By Philip Pilkington, a writer and journalist based in Dublin, Ireland. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil
I seen a lot of rappers turn soft, I turn my TV off (uh)
And thugs got commercials (yea) thugs in commercials (uh)
And everybody’s chick turned gladiator and shit
No pimps, no hustlers, yo where’s your whips
No Maybachs, no Lambos on the field
Towncar, ridin Music Express
You the best example, yo the industry is whack yo
Now you can bet your label and your Phantom on that
– Kool Keith ‘Bamboozled’
Daily, megacorporations shovel crap into our eyes and ears. There is no worse indictment for the so-called ‘free market’ – which is really just a few giant bureaucratic institutions – than the suppression of creativity in favour of the commoditised effluent of the corporate culture industry.
In truth the commoditised crap churned out by the great corporate machine is wholly reliant on creativity that emerges from the ground up. Today’s mainstream music scene relies on the hip hop and rap movements that emerged between the 1970s and the early 1990s in black communities in California and New York – needless to say that it is completely out of date but such is the stale nature of these institutions. Contemporary ‘alternative’ music feeds on the punk and post-punk scenes that emerged in Britain and the US in the late-70s and 80s – again, hopelessly out of date.
The great corporate machine simply sanitises and repackages culture in order to feed the masses through their tele-visual tubing. Fine. But it cannot truly create new flavours to inject into the tubes – and anyone who has an instinct to chase the new and the interesting will be quickly turned off. Put simply: corporate capitalism produces many things well – from clothing to furniture (although the question of style once again arises when we examine these in any serious way) – but it cannot produce true art. An alternative mechanism is needed.
Many have come to see this. People have discovered that the internet can provide them far more effectively with their cultural sustenance, so they take out the corporate tubing and logon. But this creates problems.
Stirrings of an Alternative
The economist Dean Baker outlined an alternative some time ago. He calls it the ‘artistic freedom voucher’. An excellent and detailed primer can be found here. Basically, taxpayers fork over money to their favourite artists and in return get tax credits. So, they pay their favourite artists some of the money that should have gone to the government in tax payments. The music would then be published under a ‘creative commons license’ that would allow everyone to access it for free.
Okay great. But this means that the government receives less money because the tax credits are ‘cashed in’ by people donating to the arts. This means that the government receives less revenue. Some have suggested that we offset this with taxes levied on digital audio equipment, blank CDs and internet connections. I have absolutely no problem with this. However, there is, once again, an alternative: we could run the system as a stimulus program and supplement it with an ambitious attempt to publicly subsidise institutions that artists could work in free from corporate influence at little personal cost.
Across the world today governments have been forced to run massive deficits in order to keep economies ticking over as private sector spending falls. Many of us would prefer that governments increase this spending in order to counter the unemployment that currently plagues most advanced capitalist countries.
Modern Monetary Theorists (MMTers) point out that governments that issue their own currencies can run such stimulus indefinitely until inflationary pressures build which will only happen after recovery takes place. They cite Japan as an example who, having stimulated their economy for over 20 years after the bursting of a private sector debt bubble in 1991, still have not encountered any problems with amassing government debts to the tune of 220% of GDP.
Countries that do not issue their own currencies have problems with large debt burdens – as is shown in certain Eurozone countries at the moment. However, either some formal mechanism is going to have to be put in place to allow these countries to run deficits or the Eurozone itself will collapse in the next few years.
(It is not difficult to fix the Eurozone problem. Although this is not the place to discuss such solutions – of which there are many – suffice it to say that the Eurocrats are well aware of what they can do but are being blocked by political pressures, mainly coming from the current German and French governments and their allies).
What we should do is build the ‘artistic freedom voucher’ into the deficits as a stimulus program. This has been done before in a slightly cruder way. During the Great Depression the Roosevelt administration used the works program they had put in place (the WPA) to channel money to artists. Many artists took part and it was a great success. (For music buffs it should be noted that Woody Guthrie received funding, who would later go on to exert a huge influence over Bob Dylan).
