Transnational Urbanism and the Imperatives of Capital: A
Review of The Rise of the Creative Class
Capital has always needed access to advanced forms of labor and today this means that it needs the "knowledge skills" of a (ethnically, nationally, racially...) diverse labor force in the centers of capital accumulation. So while at moments of economic crisis "nation" and "nationalism" may be the order of the day in order to shore up support for military spending over social services and the rollback of civil rights, it is only a matter of time before national fervor comes into contradiction with global capital and the long term imperatives of transnational capital begin to re-surface.
It is in this context that Richard Florida's recent book, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (2002), which essentially calls for the restructuring of urban space as a diverse and culturally inclusive "transnational" space, has emerged with rave reviews from major media, economists, urban planners and municipal policy makers (not to mention packed audiences on the national lecture circuit). The fact that the corporate media are overwhelmingly valorizing a text such as Florida's is an occasion to examine what is at stake in the transnational re-mapping of the urban and how it impacts on workers.
Liberal commentators have suggested that what has given Florida, the H. John Heinz III professor of regional economic development at Carnegie Mellon, his "celebrity" status (to quote Salon.com) is his embrace of global cultural diversity and a hip, anecdotal rhetoric that defies traditional economic analyses. In other words, times have changed, his supporters suggest, and Florida's text speaks to the new economic realities of the 21st century in a way that combines familiar statistical and empirical analyses of regional growth with new "interesting" and "entertaining" discussions of cultural, ethnic, artistic and sexual diversity in cities. Yet, these commentators—in focusing on Florida's "style" and other cultural matters—blur the fundamental class dimensions of Florida's book.
At the core of Florida's economic argument is the claim that what motivates economic growth today is "creativity", which thrives not on "monoculture", hierarchy, or exclusion, now outdated markers of what William Whyte theorized in 1956 as the era of the "organization man", but on diversity, difference and, above all, flexibility in work and leisure (and so for example, today's up-and-coming cities inevitably have high "gay indexes", high "bohemian indexes", and large numbers of immigrants, among other things.) Despite his own protestations to the contrary, Florida's basic view is, of course, a rehearsal of the "new economy" clichés and hardly distinguishes him from other contemporary "new organization" theorists (e.g. Tom Peters, Peter Drucker, and, more recently, David Brooks). These theorists also argue that we have entered a new era in which capitalism no longer relies on labor but on "knowledge" and that, therefore, as a result, the Marxist view of capitalism as founded on the fundamental class antagonism between the property owning bourgeoisie and the propertyless proletariat is defunct because, as Florida phrases it, Marx's theory of class as a relation of ownership to the means of production [private property] no longer makes sense: "[m]ost members of the Creative Class do not own and control any significant property in the physical sense. Their property—which stems from their creative capacity—is intangible because it is literally in their heads" (68). Rather what is significant about Florida's text are not his recirculation of these new economy mantras, but that The Rise of the Creative Class brings the tenets of new organization theory (de-hierarchized, fluid organizations) into the broader public space—according to the imperatives of transnational capital.
In order to remain competitive, high tech corporations require access to the knowledge-skills of diverse workers which can lead to market and research innovation (product development, marketing strategies and so on) as well as increased extraction of surplus labor from knowledge workers—and the main way they do this is through providing an open and diverse environment which can accommodate the needs of these workers. In other words, capital both needs to produce new products and create new markets for those products, as well to develop relatively stress free cultural environments that encourage longer workdays and harder work, leading to higher rates of corporate profit. As such, an atmosphere of cultural diversity is particularly important for transnational corporations, since environments which foster rigid divisions along the lines of race, class, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, etc.—that is, lines which limit productivity by fostering distracting hostility between workers—are not conducive to maintaining a global work force, which combines workers drawn from around the world. Similarly, flexibility and autonomy in the workplace are important when dealing with higher skilled workers.
Transnational corporations, in short, draw on a labor pool consisting of highly educated and culturally "different" workers; that is, on a labor pool of transnational urban subjects for whom the narrow-minded "monoculture", hierarchy and rigidity of nationalist discourses/culture are useless and who embrace instead a hip "quasi-autonomous" life-style based on cultural diversity, community and multiple skills and "talents". Hence the competitive importance for U.S. capital in providing these workers with an "appropriate" cultural environment in which to live.
