Sh. Clark: The Making of the American Creative Class

The Making of the American Creative Class. New York's Culture Workers and Twentieth-Century Consumer Capitalism

Clark, Shannan
Anzahl Seiten
576 S.
£ 26.99
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Klaus Nathaus, Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History (IAKH), University of Oslo

Since around 2000, when Western governments discovered the „creative industries“ as a source of future wealth, work in the culture sector has attracted growing attention among social scientists. Their accounts commonly depict creative workers as „reluctant entrepreneurs“ who trade economic self-exploitation for self-realisation. The focus on the work ethic of creatives makes work in the culture industries appear more than just a job, fundamentally different from labour in other sectors.1

Historical studies on the topic, of which there are still few, put this view in perspective. Employment contracts, trade unions as well as the social history of rank-and-file creators and performers have provided entry points for historians to question the particularity of creative labour and search for the origins of this belief. Among other aspects, these studies reveal that the political aims and collective strategies of organised labour played a much bigger role in culture industries under Fordism than is remembered today.2

Shannan Clark’s book adds to this literature and links the Fordist period of creative labour to its current entrepreneurial form. It studies the trade and professional organisations of several ten thousand white-collar employees in publishing, advertising, industrial design and broadcasting industries from the 1930s to the 1970s, focusing on New York as the centre of media production during the period. Zooming in on organisations and prominent activists, the book analyses the twin effort to negotiate fair pay and conditions and to reform the culture of consumer capitalism. Clark shows that at the height of their mobilisation, culture workers were not content with getting good money for producing the nation’s news, ad campaigns and radio plays. They also strove to transform culture from „mere“ mass consumer good to something that had aesthetic, social and political value.

The first half of the book traces the various strands of mobilisation among culture workers in the 1930s and early 1940s. To begin with, Clark observes a shift from trade to industrial unionism, which afforded culture workers to form alliances across industries and the collar line. He then turns to the role of white-collar activists in the consumer movement. In this context, Clark refers to Consumer Union, an organisation that supported consumer cooperatives and campaigned to boycott companies that sold inferior products or underpaid their workers. He follows attempts to establish news publications that remained independent from advertisers’ money and initiatives to win state patronage for the arts.

When gauging the results of this broad and ambitious endeavour, Clark is not oblivious to its limits: art under state tutelage conflicted with bureaucratic procedure and remained poorly funded; publications without ads came to pay their contributors poorly or had to be produced so cheaply that they lacked appeal to readers. However, Clark insists on the achievements of this movement, including unsurpassed membership levels, successful negotiations of pay and conditions, the „vital role“ (p. 88) of women in unionism and instances of „militant anti-racism“ (p. 203). He argues that these achievements owed primarily to the broad political vision of the Popular Front under which activists from across a wide spectrum united.

In the post-war years, this political orientation became the movement’s Achilles heel. Employers and conservative politicians had fought white-collar unionism since its beginning, but only the Cold War gave them anti-communism as a weapon to defeat it. Defamation and blacklisting affected a far greater number of culture workers than those who were in some way associated with the Communist Party. Those who were not hit directly feared to be punished for their activism, which discouraged and divided the movement further.

The second part of the book describes the decline of culture workers’ activism that the anti-communist backlash set in motion. With their unions weakened and their political project discredited, media employees had little to defend themselves against structural changes in their industries. The rise of television and its move to California, the crisis of general-interest magazines and the introduction of computerised data processing in advertising are among the numerous technological and economic challenges to unions that were becoming sclerotic, as the story of the Newspaper Guild suggests. Forcibly depoliticised after the Second World War, the union did not connect with the civil rights movement, Vietnam protests or feminism. Young workers in journalism felt that it had lost touch and had their impression confirmed when the Guild, led by an old guard of white men, concentrated on defending the interests of its highest-paid, longest-standing members.

For Clarke, white-collar unionism had thrived as long as it pursued an ambitious social-democratic project in a broad coalition. Soon after this project was brought down, a new „postcapitalist vision“ (Howard Brick) gained traction among culture workers. Formulated by John Kenneth Galbraith and others, it claimed that newly affluent consumers would have the money and the time to make educated choices and appreciate quality in products. For culture workers, this vision promised emancipation from the alienating production regimes of mass consumption without having to put up a fight. However, the „postcapitalist conception of creativity“ also cast „the imagination and effort that went into producing culture (…) as activities beyond necessity“ (p. 297).

The idea that culture emanates effortlessly from innate creativity, rendering labour invisible and money a secondary concern, has come to shape the current view on culture and creative work. By showing that the rise of this idea required the dismantling of white-collar radicalism, Clark pulls the organisations that spoke for the „obsolete“ typist and „utopian“ magazine editor from the shadows of the current creativity doxa, reminiscent of how E. P. Thomson once rescued the similarly disregarded hand-loom weaver and artisan from the „enormous condescension of posterity“. Thompson explored the lifeworld of workers and did this to trace how these people transformed their old way of life through the experience of industrialisation into a new consciousness, calling this the „making of the English working class“. Clark echoes Thompson in the title of his book but does not very often venture into the lives of culture workers (p. 255f.) or actual places of work (p. 310), nor does he invest much conceptual thought on the process of class formation. If he had, the book may have ended with a conclusion instead of an epilogue and the take-home that „(t)he political and social logic of the Popular Front (…) may yet provide a guide for culture workers to become more effective allies with other workers throughout the economy“ (p. 403). Thinking with Thompson, we may ask if today’s creative workers do not find themselves at a later stage of capitalism where a new consciousness will have to result from the transformation of the industrial way of life through more recent experiences. Shannon Clark does not enter this debate to the extent its intriguing title suggests, but his well-crafted, empirically rich and thought-provoking book offers a substantial contribution to it.

1 Jo Haynes / Lee Marshall, Reluctant Entrepreneurs: Musicians and Entrepreneurship in the ‘New’ Music Industry, in: British Journal of Sociology 69 (2018) 2, 459–482; Gina Neff u.a., Entrepreneurial Labor among Cultural Producers: ‘Cool’ Jobs in ‘Hot’ Industries, in: Social Semiotics 15 (2005) 3, 307–334.
2 For labour in the music industries see Matt Stahl, Unfree Masters: Popular Music and the Politics of Work, Durham: Duke University Press 2012; James P. Kraft, From Stage to Studio: Musicians and the Sound Revolution, 1890–1950, Baltimore 1996. For Germany, see now Martin Rempe, Kunst, Spiel, Arbeit: Musikerleben in Deutschland, 1850–1960, Göttingen 2020. For further references see Marc Perrenoud, Performing for Pay: The Making and Undoing of the Music Profession, in: Klaus Nathaus / Martin Rempe (Hrsg.), Musicking in Twentieth-Century Europe: A Handbook, Berlin 2021, S. 59–78.

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