“Creative industries,”
neoliberal fantasies, and the cold, hard facts of global recession: some basic lessons

by Chuck Kleinhans

Author's note: This article should be read in conjunction with Jyotsna Kapur’s, “Let them eat cake! neoliberalism and the ideology of the aesthetic,” in this issue of Jump Cut. Also in this issue, I’ve written a resource piece on Media Art and Economics that surveys the recent critical growth and development of the subject and details some things mentioned here in passing.

Overture: neoliberalism in your face

In Fall 2010 the long running Fox TV show The Simpsons began one episode with a two minute opening sequence revised by the street artist Banksy.[1] [open endnotes in new window]


Several usual scenes are trimmed out, and a few are changed, such as Bart writing all over everything in his after-school detention for graffiti.

When the family assembles to watch TV at home, a new space opens up, revealing the behind the scenes manufacturing of The Simpsons. With a change from the bright upbeat music that accompanies the family assembling, we hear a dirge and see a dismal hellish factory where workers slave away at making the shows cel animation frames.

Children are exploited working with toxic chemicals.

Live cats tossed into a wood chipper make the fur stuffing for Simpsons' toy dolls.

And a unicorn is chained up and starved while his horn serves to make the hole in DVDs of the show.

The camera pulls back to reveal the location of the underground sweatshop: a 20th Century Fox prison.

Banksy’s nightmare vision of globalized “creative industry” manufacturing serves as a bitter ironic comment on offshore labor in the arts. But it also combines the iconic horrors of late 18th and 19th century “dark Satanic Mills,”[2] with today’s popular imagination of child labor, animal abuse, and pitiless exploitation in the developing world. The Simpsons' animation labor is actually done in South Korea, while the “creative” work is done in the United States. Aksom, the Korean animation company, has responded that its workers have clean, efficient, digital workspaces in downtown Seoul and are well-paid by Korean standards.[3] (They are paid one-third of what U.S. people doing the same job would be paid.)

Banksy’s imagination touches on some of the best-known aspects of global capitalism’s miseries: symptoms of a deeper set of conditions and a political-economic policy of neoliberalism. As a social and moral philosophy as well as a set of economic and governmental practices, neoliberalism — with its standard claims of freeing of the market while, in fact, accelerating the exploitation of humans — describes contemporary global capitalism.

Capitalism: hard facts in tough times

Let me tell a true story. It illustrates a key point in what follows and is foundational to the rest of my analysis. The story: in Ronald Reagan’s early years as President, the country experienced a severe economic recession. I was visiting New York City and met up with an old professional acquaintance. In the late 1960s and early 70s this woman worked as a filmmaker in San Francisco. There, at a time of changing censorship, she found a niche market shooting 16mm hardcore pornography, locally produced and locally exhibited in little storefront porn theatres. The bill changed weekly to keep the regular customers coming back (pun intended). So there was a steady need for making quickie films. Being able to work quickly and cheaply was not just a plus but essential to remaining in business. Later she decided to go to grad school in film, received a Ph.D. and published her dissertation as a significant book in the field. However, she had not secured a regular tenured academic position. It wasn’t clear to me that she really wanted that. As an adept experienced filmmaker, she tried making a living as an occasional film/video editor in NYC. Clearly she enjoyed living in a big city.

Having left academe and already familiar with the porn world, she ended up working as a writer/editor for several downscale porn publications: “men’s magazines” to use the then-current euphemism. By that time, these periodicals had descended from the old Playboy model of nude glamour pictures mixed with lifestyle features, respectable fiction, and nonfiction.[4] The new norm centered on the Larry Flynt Hustler franchise, featuring increasingly explicit and sexualized depictions of women’s bodies mixed with gross-out humor. The publications my friend worked on were at a cut-rate end. Mostly the layout was just photos of bare babes and their private parts printed rather cheaply on a fairly porous paper. (Hustler had the pretension of using high quality paper stock and excellent printing with a glossy hard finish, nicely bound.) Even within this low end of the porn market, there was product differentiation. While showing me some copies of recent issues, she explained that recently she had been promoted to editor of several magazines. She now had the innovative idea of returning to the post WW2 men’s magazine which combined sexy glamour babes (now completely undressed with genital display) along with violent action/adventure.

Late 50s men’s pulp magazine cover featuring the American white male adventurer set on rescuing/protecting the captive white woman from the menace of “Arab” harems: "I fought the white slavers of the Middle East." Wildcat Adventures printed an excerpt of William Burroughs’ first novel, Junkie. For more info, see the excellent blog, www.menspulpmags.com.

However, just as this new career opportunity opened up, and her excitement about doing something new and implementing her ideas skyrocketed, it came crashing down. The publications went out of business. The market was contracting; she was out of a job. The main reason for this had to do with the market and consumption. People (obviously mostly men) were not buying as much pornography as in the 1970s. In a severe recession, rather than buying the newest thing, people tend to get along with what they already have: you get the car repaired rather than buying a new one; you wear the clothes you have rather than purchasing a new season’s wardrobe; and (in the pre-internet era) you hang on to the collection of pornography you have rather than getting the newest magazines. Even the fact that these magazines had a price point advantage (some consideration in a recessionary economy with high inflation) didn’t help.

With the drop in newsstand sales and reduced ad revenue, the publisher decided it was better to cut losses and end the publications than to try to weather the storm. My friend lost her job. While this was the immediate cause, it was only at this point that she found out the larger picture. The actual owner was not the magazine publisher as she thought, but an international company that mostly operated abroad. The core of that capitalist project was that they had secured the rights to cut down huge forests in the Philippines. The resulting timber was turned into paper. Originally it was profitable to turn that paper into porn magazines for sale in the United States. But as the market changed, it turned out that more money could be made by transforming the product into toilet paper for the Japanese market. The executive decision was made: drop the porn magazines; ramp up the ass wipes.

There are some interesting lessons here. First is that in the marketplace both commodities (porn and toilet paper) are connected to commonplace activities involving human private parts. With porn, representations for a male audience; with toilet paper, practical body use, primarily for women (since women consume more toilet paper than men). Second is that capitalism thrives on imperial conquest (while exploiting a natural resource of the Philippines, the company was not a Philippine company) and along the way produces environmental destruction and global warming as a side effect of unregulated accumulation. And third, it is the nature of capitalism to change forms: the capitalist corporation in this case simply sought to maximize profit, to do as much as it could with the resource of which it had taken control. What nation was the source of the wealth was unimportant, what nation was the final market was irrelevant, what marketable product was produced was insignificant — the only thing that mattered was that capital could be more efficiently expanded.

The big lesson here, especially for communications and media folks, is that we need to understand capitalism from the point of what it is fundamentally about. And that is not about specific services, products, or ideological representations (what we usually study), but about expanding and maximizing capital itself. We should not give up analyzing products, services, and ideologies, but we need to see the material foundation of the larger system of circulation.

Thus my friend, a classic “creative industry” worker, lost her day job and had to patch together short term jobs editing video and picking up some adjunct teaching of media making skills. She became a flexible citizen in the middle of a recession: without healthcare, without job security, put in the position of having to cobble together a livelihood from her toolkit of skills. It’s not so much different than the situation many of us face today, 30 years later. This is to say that precarity, an economically precarious life, is a familiar condition for many of my readers, even if they are not fully aware of it. In fact, students are one group that actually often pays money (tuition) to be super-exploited in “student internships” and “student apprentice” programs.[5]

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