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International Journal of Cultural Policy

ISSN: 1028-6632 (Print) 1477-2833 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/gcul20

Creative labour, cultural work and


individualisation
Jim McGuigan
To cite this article: Jim McGuigan (2010) Creative labour, cultural work and individualisation,
International Journal of Cultural Policy, 16:3, 323-335, DOI: 10.1080/10286630903029658
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10286630903029658

Published online: 05 Aug 2010.

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International Journal of Cultural Policy


Vol. 16, No. 3, August 2010, 323335

Creative labour, cultural work and individualisation


Jim McGuigan*
Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University, Loughborough LE11 3TU, UK

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International
10.1080/10286630903029658
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j.t.mcguigan@lboro.ac.uk
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This paper distinguishes between creative labour as a universal human attribute and
cultural work as specifically a meaning-making practice in order to offset the way
in which that distinction has become blurred in recent cultural policy rhetoric. It
discusses the enduring relevance of Marxs theory of alienation, the separation of
conception and execution in the modern labour process and issues concerning
individualism and collectivism. Institutional transformation of television is traced
as an exemplary instance of the transition from organised to neoliberal capitalism.
The consequences for cultural work of this transition are examined, and the concept
of individualisation is used to illuminate the conditions of work at the present time
for young entrants to the creative industries. In conclusion, the urgent need for
research on the sociology of occupational experience in the arts and culture today
is stressed in order to rectify its neglect in cultural policy studies.
Keywords: alienation; conception/execution; creative labour; cultural work;
individualisation

Introduction
The idea of creativity is at once both discredited and extraordinarily fashionable.
How could that be? Why such a paradox? It is discredited because the very notion of
creativity was once held to be a special attribute, something unusual and rare, confined
to only a select few in origin, God-given. It is unfashionable now because overt elitism (but perhaps not covert elitism) has been outlawed in an illusory culture of democracy. Yet, at the same time, it is a conventional wisdom to say that we are all creative
now. That meets the bill of routine populism and, indeed, a banal existentialism that
has become pervasive in everyday life and increasingly so at work. Everyone is
creative; so nobody is excluded. However, it also seems that some are more creative
than others. Creativity is held to be a good thing so we should all try to achieve it.
Faced with such equality of opportunity, some fall short unfortunately and, in consequence, must pay the penalty for their abject inertia, especially in business. Along the
way, creativity loses all specificity. It is such a good thing that we can hardly say what
it is. It used to be associated most strongly with art, imagination and inspiration. Such
associations are too elitist today. People who would not normally be counted as artists
are creative too (Willis 1990). And, since entrepreneurial business is the stuff of life,
surely enterprising individuals must be creative as well. It is said, so I have heard,
managers are no different from artists. Hierarchies fall and boundaries are blurred,
analytical distinctions erased. Yet, it is very difficult to analyse anything if you cannot
*Email: j.t.mcguigan@lboro.ac.uk
ISSN 1028-6632 print/ISSN 1477-2833 online
2010 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/10286630903029658
http://www.informaworld.com

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make distinctions between what is and what is not but that is the dreaded binary
thought, which is no longer permitted. It is indeed a commonplace assumption these
days that there is no real distinction to be drawn between art and business (Negus and
Pickering 2004, p. 47). Is it not all creative?
In this paper, I do not wish to be drawn too far into some abstract discussion of
creativity. For my purposes, that is too idealist. I would prefer to be materialist about
the matter; and talk about the location of cultural work as a sub-category of creative
labour in the so-called creative industries instead. It is necessary, however, to
include a brief survey of the conceptual and substantive history of creative labour and
the specific differentiation of cultural work. The general aim is to make sense of the
present-day conditions of cultural work, taking the television business as an exemplary case, thereby seeking to illuminate how neoliberalism operates at the everyday
level of working life in the cultural field. The concept of individualisation may prove
useful in this respect.
In order to make the case concerning the individualisation of creative labour and,
specifically, of cultural work, it is necessary to situate the argument in a broader theoretical perspective on human labour, creativity and cultural production. This applies
to both the everyday experience of certain kinds of work, especially for young people,
and the neoliberalisation of political economy, which has made working life much less
secure and precarious. This is partly masked by the rhetoric of creativity today that
is related to a discourse of empowerment in managerial discourse. Developments in
the labour process associated with cultural work in particular may be experienced as
liberating, as existentially enabling, yet the effects can also be extremely negative with
regard to employment conditions and remuneration. These tendencies are likely to
become more pronounced with the deepening economic recession and attendant
depression resulting from the recent financial crisis in the global economy. The paper
calls upon policy-oriented researchers to focus greater critical attention on the labour
process in the cultural field.

