Technical mastery of the markets – promised since the London Stock Exchange ‘Big Bang’ of 1986 – is visible today in a stripped down form. Disparities from the economic crisis, together with greater transparency in investment business, have exposed the unprecedented complexity and interdependent aspects of today’s world economy. Steep reductions in market value are a counterpoint to expanding and intricate, economic circuitry. Previous efforts to restore confidence in this system are now giving way to fundamental restructuring.
Culture of Cuts
Today, in Europe, governments are dedicating themselves to reductions in welfare state spending (“EU austerity drive country by country”). In Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain, money is being raised through the sale of public assets. In the UK, the economic crisis has become a rallying point for an agenda of cuts which directly targets state institutions, both social and educational (“Public sector job losses ‘worse than expected’”). As a consequence of these reductions, UK workers in tertiary education are facing severe job cuts (Times Educational Supplement) and are seeing their institutions transformed.
Cuts affect also those who rely on the sector for short-term contracts, and for whom it is a locus of formal and informal networks. In the arts, practitioners who are members of these communities face a double bind, as funding bodies pass stringent budget reductions along the chain, thus limiting opportunities for creative practitioners to access further sources of income. Artistic responses to these conditions range from ‘outreach’ programmes as part of the curriculum of academic institutions, to those which could be seen as less intrinsic to educational bodies and others which are altogether independent of any formal organisation.
Reductions in Public Institutions
The cuts, which in the UK, have largely still to be realised (Mulholland), are being applied to organisations instituted from above (by the State) and from below (by individuals and communities). As prominent examples, in October this year, the BBC announced a profound re-structuring, introducing up to 2000 staff lay-offs and more programme repeats in the schedule (“BBC cuts at a glance”); artist-led organisations have been the major casualty in the Arts Council of England’s most recent funding round (Artist’s Newsletter).
Hand in hand with the logic of cutting state provision, is privatisation. Even before considering the effect of student tuition fees, it seems that in UK higher education, privatization is already well under way; Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the Universities and College Union states, “While public expenditure on post-16 education has risen 6% in ten years, private spending has gone up 80%. With around a third of the system now privately funded, the market is taking over in front of our very eyes” (Shepherd).
In the media, even-handed reporting has been one of the founding principles of the BBC (“The BBC’s impartiality principles”) so that in the attack on public state institutions, sought-after impartiality in public debate may also be in peril. Two separate media stories bring a more optimistic measure to the discussion. The first concerns WikiLeaks, its publication of classified information and attempts to impugn the organisation and those who run it (Harvard Law and Policy Review); the second, involves News Corporation and the illegal accessing of voice mail by staff at News of The World (“Phone hacking”). Together these stories have brought the ethics of sharing to the core of a debate which matches the availability of information and the public interest, with the individual (and institutional) right to privacy. Because of the nature of the two organisations (WikiLeaks, a hacker inspired, not-for-profit institution which tends to see information as a public good, and News International, a for-profit, global corporation), these questions especially draw attention to issues of integrity and transparency and they resonate with concerns about the identity of our public institutions.
Reductions in Social Welfare State Institutions
Whether or not a clear link can be made between the critical thinking, which universities have long existed to advance, and impartiality in the media, it seems there is good reason to think that both are threatened by the present unravelling of the welfare state. The concern for objective criticality, is the lifeblood of academic inquiry, as underlined in an address from MacKenzie Wark to students at The Open School in New York: “The aim of education is to negate the given, and in so doing, throw into sharp relief both what is right and what is wrong with the social order. Education is not outside of the incessant struggle to make the world. It is one of the essential moments of that struggle.”
At a time when the future direction of bastions of the welfare state (including even the British National Health Service) are under intense scrutiny, institutions face increasing pressure from the market. Hito Steyerl reflects on this situation:
Now the problem is – and this is indeed a very widespread attitude – that when a cultural institution comes under pressure from the market, it tries to retreat into a position which claims it is the duty of the nation state to fund it and to keep it alive. The problem with that position is that it is an ultimately protectionist one, that it ultimately reinforces the construction of national public spheres and that under this perspective the cultural institution can only be defended in the framework of a New Left attitude seeking to retreat into the remnants of a demolished national welfare state and its cultural shells and to defend them against all intruders.(18)
With the picture painted of apparent economic reductions, mirrored by reductions in social life, I am asking how the focus on permeability, and access from markets, can become an opportunity to advance the ideals of information-sharing and an academic gift economy, considering what effect individuals can have in forming sustainable creative networks. What chances do such networks have for embedding a lasting culture of sharing within our institutions?
BBC cuts at a glance. BBC. 6 Oct. 2011. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.
EU austerity drive country by country. BBC. 11 Nov. 2011 Web. 10 Oct. 2011.
Higher education faces spending cuts up to 16%. Times Educational Supplement. 5 Nov. 2010. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.
Ladders for development: Impact of Arts Council England funding cuts on practice-led organisations. Artist’s Newsletter.
May 2011. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.
Mulholland, Hélène and Nicholas Watt. Spending review 2010: George Osborne announces extra £7bn of welfare cuts. The Guardian. 20 Oct. 2010. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.
Phone hacking. The Guardian. n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2011.
Public sector job losses ‘worse than forecast’ . BBC. n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.
Shepperd, Jessica. Privatisation of higher education threatens universities. The Guardian, 4 Sep. 2010. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.
Steyerl, Hito. “The Institution of Critique.” Art and Contemporary Critical Practice. Reinventing Institutional Critique. Eds. Raunig, Gerald and Gene Ray. London: MayFlyBooks, 2009. Print.
The BBC’s impartiality principles. BBC. 18 Jun. 2007. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.
Wark, Mackenzie. The New School Convocation. The Open School. 2 Sep. 2010. Web. 5 Oct. 2011.
WikiLeaks, the First Amendment, and the Press. Harvard Law and Policy Review. n.d. Web. 11 Oct.. 2011.