Political writers in the neoliberal age

In May this year, an ex-CIA interrogator participated in an event at the Sydney Writers Festival run by the comedy team, The Chaser. Overland deputy editor Jacinda Woodhead described her increasing discomfort as the show progressed:

I had not expected the interrogator. The camaraderie shared by those on stage on the subject of torture – such as the jest about whether the music blaring for sixteen hours before cutting to deafening silence was Barney the Dinosaur – was stomach-turning.

The scene prompts some disquieting questions. Why should there be such ‘camaraderie’ at a writers festival? What kind of culture makes the appropriate response to torture a chatty bonhomie? What should a progressive writer do in such a situation? Should one boycott such a session or protest it? If one should protest, how? Within the framework of the session or outside of it?

These sorts of queries are sometimes asked by activists on the Left but rarely by left-wing writers who, as writers, have traditionally been more interested in how individual texts might have a political effect. Too often the arguments take place exclusively in the realm of ideas, with radicals forgetting that writers undertake a specific practice in a particular time and place. But writing involves not only questions of art and politics but a hidden (and very material) third term – industry, which includes everything directly and indirectly with the business of literature (publishers, distributors, funding bodies, writers festivals, writers guilds and centres).

When we approach the problem from this angle, a number of new questions arise. What is the writer’s class position? Are writers traditional workers or middle-class professionals? What political consequences stem from their social role? Are there appropriate forms of organisation for progressive writers? What, more generally, are a writer’s responsibilities?

But these are issues that relate not so much to what writers should write but rather to what they should do.

The prevalent liberal answer – fairly common at literary festivals, for example – is that writers should provide a path to truth and beauty. They guide us through questions of taste and appropriate behaviour; they cultivate our sensibilities, showing us what to feel and teaching us how to feel it. They do so by participating in an ongoing discourse among equals that takes place in the public sphere. They are, indeed, ‘disinterested’, assessing issues and events on the basis of reason and measuring them against the standards of ‘civilisation’.

The model presumes a single culture, a realm of enlightened discussion and the free play of ideas. Indeed, if the culture is fragmented, it is the task of the writer to reunite it.

The notion is, of course, a product of modernity. As Terry Eagleton outlines in The Function of Criticism, the idea of the public sphere was forged in the struggle against the absolutist state. Salons, clubs and coffee houses, broadsheets, pamphlets, the novel itself – all of these were born as the middle classes (in traditional left-wing terminology, the bourgeoisie) carved out a space against the aristocratic notions of hereditary hierarchy. The idea of the public sphere reflects a fundamental liberal view of the world, a sense that all citizens can engage with each other as equal individuals, free from internal conflicts or external pressures.

In reality, of course, this freedom has always been to a greater or lesser degree illusory. A public sphere has never existed in a ‘pure’ form – and over time, social and economic developments have made the whole model increasingly distant from reality.

Most obviously, in recent years, all areas of social life have come more and more overtly under the sway of the market. In his well-known essay, ‘On the decline of the literary paradigm in Australian publishing’, Mark Davis explains the general trend to the centralisation and concentration of the publishing industry:

Since the mid-1990s the industry has globalised and consolidated to become an information-based business, beholden, in the case of nine out of ten of Australia’s top companies, to global media giants. The industry has adopted, in this same period, modern marketing techniques and digital production techniques, and has been forced to reduce its reliance on government subsidies and other forms of protection at the same time as it has dramatically widened its retail base to include chain and discount department stores, and to focus increasingly on the export market.

Davis identifies this as a local effect of the global process in which consensus politics and the welfare state were displaced by ‘free market notions of deregulation, privatisation and trade liberalisation and the rise of the global information economy’. Today, the ‘primary fiduciary duty of globally owned publishing houses is to their shareholders and (offshore) owners’ and that, he says, has driven a change in approach to risk management. The result has been the culling of mid-lists, and the shift by major publishers away from literary fiction towards bestsellers – cookbooks, celebrity publishing, cricketers’ tour diaries and the like.

