We are constantly told by our line managers, parents, governments, CEOs, “thought leaders,” and media to be creative. Apparently, creativity is the new lifeblood of the modern economy.
The rush to “be creative” is having a huge impact on everything around us, from the places where we work to the ways we are managed. The traditional corporate hierarchy is now a defunct system that negates creative activity, we hear. Governments are too bureaucratic and stifle innovative policy thinking. Regulation is the enemy of flexible, agile, and creative work.
Social services, charities, and other institutions are failing not because their funding has been drastically cut, but because they are not creative enough. Hospitals, schools, and universities that fail do so because they are insufficiently entrepreneurial and can’t adapt to a rapidly changing marketplace and digital technologies.
With the onset of this language, institutionalized into terms such as “the creative industries,” the “creative economy” and the “creative class,” creativity has become the critical paradigm of economic growth.
But rarely is it asked, what is it that we’re supposed to be creating?
In reality, what this version of creativity produces is simply more of the same: inequality, injustice, and dispossession.
Contemporary capitalism has commandeered creativity to ensure its own growth and maintain the centralization and monetization of what it generates. Marx prophetically argued that capitalism does not see its limits as limits at all, only as barriers to be overcome. Its relentless pursuit of resources to exploit, and wealth to generate for the elite, mean that the only creativity capitalism has is in destroying alternatives and turning them into fertile and stable ground for further growth.
In The New Spirit of Capitalism, social theorists Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello have argued that in the world after the protests in Paris in 1968 (and the countercultural revolution of the sixties more broadly), capitalism’s growth has become predatory. It preys on the people, ideas, things, and movements that are in direct opposition to it.
By mobilizing the creative industries of advertising, branding, and public relations, contemporary capitalism actively seeks out those who are opposed to it and offers them fame and fortune. In essence, capitalism stabilizes those movements, people, and ideas that are “outside” it by naming them. It brings them into the “mainstream” and the broader public consciousness.
It does all this to prepare them for commercialization. Many countercultural movements, from hippie culture to punk to skateboarding, have fallen foul of capitalism’s lure of monetary reward. In the twenty- first century, this process of co-option has become intensely rapid, and in some cases, extremely crass.
Take for example the furor over an advertisement for Pepsi that aired briefly in early 2017. The ad focused on a laughably generic protest march, whose participants carry placards with slogans such as “join the conversation” and “love.” A fashion model, played by Kendall Jenner, is taking part in a photoshoot nearby, and spies an identikit male counterpart (complete with a Pepsi can, of course) in the rally who seductively beckons her to join in.
She throws off the shackles of her manicured beauty by discarding a blonde wig and smudging her perfectly applied lipstick, and joins the throngs of the protest. She then grabs a Pepsi can of her own from an ice bucket, and hands it to a policeman who is standing guard alongside the rally. He sips the refreshing soda, nods approvingly to the fashion model and to his fellow law enforcers.
Everyone cheers, hugs each other and the screen fades to black. “Live Bolder. Live Louder. Live for now.” Drink Pepsi.
The ad was quickly trashed on social and mainstream media. At a time of intense anger in the US, with marches against Donald Trump’s presidency and institutional racism in the police, this ad was a blatant co-option of protest aesthetics to hawk soda. With a less-than-subtle riff on the famous image of Ieshia Evans being handcuffed by police officers in riot gear at Baton Rouge in 2016, Pepsi sanitized protest and redirected the powerful imagery of urban-based activism away from the social injustices they are trying to correct, to selling more drinks. Deaths in police custody, the oppression by police at protests using violence, pepper spraying, and wrongful arrests were (and still are) raw in the public imagination, and when Pepsi aped the protest “look” for gain, the rebuttal was rightfully swift, and their retraction welcome.
But this kind of branding exercise is a perfect example of how capitalism transforms its opponents into its promoters. Drawing on an advertising and technology industry that scours the social world for images, movements, and experiences yet to be commercialized, capitalism’s “creative” edge leaches any semblance that these could be utilized to create alternative social worlds. Any movement (be it a countercultural group, protest movement, meme, or activist ideology) that is looking to destabilize capitalism is viewed as a potential market to exploit.
Hence, capitalism’s “creative” power does not create — it appropriates.
It offers dissenting voices financial incentives, recognition, or even simply a rest from the emotional and physical exhaustion of constantly fighting. But in doing so, those anti-capitalists stop destabilizing capitalism: instead, they become fertile grounds to harvest more profit.
This is how capitalism’s methods of appropriation have been so successful. Its rhetoric of creativity is actually fueled by self-interest, market logics, and competition. That creativity then gets wielded as capitalism’s most potent weapon. As the market absorbs all its challenges and then repackages them as products for sale, that creativity becomes the means by which capitalism’s boosters in politics and the media can explicitly or implicitly boast: “There is no alternative.”
But there can be an alternative — perhaps revolutionary creativity; one that is about creating new phenomena to which capitalism is unaware. There is a powerful force in the margins of society and in the fissures of the commercialized world that is destabilizing the ground on which capitalism’s future is being harvested.
Creativity should be about seeking out those activities, people, and ephemera that resist co-option, appropriation, and stabilization by capitalism — not figuring out new ways to shore it up