Class and Precarity in a New World Order: Writers and Artists Respond
Class and Precarity in a New World Order: Writers and Artists Respond
Dave Lordan and Michael O’Sullivan
What can a book on class & precarity written by artists and researchers achieve today? What actual or immanent overlaps & solidarities are there between ‘artists’ & the ‘precariat’? between part-time academics and the ‘precariat’? How are they represented in Irish writing, in Hong Kong writing, in Indian writing? Is there an identifiable art of precariousness, or of the precarious? How have class discrimination and precarity been ramped up during the pandemic and how will they be recalibrated post-pandemic as we manage a climate crisis?
Firstly, why these regions? Bringing together artists and researchers on writing, class & precarity from these regions provides us with useful global cross reference points in understanding global inequalities.
To answer these questions, this collection comes at the issues from three perspectives:
1. Changes in class
2. Changes in art
3 Changes in the relationship between art and class
4 What can be done?
- Changes in class
Western media reports that the working-class is shrinking while Western theorists and economists remind us that inequality is rising or has reached levels not seen for almost 100 years. Guy Standing coined the term “precariat” for the “new dangerous class” that has emerged to cover work practices even more precarious than those typically assigned to the working-class. However, the validity of the term “precariat” has been challenged. As we move through another global recession and face into the social effects of the Covid-19 pandemic where inequalities between individuals and countries are only going to be exacerbated and where work practices have changed drastically again, it is important to reflect on what class means today. Artists, dramatists, musicians, singer-songwriters, writers and those working in the creative industries are some of those whose work has been most affected by the pandemic and recession. And yet they also possess the talents to assimilate the changes in society, reflect on them, and present us with works that enable us to understand how the stratifications in our societies have shifted. With national or even international solidarity between the different groups constituting the new international precariat more and more difficult due to the localised nature of media and the tendency of commentators to assign different terms to local precariat groups, the discussion of what constitutes the precariat becomes diffuse and abstract theorisations only extend the sense that the issues causing such inequalities are intractable and beyond solution. Thomas Piketty points to “deep racial and ethno-religious divisions” that developed within the working classes first in the US in the wake of the civil rights movements as a reason for the lack of solidarity.In the wake of Covid-19, susceptibility to stories about international conspiracies are only going to lead to further hate-speech, anti-Asian rhetoric and such “racial and ethno-religious divisions”. The post-Covid world order will be more unequal commentators tell us and this will prevent any cohesive movement towards what Piketty calls “participatory socialism”. But how have traditional western discourses on socialism been reactive? What can western discourses of socialism learn from the practice of state capitalism in Hong Kong and Mainland China? Pandemic exclusions and the climate crisis also daily produce new forms of class-based discrimination. How do Marxism, socialism and communism respond to these discriminations?
- Changes in art
While digital technology gives us the impression that art practice has never been more participatory and egalitarian, the reality is that funding to the arts is being cut and that working class and precariat artists are not getting a bigger slice of the pie. This goes hand in hand with the reluctance of academics to engage with class in the discussion of art in an age of heightened inequalities. Rita Felski argues that there has been a “large-scale retreat from engagement with class inequalities by politicians, academics and media commentators, even as gender, race and sexuality have-deservedly-come to the fore" (110).In response, this book brings together academics, writers and artists from different regions (Ireland, Hong Kong, Mainland China, India and other regions) to explore what class means for artists today, how it is institutionalised in different regions, and how the ability to continue as an artist or researcher is threatened today like never before. So if you are an independent researcher struggling to pay for library and archive access, a singer-songwriter locked out of income during Covid-19, a writer critical of the State locked out of funding, an artist or researcher whose family is going hungry, an artist or researcher who has had to become a full-time carer to a loved one after State aid has been frozen, you are not alone. The book also examines: how the different classes are represented in different regions; What is keeping alive artforms that essentially do not sell? Class-based restrictions to the arts; working-class artists, awards, and writing programmes; class and the oral traditions; and other important topics.Some recent novels have dealt with the realities of working-class and precariat lives in new ways. For example, we think of Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Girl and its descriptions of the life of a middle-aged woman who has worked every day at a convenience store for almost 20 years. We want to hear about new ways artists and researchers describe their experiences.
