Neoliberalism, language and engagement - A workshop

This is the transcript of my 3 very short provocations presented to stimulate discussion during my workshop at the Sound Connections Social Justice Conference at Cecil Sharp House on 30th November 2017.

You can access the PowerPoint with notes and images here.

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Hello. I’m Stephen. This workshop will explore neoliberalism, language and engagement, and whether social justice can ever be compatible with neoliberalism. If not, what does that mean? Are there alternatives?

So, who do I think I am? What’s my background?

Working class. White. Northern. Mixed roots. Never went to galleries, museums, restaurants as a child.

I’m married. Have two children. Managed international business. Worked in the arts. Do community art. Have gained cultural capital. Have consulted major arts organisations and initiatives. My children love the arts, museums and restaurants.

I’m a soon-to-be Doctor. An academic. A Marxist. I’ve written for The Guardian. I’m a child of Thatcher.

I’m middle-class now, in some respects. A Labour party member. A trade unionist. A member of Momentum. An activist. Anti-gentrification and yet I’m a gentrifier (we’re all gentrifiers in some sense) …

So that’s me. What about this workshop?

There’ll be three, three-minute provocations by me with space for open discussion for fifteen minutes between each provocation. We’ll end with 5 minutes for anyone wanting to share their feelings and thoughts about the workshop with the group.

WORKSHOP PROVOCATION 1:

Is there really no alternative?

“There is no alternative” to free market economics, according to Margaret Thatcher.

TINA became a mantra for late capitalism, with David Cameron still chanting it wildly decades later. The message here starves democracy and shuts down any hope of social justice. There is no alternative to what has now become known as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is the only option; the only game in town.

There was, for Thatcher, also no such thing as society – just individuals and families.

So today many of us believe that the language and ideology of free markets, privatisation, public-private-partnerships and consumerism is the only way. Many do not feel happy or comfortable. But with the rhetoric of THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE ringing in our ears and singed into our eyes and minds, many of us are forced to believe it. Forced to conform and comply.

So let’s start by accepting that We’re all consumers nowadays.

Many contest this neoliberal monoculture. It truly has seeped into every aspect of our lives. Everywhere. Globally. Neoliberalism is white, hierarchical, middle-class, places money and profit above all. It claims to liberate us but it ensnares us, oppresses us and exploits us.

For Hugo Chávez, neoliberalism is the “path to hell”.

Yet understanding the all-pervasive aggression and violence of neoliberalism can help us to understand how we can work within and against it, how we can demand change, how we can resist, how we can reframe social justice, how we can think about alternatives.

Because neoliberalism is a political project. Not the only political project, just the dominant political project today. It hasn’t existed for long and, I argue, it will not exist for much longer. Neoliberalism is a counter-revolutionary project designed to suppress freedom and calls for social justice. It is an ideology: a creative and destructive ideology.

It is clear that contrary to the idea that there is no alternative, there ARE ALTERNATIVES. Our alternatives. We must free ourselves of the neoliberal straightjacket if we are to decolonise our lives and demand social justice. So what’s your alternatives?

WORKSHOP PROVOCATION 2:

Do we speak neoliberalism now?

Our every thought and word are infected by neoliberal ideology. Let’s think about that a little more, focusing on the arts…

The state, local authorities, funders, sponsors speak the language of neoliberalism – particularly the language of New Public Management. Our projects must conform. Speak the language – their language. Tick the boxes – their boxes.

Outcomes, outputs, delivery, sustainability, resilience, adaptive resilience, ecosystems, revenue streams, partnerships, skills sharing, knowledge sharing, diversity, cultural capital, social capital, targets, wellbeing, coproduction, collaboration, cultural value, citizenship, civic pride, austerity, hard-to-reach, inclusion, NEETs, BMEs, participation, on and on and on… This is the language of neoliberalism. The language of neoliberal economics. The language of capitalism. The language of money.

And it is this ideological language that colonises us. It leaves us with the choice of either compliance or marginalisation. The centre or the margins.

This language is racist, classist and it others everyone that does not conform to the civic norms – to white, middle-class, male, heterosexual, physically able, Western norms. To conform is to be colonised. To conform is to colonise others. The drive for art to “civilise” those othered by society is strong and it is underpinned by neoliberal ideology and played out with neoliberal images and language.

Neoliberalism is colonialism and we must decolonise ourselves, our societies and our communities. We must decolonise the arts. I suggest that the language of neoliberalism cannot be reconciled with the language of social justice. We must take back the arts, our identities, our communities, our human rights.

Under neoliberalism, those working in the arts are faced with the prospect of acting like missionaries, mercenaries or mobilisers. Which one are you?

WORKSHOP PROVOCATION 3:

Can arts engage neoliberalism?

Let’s look at two examples very briefly…

There have been many brilliant interventions at major UK arts institutions recently primarily focusing on fossil fuel funding.  Collectives like Art not Oil, Liberate Tate, Reclaim the Bard and many more have created (and will no doubt continue to create) a host of spectacularly Platform London powerful, often sublimely beautiful acts of resistance  against the involvement of fossil fuel corporations such as BP and Shell in and around some of the country's biggest cultural institutions.

Deadline Festival was different from these often shorter forms of intervention.  The idea was to host an unauthorised three-day arts festival in the public spaces inside Tate Modern, occupying and reclaiming the space for a packed programme of installation, exhibition, poetry, theatre, performance, workshops, films, debates and participatory intervention. 

Deadline Festival sought to decolonise the arts. To change the game by dispensing with aesthetics – or at least what many would consider aesthetics. It engaged with Tate Modern’s audiences in its public spaces, reclaiming them and democratising them.

It engaged with the institution’s staff and management. It involved a host of volunteers who talked visitors and staff members. The festival was both a place of debate and a powerful space for dissent in a bastion of establishment privilege and authority.

Another interesting project is the Morris Justice Project in New York’s Bronx.

An amazing example of participatory action research done well. Engaged people voicing real concerns about their neighbourhood using data they collected. This video is also a great example of using visual arts to produce powerful public interventions via the outdoor projection vehicle called The Illuminator. Lots UK could learn here.

The project is part of the really innovative Public Science Project.

We must engage with, critique, challenge, resist and replace neoliberalism with a fairer, more just society. This is political. Everything is political. There are alternatives. So how would you begin to resist and perhaps think about decolonising the arts, your practices?