Stella Rooney

Stella Rooney

Glitter in the Gutter: Sunak vs Cultural Workers

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Rishi Sunak drew anger from creatives for his comments on ‘non-viable’ jobs. Socialist artist Stella Rooney argues cultural workers need to recognise their pandemic hardships as intrinsic to the capitalist organisation of the arts.

On Tuesday (7 October), chancellor Rishi Sunak, urged workers in the cultural sector to consider “finding ways to adapt and adjust to the new reality.” In simpler terms, this served as an instruction to workers in the arts struggling to find stable employment during the pandemic that they should think about getting a ‘real’ job.

Though there was vocal outrage to this statement from workers and celebrities alike, we shouldn’t be too surprised by the disdain for the arts shown by the Tory chancellor. This attitude compliments Sunak’s philosophy of austerity, which says; we’ve all got to tighten our belts, and we’re all going to have to make sacrifices for an economic recovery.

But it appears some must face harder times than others. From the start of this pandemic workers in the cultural sectors, working in music, film and TV, visual art and live performance, to name a few, have been cut a raw deal. With many workers self-employed or employed on a short term, zero hours, or ‘per job’ basis, the furlough scheme was insufficient to support the majority of cultural workers. With many self- employed workers excluded from furlough and receiving little support for their loss of income, the Tories handling of the pandemic has showed that cultural workers are not part of Sunak’s political economy.

His tone-deaf comments are also entirely in-line with Tory policy. The new job support scheme entirely excludes jobs which are ‘non-viable’ – meaning if workplaces cannot operate due to the financial consequences of the pandemic, such as cinemas which can still legally open but face massive financial losses – they are not eligible for support. This leaves many theaters, music venues, art galleries, cinemas and even potentially film and TV sets without any support to pay workers while they cannot work.

If the current situation continues, it is highly likely that many such venues will become financially non-viable and be unable to open their doors again. While extensions to the job support scheme have been announced, there is no requirement for workplaces to furlough their staff, meaning many creatives will have entirely lost their sources of income.

Today, many in the arts are faced with an impossible choice; to either stop working and claim a pittance through universal credit, to attempt to continue working through the pandemic in their field at often reduced rates or in unsafe workplaces, or to attempt to secure employment in a different field in the context of mass unemployment. There is no choice here which ensures there will be jobs to return to once the virus has been suppressed.

Creatives are also workers, and part of a wider political environment which is hostile to working class power. When Rishi Sunak instructed cultural workers to re-train the outrage at this disregard for our skills and knowledge was palpable. But we also must retort, re-training for what? Although there are a small number of vacancies, there are not nearly enough to go round. Many creatives already rely on part time work in sectors such as hospitality or retail to make ends meet and will feel sorely the effects of the pandemic on their second job.

As cultural workers, we are often used to demonstrate the successes of neoliberal capitalism. Working class creatives moving to areas of cities seeking affordable rents are used to demonstrate the culture alive in deprivation, the glitter in the gutter. Creative freelancers are also often used to illustrate the flexibility and innovation of the gig economy, when in reality, many work long hours for well below union rates.

Like the rest of the working class, the political response to the pandemic has shafted creative and cultural workers. If it wasn’t clear already, it is now glaringly obvious; the economic model of neoliberal capitalism does not value artistic labour. It does not adequately value the importance of this labour to the production of culture, of films, music, art, radio, theater or TV. And while many creatives are just seeking a decent income and taking any available work to break even, the pandemic has shown that creative workers cannot abstain from politics, or else our labour will continue to be undervalued.

In its essence, the production of art is not primarily about how cheap something is to reproduce, but concerned with the expression and exploration complexities of human existence. In many cases the production of art is a process opposed to the system of industrial capitalism, which values the profit margin above all else. The time spent making art can be a labour of love, of solitude, of therapy and of pain, but at least in some capacity, producing art often represents a break from the alienation of the capitalist production system.

However, when creativity and capitalist reality collide, the result is exploitation. Before the pandemic, the daily functions of creative industries are dependent on underpaid labour. Unpaid internships, roles paid in exposure and replacing jobs with volunteer positions are common but unsustainable practices.

Today we are presented with the opportunity to define a new reality for cultural workers, one which stamps out the exploitation of labour and demands adequate state funding for the arts. Workers in the arts, like all workers, must collectivise to make change happen. Joining a trade union is the natural first step. Though our workplaces may be solitary or unconventional, it is incredibly important that creatives join and become active in their relevant union in order to affect change. It is also imperative that unions understand the reality of insecure work in the creative industries, and the necessity of organising the lowest paid and most precarious workers.

It is right and important for creatives to demand a political economy which values their labour. However, the larger goal, of a political system in which the working class are no longer at the behest of bosses, is a project which cultural workers must also participate in building.

All human beings deserve decent and affordable housing, dignity at work and leisure time to do with what we please. Creative expression is an important space where this more equitable future can be imagined and explored. In the face of utter contempt from the tory government, creatives can no longer abstain from politics. It’s time artists treated our economic system with the disdain it deserves, and began to play a role within the wider movement to dismantle it.

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