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December 2015


Sarah Brouillette

This article studies two features that characterize the contemporary form of what the Warwick Research Collective has described as the “world-literary system,” in which combined and uneven development of capitalist economic and affective relations results in marked discontinuities across and within literary worlds and across and within individual literary works.1 The first feature is a contraction in what Wendy Griswold has dubbed “the reading class” – a contraction which entails delimitation of access to literary experiences such as authoring and reading the kinds of texts we would conventionally take to be literature.2 The second feature is an intensified interest and investment in developing creative industries, including literary industries, as part of a roster of programming designed to build visitor economies, encourage social cohesion, gentrify neighbourhoods. These apparently divergent phenomena – the minimized reading class on one hand, the maximized perception of literature’s instrumental value on the other – exist in tight accord, I argue. Both relate to the extensive restructuring of global capitalist production since the early 1970s. In order to make these points I consider the case of UNESCO’s City of Literature and World Book Capital programs. I read these programs in historical relation to UNESCO’s past literary programming, as well as in contemporary relation to the formative 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression.


A Brief History of UNESCO’s Literary Programming

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is the main intellectual agency within the United Nations system. When it was founded after World War II it was understood as providing crucial help to the UN project of establishing lastingly harmonious relations among nations: respectful exchange of ideas would have a pacifying effect of encouraging sympathy and understanding, and would secure and accelerate economic progress by creating an accessible, archived universal knowledge base. Its current mandates are ultimately not that different, though the language in which they appear has changed. These include promoting universal access to the human right of basic quality education, fostering scientific cooperation, supporting cultural diversity and building intercultural understanding by protecting items of immaterial cultural heritage and heritage sites of “universal value,” and protecting freedom of expression on the grounds that it is integral to human development and dignity.

In the history of UNESCO’s programming related specifically to literature, the most important early initiative was the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works, which organized and supported translation of the world’s classics. The program was proposed by the Lebanese committee in 1946, so just after UNESCO’s own establishment. A classic was defined as a work published before 1900 and accessible to a general audience; it should “bear witness to the state of civilization and … take its place in the history of culture”; also, “while revealing the human aspects of national culture,” it should “simultaneously bring out the unity and brotherhood of man.”3 Some of the classics selected for inclusion were or have since been translated into less obvious languages; and the Lebanese committee which first proposed the program promoted translation into Arabic, and took the free movement of works into and out of it to be a crucial measure of Lebanon’s modernity. Still, most translation has been into French or English. The initial plans for the program in fact suggest that “as a contribution to universal culture,” priority be accorded to translation into the “main cultural tongues.”4

One of the drives behind the program was toward compilation and publication of a comprehensive survey of the scientific and cultural heritage of all mankind. The power players within UNESCO, who were largely secular, liberal humanists, imagined that recording in a few languages everything ever known would foster the coming of international consciousness. That this cosmopolitan consciousness would mostly involve translation of cultural peripheries into central Western locations and modes of communication was not a difficulty, but a key and determining feature of the enterprise.

UNESCO’s first director was scientist Julian Huxley. Brother to literary futurologist Aldous Huxley, Julian was a eugenicist and founder of a philosophy he called “transhumanism,” grounded in the idea that international cooperation in forwarding knowledge about science and technology was the best basis for collectively willed and controlled progress toward a supra-human sphere of perfect achievement. For Huxley, furthering human evolution required accumulation of all knowledge traditions in a central location or storehouse accessible to all. The job of the arts in this process was not, in his view, equal to that of the sciences; they would instead help in envisaging the mutual understanding that would be groundwork for world political unity and supra-humanity. This is where the value of non-Western literatures was located. Huxley positioned the world beyond the West as the source of writing still integral to communities – writing unlike that of Western modernists, whom he thought rudely refused to attempt to be understood by their audiences and would never deign to attempt to ameliorate the developed world’s urban malaise. Huxley understood classic works of beauty produced by “primitive” peoples, who were threatened but not yet debased by Western mass production, as an antidote to the negative repercussions of an otherwise largely welcome modernization process.5 So we see that, where the Collection of Representative Works was concerned, the flow of materials from the non-West to the Western world was a constitutive feature.

Now, a second phase, departing in some significant ways from the initial moment, is characterized by the rise of what we can think of as book developmentalism. As the postcolonies joined UNESCO, the tension between the idealist promotion of international communication and the reality of uneven exchange became a matter of intense debate. The new member nations held that UNESCO’s focus should be basic education and the alleviation of poverty. What would secure peace: an international coterie sharing in each other’s elite culture, or the movement of all the world’s peoples toward the same basic standard of quality of life and access to political representation? Would this basic standard be a form of cultural imperialism, or could it involve multiple and diverse versions of modernization appropriate to local contexts?