The bee and the architect


In the first volume of Das Kapital, Karl Marx says this about human labour:
We presuppose labour in a form in which it is an exclusively human characteristic. A
spider conducts operations which resemble that of a weaver, and a bee would put many
a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his
mind before he constructs it in wax. At the end of every labour process, a result emerges
which has already been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed
ideally. Man not only effects a change of form in the materials of nature; but also realizes
his own purpose in those materials. And this is a purpose he is conscious of, it determines
the mode of his activity with the rigidity of a law, and he must subordinate his will to it
The simple elements of the labour process are (1) purposeful activity, that is work
itself, (2) the object on which that work is performed, and (3) the instruments of that
work. (Marx 1976[1867], pp. 283284)

For Marx, human beings are homo faber. This is their species-being. It is interesting
that, in order to make the point, Marx should compare the busy bee with a worker
close to cultural work, the architect. Bees build remarkable structures but they do so
automatically, as drones. On the other hand, the creative human imagines what he or

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she wishes to build. There is a conscious purpose in the act of making something and
an object is produced with human-made instruments. Marx is here illustrating his
conception of human nature, which in our anti-essentialist times is an unfashionable
kind of concept. Yet, it is reasonable to assume that there is something that distinguishes humans from other animals, in addition to the opposable thumb, that is,
purposeful work made possible by imagination, creative labour. Elsewhere, in collaboration with Friedrich Engels, Marx had already elaborated upon this concept of
human nature: it is social and facilitated by language. Humans engage in cooperative
work, which typically takes the form of a complex division of labour in order to
produce efficiently and economically. Such cooperation is, of necessity, enabled by
sophisticated means of communication, language, defined as practical consciousness
(Marx and Engels 1970[1845]).
George Steiner (1975[1971]) placed even greater stress on language when he
described the human being as the language animal: man is a zoon phonanta, a
language-animal (Steiner 1975[1971], p. 73). The very sense of the self is inaugurated by the first-person pronoun, the I, in language. Moreover, other animals, in
comparison, are trapped in a perpetual present with no sense of the past or the future.
Language tenses facilitate a constitutive temporality and make memory, history, aspiration and planning possible. It might also be added that no other animal than the
human has a definite awareness of eventual death irrespective of momentary hazard.
Language is the foundation of all communication and humans have developed
extremely intricate sign systems. Bees dance exact messages to each other as to the
direction, amount, and quality of honey found (Steiner 1975[1971], p. 66), but they
do not have multi-point perspective and the Internet. This human communicative
capacity, bound up so intimately with creative labour, is fundamental to the
production not only of material necessities in general but also of art and culture in
particular.
In his youth and arguably always, Marx (1975[1844]) believed that creative labour
was alienated under capitalism. The process of exploitation separates the worker from
the product of labour, which takes on the character of an alien object that returns in
the marketplace in the form of a fetishised commodity appearing to have a life of its
own (Marx 1976[1867]). The very act of labour is thus experienced as alienating, as
a necessary chore rather than a freely chosen means of expression. In consequence,
the worker is alienated from a natural feature of humanity and alienated from other
human beings in society.
In the late twentieth century, Braverman (1974) argued that a key aspect of the
highly developed division of labour in advanced capitalism is the separation between
conception and execution. Most workers wind up performing a specialised and repetitive function in the labour process to manufacture a product that has been conceived
and designed by a privileged few. That alienation of execution from conception may,
of course, be simply unavoidable in complex modes of production. Perhaps it is just
unrealistic to expect or wish for anything otherwise.
The belief in the possibility of non-alienated labour in a cooperative system of
production, not only associated with Marxist humanism, is easily dismissed as a
romantic delusion, a hopeless wish that only the unworldly could possibly imagine
realising. Yet, it is not an uncommon desire and the source of an impulse in many
working lives, especially working lives that come within a clearly demarcated category of creative labour for the specific purposes of cultural analysis and cultural
policy studies.

