Dave Beech on the neoliberal agenda behind the cuts in arts education

protest during Parliament's vote to increase university tuition fees December 2010

protest during Parliament's vote to increase university tuition fees December 2010

The sustained attack on funding for the arts and art education is not the unfortunate by-product of wider austerity measures, but rather the culmination of a long-term economic plan. Is not the only effective response, therefore, a critique of the very ideology driving this plan?

During the Thatcherite overthrow of the welfare state, Sir Keith Joseph argued that ‘too many within higher education believe that their case for extra resources is self-evident. That is not so: there are many competing demands for the limited expenditures for which tax and ratepayers can reasonably be asked to provide’. Although he was forced to abandon plans to introduce tuition fees, Tony Blair’s government gave him his wish, but it was not until David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s coalition government that the fees would reach the full average cost of higher education. We were warned.

What is noteworthy about this second neoliberal attack on the public funding of education is that this time the attack is asymmetrical. Funding for arts and humanities courses is affected a great deal more than that for science, technology, engineering and maths degrees. The arts and humanities have been identified by the UK government as the lowest economic form of higher education (awarded 0% teaching subsidy following the Browne Review). ‘By implication,’ Polly Toynbee says, ‘arts are a pastime for idle moments, whose unproductive students take useless degrees.’

The hike in tuition fees for students in higher education to cover the cost of their education in full is not just a prudent act by a government trying to reduce the national debt. The right-wing policy may be presented as empowering students by transforming them into paying customers with effective consumer ‘demands’, but the neoliberal campaign goes much further than this: it is a deliberate measure for converting tax revenue (it is the government that stumps up the cash for student loans) into profits for the private sector. As well as the general neoliberal partisanship of these policies, in which welfare economics is attacked out of a fanatical belief in the efficacy of market forces, there is a specific dogmatic force behind these cuts in public funding for education that derives from the economic study of art.

Cuts to arts and humanities education, and the arts more generally, represent key principles and long-term plans for Conservatives in general and neoliberals in particular. However, while these cuts are the latest example of the neoliberal backlash against the welfare state that began in the 1970s (to privatise profits and socialise risks, as social theorist David Harvey puts it in his 2010 book The Enigma of Capital), the general principles of neoliberalism only provide an indistinct background to this specific attack on the arts and humanities. The systematic attack on the public subsidy of art, the humanities and education has been meticulously planned in every detail over the preceding 40 years by neoliberal economists. It must be stressed, however, that these plans were not produced merely by applying the general theory of neoliberalism to the field of art. The case for subjecting culture, including education, to market forces had to be constructed by neoclassical economists. This was achieved through the new discipline of cultural economics.

In 1994 David Throsby, a leading economist of art, wrote, ‘it is only relatively recently that serious work has begun to be undertaken in the area that has come to be known as “cultural economics”, or more particularly “the economics of the arts”’. Throsby says, ‘if contemporary cultural economics has a point of origin, it would lie in the pages of a book by William J Baumol and William Bowen’, specifically Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma published in 1966. By the end of the 1970s, a fully fledged field of cultural economics had its own annual international conference, its own journal, an association and a separate classification in the bibliography of the Journal of Economic Literature. Baumol and Bowen’s publication was the first book-length economic study of art and it is not merely coincidental that 1966, the year of its publication, was also the year that the National Endowment for the Arts was established in the US. In fact, the political forces that pushed through the formation of the NEA were also behind Baumol and Bowen’s book. Baumol, who taught both economics and sculpture at Princeton, was approached by the Twentieth Century Fund, led by John D Rockefeller III and August Hecksher. Indeed, Baumol and Bowen’s study of the ‘cost disease’ of the performing arts (briefly, that technological and managerial innovations cannot, for example, reduce the number of musicians required to play a Mozart quartet) provided precisely the kind of argument that Rockefeller’s campaign for public funding for the arts needed.

Economists took a much stronger interest in art and culture after 1966 when the concept of state subsidies to the arts had spread to the US. Within a decade, however, the agenda of the new field had turned 180°, rejecting the argument for art’s economic exceptionalism and insisting, instead, that art is a standard or near-standard economic sector. One of the earliest respondents to Baumol and Bowen’s book was Alan Peacock. He was, like all the other economists who pioneered the economic analysis of art, personally involved in the arts. He was the conductor of the LSE Orchestra, a composer, a musician and chairman of the Scottish Arts Council between 1986 and 1992. Ruth Towse, the chief chronicler of cultural economics, says that what separated Peacock from Baumol and Bowen ‘was essentially the willingness to accept a role for government in the arts: Baumol, tending more to views somewhat left of centre, was more ready to embrace state involvement than Peacock, the classical liberal’. Peacock, then, had a neoliberal aversion to state subsidy.