It is in this context that Florida's text is situated as basically a planning manual for transforming U.S. cities into places that can more effectively meet the current labor needs of U.S. based transnational capital. He extends transnational corporations' privileging of workplace fluidity, flexibility, tolerance of difference, etc., to the larger urban environment by, for instance, urging policy makers and urban residents to reject the building of large corporate parks, shopping malls and sports stadiums—all of which are "homogenizing" and outdated (not to mention unprofitable) rather than contributing to an intense "experiential" lifestyle which privileges difference, authenticity, and variety, and the flexible work habits of the transnational urban worker.
Echoing Jane Jacob's famous 1961 treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which supported multi-use streets and differential urban spaces against the grandiosity and uniformity of modern urban planning, Florida calls for "authentic" multicultural neighborhoods, diverse restaurants and cafes, cutting-edge music scenes, neighborhood art galleries and performance theaters, unique boutiques, and outdoor activities. What appeals to the creative class are not designated "cultural districts" but "street-level culture" and "small venues" (182).
Florida further supports his argument with reference to the fact that members of the creative class are flocking to precisely those cities which provide the most creative "social and cultural milieus": cities such as Austin, San Diego, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Boston, which have come to replace cities like Detroit and Buffalo as major players in the global economy and which are not dominated by a single corporation or industry, but which incorporate a complex combination of high-tech industries and research centers, cutting-edge culture, ethnic and racial diversity, and multiple skills and "talents"—that is, "multidimensional" cities which reflect the new "multidimensionality" of creativity in the era of globalization.
And yet in order to discern the political consequences that this argument for the transformation of urban centers has for the working class as a whole it is necessary to unpack the implications behind Florida's text. On the one hand, Florida's book is a savvy cosmopolitan repackaging of a crude economic "naturalism" according to which one's economic function (what occupation one has) should determine one's access to democratic and cultural freedoms. As he argues, virtually all aspects of our lives, from our tastes to our lifestyle habits, "are fundamentally determined by economic function" (8) and if one's "economic function" is "creative" then one requires a creative "place"; if not (and this holds true for the majority of workers in the U.S. today) then one is allowed to suffer the usual racism, monoculture, rigidity, etc.—all as part of the functionality for capital. While Florida critiques other theories for reducing class to matters of culture or lifestyle on the one hand and for rendering creativity "natural" on the other, Florida at the same time suggests that the "creativity" driving the global economy is basically an innate drive which certain cultural formations and work structures cultivate more effectively than others. Thus if creativity is an innate drive then certain sections of the workforce should be "naturally" privileged. As is the case for all articulations of naturalism, the effect is to naturalize the status quo: those who are already privileged should remain privileged, those who are not should remain unprivileged.
While Florida attempts to distance himself from those more explicit alibis for "a social order in which some people are considered natural creators, while others exist to serve them" (323), in fact, the logic informing the theory of the "creative class" naturalizes existing social differences because it locates class in the "innate" properties of individuals, not in historical relations. On Florida's terms, the skills and dominant cultural assumptions in what he calls the era of the "organization" (such as strong employee-corporation loyalty and a "local" sensibility), are read not as reflecting the needs of capital during the period of industrial capital, but as the product of a more narrow sense of creativity on the part of workers; and those regions of the world which still rely on a predominance of manual and industrial labor, such as Detroit and the majority of cities in developing nations, are represented as simply "stuck" in out-dated and stubbornly hierarchical patterns of thought. As he argues, unlike the "working class" and the service class, which are "trapped in the organizational age" (7) and therefore work according to "plan" in a rigidly hierarchical environment with little or no autonomy, members of the creative class—which includes not just computer technicians, scientists and engineers but lawyers, healthcare workers, artists and musicians, immigrants and bohemians—are "quasi-autonomous" (269), require flexibility and mobility and do not work according to pre-established plan. What such an argument occludes, however, is that ideas are not innate, and it is not access to ideas that determines one's economic position. The poor are poor, not because they lack innovative ideas (a deeply conservative argument Florida's text conceals beneath a cosmopolitan rhetoric of inclusion). Poverty is the effect of the concentration of the means of production in the hands of the few. It is access to the means of production that determine class, and the effectivity of Marx's theory of property is that it enables understanding of the objective structures underlying social relations and subjective lifestyles, and how they can be changed.
The effect of Florida's economic naturalism is to represent the new needs of capital as the inherent drives of workers, and thereby justify the perpetuation of unequal social relations. That is, he turns corporations' incessant need for the skills appropriate to the stage of production into a subjective aspect of a handful of workers at the upper echelons of the new economy. In doing so, his text attempts to suture the needs of the more privileged sections of the working class to the needs of capital and erase the deeply antagonistic interests of labor and capital. The main way he does this is by the argument that the main class divisions are no longer between bourgeoisie and working class but between the creative class and both the service class and the working class, who increasingly work for or are subordinated to the creative class. As he suggests, the creative class "require[s] a growing pool of low-end service workers to take care of them and do their chores" (71)—a residual "self-centeredness" he believes the creative class will soon grow out of however as it increasingly represents the interests of all classes.