- Changes in the Relationship between art and class
Class inflects the relationship between Literature and the State. What happens to the Ghost Canon, to writers who have been regarded as hostile to the State, at times when travel is restricted? How does the State aligned writer or researcher work? Have the old antagonisms of bourgeoisie versus working-class or middle-class versus working-class been displaced by new antagonisms whereby the common popular working-class identity is displayed by means of one’s national identity or one’s neighbourhood identity? With the drift to these new antagonisms comes a drift towards right-wing politics for many traditionally seen as working-class or lower middle class. Felski and others put this shift down to “the loss of secure employment, the dissolution of traditional working-class communities, the economic costs of globalization, and the working class’s abandonment by the left.” However, perhaps the most virulent antagonism is that between what are now called the “credentialled” or the “highly educated” and those without, what leads to a “politics of humiliation”for Michael Sandel and what we like to call the politics of academic barbarism.Universities also play a more central role in nurturing professional writers today through writing programmes. This project asks how such credentialization only further restricts access to writing as a career. However, a ‘politics of humiliation’ also works more generally in our unequal societies. Artists must work to focus on the lived experience of shame and humiliation that is resilient and residual in our societies and that credentialization only works to paper over by getting young people believing in universities or knowledge factories as markers of worth and self-stratification that only rename or redefine traditional class-based markers of identity.
- What can be done?
How do artists and researchers collectively propose measures to deal with growing inequity and growing inequalities in general and in their fields? As artists and researchers struggle to keep afloat, it is important they see the impact on their work as part of broader global movements exacerbating inequalities. Already, many part-time university staff have lost their jobs in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Saikat Majumdar, an English professor at Ashoka University, also describes in THE how “the Covid situation has definitely sharpened already existent structures of inequity”.For the creative cultures, the EU’s Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative (CRII) and CRII Plus have made €37 billion available to Member States under cohesion policy to allow them to re-orient their funds rapidly but artists will need to make submissions and re-imagine how to ensure funds remain available to support artists. This collection also seeks responses on the future of creative and research work as work that must re-imagine its essential connections with issues of class and precarity.
We are proposing a multimedia collection to capture the full range of responses on writing class and precarity. There will be a book, seminars, online videos, online readings, online exhibitions. We are eager to hear from writers, video artists, bloggers, musicians, researchers and more in putting together this collection. Please send us 500 words on your contribution on Class and Precarity in A New World Order. We are looking forward to contributions to any of the topics mentioned above, to those listed here, and to other related topics:
Changes in class
Changes in art
Changes in the relationship between art and class
What can be done? How can we ensure greater equity for artists and researchers as economies deal with the aftermath of Covid-19?
Class and precarity during Covid-19
Class, precarity and new modalities of creativity
Literature and the State
Socialism and climate crisis
Communism and/or State Capitalism
Gender, class and precarity
Access to universities
Irish working-class writing
Hong Kong working class writing
History and class
Art as care and care as writing
Contesting academic barbarism
Writing beyond the academy
Marxism and prearity
Dave Lordanis an Irish writer who has been exploring working class themes & perspective in various genres & mediums of both creative & critical writing over the past three decades. Read his recent pamphlet On Being An Irish Working Class Writer here.
Michael O’Sullivanis an Irish writer and researcher. He works as a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His recent works on class, access and the arts and humanities are: academic barbarism, universities and inequality,“Educational inequalities in higher education in Hong Kong” (with Michael Tsang), “Meritocracy and Individualism: negotiating cross-cultural humanities values in a politicised Hong Kong context”. He published his first novel with Penguinin 2021.
Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology, 2020, 40.
“Recognizing Class”. New Literary History. 52.1 Winter (2021), 95-117.
Academic barbarism, inequality and universities, London: Palgrave, 2016.