Despite his avowed opposition to public funding for the arts, Peacock was hired by the Arts Council of Great Britain in the early 1980s to write a report, ‘Inflation and the Performed Arts’. It was clear that the commission ‘sought and expected detailed confirmation’ of the so-called cost disease identified by Baumol and Bowen, but Peacock disappointed his clients. His report ‘Public Funding of the Arts’ published in Fiscal Studies was too neoliberal for a pre-Thatcherite arts body at the time. While Peacock did not disprove the thesis that labour costs in the performing arts are not susceptible to productivity improvements, he did conclude that the cost disease was not pronounced and that there were demand-side measures that could alleviate it. Thus he argued that the need for public subsidy was not supported by the cost-disease thesis. He described his own report as ‘a landmark in the discussions of public policy towards music’ and it paved the way for the decimation of public funding for the arts under Margaret Thatcher and now, some 13 years later, under the present coalition government.

George Stigler and Gary Becker, in their famous 1977 essay ‘De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum’ (‘In Matters of Taste There Can Be No Disputes’), and Becker’s theory of ‘human capital’ more generally, changed the agenda for the public subsidy of the arts. Economists, policymakers and politicians of all stripes became convinced that the enjoyment of art was an activity that individuals engaged in as an investment in their own time and in their capacity as employees. Subsidies to artists, art venues, museums and so on are therefore presented for the first time as interferences in the labour market. If art’s audience members benefit from the experience of art and can command higher wages because of this cultivation and sophistication, then – so the argument goes – they should pay for this. William Grampp, professor emeritus of the University of Chicago, in his 1989 book Pricing the Priceless, took an uncompromisingly pro-market position, suggesting that museums need to charge visitors prices that can be supported by the market to meet their costs, lamenting that museums fail to capitalise on the growing value of their collections and ought to sell works to help fund themselves. Grampp contends that there is no economic rationale behind arts subsidies in any form and calls for their full and total abolition. Clare MacAndrew, Dublin-based founder of Arts Economics, says, ‘the reality is that art is produced, bought, and sold by individuals and institutions working within an economic framework inescapable from material and market constraints’. US economist and academic Tyler Cowen stands on the summit of this neoliberal assault on welfare economics and the case for art’s economic exceptionalism, arguing in his 1989 book In Praise of Commercial Culture that the market is the best possible system for the production of great art.

Recent campaigns against the cuts and concomitant changes in the economics of art’s public sector appear, unfortunately, to have failed to recognise the fact that the agenda has changed. ‘Save the Arts’, which campaigned in the run-up to the 2010 spending review cuts (Artnotes AM340), made the issue visible but was based, ultimately, on an explicit commitment to the value of art and an implicit assumption that public funding for the arts is self-evident to anyone who values art. Bob & Roberta Smith’s letter to education minister Michael Gove, and his subsequent campaign for the public funding of art, is a worthwhile and important cause, but it is bound to appear naive to neoliberal economists and the policymakers that they advise. ‘Everything is made’, the letter says, and ‘creativity is rebellion’. ‘Art should be at the centre of the national curriculum,’ says the artist, ‘not dropped from it.’ Michael Rosen’s open letter to Gove is based on the same contrast between economics and humanist values, protesting against the corruption of secondary education by the interests of business, industry and finance. State education ought to be about knowledge, self-improvement, critical thinking and the needs of the fully rounded individual, he argues, whereas the coalition government is ‘steering a course by which pupils will learn only what employers require of them’. In Ireland the National Campaign for the Arts is based on the argument that the arts are vital and vibrant.

The National Society in Art and Design Education believes progress will be made by voters requesting that ministers set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Art, Craft and Design Education. The Precarious Workers Brigade (Features AM359) reminds arts workers of their rights in confronting bosses and campaigns for equal pay, free education, democratic institutions and shared ownership of space, ideas and resources. The group’s practical assistance incorporates advice for interns and a resource pack for educators who want to resist the tendency for education to become mere ‘training for exploitation’. The PWB does not argue for state subsidy as a solution to increasing threats to art’s survival, but it persistently draws on the legal protections afforded by the state for art workers as economic agents. The state, therefore, is presented as some sort of solution to the confrontation between employees and employers. Since the rights to which the PWB refers have been won by generations of campaigning workers and their representatives, these are valid tactics. In fact, in terms of grassroots politics, this is important and inventive work. Nevertheless, for a campaign based on the contemporary relationship between art, education and the economy, it appears not to address the issues that are central to the current consensus in cultural economics and cultural policy.

In the era of welfare economics, when Richard Musgrave developed the idea of ‘merit goods’ back in 1957, it was possible to argue that art, health and education ought to be funded by the public purse because access to them ought to be free to all. Many of the people who care about education, culture and the NHS would subscribe to something like this view, myself included, but a new argument must be made for it or else the case will appear to be nothing but an outdated and economically illiterate romanticism. Simply reasserting the case for Keynesian state subsidies will get nowhere against a new consensus that became dominant by discrediting welfare economics – even at a time when Keynes is being revived to save the ailing world economy. Spouting Keynesian rhetoric to defend public subsidy for the arts in an era in which neoliberalism is dominant is quixotic. Neoliberalism is not merely a powerful ideology, it holds hegemony over the dismal science of economics and therefore has the ear of policymakers and politicians. It appears to speak the truth. We need to take on neoliberalism’s assumptions, doctrines and principles.

