The European cultural sector, pandemic precarity, and Universal Basic Income

Artists and entertainment workers protest against the French government decision to keep theatres, cinemas, concert halls and museums closed until further notice, December 2020 | REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

Philosopher and political economist Philippe Van Parijs looks at whether the cultural sector could benefit from a period of re-thinking what work is.

By: Christos Carras Philippe Van Parijs

The COVID pandemic revealed and exacerbated structural problems and inequalities that were already present at many levels of our societies and economies. One of the fundamental institutions that was severely shaken was that of work itself, both through the cessation of activities, the rapid shift to telematic work and the increase in digital services, often provided through online platforms.

The EU and its member states were obliged to intervene in ways that might have seemed impossible only months ago, in what resembles a nationalisation of salaries. It also became evident that the process of regulating the platform economy had to be speeded up. All this seems to suggest that we are in a period of re-thinking what work is in our societies today, something reflected in the current high-level discussion around the ‘social EU’.

One of the hardest hit sectors was that of the cultural and creative industries (CCIs).

Apart from the major problems caused by closures, cancellations, and staggering drops in revenue (up to 90% for the performing arts), the unsustainability of the sector’s work model became glaringly obvious. Work in the sector involves higher than average rates of self-employment, part-time work, and transnational mobility. All these do not always easily fit the norms that regulate most work in relation to social security, remuneration, or taxation. Furthermore, EU statistics on the workforce do not capture the significant contribution to culture made by temporary or intermittent workers, those who volunteer or have cultural work as a second occupation.

Rather than simply trying to patch up the system, it could be time for a radical re-thinking of work in general, its relation to the creation of value and to remuneration. Such insights might also support powerful arguments in favour of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). This is the background framing to our conversation.

Christos Carras (CC): Culture is perceived (including in EU policies) as being of great benefit for society as a whole in many direct and indirect ways. However, work in the cultural sector is usually precarious, often subsidized, and we have got used to not paying for digital content. Does this set it apart from the market?

Philippe Van Parijs (PP): The cultural sector is extremely diverse. There is little in common between the life prospects and aspirations of a film director or an opera manager and those of an occasional aquarellist or slammer. But one widespread feature is that a cultural job, whether very part-time or more than full-time, whether directly or only very indirectly creative, is in itself meaningful to those who perform it.

For most, cultural creation is a vocation. Pecuniary reward is not the main driver. And this pecuniary reward is very uncertainly and unequally distributed, today even perhaps more unequally than ever. Like in sport, there is a winner-take-all dynamic at work, persistently amplified by technology and globalization, and also, more than in sport by the sticky grip of intellectual property rights.

Thus, the vagaries of the market generate stunning wealth for a few and uncomfortable precariousness for most.

Unfortunately, there is no alternative to the market mechanism that could remunerate each cultural activity according to some objective standard of valuable contribution to society or civilization.

CC: Does this suggest that people contribute to the overall wealth of society in many essential ways that are not directly related to the market and to salaried employment and that this wealth should rather be held in common and redistributed?

PP: Certainly, those who make a lot of money in the cultural sector as in any other must realize how much of this money they owe to a technological context and an institutional framework which they did nothing to create and to a lucky matching between market demand and the skills they happen to possess. Taxing their earnings more vigorously than is currently the case, including, thanks to far more effective international cooperation, is therefore more than justified. And if this money is used, for example thanks to a UBI, to provide greater economic security to precarious workers, it will give more people longing for a cultural career a chance to pursue their vocation.

UBI offers a form of protection that does not trap people either outside employment or inside employment.

CC: New distribution modes (digital) have profoundly affected the value chains, disrupting classic formats of remuneration. Telematic work also forcefully entered the picture during the pandemic and will to a degree survive it, ushering in more flexible work patterns that may not always be in the interest of the worker. At the same time, the platform or ‘gig’ economy is growing and has much in common with work conditions in the cultural and creative industries. How does this more generalized precarity and flexibility affect the proposal for a UBI?

PP: A UBI promises to offer precarious workers better social protection than conventional social insurance. The precariat includes many self-employed workers, freelancers, platform workers and CCI workers, with a significant overlap between these various categories. While telework will not remain at the level it has been during the lockdown, it will never regress to its pre-COVID level. Telework is, of course, not necessarily precarious. But the greater autonomy with which it is correlated may well lead to more waged employment becoming self-employment.

If this trend is confirmed, the robust basic economic security offered by a UBI can be viewed as a welcome adaptation.

But it can also be viewed – and is sometimes denounced – as a structural encouragement of this trend. For people with relatively low incomes, a UBI does make it easier, and therefore likelier, to opt for part-time work, to join a fragile cooperative, to try a start-up or an artistic career, rather than sticking to standard employment with the associated benefits of social insurance. But so what?

Central to a UBI is that it makes room for chosen flexibility. Never mind if that reduces the share of conventional waged employment in economic activity. What a UBI offers is a form of protection that does not trap people either outside employment (thanks to its universality) or inside employment (thanks to its being obligation-free).

CC: Work in the CCIs is very often transnational and the European Commission underlines the importance of the mobility of cultural workers for the reinforcement of a European identity. However, it is still member states that have the final word both on cultural policies and in labour laws. The pandemic has shown us the importance of more global governance and you have convincingly argued that a UBI can only really be defended at the scale of large political entities. Could the desire to preserve mobility of CCI work, combined with the need to ensure the protection and regulation of CCI work provide a model for thinking of the benefits of a generalised (not sectoral) UBI at the level of the EU?

CC: Cultural diversity is valuable, and it is therefore good that cultural policy should not be too centralised. On the other hand, the long-term and short-term circulation of cultural workers is certainly beneficial for cultural creativity. An EU-wide basic income could facilitate such circulation. For different reasons, I advocate the introduction of an EU-wide UBI, what I call a euro-dividend. But a substantial EU-wide UBI is a long way off.

In the meanwhile, what should we go for? Not a multiplication of tax shelters: cultural workers and organizations should contribute, like everyone else, according to their earnings. What can and must be encouraged instead is a reduction of the administrative burden – to which artists can be expected to be particularly allergic – especially the complications linked to the transnational mobility of cultural workers and to the transnational character of much cultural consumption. Setting up pan-European non-profits or cooperatives, on the model of the French-Belgian SMART, would be a good start.

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