The ‘artistic freedom voucher’ is more consumer friendly, however, in that people are allowed to choose which artists they give their tax credits to. In this it allows greater consumer choice. However, it could be supplemented by a WPA-style compensation fund for new and emerging artists. After all, many a would-be artist might be intimidated by the prospect of having to attract funding to set themselves up, so perhaps we could have a pool out of which to subsidise them for the first, say, 12 months of their career until they can build a fan base for their material.
Through such a stimulus program we could also open public recording studios, public art studios, public filmmaking studios and other facilities that anyone could use for a very small fee. We could do all this in a highly decentralised manner, allowing artists, engineers, directors and producers full control of setting these facilities up while government representatives merely keep an eye on their funding to ensure they’re spending reasonable amounts.
This piece was originally written, of course, for the pirates. For those unfamiliar, the pirates are a successful and promising political party that have taken root in Germany and other countries. They have a membership of 24,000 and are growing. They are particularly concerned with many of the issues outlined above.
The pirate political model is perfect for instituting the above reforms. It is through political piracy that the above reforms can be implemented. By supporting these reforms the pirates will no longer be subject to criticism that they are hurting artists and producers. Instead they will be supporting a system where artists can throw off the corporate shackles and embrace their inner potential.
Starting with the arts we can then move on to other areas such as drug patents. Why not have governments subsidise drug research? Rather than having corporations prey on their customers in search of profits – while in the process producing sometimes dangerous drugs with dubious medical value – we can leave it up to the scientists and keep the patents under creative commons, to be used by humanity when needed.
The piracy movement has already taken shape in places like Germany and Sweden, but this should be pushed further. By adopting a real platform based on MMT principles they can start to expand to other countries by encouraging disillusioned young people who support the public good over corporate greed to form pirate parties of their own.
Corporate Shills in Libertarian Clothing
There are, of course, arguments against such proposals. Corporate shills like J. Mark Stanley say that it restricts freedom of choice which, according to him, only the Great God of The Market can provide. Most people with any sense aren’t fooled by Stanley’s theological rhetoric. They know that The Market doesn’t exist in the way Stanley imagines that it should – that is, as a great equaliser that guarantees freedom of choice.
(I’m not going to link to Stanley’s article due to its horrific, robot-prose and juvenile argument. Interested readers can find it for themselves.)
In reality we live in a world where corporations control much of the decisions of production. These corporations operate in oligopolistic or monopolistic fashion. Personally, I don’t think it can be otherwise. Mass production on the scale that modern societies require necessitates huge manufacturing plants and institutions to assist in distribution. It’s really a simple issue of economies of scale – the more of a product is produced, the bigger need be the producing institutions.
Now, that’s fine for producing cell phones and sunglasses, but we simply cannot trust these institutions with other public goods – especially art. Anyone that is not content with the current output of MTV must see the point being made here clearly and shun utopia and childish libertarian rhetoric.
Personally, I know an awful lot of professional artists (I’m an amateur musician myself) and I know well how difficult they find it to survive. Many musicians I know are pressed into destroying their own output and creativity so as to play crappy popularised songs in bars just to make ends meet. Together with the corporate audio-visual tube-feeding system that many of us have in our homes, this is the reality of the ‘market’ insofar as it functions at all. The winner is the participant with the most advertising, PR and corporate monopoly-backing. Like it or lump it, that’s reality. Anyone who believes otherwise is merely a fantasist who has an emotional need for a quasi-religious doctrine – these people generally have no political influence because practical people laugh at them and shun them.
Let’s get to work on eking out a free space for our artists to operate in – a creative space, that is at the same time a commons.
The political forces are aligning, now all we need is the correct approach toward policy. The first thing we must do is to remove the fiscal shackles that bind the minds of most politicians and recognise that, in today’s world, government deficits are a good thing – and it is only a case of channelling funding in the right direction.