At this time UNESCO backed substantial research into the book trades, and this research and a comprehensive consultation process informed its study of media domination and motivated contentious opposition to the third world’s intellectual and cultural dependence and underdevelopment. In the 1970s there were debates at the UN itself about the merits of instituting a New International Economic Order, as some developing nations argued for an increase in no-strings-attached development assistance, for improvements in the terms of trade which would – for example – ensure equitable pricing of raw materials and reduction or elimination of tariffs, and much more. The UNESCO parallel was the New World Information Order, which aimed to right imbalances in the distribution of news, information, and culture by – just for example – allowing developing nations out of existing copyright strictures, and targeting funding at expanding industry infrastructure and the training of personnel. The developed-world members of the UN and UNESCO resisted and severely constrained these conversations, however, which encouraged state-supported and regulated or nationalized industries. Eventually several of the biggest financial contributors withdrew from UNESCO; the US, which has consistently contributed 25 per cent of the budget, was the most notable and forceful to leave. It did not return until UNESCO had moved far away from any notably reformist or redistributive impetus.6

UNESCO was in this respect simply caught up in a broader reactionary tide of the late 1970s and early 1980s. David McNally’s summary of the forces at work from this period on is eloquent and apt:

By attacking working-class organisations and undermining states in the Global South; by raising the rate of exploitation and spatially reorganising manufacturing industries; by generating huge new reserves of global labour (via accelerated ‘primitive accumulation’); through massive foreign direct investment, particularly in East Asia; by introducing new systems of work-organisation and labour-intensification (lean production), and new technologies – by all these means, rates of exploitation were increased, South-to-North value-flows were accelerated, and the rate of profit was significantly boosted from its lows of the early 1980s.7

As the consolidation of working-class power and anti-colonial power was effectively challenged, institutions like UNESCO, many of whose members were sympathetic to radical media and political critiques and extensive economic reform, but were dependent on developed world buy in for their operations, had little choice but to follow suit and change direction.

So we arrive at a third moment, when “the book as resource” begins to come into view. In some ways it represents the sublimation of the political impetus behind most of the approaches to and uses of books that UNESCO devised in its anti-colonial heyday. It is now all but impossible to put forward a scheme that involves any sort of state-based regulation, and every program is fundamentally economistic, that is, premised upon the notion that social goals will only be achieved through economic means. UNESCO’s perennial goal of establishing harmony amidst diversity is now seen as fundamentally dependent upon the existence of viable markets for cultural import and export, and harmony itself is supported primarily as a means of securing the social stability that is required for capitalist accumulation to continue. Culture is predominantly treated as a resource which, properly husbanded and promoted, will result in job creation and economic development via growing visitor and creative economies. Special emphasis is placed on city-based markets for culture and labour that service the global economy.


UNESCO: Neoliberalism, or Capitalist Hegemony?

How to understand this latest stage is the main question the present article tries to answer. An obvious temptation would be to cast UNESCO’s history as a narrative of neoliberalization as decline, in which an initial liberal cosmopolitanism that defined UNESCO’s programming was unsettled by a postcolonial critique of the dominance of developed-world interests, until both moments were superseded by a neoliberal consensus that what matters is culture’s private-sector potential. This narrative is not totally meritless. However, it is far more accurate to describe UNESCO as an agency shaped from its earliest days by its fitful struggles against the controlling interest of the US, which has wanted to use the organization in the service of its hegemonic interests and has mostly succeeded in that.

In this light, the initial moment I describe above, the moment of the Collection of Representative Works (CRW), should be read in relation to the anticipated collapse of Europe’s formal empires. The CRW quite openly supported the privileged role of experts from the developed nations in directing the course of world history. It imagined an incorporative canon in which the world’s various literatures are absorbed into English and French, and the development of this global canon of master works was far from irrelevant to the development of the world’s economic and political resources. Rather, the elite intercultural community it would serve would have it as an inducement and accompaniment to its evolution toward a higher state of consciousness and sympathetic community. Knowledge of the classic writings of all peoples would evince the imperial trustee’s respectful interest in the underdeveloped regions that were to become the target of programs to improve “living standards,” safeguard the developed world’s acquisitive position in relation to the world’s cultural wealth, give people in the West some enlivening exposure to the non-decadent and pre-capitalist holism that were expected to be found in the “lesser known” literatures, and preserve what may disappear with the inevitable and welcome further development of what Huxley deemed “white capitalist expansion.”8