At its ideological core then, what Florida's text enacts is in fact a series of political displacements in order to erase the fundamental economic difference between bourgeoisie/proletariat (based on whether one owns the means of production and can therefore exploit the labor of others, or whether one owns only one's own labor power and is therefore exploited) so as to substitute in its place a "cultural" difference: "creative class" versus service/working class, monoculture/diversity, creative/uncreative, etc.
Moreover, the current privileging of the "creative class" is itself a transitory class strategy that ultimately works against their interests as workers. "Democracy" (freedom of taste, lifestyle, rights, etc.) is "relative" to the needs of capital; that is, it applies only to those workers who suit the historical needs of capital at a given level of production. Thus, in the long run corporations can offer transnational workers such amenities as workout complexes, free food, flexible work routines and causal dress codes, not because corporations are becoming more "people" oriented, as Florida suggests, but because they are a means of competing with other companies for urgently needed highly skilled workers and because it leads to higher productivity and hence allows for a greater extraction of surplus value from these workers. These "perks" attract workers and make them more productive for capital (that is, more exploited by capital) to the extent that they make transnational workers feel less like employees and more like creative individuals who happen to get paid for what they do and to the extent that they "identify" with their "creative work". As Florida himself argues, the idea is to convince workers that they are not employees at all, but "volunteers" (133); it is to create a sector of the workforce who, as Lenin argues, becomes bourgeois, living a bourgeois lifestyle and identifying with bourgeois interests.
This "bourgeois proletariat" plays a crucial role in imperialism, for it is through the superprofits accumulated by the exploitation of less developed nations (where the majority of workers are forced to work for lower wages, under worse conditions and with few democratic "rights" to protect themselves from superexploitation—conditions which on Florida's logic would reflect the inherent lack of "creativity" among workers in these regions…) that the imperialist nations can afford to increase the standard of living of some workers in the advanced capitalist centers—essentially "bribing" these workers into believing that capitalism can serve their basic interests. In doing so, these more comfortably positioned workers dis-identify with the working class as a whole—even though, like the rest of the working class, they must sell their labor in order to survive, and are still exploited by capital and therefore have a fundamental class interest in eradicating private property relations. Instead they support imperialist strategies and rhetoric, despite their class interests, and serve as a buffer zone between the deeply impoverished workers and the owners of transnational capital, a buffer in other words which rallies behind the division of the world among the most powerful imperialist nations for the benefit of the few. As Lenin argues in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, "This stratum of workers-turned-bourgeois, or the labor aristocracy, who are quite philistine in their mode of life, in the size of their earnings and in their entire outlook, is . . . the principle social (not military) prop of the bourgeoisie. For they are the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class" (209).
The effect of Florida's argument that a particular strata of the working class has become a class in and of itself (316), separate from both the working class and the bourgeois class, is to turn these workers into opportunist tools of the bourgeoisie: that is, to rally these workers around the needs of capital at a moment when capitalism everywhere is being questioned for its inability to meet the needs of the vast majority of the world's people.
To restate the point: the cultural freedoms put forward by Florida are restricted freedoms for a "knowledge elite" (and its surrounding cultural environment—musicians, artists, etc.) in order to inculcate them as "bourgeois proletarians". On the contrary, the majority of service workers as well as manufacturing workers, even in the advanced capitalist nations, are low paid highly exploited workers engaging primarily in "mindless" tasks—they do not need a "knowledge-friendly" environment, their labor is expendable and easily substitutable. There is, in other words, a class basis to the freedoms being advocated for based on harnessing the knowledge skills of a certain section of the population and making them productive resources. But indeed, even the "creative" workers' lifestyles and working conditions—just like democratic rights in the US today—will be sacrificed if capital requires such measures (that is, when they are no longer "functionally" profitable).
Like the corporations who provide employees with "perks" to cultivate corporate loyalty, Florida's re-mapping of the urban ultimately justifies existing class divisions by fostering among knowledge workers the notion that they are somehow fundamentally "different", more "unique", more "creative" and therefore more "deserving" than other members of the working class—in order to produce loyalty, if no longer to specific corporations, to the system of transnational capitalism.