THIS month I have been on a journey from Shetland to Dumfries reflecting on creativity, community and cultural commons. In the last of the summer sun I sailed north across the whale road to a conference organised by the Centre for Rural Creativity, University of the Highlands and Islands, in partnership with Shetland Arts, at the Mareel.

Invoking the old Norn dialect word for where the shore meets the sea, the event was called Shoormal – an invitation to explore issues of creative practice, collaboration and the “shifting sands in the creative economy”.

Artists, archaeologists, ethnologists, peat bog restorers and many more came together to reflect on how we might sustain community and creative cultural activity in local places – with a particular focus on the islands – recognising in particular the vital role of arts, culture and heritage.

My own contribution was to a lively workshop conversation session interrogating the ideologies underpinning the so-called “creative economy” in its current form, suggesting the model of the “cultural commons” as a liberating alternative to the status quo.

Many of us already agree that the current economic system is not the answer to our problems; indeed, it is the very cause. Faced with a climate emergency, business as usual is no longer an option.

The concepts of the “creative economy” and the “creative industries” as they currently exist are actually fairly recent inventions. Of course, there has always been a creative economy of sorts, since prehistoric times.

Forged in the neoliberal context of Blair and the New Labour project in the late 1990s, the creative industries were a political construct linking culture and creativity to the drivers of economic growth, defined as “those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property” (DCMS, 2001).

The idea first emerged in the context of regeneration in urban and industrial settings, quickly spreading to the rural periphery.

The political spin was that the creative industries would champion the social utility of arts and culture as progressive realms to engage fractured communities, realise progressive values and create a more sustainable economic world.

In Scotland, the fledgling Labour-led Scottish Executive adopted a cultural policy on this economic model. This era saw the creeping in of technocratic forms of governance, based upon quantitative data, economic indicators and market pricing.

In arts, culture and heritage, state-led policy filtered down to arts institutions and then on to artists, participants and audiences via funders. When the SNP came to power, they too drank the Kool-Aid, embracing this policy wholeheartedly with the creation of Creative Scotland.

People will argue that the creative industries have been an unquestionable economic success story. At what cost? Over the past two decades, we have witnessed the ongoing neoliberal transformation of our cultural practices into economic activities. So much of our arts, culture and heritage has been co-opted and commodified, stripping out so much of what sustains culture and community at the root in favour of market competition. Markets tend to have thin commitments to localities, cultures and ways of life.

What has happened here reflects a broader trend in global society: a shift towards financialisation of almost all aspects of life. Everything of potential future value is transformed into an asset to be leveraged; relationships are turned into services, commons into commodities, humans into economic agents. This has been described by commons scholar David Bollier as the “great invisible tragedy of our time”.

As it currently exists, the creative economy is a system built on competition and the extraction of cultural and social wealth: it commodifies collective constellations of meaning and singularises that which is common. Hitched as they are to the pursuit of endless economic growth, the creative industries are entangled and implicated in the global systemic crises – economic, social and ecological. As part of a wider movement demanding systemic change, then, we need to radically rethink and reorient the creative economy.

In his provocative book Against Creativity (2018), Oli Mould argues that modern capitalism has hijacked the word “creativity”. Under this economic regime, to “be creative” means finding new and agile ways to survive in a hostile and precarious environment from which all solidarity has been ruthlessly eliminated.

The mainstream version of creativity that we are sold by government, he argues, actually serves to maintain the status quo, upholding existing capitalist relations and systems of oppression – systems which “create rampant precariousness, the emboldening of global fascism, climate catastrophe and all the other ills that we see marching towards us on the horizon”.

Mould argues that the creative industries are harming, not helping artists, creating rampant precariousness and feeding off an army of freelance, precarious and volunteer workers. For over two decades now, he writes, ‘‘all but the very few fortunate of creative labourers have had to live cobbled-together portfolio careers and sell their artistic soul for a few grand of arts council funding’’.