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Romanticism and collectivism


All human labour is potentially creative labour, though typically it is alienated labour
in modern-day industry, according to Marx and Braverman. Certain kinds of work
seem to provide greater opportunity for creative labour than others, however, most
notably cultural work. Not all work produces objects that are first and foremost
cultural in the precise analytical sense that they are about meaning (see my discussion
of the specifically cultural in McGuigan 2004). All products of human labour are
meaningful but most products are not manufactured primarily for their meaningmaking properties. Most products are made principally for rather more instrumental
reasons, such as nourishment, clothing, shelter, transport and so forth. The labour
involved may be more or less creative in the sense of combining conception and
execution. Cultural work, however, is indeed a special kind of creative labour in that
it is first and foremost about communicating meaning and very often also about identification and pleasure. And, the motivation for engaging in cultural work is quite
likely to be some expectation of favourable opportunity for connecting conception and
execution, the accomplishment of something like non-alienated work.
The distinction between creative work in general and cultural work in particular
corresponds to the distinction made by Vazquez (1973[1965], p. 65) between two
functions practical-material and spiritual. The term spiritual, however, is an illchosen one in this respect since it has connotations over and above communicatively
meaningful. Like every term and conceptual distinction, this is a matter of conventional usage. The distinction is especially important today because of a recent elision
between cultural and creative that is especially problematic for cultural analysis
and cultural policy studies since it tends to obscure the object of enquiry, for
instance, confusing and perhaps obliterating differences between artistic and business
practices.
It is important to appreciate that conception is not necessarily individual and
execution not necessarily collectivist; and, as we shall see, execution can be surprisingly individualistic today. The reason why we habitually think of conception as an
individual matter is the enduring legacy of Romanticism in aesthetics. European
Romanticism of the early nineteenth century represented a reaction against the nascent
industrial civilisation and its dehumanising aspects. In this sense, the young Marx was
as much a child of Romanticism as of the Enlightenment. While Marx applauded the
growth of rationality and the productive powers of capitalism, he was sensitive to the
negative human consequences and critical of the modern quality of life. His idea of art
was, no doubt, in line with the main tenets of Romanticism, though he objected to its
extreme individualism. Romanticism not only raised the flag of culture against the
abominations of civilisation, it also revered the solitary artist as the source of fine
sensibility and even, in Shelleys formulation, as an unacknowledged legislator (see
McGuigan 2009, chap. 2).
Leaving aside the question of exploitation for the moment, Beckers (1982, p. 1)
notion of art world, referring to patterns of collective activity is a useful descriptive
term for the social relations of production in the cultural field. Some kinds of cultural
production are more obviously collective than others; for instance, making Hollywood
movies compared to writing poems in a garret. Even the lonely poet, however, is
dependent on the labour of others for the parchment, the quill and ink not to
mention the printing, distribution and sale of the poem if anyone is going to read it
and the poet is not to starve to death. There is, furthermore, the tradition of convention

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and genre in which the poet writes that has been constructed by the interaction of
producers and consumers of poetry over time. As Becker observes:

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Imagine, as one extreme case, a situation in which one person did everything: made
everything, invented everything, had all the ideas, performed or executed the work, experienced and appreciated it, all without the assistance or help of anyone else. We can
hardly imagine such a thing, because all the arts we know, like all human activities we
know, involve the cooperation of others. (Becker 1982, p. 7)

