Freeing the arts from the markets: a reading of Chokepoint Capitalism

‘It’s moving to hear,’ writes Jennifer Mills recently for this publication regarding the new national cultural policy and the place of artists in it, ‘that we are essential workers… [that w]e want to know our work is meaningful, that we are valued not just by ‘the economy’ but by society as a whole.’ Even if you aren’t a worker in the creative sector, it’s easy to grasp how artistic labour contributes to making society bearable and the human experience joyful. At their best, the arts tell us something about ourselves and our place in the world that we didn’t even know we knew. Artistic work is not some luxurious folly, it is essential to our human dignity.

So what does it tell us that ‘culture has been captured’—as Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow declare in the opening line of their book Chokepoint Capitalism? What does it say about our society that creatives are being ruthlessly exploited by greedy executives in the book, music, gaming, film and television industries, among others?

Instead of being an essential part of our society, cultural life has become a field in which a tiny minority make eye-watering profits from the labour, commitment, and good faith of creative workers. This is the exposition of the first half of Chokepoint Capitalism. Along the way, the book debunks some enduring myths of the creatives industries, including exposing the dubious value of copyright for writers, the false promise of streaming platforms for musicians, and the brute power that Amazon wields over publishers when it comes to selling books. Giblin and Doctorow lay out the evidence meticulously, documenting how large businesses have consolidated—often by outfoxing or simply buying out their competitors—allowing them to extract significant profits from an exploited workforce, leaving even highly popular artists with astonishingly little remuneration.

The problem, as the authors put it, is monopsony power—concentrated buyer power in a few companies or even a single firm. These are the eponymous chokepoints. If there are only a few record companies or publishing houses or streaming platforms, your capacity to negotiate a good deal as a single artist is vanishingly small. So, when we hear about the importance of defending copyright in the name of protecting singers and songwriters, for example, the reality is that we are usually talking about mega rights holders, rather than the creators personally.

The development of monopsony power is underpinned by a specific ideology that has a broader application beyond just the cultural industries (which Giblin and Doctorow describe as the ‘canaries in the coalmine’, though arguably other workers could claim this title).

We are living in an age in which consumer welfare is paramount. The Chicago School of economics has pushed the line for half a century that regulators should not be concerned with competition, but rather the outcomes for consumers in terms of price. If prices are low, the consolidation of firms shouldn’t be a cause for concern. This approach permits, even encourages monopolisation in the name of consumer welfare. And if we don’t like it, the answer is not to look to structural or political solutions, but rather to vote with our wallets.

This cynical vision of citizenship has stewarded a range of market failures, not least of which is the acceleration of climate change. The abysmal experience of most creative workers is another. Because of course to keep prices low—an efficiency, according to the Chicago School—means artistic workers are forced to accept less.

The tendency towards monopolisation is not unique to the 21st century, but the digitisation of economic and social life has meant many of the problems canvassed by Giblin and Doctorow in respect of the cultural sector have scaled in an unprecedented way. This is both a depressing waste—given how finding new and direct audiences for creative works has technically never been easier—but also an insidious risk to our human rights more generally. Artists and workers alike should be ‘concerned about how the internet looks,’ the authors write. ‘A centralized internet, instrumented for total surveillance, is a death knell for all justice struggles.’

This book ought to make you angry, and it guides you through the problems we face with patience, honesty and humour. As an observer of the ruthless and at times predatory antics of tech platforms across various sectors, it is dismaying to read how culture has not been spared from this treatment. If you were suspicious about some of these dynamics at play, but perhaps struggled to understand exactly how things work, the book that sets out the arguments clearly. But it should also make you hopeful, and help you find ways for you to get busy.

The more innovative ideas in the second half of Chokepoint Capitalism are refreshing. Breaking up these big companies will undoubtedly be part of the solution, but Giblin and Doctorow are too ambitious to leave it to just this kind of regulatory action—which, they point out, can take decades. They talk about the importance of things like transparency rights (so artists can know how their works are being used and seek a fair deal), collective action (like strikes), radical interoperability (to avoid greedy companies locking users into using their tools and services) and models of public and cooperative ownership of the infrastructure of creative industries. There is a real sense that struggles for artists rise and fall with others, and the proposals in the book create the opportunity for a broader, multidisciplinary, cross-sector solidarity.

Yet the substantive focus on the creative industry was clearly a deliberate choice, and it is a legitimate one. The stakes are high, given the profundity of the artistic endeavour to comprehending the human experience. A deeper dive into what this means for our collective experience of the arts would have been a welcome addition to the book, and serve as a stronger justification for this focus. After all, it’s not just a question of creative workers being exploited: the chokepoints also jeopardise our artistic enrichment as a society. Cinemas are dominated by superhero blockbusters because they make money. Their popularity is not inherently a problem, but what else is being crowded out? Do we face a future of algorithmically guided content full of strong female leads and gritty drama, dispensing with the need for any human artistic vision at all? Do the ever-diminishing advances now on offer from the publishing sector mean that writing is increasingly a middle-class pursuit, available largely only to those who can afford it? The profit motive flattens the kind of art we are exposed to and shapes what we are supposed to enjoy. Monopsony power in the creative arts doesn’t just resulted in a critically undervalued workforce—it also robs us of artistic diversity and encounters with the unexpected.

Ultimately, we have to wonder whether the problem is not the consolidation of marketplaces in the creative industries, but the idea of marketplaces at all. ‘Chokepoint capitalism’ is a catchy title and an engaging concept, which is helpful for thinking about the issues. But while competitive markets are supposedly an advantage of capitalism, they are not essential. Monopolies and monopsonies are perfectly congruent with the interests of the bourgeoisie.

On one read, chokepoint capitalism is really just plain old capitalism. The regulatory barriers (or moats) that companies erect to protect their monopolistic/monopsonistic power—including regulatory capture, neutering of competitors, complex contractual terms with suppliers, and straight up non-compliance with their legal obligations—are how capital works to protect and reproduce itself.

What would art look like without the strictures created and imposed by capitalism is a challenge for our imaginations, and I would love to know what the authors think. For now, however, Chokepoint Capitalism offers an energetic indictment of our approach to creative labour. If you are an artist, therefore an essential worker, you’ll find the examination of the industry worthy of your time. You’ll be rewarded with a full-throated articulation of the problems, but also moved to action by a suite of creative solutions.


The author was an early reader of the manuscript for this book.


Lizzie O'Shea

Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer. Her book Future Histories (Verso 2019) is about the politics and history of technology.

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