Naturally, these, and related developments (in particular, the collapse of the infrastructure that supported literature, such as newspaper book pages, literary bookshops, etc.) have affected writers. The 2010 Australia Council report, Do You Really Expect to Get Paid? An Economic Study of Professional Artists in Australia (also cited in this issue by Maria O’Dwyer), notes that the distribution of artists’ incomes is strongly skewed towards the bottom of the scale. The report paints a picture of an artistic community living in permanent insecurity, underpaid and underemployed.

‘Their total incomes on average,’ it concludes, ‘are lower than those of all occupational groups, including non-professional and blue-collar occupations.’

In the contemporary context, then, writers become almost the paradigmatic neoliberal workers: usually freelance, constantly searching for employment, disciplined by the ever-present possibility of unemployment, prepared to accept rates that no skilled worker would assent to, paying for their own tools and training, and so on.

Because of this, few writers are able to make their art their primary source of income, with 70 per cent of artists depending on non-arts-related jobs. Writing, in that sense, might even be considered a pastime or a hobby as much as a profession.

The relative marginality of literature in contemporary life makes claims that writing cultivates public sensibilities hard to sustain, with the so-called public sphere patently dominated by mass-market commodities produced purely for profit. Furthermore, marketisation has not unified the culture, but rather fragmented it: writers write increasingly for niche markets and intellectuals for specialisations. The notion that they are somehow ‘independent’ or ‘free’ or ‘equal’, participating in a flat space of disinterested inquiry – the classic public sphere – sounds more and more hollow.

But if, under neoliberalism, the liberal notion of writing becomes increasingly at odds with writers’ actual situations, how then should progressive writers conceive of themselves and their work?

Importantly, there has always been another conception of the writer available, based on the recognition that society is not a level field. This second notion begins with the recognition that culture is structured, and not just by commercial interests. It is divided between Left and Right, privileged and marginal, wealthy and poor, dominant and subordinate. It is riven by gender, racial and sexual inequalities.

In other words, it is a site of struggle.

This is a conception of the radical writer belonging to a counter-public (or more accurately, counter-hegemonic) sphere, a sphere that includes its own publications and institutions, its own periodicals and clubs and networks of power. It’s a quite different notion of the writer, one that recognises that polite liberal discourse excludes certain things from being said and that, within the public sphere, comments that strike at the heart of things and books that ask fundamental questions tend to sound shrill or unhinged.

To be counter-hegemonic is to step outside of the boundaries of so-called civilised discourse, that false unity of the liberal public. It is to have scant regard for those whose politeness and cheery communalism hide the real relations underneath; it’s to break with so-called ‘common sense’; it’s to be scandalous; it’s to choose the side of the marginalised and subjugated. This is a point that Jeff Sparrow made in a recent blog post:

Actually, the entire history of Australia shows that almost anything that’s now identified with ‘democratic culture’ emerged precisely from ‘discord’. Struggles for universal manhood suffrage, for Indigenous rights, for votes for women, for the eight-hour day – for just about everything now associated with the Left – involved a great deal of incivility and disrespect, as the conservatives of the day were only too happy to point out. That’s why the feminists of the seventies raised the slogan: ‘well-behaved women rarely make history’. It’s not just funny – it’s true.

A counter-hegemonic project isn’t an individual necessity, a moral imperative that writers place on one another. Rather it’s a collective struggle, a strategy to build medium-term counter-hegemonic institutions: networks of power that can together contest not only the dominant ideas but the dominant structures as well.

The counter-hegemonic sphere entails organisational forms that can be brought to – or, more properly, be a part of – the future mass movements that will surely occur. More exactly, these forms are essential to encourage the emergence of such mass movements and to assure that movement gains don’t easily dissipate.

Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci called counter-hegemonic writers ‘organic intellectuals’, defined not so much by their writing skills as by their role as active social agents (organisers), a role in which writing is merely a part. The great dilemma for radical writers today is that their work is both addressed to – and is written in the conditions of – an absent counter-hegemonic public sphere. Too many of us envision a mass readership out there, a readership to whom we’re barely connected at all.