Still, we need a distinction between primary and secondary production, which is


not the same as between conception and execution since primary production may
include execution or performance along with conception. Here, Mieges (1989)
distinction between types of cultural production is useful. According to him, Type 1
products are not made by cultural workers proper since they are facilitators of meaning not bearers of meaning, products that are not necessarily meaningful in themselves, for instance, equipment like cameras and materials like paints. Workers
involved in the manufacture of such products are indistinguishable from other industrial workers. They are in some sense creative workers but not cultural workers
according to the distinction above. Type 2 products roughly speaking, content such
as stories are produced by cultural workers proper. Such products are infinitely
reproducible. Type 3 products like repeated live performance involve both cultural
workers proper in particular and creative workers in general. There are, of course,
ancillary cultural workers who do not originate content but make a significant contribution to the operations of the art world, such as critics, publicists and curators.
Modern cultural production is characterised typically by very complex divisions
of labour, not only in terms of specialised jobs but also in terms of spatial distribution
of functions. Commenting on the vertical disintegration of Hollywood that occurred
between the 1950s and 1980s, Christopherson and Storper (1997[1986]) described its
spatial configuration as the city as studio; the world as backlot. Miller et al. (2005)
have taken such analysis further in their study of global Hollywood. The new international division of labour is a pronounced feature of neoliberal globalisation whereby
manufacturing is transferred from expensive to cheap labour markets around the
world. This is the principal reason for Chinas astonishing rise to such prominence in
the global economy. The same process has occurred with the production of, say, films.
Los Angeles facilities and New York financial markets are still of nodal significance
but a great deal of the work goes on elsewhere. US labour and location is expensive;
it is much cheaper to go where wages are low. This is the new international division
of cultural labour. Locations around the world may be better and governments offer
blandishments to attract movie production to their shores. Such globalisation is facilitated by the network society made possible by information and communication
technologies and instantaneous communications. For instance, Castells (1996, p. 470)
has remarked upon television systems, entertainment studios, computer graphic
milieux, news teams, and mobile devices generating, transmitting, and receiving
signals, in the global network of the new media at the roots of cultural expression and
public opinion in the information age.
When you say that cultural production is collective, then, you are not saying much
at all. It is undoubtedly collective, though different workers are situated at different
points around the division of labour and along the network. Workers in the cultural
and media industries have historically been notoriously difficult to organise, though
recent industrial actions at the heart of global Hollywood have indicated how important

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labour issues are even there, especially when jobs are lost and workers of one kind or
another in a multi-billion business believe they are insufficiently remunerated for their
labour. It has often been said, though, that artists, writers and the like are too individualistic for collective representation to work effectively. That has not always been true
in cultural production and certainly not so in the press and broadcasting. But, as we
shall see, the process of individualisation which is not the same as old-fashioned individualism under neoliberal conditions has undermined collective protection and
representation there as well; and not because of some lingering Romanticism.
Whereas individualism is a little-realised value of bourgeois society and at best
confined to the privileged few under late-modern conditions individualisation is a
necessity, experienced as liberating yet simultaneously an obligation, increasingly so
for the many. The person becomes responsible for what they do and, therefore,
personally culpable for their own failures. Individualisation is not just rewarding; it is
also penalising. The individual is left without excuse and becomes eminently expendable: Unfortunately, well have to let you go [and, as it happens, employ someone
cheaper but more driven by necessity].
Neoliberal restructuring
The development of capitalism over the past century can be understood in terms of
three successive phases: liberal, organised and neoliberal. The transition from liberal
to organised capitalism occurred in response to the economic crisis of the 1930s and
the challenge of socialism/communism to capitalist civilisation. At the time, the
Soviet Union projected itself and was understood widely as representing an alternative
principle of civilisation to capitalism. This alternative remained credible at least until
as late as the 1960s. Partly in response to the communist challenge, social democracy
transformed capitalism in the USA, Western Europe and satellite territories throughout the world. The welfare state and strong trade unionism were notable features of
that transformation in addition to extensive state intervention in economic management and, to some extent, ownership of the commanding heights, leading sectors of
extractive and manufacturing industry, transport and so forth; as well as the steering
mechanisms of finance and governmentality. This was, of course, the period when
modern forms of public-sector cultural policy were established in arts councils, broadcasting corporations and cultural ministries (see Leys 2001, on the undermining, diminution and effective dismantling of such public-sector institutions during the
subsequent neoliberal phase).
The crisis of organised capitalism during the 1970s is usually explained in connection with the OPEC oil price hike of 1973. Organised capitalism, often named
Fordism, was called into question due to its organisational inefficiency and costs,
especially labour costs. The neoliberal switch to post-Fordism is characterised by the
disaggregation of vertically integrated major corporations, outsourcing, reduction in
the social wage and faster response to consumer trends facilitated by computerised
information systems. The balance of power in the labour bargain between capital and
labour shifted inexorably from the latter to the former and working life became much
less secure and more precarious.
Interestingly, post-Fordisation was pioneered by Hollywood, as noted by
Christopherson and Storper (1997[1986]), initially in response to the Paramount case
of 1948 when the big five studios were forced, in an anti-trust action, to sell off their
first-run cinema chains. Since these studios could no longer guarantee favourable

