Creativity, sabotage and the management of risk and responsibility in freelance creative work

Nitzan and Bichler theorise a dissonant relation of sabotage between power and creativity, business and industry. What they show is that the control of creative processes of production is not antithetical to their success. Rather, it is constitutive of this success in capitalist society. If not kept within limits, the free activity of the creative worker would undermine the possibility of capitalist success in this sector. In this blog, I will outline how Nitzan and Bichler deliver us to this insight. I will do so with reference to the assumption and apportionment of risk and responsibility in freelance creative work.

Nitzan and Bichler suggest that capitalism thrives through the ‘sabotage’ of creativity. By means of their rereading of the work of Thorstein Veblen, they give one possible view on the limitations placed upon autonomous creativity by management. They suggest that capitalism as characterised by a propensity to control and accumulate, rather than to stimulate, grow and invest. I have associated this with an understanding of capitalism as carefully risk-averse in the face of uncertainty. Related to this is the damaging limitation of creative potential and ability. This is essential to the functioning of capitalism rather than contradictory or incidental.

Nitzan and Bichler situate industry and business as representatives of the conflicting forces of creativity and power. The latter profits at the expense of the former. It restricts the growth and innovation of ‘industry’ broadly defined as the capacity to create to meet human wants, needs and desires. Business thrives on power, of which it seeks the accumulation. In pursuit of this, it actively sabotages creativity. This undermines rivals by limiting their growth and profit. The growth and profit of the hostile capital is secured by means of the greater ability to control and manipulate economic, social and political factors.

The tension between industrious creativity and business power is not destructive of the capitalist economy. This conflict is the productive principle which drives the whole process. This productive tension manifests in the careful control and management of creative activity. It is evidenced in empirical context of the creative industries. Nitzan and Bichler’s theory of ‘capital as power’ helps us to understand the limitations set upon autonomous creative work by management. Their analysis of the sabotage of creativity by power provides a neat way to assess the dimensions of control in the context of autonomy in the creative industries. This analysis addresses the seeming paradox of greater risk and responsibility seen in freelance work. On the one hand, we see a requirement to delegate responsibility so as to stimulate the autonomous processes of creativity upon which these industries rely. But, on the other, we see business’s urge to control, restrict and limit in the name of cautious and forward-facing accumulation in spite of risk and uncertainty. This latter stifles any possible degrees of freedom and liberty in these emancipated employment relationships. It does so through project management and rationalization.

There is thus a tension. On the one hand, we have the capitalist tendency to control in the name of power and business. On the other, creativity and industriousness are essential to the production of creative goods and services. In the creative industries, capital seeks to render creativity more amenable to rational expectations of success. It attempts to make it less prone to the underlying uncertainty that surrounds the production and delivery of cultural and creative commodities. It is precisely this tension with is productive of value, and lies at the basis of the possibility of capital accumulation. The tension appears most satisfactorily in a perfect balance between the ability to control and the capacity for creative brilliance. In my research, I have found differing degrees of responsibility and risk to be the key variable exhibiting this tension.

My research suggests that creative work endows workers with some flexibility, autonomy and responsibility. But this is hard to reconcile with the aversion to risk and uncertainty of capitalist enterprise that I covered in an earlier blog. The autonomy granted is seen as necessary to the effective performance of creative tasks. This stems from the romantic understanding of creative pursuits. It sees creative work as subject to an unburdened and free-flowing process of inspiration. One uses one’s imagination in a series of careful, loving undertakings. But the creative process in creative industries is much more controlled, and, crucially, limited. It is subject to forms of management instituted to avert the risks incurred by the delegation of responsibility, autonomy and flexibility.

In a previous post, I outlined some of the factors affecting capitalist approaches to risk. Some of these factors are exacerbated in creative industries. Added risks arise. The ephemerality and unknowability of creative industries far exceeds that of other sectors. The potential success of a creative good or service is hard to ascertain. Within the workplace, it is not always possible to gauge or interpret what is being done when. The cognitive and creative nature of work in the sector renders it resistant to easy understanding or measurement. Thus, creative industries can rationalise internally only to a limited extent. Other means must be utilised to guard against their heavy burden of risk and uncertainty. Through flexible, decentralised working practices some of this risk is delegated to employees.

The way that the risk of this autonomy is managed is through the use of different contracts and employment relationships. One means by which this is achieved is through the creative industries’ reliance upon freelancers. The creative industries- particularly design- display a strong reliance on freelance work. In a fluctuating, fluid and flexible industry, it meets the need to respond to events. It retains the necessary flexibility but shifts the responsibility for mistakes onto actors external to the company hierarchy. In this way, outsourcing of work to freelancers also outsources risks associated with creative production.

The autonomous creativity essential to cultural production depends upon the devolution of responsibility. But this devolution of responsibility implies significant risks. These must be mediated through the careful control of the creative energies of these employees. One means of control reacts to risk by transferring its burden from the company to the employee. This occurs through novel and diverse forms of flexible contract. On one hand, these remove some of the certainties of the old employment relationship for the worker. On the other, they remove some of the uncertainties incurred by the employer as part of this relationship.

The reward for the freelancer’s shouldering of increased risk is more autonomy and responsibility. Granting this greater freedom absolves the employer of the responsibility of security and a full wage. The freelancer is burdened with both risk and responsibility, without the terms and conditions. At the same time as being risk-averse, then, contemporary capitalism is also responsibility-awarding.

But checkpoints and systems of monitoring are in place to observe and control these seemingly autonomous actions. Managers, clients and colleagues all contribute to this framework of discipline and control. Without such a framework the uncertainty afflicting the business would be unbearable.

Creative industries are at the forefront of new ways of working that encourage autonomy and flexibility. But the struggle against uncertainty demands that this autonomy and flexibility are carefully controlled. The efficient functioning of creative industries depends upon the exploitation of a carefully-poised balance. As Townley and Beech note, this balance is that between the ‘freedom to be creative’ and the ability to keep ‘creativity within manageable and productive bounds’. On the one hand, the production of effective goods and services relies upon free creative impulses. They do not conform well to the rationalised and predictable expectations of business. So they must be tempered by attempts to channel what is positive about these impulses towards recognisable and manageable ends. The success of a project occurs not in spite of this tension, but by means of it. Townley and Beech suggest that the production of creative commodities thus thrives upon ‘the tension and balance between creativity and cost, autonomy and management control’.

What Nitzan and Bichler show us that is that the conflict at the heart of creative work drives matters rather than detracts. Their theory illustrates that conflict and the dissonance it creates is not an aberration. It is a constituent component of capitalism. Capital thrives on conflict, struggle and tension between power and creativity and business and industry. The example of creative work, and more specifically freelance creative work, provides a good example of some of the everyday ways in which this manifests.

This post and others in the series draw upon thoughts and writings originally published at http://themachineintheghost.blogspot.com. Thanks are due to the funding bodies supporting the research.