In 1930, reflecting on the possibilities of life 100 years into the future, the economist and later the first Chair of the Arts Council of Great Britain John Maynard Keynes predicted that humanity would have solved the “economic problem” but, would have in the process created a new one: “how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well”. In Keynes’s world the economy had one objective: to create the wealth necessary for the whole of society to live a full and rich cultural life. The two things were distinct. Interestingly, whilst Keynes was prepared to admit that there were alternatives to market economy (something the modern world has learned to forget); he would have found it difficult to imagine that culture was anything other than a given (the alternative being something over which the modern world simultaneously celebrates and agonises).
Things are very different today. You don’t need to subscribe to one of the many variants of postmodernism to see that the types of things that get bundled up respectively as ‘economic’ on the one hand and ‘culture’ on the other are very closely related. The emergence of a whole host of culturally reflexive economic imaginaries: the experience economy, the cultural economy and the creative economy to name just three here, ask important questions about the contemporary relationship of culture and economy, most importantly for my project, the extent to which they share common intellectual architecture, especially with respect to the use of the term value. Whilst economists of a more traditional stripe tend on the whole to ignore cultural matters (or assume that culture is just an odd corner of consumer economics), it is surprising to note how many advocates of culture fail to recognise any other model of economic life than those inscribed by marginalism and neo-classicism. In fact, I think many ardent defenders of culture’s specificity would be surprised to discover just how much their arguments rest on assumptions shared by precisely these kinds of models. What makes the alternative cultural economic imaginaries interesting is the possibility that they might actually suggest alternative economic models which might not reconcile easily with market economy.
My project, a critical review, is interested in how these models construct their respective ideas of cultural value and the extent to which they are capable of sustaining alternative ideas about economic life. For thirty years I have been reading economics, cultural analysis and philosophy in parallel (stimulated I would say by my under-graduate experience at City University, London, in the 1980s where I took courses in the History of Economic Thought, the Sociology of Art and Popular Culture, and Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Philosophy) with a sneaking suspicion that there are all sorts of historical entanglements between these three bodies of thought. Some of those entanglements, I think, have important things to say about our contemporary ideas of cultural value. My review will take a series of historical lenses on the relationship between culture and economy and apply them to our contemporary cultural imaginaries. My basic outlook is informed by the interactions between political economy, critical theory, cultural analysis and philosophy, for which together, I use the term cultural economy. This, I think, is something fundamentally different to cultural economics, which, on the whole works within the marginalist and neo-classical economic traditions.
As far as the specific AHRC Cultural Value Project goes, I am generally speaking unhappy that the ‘economic’ gets conflated with only one tradition or approach. I think the arguments about cultural value today have much to offer both economy and culture, and I think, in broad terms, culture has much to gain from entertaining a much more diverse view of economy than current positions seem to reflect. Keynes reflected on one kind of future for 2030. The world that could entertain the idea that economy and culture were fundamentally different things has gone. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the object of achieving a rich and full cultural life for all society has gone with it. Maybe we need to think a little intensely about a different kind of economy, and with it the possibility of a different kind of cultural life.