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exhibition arrangements for their movies, they discontinued the studio-factory system
of production that was originally modelled on Henry Fords assembly-line production
of motorcars. Production was increasingly devolved to independents that rented
studio space and studio space was also turned over to television production. American
television took the same organisational form as the movie business with independent
companies supplying the distributive majors. The vertically integrated corporation,
then, gave way to a network system of production and circulation in the audio-visual
industries. Although different functions in the movie business came to be performed
by different firms on a project-by-project basis, the majors retained command over
distribution, the nodal point of power in the system as a whole. And, in any case,
Reagan rescinded the 1948 judgement in 1984.
Post-Fordism is associated with greater consumer choice in the sense of a broader,
more differentiated product range and rapid turnover of products and styles in ostensible response to changing consumer trends. However, as in Hollywood, such diversity is somewhat exaggerated in conventional accounts, which tend to be
technologically determinist and take too little account of complex processes of political economy. The system, though flexible and characterised by dynamic networking,
is probably more accurately named as neo-Fordism since there is still a great deal of
standardisation and uniformity; not only in cinema but also, for instance, in television
with innumerable channels but little genuine choice in viewing, as some critics would
still say unmodishly.
Neo-Fordism hit the British television industry in the 1980s as it did other Fordist
systems of broadcasting across the world around the same time. John Ellis has
presented a rather sanguine view of the transformation of television over recent
decades. He identified three eras of television: scarcity, availability and plenty. The
first era that of scarcity lasted until the 1970s. For technical reasons, there were a
limited number of channels and television in almost all countries represented the
nation in some respect. The second era that of availability from the 1970s onwards
is still, in effect, the present era. This is the era of satellite and cable distribution,
proliferating channels and dramatic institutional change. Writing just a few years ago,
Ellis described the imminent third era that of plenty as follows:
The third era, the era of plenty, is confidently predicted by the television industry itself.
It is foreseen as an era in which television programmes (or, as they will be known,
content or product) will be accessible through a variety of technologies, the sum of
which will give consumers the new phenomenon of television on demand as well as
interactive television. The era of plenty is predicted even as most nations and individuals are coming to terms with the transition to the era of availability. (Ellis 2002, p. 39)

The era of plenty has since arrived but, as yet, its cultural significance is hard to estimate, though the early signs are not as promising as the hype around it claims. Earlier,
the transition from scarcity to availability corresponded to a shift from a publicservice model to a substantially deregulated, free-market model. That shift had enormous consequences for the conditions of labour in the television industry similar to
changing conditions in other creative industries and, indeed, throughout industry in
general. Changes in the labour conditions of television very much turn on what could
be called the paradox of independence (Hood 1994, Hood and Tabary-Peterssen
1997[1980]). For several years leading up to the 1980s, there had been progressive
campaigns to open up the Fordist and consensual system of British broadcasting to
the representation of a greater diversity of voices and representations by independent

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companies. This idea appealed to Margaret Thatchers first Conservative government