Public subsidy is a political choice outside the remit of professional economists, but economists are opposed to public subsidies on principle and are regarded as experts by national budget holders. We need to state the case for democracy over economics. Neoliberalism has an overwhelming desire to cut public funding for art, education, health and unemployment benefits not just because it is philistine, elitist, uncaring and spiteful, but because it truly believes that free markets allocate resources more effectively than state monopolies and, furthermore, that market forces are more democratic than political democracy. Central to neoliberalism’s dogma is the doctrine of consumer sovereignty. This needs to become one of the battlegrounds of a new case against the neoliberal assault on art, the humanities and education.

Mainstream economists distinguish the soverereign consumer not from other ordinary political individuals, namely ‘sovereign citizens’, but from political figures such as leaders, rulers, tyrants and officials. So, instead of pitching the sovereign consumer against its political equivalent, mainstream economists imagine ‘a clash between the economic power of consumers and the coercive power of the state’. This asymmetry makes it a lot easier for economists to make the standard case for consumer sovereignty as ruling out political ‘interference’. This doctrine of consumer sovereignty must be opposed with a defence of political sovereignty.

US economist Joseph Persky is quite wrong when he says ‘consumer sovereignty is attractive because under its impartiality, producers are more easily resigned to their roles as servants of society’. Producers do not serve society through consumer sovereignty; they serve capital. Consumers are consumers only insofar as they own, spend and represent money which will realise the value of invested capital through sales. Consumer sovereignty is an expression of the dominance of capital over the production and allocation of social use-values. What about citizen sovereignty, or other forms of sovereignty not expressed through money? Mainstream economists believe markets to be superior. They are fond of the analogy, first formulated by Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises – one of the most fanatical pro-marketeers in history – that every dollar spent by consumers on the free market is like a vote cast in favour of a certain commodity.

US economist Murray Rothbard later argued that Mises’s comparison of the market to the democratic process did not go far enough and was unfair on the free market. In democracy, the majority decision is binding on all (the candidate who receives 51% of the votes will govern 100% of the people), hence, Rothbard argues, the free market is more democratic than political democracy because every dollar counts. That the wealthy get more dollar-votes than the poor shows that democracy is, in principle, superior in at least one respect to market forces in arriving at collective decisions: voting is more equitable than market forces. But the full political critique of market forces as a method for arriving at collective decisions should not be limited to the case for democratic voting. All those situations in which discussions are held to arrive at an agreed action – from a family deciding which film to watch to a dispute over the teaching of evolution in faith schools – would not be improved if they were governed by market forces. Markets allow those with disposable income to express their preferences, but discussion allows us to reflect on our preferences and change them in the light of arguments made against them or for alternatives. Voting is required only if discussions fail to produce a consensus.

It is a weakness of mainstream economics that it underestimates the merits of democratic and discursive processes for arriving at collective decisions. Neoliberal policies are therefore vulnerable, in principle, to the argument that they universalise the sovereignty of the consumer and thereby eradicate the sovereignty of the citizen or participant. There are other significant weaknesses in the neoliberal argument that can be exploited by its opponents. One of the most important of these is the question of quality. Consumer sovereignty, insofar as the consumer is assumed, as a matter of principle, to be the best judge of commodities available in the marketplace, is a doctrine that is indifferent to questions of quality. Economists are aware of this problem and have attempted to dispel the irritating presence of issues of quality – of a type of value that cannot readily be reduced to economic value or measured by the price of an article – by claiming either, directly, that quality is nothing but a question of taste and therefore preference, or, indirectly, that consumers can have access to knowledge of quality and therefore the market can reflect such judgements: you can find out what experts and other consumers know about the quality of a particular car or hotel and adjust your purchases accordingly. A central tenet of mainstream economics is precisely this: markets are based on informed consumers making rational choices. (Although as political theorist Noam Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out, ‘the goal of advertising is to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices’.)

Art and education, however, are unusual in respect of the judgement of quality. Quality in art is only recognised, understood and experienced through time and effort. The ‘consumer’ of philosophy, too, cannot make judgements as to the quality of arguments prior to purchase based on the recommendations of others. Courses designed according to student preferences or employer demand are, like consumer sovereignty generally, indifferent to quality. The alleged consumers of education (potential students or potential employees of graduates) are in no position to judge the quality of knowledge or pedagogy on offer, since students lack knowledge of the subject that they are being asked to judge and employers have interests external to the subjects that are being taught.

Treating art and the humanities as consumer goods that can be bought means neglecting the dimension of quality in which we speak of the experience of them being earned, benefiting from prolonged study, being augmented by close attention and rewarding effort. Consumers can buy artworks or a library full of books, but the quality of the experience is not guaranteed by the purchase. Economics has a poor track record in discussing quality and so it should be a conspicuous element of the critique of the neoliberal attack on art and the humanities.

The frailty of the doctrine of consumer sovereignty is the fault line where neoliberalism is vulnerable – this ought to be the basis of a fightback against the neoliberal dismissal of public subsidy to art and higher education, as well as health and human welfare more generally.

Dave Beech is an artist in the Freee art collective and is currently writing a book on art and economics for the Historical Materialism Book Series.

First published in Art Monthly 366: May 2013.

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