Thursday, June 21, 2007

The New Class Struggle

For those of you who have missed my witty blog posts (yeah, yeah, I know &mdash what witty posts), it has been a work-filled, blog-free week. I have buried my head in the books in order to try and finish a draft of a paper by next Tuesday. The upside is that I have had a chance to read some really good material on the changing nature of the city; the bad is that I have neglected you, dear readers. It also means that I don't have much more to talk about than what I have learned about the changing nature of urban life.

I noted, that I was reading Richard Florida's Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life". In Rise of the Creative Class, Florida tracks what he perceives to be a fundamentally important shift in the nature of class relations following the changes from a manufacturing to an information economy. While this is a tried-and-true topic, Florida's concentration on the nature of work in the new economy itself provides a novel analysis that leads to interesting conclusions on the implications of this change in work on the transformation of understanding class as an analytical category. In doing this, he is part business-school professor and part modern-day Karl Marx calling for a class consciousness of the new "creative class."

His analysis is based largely on large-scale datasets from the Information Week annual salary survey data and the Occupational and Employment Statistics Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, he cites interviews with members of the creative class, but does not describe the method for these interviews, which constitutes one of the greatest weaknesses of the book.

Based on this analysis, he argues that the shift from the old manufacturing-based economy to the contemporary economy is due to a rise in the importance of creativity and, thus, calls this economy the "Creative Economy" which was created when

Bohemian values met the Protestant work ethic head-on, and the two did more than survive the collision. They morphed into a new work ethic—the creative ethos—steeped in the cultivation of creativity. People from software developers to circut designers could now work as creative people, coming and going virtually as they pleased, taking breaks to excersice, working to baring rock music if they so desired. p. 207

The tension that Florida sets up throughout the book is the dichotomy between "organizational" culture versus "creative" culture. The former crushes the soul of workers, both blue collar line workers and the white collar Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Because of the nature of work in the creative economy, Florida argues, different patterns of work are necessary and people in this new economy need to be able to express this creativity. This means that corporations need to provide amenities more than salary, cities need to provide the kind of cultural nourishment necessary for this new class of creative workers and workers themselves need to adapt to rules of the new economy. Working for a single corporation is no longer the norm partly because of layoffs and mistrust in companies, but mostly because workers want to express their own creativity and therefore look for different projects.

Although there are interesting discussions discounting conservative hand-wringing over hedonistic culture and implications for organizational culture of companies, I am most interested in his understanding of the changing nature of community due to the "rise of the creative class." He argues that the new class has much less of a tie to traditional mechanisms of social capital such as community groups, labor unions the Rotary Club, etc. in favor of less organized modes of community offered by bars, restaurants and other places creative people can meet and build informal ties to each other. According to Florida, they seek out diverse communities that are often signified by the acceptance of the TBLG community the same way that people, when selecting to work, choose companies that offer domestic partner benefits, even if they, themselves are not a gay man or lesbian woman. But, adapting to these new kinds of lifestyles driven by the new economic conditions of a transformed work environment for the creative class leads to the need for new models of community. As Florida says,

Strong communities, not any institution within them, are the key to social cohesion.

Unfortunately, Florida does little to provide insight into building this community. His conclusion on the nature of cities and communities is that cities need to invest in this new class of workers and and he channels Marx to argue that

being newly emergent, the Creative Class does not yet have an awareness of itself, as a class, needed. p. 315 [emph. in original]

He argues that a new kind of politics will be needed in order to provide things like healthcare that were once provided by employers but now, with the increased fluidity of careers, needs to be portable and national, if not international. He argues that something like a union would be good, but that this new class is too disparate to be able to be organized. And, besides, organization is the natural enemy of creativity and must, therefore, be quashed on its own. Florida acknowledges that the challenges facing the creative class require organization, even if they are new models of organizing. Unfortunately, he provides no guidance in ways that bottom-up solutions could be developed.

Instead, he tends to focus on the top-down policy changes made by politicians. And, these conclusions are problematic on several fronts. First, his "gay index" is highly problematic. This is an argument made elsewhere, and, as I say there, I think is actually the result of his rhetoric more than his actual analysis. The second implication is that the kinds of policies that he is advocating have the effect of increasing inequality. I honestly believe that he does not intend for this to happen, in fact one of his calls to the new class is to overcome inequality between the working and service sector and the new "creative class", but the problem is that his rhetoric is very imprecise. While his conversational style makes the book engaging, it also betrays some of the more careful language of traditional academic books and can lead to problematic policy implications. For instance, the Michigan Cool Cities program has directed money towards projects that don't address the need of better educational systems and skill-building among youth to become part of the creative class towards projects that are, in essence, more tax breaks in an attempt to potentially draw this creative class from elsewhere. Lastly, I am troubled by his lack of attention to what happens to the service and working classes in this shifting economy. At several points throughout the book, Florida points to the need to understand that there are, as one section is titled "New Divides" (p. 281), in class structures. But these epiphanies often come at the end of chapters and are quite literally written as afterthoughts that are tacked to the end of sections, chapters and the book. What solutions does Florida have, for someplace like Detroit, to grow the prospect of a creative class rather than scurrying about chasing after the existing creative industries and professionals?


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