for reasons other than those that motivated the campaigners.
The general processes of television production create specific conditions of work
in the industry. Under public service arrangements, there was a clearly delineated division of labour and there were jobs for life. The system was well-funded through the
BBC license fee and the commercial network, ITVs monopoly of television advertising revenue. Developments in independent production, particularly facilitated by the
foundation of the publishing channel, Channel 4 in 1982, were for a brief time
innovative and refreshing. That was soon to change.
Television now, like other cultural and media industries, is a risky business yet it
is strangely risk averse. In addition to synergistic multiple exploitation of cultural
properties recombinant culture and so on there are two principal ways of
devolving risk that are brought about by post-Fordism/neo-Fordism, in effect,
neoliberal restructuring of the television industry. First, the practice of outsourcing
production and other functions away from major corporations including publicsector corporations like the BBC devolves risk to small- and medium-sized
independent companies. The major corporations retain control, however, over
distribution, the locus of power in cultural and media industries (Garnham 1990),
transmission and overseas sales. Production is largely done by cost-cutting indies
and so is research and development of cultural product. The second principal way
of devolving risk is, putting it bluntly, to lay it on the workers. Work in British
television has become increasingly casualised and insecure since the Thatcherite
reforms of the 1980s.
Thatcherism attacked restrictive practices in broadcasting, where strong unions
had in the old days protected their members and bargained for comparatively high
wages for permanent staff particularly. Since the 1980s union power has been much
weakened in television as it has also been in other industries. The job for life has
largely become an anachronism for creative personnel in television, though not
necessarily so for administrative jobs like accountancy. Mainly, with the exception of
core managerial functions, flexible labour and contractual insecurity became
common for most new entrants to the broadcasting industry.
For some older broadcasting workers, it became harder to sustain their careers,
though some of them benefited from new business opportunities that were opened up
for those with well-established reputations and a long list of contacts. It became much
more difficult to build a career for each successive age cohort of broadcasting personnel entering the business over the past 30 years. A sharp divide opened up between the
securities of higher management accountants, MBA-holders and the like and the
insecurities of creatives, who nowadays have to manage themselves guilefully from
one temporary project to another. Many are now obliged to move perpetually from one
short-term contract to another one, reliant on whatever reputations they have cultivated or prepared to work for very little, or both.
Broadcasting in Britain was thus transformed from a bureaucratic and cumbersome
Fordist framework to the looser structures of post-/neo-Fordism. Costs were driven
down in the highly competitive independent sector now supplying proliferating cable
and satellite channels as well as the terrestrial networks where wages have shrunk
and working conditions have become extremely stressful. Poor pay and overwork have
all grown apace. It is exceptionally difficult especially for women to sustain a broadcasting career when they have children; many go missing by their fortieth year. These
processes have been unfolding now for several years (Ralph et al. 1998).

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Doogan (2009) is right, it must be said, to warn against exaggerating the impact of
what some have called the new capitalism. There is indeed a great deal that has
not changed dramatically. For some, employment is still secure and reasonably wellprotected and rewarded. Doogan is also right to suggest that the rhetoric of new
capitalism functions ideologically to reconcile workers to less propitious working
conditions. However, here, we are considering developing tendencies already in train
that are likely to become yet more significant. One area, especially regarding the
labour process, where the impact of the new capitalism has indeed been profoundly
evident is the cultural industries; and most notably perhaps in what were the hitherto
public-service oriented broadcasting systems of countries like Britain and Canada,
though not only there exclusively.
Hard labour in the creative industries
The effects of the neoliberalisation of work have been pervasive across what are now
called the creative industries in general. Especially pertinent to the matters in hand
are Beales (1999) observations on culture and cultural policy in Canada, a country
very much on the frontline of the confrontation between organised and neoliberal
capitalism during recent years due to its proximity to the USA and participation
since the mid-1990s in the North American Free Trade Association, now the Free
Trade Area for the Americas. Beale is particularly concerned with the situation of
women at work in creative industries that have been going through neoliberal
restructuring. It is important to appreciate that a legacy of British colonialism in
Canada is that there is greater state intervention in the interests of public service and
social provision, such as public-sector childcare facilities, than is characteristic of the
US free-market tradition. Also, and similarly to France, Canadian politicians were
keen to assert a cultural exception in the face of unrestricted free-marketisation and
the ideological sway of the consumer model in which the autonomy of producers is
sacrificed to an alleged consumer sovereignty of choice. Tensions and consequences of a changing policy are severe especially with regard to women employed
in creative industries where apparent advances in position have coincided with the
deterioration of working life.
Although very nearly half the labour force in the cultural sector is female yet
women are near the bottom of occupational hierarchies with few in positions of power
and control. Neoliberalisation does nothing to ameliorate the situation, and actually
exacerbates it in spite of much-trumpeted anti-sexism. As we have already noted with
reference to British television, it is very difficult for women to bear and care for children in careers that are so insecure, time-consuming and stressful.
In addition to older workers forced to leave television or retire early due to burnout, it is extremely hard for young entrants to the audio-visual industries to obtain a
foothold and build their careers. Every now and again in Britain and elsewhere shock
horror stories are reported in the press of how young people are overworked, paid very
little or not paid at all. As Silver (2005, p. 2) has reported:
It is televisions dirty little secret. The eager young faces that flit about on every production set, making sure that scripts are photocopied and the coffees are made and the taxis
are booked. Always among the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night,
desperate to make and secure the all-important step on the first slippery rung of the industry ladder. Many are so determined to forge a career in the glamorous world of television
that they are prepared to work for little or nothing to achieve it.

