The European cultural sector, pandemic precariousness and the universal basic income


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

The EU and its member states have been forced to intervene in a way that might have seemed impossible just a few months ago, in what looks like a nationalization of wages. It also became evident that the process of regulating the platform economy needed to be accelerated. All of this seems to suggest that we are in a period of rethinking what work is in our societies today, which is reflected in the current high level discussion around the “social EU”.

One of the most affected sectors has been the cultural and creative industries (CCIs). In addition to the major problems caused by closures, cancellations and dizzying drops in income (up to 90% for the performing arts), the unsustainability of the sector’s working model has become glaring. Working in the sector involves higher than average rates of self-employment, part-time work and transnational mobility. All of these do not always easily match the standards that govern most work in social security, pay or taxation. In addition, EU labor force statistics 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 might be time to radically rethink work in general, its relationship to value creation and compensation. Such ideas could also support powerful arguments for a Universal Basic Income (RBI). This is the backstory of our conversation.

Christos Carras (CC): Culture is seen (including in EU policies) as being of great benefit to society as a whole in many direct and indirect ways. However, work in the cultural sector is generally precarious, often subsidized, and we have become accustomed to not paying for digital content. Does that distinguish it 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 director or opera director and those of an occasional watercolourist or slammer. But a widespread characteristic is that cultural work, whether very part-time or more than full-time, whether directly or very indirectly creative, in itself has meaning for those who perform it.

For the most part, cultural creation is a vocation. The monetary reward is not the main driver. And this pecuniary reward is very uncertain and unevenly distributed, even today perhaps more unequally than ever. As in sport, there is a win-win dynamic at work, persistently amplified by technology and globalization, and also, more than in sport, by the tenacious grip of intellectual property rights. Thus, the vagaries of the market generate surprising wealth for some and uncomfortable precariousness for most. Unfortunately, there is no alternative to the market mechanism that could remunerate each cultural activity according to an objective standard of valuable contribution to society or civilization.

CC: Does this suggest that people contribute to the overall wealth of society in several essential ways that are not directly linked to the market and paid employment and that this wealth should instead be pooled and redistributed?

PP: Certainly, those who earn 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 to an institutional framework that they did nothing to create and to a happy match between market demand and the skills they have. Taxing their income more heavily than today, including through much more effective international cooperation, is therefore more than justified. And if this money is used, for example through a UBI, to provide greater economic security for precarious workers, it will give more people aspiring to cultural careers a chance to pursue their vocation.

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