We need to acknowledge the creative industries for what they currently are, he writes: “A political concept that serves no other purpose than to allow capital to do what it does best: serve the few at the expense of the rest.”

What would a creative economy look like, Mould asks, that was deeply socialised, that created collective power to resist precariousness, exploitation and systems of oppression? What, indeed, would a creative economy look like that prioritised the long-term nourishing of culture and community over activities that are economically productive but damaging to people and planet?

In my experience, mainstream conversations don’t seem either able or willing to grapple with the kind of radical turnaround that is now an imperative. So many organisations and institutions are locked in; those in leadership roles can’t see a way out, even if they wanted to. Others put a great deal of time and energy into “creatively” finding ways to outflank the system, knowing full well that the real deep and sustaining cultural work is always done despite this bluster. So often I hear the sentiment that “we just have to play the game” or “work the system” in order to do the work that we so passionately believe in. It shouldn’t be this way; it doesn’t have to be this way. We have to change the game; we have to change the system.

Making Common Cause

PERHAPS we don’t even need to look very far. I have written previously about the global movement to reclaim the commons, a social form of mutual co-operation that has long lived in the shadows of market economy and state power. The commons expresses a very old idea: that some forms of wealth belong to all of us, and that these community resources must be pooled, actively protected and managed for the good of all.

READ MORE: In a society focused on profit we want to live like commons people

Last week I travelled to the opposite end of the country, to doonhamers’ Dumfries, to celebrate the Scottish launch of a collection of essays on the potential of “creative cultural commoning” published by Voluntary Arts, Making Common Cause. As they have discovered, commoning is already an inherent part of everyday local community life; new civic and cultural ecosystems are springing up all over the place, providing alternatives to the dispiriting status quo.

This project emerged against a civic background in the UK and Ireland which was becoming increasingly fragmented as a result of both privatisation and neglect through budget cuts in the name of austerity. Many of the support structures – like public spaces for creativity, arts officers and funding – were being enclosed, lost or restricted.

The authors write: “We live in an era where the consequences and effects of dominant economic, social and political paradigms are pressing upon people, damaging democracy and fomenting feelings of frustration, helplessness and despair. It’s now when creating together, wisely and hopefully, matters most.”

The book launch was hosted by the wonderful folks at The Stove Network in Dumfries, the only artist-led community development trust in the UK. With colleagues from Ireland and with our host, artist Matt Baker, we learned more about the emerging story of the Stove – a wonderful example of what can be done to reignite the creative spirit of a place, making use of local heritage and the arts (music and performance, film and sound, writing as well as public art) to engage and mobilise people as agents of change in their own place, imagining futures and building them together.

That evening we enjoyed a moonlit public art walk along the river Nith, with invited provocations from local and guest speakers on the themes of our shared commons: culture, community, food, language, knowledge and nature. Author and director of Voluntary Arts Scotland Jemma Neville spoke about the importance of “leaning into the local” and the life-giving power of conversation itself – the etymology of which means both “the place where one lives or dwells” and “a turning towards.”

Our walk and talk was followed by a shared meal in convivial company at The Stove’s building on the high street, with further conversation on the theme hosted by poet Tom Pow. The evening was a real lift to the spirits – a source of energy for work to come.

How might we begin to make a transformative change in the creative economy for the common good?

We need to dig where we stand. We need to seed new forms of economic relations at the local level, allowing many little experiments to proceed, building interdependency from below. Creativity and culture doesn’t flow down from above into the local milieu and manifest itself in reality, it has to be cultivated and channelled.

If we are to meet the challenges of the future, it is vital that we become much more conscious of “culture” as something that carries with it a very profound meaning, in the sense that it forms human consciousness. It is not merely something to be bought and sold.

Culture shapes society and gives rise to social, political and economic realities. In this time of systemic crises, we need a radical cultural politics, and very explicitly so.

The most powerful thing to realise is that the knowledge, practices and human impulse to express ourselves creatively are held in common. The creativity we collectively possess gives us the capability to transform the existing “creative economy” into a culture of possibility.