The Resistible Rise of the Creative Class

Article excerpt

"The Creative City" should immediately strike one as an odd phrase, one that we could very well do without. Because it has become such a buzz word since the publication of American consultant Richard Florida's urban economic policy manual The Rise of the Creative Class, however, not everyone may feel this way. Indeed, we forget too easily in the company of our "bohemian" neighbours that cities have been creative places for much of human history, and especially so after the rise of capitalism; and that creativity itself is a fundamental feature of human nature, at least according to Karl Marx's view on the matter.

Who except Florida and his clients could talk about creativity and class without attending to the contradictions of capitalism? Certainly not Marx or Engels. In The Communist Manifesto, they famously praised the bourgeoisie for having "played a most revolutionary part" in history; for being a class that "cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society." That is to say, "constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones"--by any conceivable index of "creativity," "innovation," or "growth."

Yet the same historical process, Marx observed, also creates the proletariat, the massive working class concentrated in cities, upon whose exploited labour arise the bourgeois "wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals," such as Florida's favourites: "Nokia cell phones" and "Lord of the Rings movies."

While acknowledging bourgeois accomplishments, Marx also defined true wealth in the Grundrisse as "the absolute working-out of [human] creative potentialities," which fully accords, as Terry Eagleton notes, with his "absolute" moral criterion: the unquestionable virtue of a rich, all-round expansion of the capacities for each individual. Capitalism fails to deliver it, as many have discovered; and so it is the task of those whose creative humanity is denied by this social order to create a better one, with nothing less than a revolution.

The revolution to liberate "human creativity" is now happening right before our eyes, according to Florida's considered opinion. In case we haven't noticed, he urges us to join it: "it's up to us--all of us--to complete the transformation" begun by the world-historical agency of the enviably bohemian "Creative Class." "The transformation now in progress," Florida writes in the new preface to the paperback edition, "is potentially bigger and more powerful [than the] great transition from the agricultural to the industrial age." Such a staggeringly hubristic hypothesis would represent a reckless historical assessment even if professed by a yuppie on drugs. Coming from a Columbia University-educated professor of "economic development" full of liberal chutzpah for cultural and sexual diversity, it is positively irresponsible.

Clearly, Creative Class intends to address not students of history or cities, and definitely not revolutionaries. As Peter Marcuse remarks, it reads rather like a series of "after-dinner speeches" tailored for business elites and "civic leaders" suffering from their late capitalist anxieties. What does Florida offer them? Basically, some numbers (in the form of "indexes"--on "talent," "technology," "tolerance," etc.--correlated to "innovation," "creativity" and economic "growth" of city-regions) and anecdotes (explaining exactly how "cool" "cool" people are, and why our wonderful cities would be doomed without them) that not only motivate, but also flatter. The lecture-circuit audience has responded to Florida in kind, as evidenced in the website selling his book--www.creativeclass.org. Just click on the modestly labeled button: "The Praise. …