Academic journal article New Formations

Austere Creativity and Volunteer-Run Public Services: The Case of Lewisham's Libraries

Academic journal article New Formations

Austere Creativity and Volunteer-Run Public Services: The Case of Lewisham's Libraries

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The article will explore the mobilisation of the concept of 'creativity' within the austerity context; stripped of any oppositional or transgressive aspects, it is used to mean the resourcefulness and ingenuity of citizens to adapt and 'problem-solve' in the face of cuts to the welfare state. Such a conception of creativity involves the co-option and privatisation of impulses towards self-organisation and libertarian critiques of the welfare state. It was also linked to imperatives to restore a perceived lost sense of community, and to the conviction that austerity provides the opportunity to do so by forcing citizens to rely on each other rather than the state. This 'austere creativity' is important to consider as an aspect of the wider cultural politics of austerity.

'Austere creativity' will be examined through the case of the campaign against the closure of five libraries in Lewisham, London, in 2011 and the reaction of campaigners to their eventual conversion to social enterprises and charities with volunteers replacing qualified librarians. The case reflects the impasses intrinsic to anti-austerity campaigns, in which one is often faced with a defence of existing public service provision which does not really satisfy desires for an alternative. These impasses make it easy to claim, as will be seen, that the conversion would foster both a sense of community and creativity not possible under council ownership.

The article will begin by examining the instrumentalisation of the concept of 'creativity' within neoliberal policy discourses before the financial crisis, and will consider its application within the austerity context. I will then discuss the case of the 2010-11 campaign to save the libraries in Lewisham. The article will be based on three in-depth, semi-structured interviews with key activists involved in the libraries campaign, conducted in early 2013, as well as auto-ethnographic observations on my own involvement as an activist. Grey literature on the outsourcing of public services and a promotional video about the volunteer-run library will also be examined.

NEOLIBERAL CREATIVITY

I will first offer a brief genealogy of the discourse of 'creativity' as it has been used within neoliberal policy documents. This will first be discussed within a global framework, and then will focus on the UK, particularly within the context of austerity. From the late 1990s until the financial crisis, there were utopian promises in cultural, urban and employment policy about how creative work and creativity itself could lift people out of poverty, fix economies, and provide work satisfaction: a certain 'magic bullet solution'. (1) These promises were central to a 'creativity' discourse developed by policymakers, media commentators, academics, think-tanks and so on which increasingly defined creativity within the framework of technology and business, and more fundamentally, competition. Central to the creativity discourse was the claim that 'creativity' exemplified innovation, flexibility and the willingness to embrace change, and was thus a resource to be mobilised by business. (2) This creativity discourse established the 'creative worker' as an exemplary entrepreneurial figure who was innovative, flexible, adaptable and resourceful. (3) How did this come to pass? Historical precedents existed around the figure of the artist during the Romantic period, a time when artists began to produce for a market rather than for aristocratic patrons, thus justifying the idea of competition as meritocracy. (4) These ideas of the artist as exemplary figure and talent-as-meritocracy became common sense within popular conceptions of cultural work.

In the 1960s, qualities represented by the figure of the artist became associated with the rejection of the rhetoric and tactics of the traditional left, in what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello termed 'the artistic critique'. (5) This represented a rejection of the 'organisation man and the public and private bureaucracies of the post-war period' and asserted 'a do-it-yourself, work-for-yourself attitude that represented a powerful feeling of liberation'. …

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