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This kind of anecdotal evidence of chronic exploitation our own equivalent of


Marxs stories culled from governmental blue books in the mid-nineteenth century
tends to be consistent with the kind of labour-process analysis inspired by
Bravermans (1974) research on the degradation and deskilling of work, the modern
version of Marxs theory of alienation. It is seriously mistaken to assume that these
are hopelessly pass issues that are no longer relevant to our understanding of the
labour process now. In her recent research on employment experience in British television, Gill Ursell finds that there is much confirmation of the gloomy picture painted
by labour-process researchers. However, she disputes it in a number of respects, for
example, with regard to the multiskilling required of some workers with the reduction
of highly specialised crew members that is facilitated by digital technology, which
may be taken to suggest that work today in the cultural industries is more creative for
greater numbers than in the past. Ursell is also struck by the sheer appeal and popularity of work in the creative and media industries for young people. She draws on
Foucauldian governmentality theory and Michel Foucaults own notion of technologies of the self (Foucault 1994) to make sense of the subjective aspects of cultural
work. As she says:
Ours is a culture informed by the values and perspectives of consumerism, liberalism
and capitalism. It is a culture in which the values and practices of self-expression, selfenterprise and self-actualisation are widely endorsed and exhorted. One of the principal
social institutions involved in such endorsement and exhortation is the media. (Ursell
2006, p. 161)

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that so many should want to be the agents of such
endorsement and exhortation in spite of everything. However, we need to go further
in trying to understand why young people do it and at what cost. In what follows, then,
I aim to open up questions concerning the individualisation of cultural work, particularly for young entrants to such occupation, in order to contest some prevalent illusions and to suggest directions for future research in cultural policy studies.
Individualisation in creative industries and cultural work
Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheims thesis of individualisation, a corollary
to Becks risk society thesis, is of general significance for making sense of the quality of life in more affluent parts of the world at present. And, it is of particular relevance to illuminating the contradictory experience of creative labour and the peculiar
attractions and difficulties of cultural work that are experienced most acutely by
young entrants to such employment today. Individualisation is an institutionalised
condition and, in that sense, obligatory, not a freely chosen individualism. Individualism has itself been a collectively shared doctrine, to be sure, though a somewhat
fanciful principle and, in practice, potentially disruptive of solidarity and social integration, something that worried Durkheim over 100 years ago (Durkheim
1964[1893], 2006[1897]). In comparison, individualisation is quite possibly a
strongly integrative phenomenon, along the lines of how self-discipline under
surveillance, doing it to oneself in the gaze of the guards (Foucault 1977[1975]), is
more effective than overt coercion. Individualisation is a collectively shared experience, however lonely it seems (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002[2001]). It is as
though the ethical dilemmas of existentialism have become normalised for everyone
in a modern social formation where risk is endemic at societal, global and personal

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levels, producing a kind of banal existentialism in personal conduct and working life.
Individuals are condemned to take personal responsibility in their everyday lives
whether they like it or not and are, therefore, obliged to make agonistic choices
routinely. As Beck (1992[1986], p. 135) said some years ago in Risk Society:
Individualization means that each persons biography is removed from given determinations and placed in his or her own hands, open and dependent on decisions. The proportion of life opportunities which are fundamentally closed to decision-making is decreasing
and the proportion of the biography which is open and must be construed personally is
increasing. Individualization of life situations and processes become self-reflexive;
socially prescribed biography is transformed into biography that is self-produced and
continues to be produced. Decisions on education, profession, job, place of residence,
spouse, number of children and so forth, with all the secondary decisions implied, no
longer can be, they must be made. Even where the word decisions is too grandiose,
because neither consciousness nor alternatives are present, the individual will have to pay
for the consequences of decisions not taken.

