of places.
  • Cultural activity can help change attitudes to our fellow beings, to be more generous and less materialist, to shift our society to more sustainable ways of living.
  • Cultural activity can inspire some of the most advanced and imaginative visions of how we might live in a radically changed oikeios.

There may be other oikonomic ways to value culture but these will do for now. I’d love to know what you think. Are there better ways I can articulate this idea?


One thought on “The Oikonomic Value of Culture

  1. Pingback: The cultural value debate and the need for awkward questions by Eleonora Belfiore - The #culturalvalue Initiative

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