That’s why it’s important to remember that there are other times and places where powerful counter-hegemonic spheres have existed. EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class describes the emergence of workers’ publications and journals in the early modern period, while Eagleton reminds us how a counterculture provided the conditions for radical writers Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin:

In the Weimar Republic, the working-class movement was not only a redoubtable political force, it was also equipped with its own theatres and choral societies, clubs and newspapers, recreation centres and social forums. It was these conditions which helped to make possible a Brecht and a Benjamin, and to shift the role of the critic from isolated intellectual and to political functionary. In the Britain of the 1930s, agitprop groups, the Unity Theatre, the Workers’ Film and Photo League, the Workers’ Theatre movement, workplace branches of the Left Book Club, the London Workers’ Film Society and a range of other institutions reflected elements of this rich counterculture.

If such conditions are largely absent today (rather like the progressive movement as a whole), that does not suggest that they must be forever so. Radical writers should, then, commit themselves to the first steps, however tentative, to rebuilding such a counterculture.

What does that mean, practically?

Counter-hegemonic institutions today might include journals like Overland, writers groups (in the vein of the Realist Writers Groups of the 1950s and 1960s), independent presses dedicated to radical work, writers unions, collective blog projects, public spaces for political spoken word poetry and so on. Recently, supporters of Occupy Wall Street in the US founded the Occupy Writers group, to which a number of us put our names. Had the Occupy movement continued, one could have imagined that the group might have begun to actively mobilise. Certainly at Overland we briefly considered organising an Occupy Writers Australia.

Questions of boycotting writers festivals or intervening in panels, of speaking out about particular issues, about particular approaches to particular publishers, are tactical questions to be placed in the context of this medium-term strategy. How one might have responded to the Sydney Writers discussion with the CIA interrogator is thus not an individual dilemma, nor a question of principle, but something to be considered in the light of such bigger projects.

It’s important to register the very real and irresolvable conflict between the private and the political in the contemporary world. Any individual is always torn between the contending forces of political necessity and personal interest. To attend a demonstration, to be part of an organisation, is a demand that quite often conflicts with the need to work, to rest, to have healthy relationships with others.

In the case of writers, this conflict takes on an extra dimension, for writing, though in some ways it might be compared to any other job, also works with language, ideas and hence ideology. We need to resist – I think – the notion that writing is in and of itself the kind of political activity that I have been discussing, even if the particular text is political in some other sense. Writing cannot substitute itself for collective activity. For example, the appropriate response to the current so-called ‘asylum seeker crisis’ is not simply to write, but to be involved in collective forms of action to which such a book might be related.

Some of these issues may well coalesce around questions of form as well as content. Here I’m thinking of my own field, science fiction, which during the 1960s witnessed a number of political interventions, such as the collective publication of a petition against the war in Vietnam. Importantly, most of the radical writers were part of the experimental New Wave, a group that – like parallel movements in other arts – aimed to force all kinds of new countercultural content through what they saw as ossified forms.1 In speculative fiction, these movements occur regularly: from the New Weird writers of the late 90s to the more recent Mundane SF writers who insist that progressive science fiction means jettisoning anything that is clearly unscientific or impossible.

The point is that the writer is driven not solely by an assessment of the ‘correct aesthetic form’ but by a conjunctural political assessment. We can return, then, by a circular route to the question of what to write, looking at the issue from a different perspective, one informed firstly by a strategic project of building a counter-hegemonic sphere. What initially appeared to be individual questions now take on a collective hue.

It is through this process that we will clarify so many of the questions that currently seem ambiguous. What class do writers belong to? What are our responsibilities as political writers? Perhaps it’s worth reminding ourselves of EP Thompson’s point – even if it risks being somewhat subjectivist – that class is something self-made. It is, he says, a:

historical relationship … The relationship must always be embodied in real people and in a real context … We cannot have love without lovers, nor deference without squires and labourers. And class happens when some men [sic], as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men …

1 See my article, ‘Imagining New Worlds’, in Overland 202.

Rjurik Davidson

Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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