Here, Beck is describing a total life situation, not just a work situation. It is both a
liberating and a terrifying situation. Those who were previously denied choice now
have much greater room for manoeuvre along lifes way. In this respect, womens
lives have changed markedly. Assumptions about womens prescribed social role
have been overthrown and there is much greater formal equality between the sexes.
There is a downside, though, in that womens increased employment opportunities,
the possibility of having it all makes life actually harder for many women who have
to juggle a set of often contradictory role obligations at work and at home. Individualisation means that the individualised subject is held responsible for the unintended
consequences of their chosen actions. This is so for both men and women. Nobody
else is to blame. There is no safe haven. Like risk society itself faced with the negative
consequences of industrialism, the individualised person must shoulder the consequences when things go wrong. This is an uncertain and precarious life to lead.
Although Beck and Beck-Gernsheim believe that individualisation is an upshot of
the risk culture of industrialism, which is not reducible to capitalism, it is extremely
tempting to draw connections between individualisation and neoliberalisation, especially at work and in present-day working cultures. One obvious connector is the
decline of trade union representation and collective bargaining that isolates the individual worker in the face of capital. Another feature is the rhetoric of empowerment
that is associated with flatter organisational structures. And, fixed-term contracts
mean that workers are constantly on the lookout for the next job opportunity.
Continuity of employment is difficult to maintain; establishing a track record and
reputation vital. Frantic networking is a salient feature of such working life, particularly in cultural work. Boltanski and Chiapello (2005[1999]) have spoken of the type
of the networked project worker, a figure characteristic of the new spirit of capitalism, which is a hedonistic spirit derived from the artistic critique of the old puritanical spirit of capitalism.
McRobbie (2002) has produced an impressionistic account of the youth labour
market in Londons creative industries, following on from her earlier research on the
training, unrealistic ambitions and poor career prospects of fashion designers
(McRobbie 1998). Her account is consistent with the individualisation thesis. Young
cultural workers are required to work upon themselves, to fashion a useful self and to
project themselves through strenuous self-activity; to be, in effect, self-reliant whether
self-employed or temporarily employed. For young cultural workers, hedonistic club

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J. McGuigan

culture is inscribed in the culture of the workplace, which is in bitter contradiction


with the realities of everyday working life in an exceptionally insecure sector of the
labour market. It seems glamorous but, in practice, is far from it.
Cool youth culture seeking to transcend alienation is an integral element in the
individualised life and work of young cultural workers (McGuigan 2009). Speed is of
the essence in a volatile and rapidly changing world where you have to be fitted in
order to survive (see McGuigan 2008, on how this is dramatised in the television show,
The Apprentice). No longer are creativity, culture and artistry thought to be at odds
with commerce and business; they are instead one and the same in this world of smoke
and mirrors. While at work you may cultivate a modishly eccentric persona, that does
not mean you can actually be a rebel: Its not cool to be difficult (McRobbie 2002,
p. 523). Individualised employment in the creative industries demands creative
compromise in a relentlessly upbeat business.
These remarks merely sketch in some of the manifested features of individualised
work in the creative and cultural industries. They point to an important area of
research in cultural policy studies that has been sadly neglected but should be explored
much more extensively: the occupational sociology of cultural work conditions today.
In fact, the whole area of cultural production has been undervalued in social science
research over recent years largely due to a fascination with consumer culture and its
pleasures. Yet, significant transformations have been occurring not only at the macro
level of political economy but also at the micro level of work. At the same time, a rhetoric of creativity has migrated from the arts across the spectrum of business, resulting
at the extreme in a pervasive sense that latter-day work is peculiarly creative, empowering and indistinguishable from cultural work. This paper has indicated how a
concept of individualisation addresses the paradoxical character of work and everyday
life today, freer in some sense yet also harsh and isolating. It is especially pronounced
in the creative industries enabling a tantalising sense of expressivity at the cost of
exceptional difficulties in working life including insecurity, poor pay and conditions
that are only likely to worsen in a deepening recession.

Acknowledgements
I must thank Chris Bilton for sensing that I might have something to say in the debate over
creativity and my colleague Graham Murdock for his helpful comments on the manuscript.

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