Are We All Cultural Workers Now? Getting By In Precarious Times

By Brett Neilson

30 November 2010

Recent debates have identified precarious labour as a key feature of contemporary capitalism. Precarity has had a corrosive effect on vocational identities and aspirations, but its effects have extended well beyond working lives to disrupt familial and friendship bonds. Social movements have emerged to contest insecurities around labour and livelihood, and the notion of precarity has emerged as a key analytical concept for social and cultural theory. The workshop brought together a range of contributors including labour activists, cultural workers and academic researchers from various fields (such as labour, cultural and urban studies) to interrogate the changing relations between labour and culture.  Participants discussed the extent to which precarious labour has become a common feature of everyday life, and how it can be understood with regard to wider geographical and historical developments.

In the past much academic attention has been directed at precarity in the creative and cultural sectors. Today there is widespread recognition that work in general has become more cultural in nature, as interpersonal relations as well as skills of communication and adaptation have assumed a central role within working lives. Questions were posed, including: does this mean that cultural labour now provides a kind of paradigm by which more general changes in work and organisations can be tracked, analysed and assessed? Are we all cultural workers now? Or do such claims obscure important divisions and inequalities in labour practices across different social contexts and geographical regions? Indeed, perhaps the concern with precarious labour offers a cover under which workers in the wealthy parts of the world can attempt to protect historical privileges that are under threat with the emergence of regions such as India and China.

The workshop moved beyond the focus on cultural labour to embrace other fields – from service employment through to high-end work in, for example, the financial sector. On the transnational scale, shifting patterns of migration (both skilled and unskilled) and geo-economic changes have transformed global divisions of labour and produced new forms of insecurity at work. These are not simply economic and political processes; they have the potential to produce changes in culture and subjectivity. Precarity allows capital to colonise the domestic and personal spheres, to conscript affective and creative practices, and to blur the boundaries between productive and reproductive labour, life and work. In an economy driven by communication and the management of interpersonal conduct, this development has profound consequences, particularly for women.

How, then, can we understand precarity and through which means should/will it be resisted? Its significance for the politics of mobility and migration, of health and embodiment, of gender, of housing and urban space, and/or of the politics of knowledge needs to be closely analysed. Whether precarity is a quality that can be subject to ways of knowing developed through the frames of academic disciplines or institutions such as trade unions and public policy organizations is a matter of pressing importance. It could, for example, be viewed as an ungovernable experience that challenges such established ways of producing knowledge and building institutions. Focussing on these and other issues, the workshop explored how and why precarity has emerged as a concept that is vital to any workable understanding of contemporary culture.