The 1970s moment, crystallized in the failed struggles for a New World Information Order, saw a rejection of much of what the CRW represented. UNESCO at the time partook of a vibrant culture of protest, a thriving international resistance to liberal capitalist developed-world cultural and economic values, and an insistence that white universalism and developmentalism were racist impositions. This resistance was effectively silenced by the gains made by what Giovanni Arrighi has dubbed US anti-imperialist “free worldism,” which construed itself as the antithesis of Soviet and Third Worldist imperialist statism, and claimed to be the best means of developing all nations equally but independently – in ways that would respect national cultural differences – toward a uniform standard of harmonious capitalist freedom.9 Thus I suggest, in sum, that we replace the narrative of neoliberalization as decline with an account of hegemonic cultural formations responding to and constrained by broader cycles of capital accumulation and crisis. UNESCO’s initial role as support for ongoing imperial trusteeship of the white colonizing races is eventually displaced by fitful attempts – including significantly anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist voices – to establish some sort of genuinely balanced system of cultural production and exchange, and then finally to the neoliberal policies that respond both to those voices and to the recurrent, systemic crises of profitability that have beset capitalism since that time.


UNESCO’s Recent Literary Programming

Looking in specific terms now at the relevant contemporary programs, we can start with the process of being designated an official UNESCO City of Literature. What does designation mean? The International Publishers Associations, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, and the International Booksellers Federation back the program. These are the book industry’s three major sectors: publishing; libraries; bookselling. They are a mix or public and private of course, and they have representatives on the nominating committee. These associations then collaborate with UNESCO and other stakeholders in the book industries, as well as others within the cities in question, to implement the planned programs.

The nomination criteria include the quality, quantity and diversity of editorial initiatives and publishing houses; the quality and quantity of educational programmes focusing on domestic or foreign literature in schools, including universities; an urban environment in which literature, drama and/or poetry play an integral role; experience in hosting literary events and festivals promoting domestic and foreign literature; libraries, bookstores and cultural centres to promote and disseminate domestic and foreign literature; active effort by the publishing sector to translate literary works; and involvement of media, including new media, in promoting literature and strengthening the market. Cities of Literature so far nominated have been Norwich, Edinburgh, Melbourne, Dublin, Iowa City, and Reykjavik.10

These cities, like those similarly designated World Book Capital, become part of the Creative Cities network, which is the broader normative framework that umbrellas much of UNESCO’s cultural work. One can participate in the network by virtue of proving special success in one of the following areas: literature, film, music, crafts and folk art, design, media arts, or gastronomy. For a city to be included it has to have assets: for example, cultural infrastructure, creative talent, and educational and training facilities. But it also has to be an asset to the network. It has to have some “value-added” for UNESCO itself. It has to be willing to become an ambassador for the Creative Cities network as a whole; in order to get UNESCO backing it has to promise an “in-kind, operational, intellectual and financial contribution.”11

Cities in the network have demonstrated that they have “public and private infrastructure dedicated to the preservation, promotion and dissemination” of the culture in question; academic research programs related to it; and media that will promote the activities and practices in question. The sector has to be economically vital. There should be professional associations, and a growing number of jobs, and fiscal policies in place that encourage growth; and there should be evident initiatives that celebrate cultural producers as the very image of energetic innovation.12

These schemes thus treat a city’s literary heritage and present book industry infrastructure as an occasion to develop cultural tourism and creative economy sectors, and to compete with one another for attention and accolades. If you win any of these designations or inclusions you do not receive direct funds. What you earn is the right to use the brand, as the UNESCO logo is released to you. It is like a badge of approval – an affirmation of what is already going on, of existing success in these fields. It does nothing to redress larger industry imbalances or unevenness. Such things are nowhere in view. The literary becomes here a branded quality that inheres in particular industries – industries built on the developed world model of public institutions and private markets, and large-scale production for a sizeable literate public.

There is no real space for ephemeral market literatures, things pressed by hand, or minority interests like avant-garde poetry. Those are fine as curiosities, but they do not earn UNESCO branding rights. Hence, although UNESCO is an intergovernmental organization funded publically, these schemes reward highly developed, market-based industry and public-private partnerships. UNESCO is peopled by public employees and funded by member states, so these programs are in effect forms of state support for private enterprise. They entail the investment of public funds – to cover UNESCO membership costs, and the costs associated with devising bids for program inclusion – which feed into the cultural status of the private firms situated to realize and extract profit. They find good cover under the aura of the literary and its ostensibly obviously progressive character.

These programs exhibit UNESCO’s conformity with broader transformations in the relationship between capital and governance that I wish to highlight throughout this piece. The creation of general protocols and guidelines to advise private interests on the best path to success takes precedence over any effort to fund initiatives directly. The state’s formal involvement is as slight as possible, taking the form of membership dues that are justified on the basis of the organization’s pledge to do as much as possible to solicit partnerships with and donations from private interests while helping private firms realize any profits resulting from the various ventures.

The City of Literature and World Book Capital programs are as I say on the side of investment in already developed industries and creative economies, but the same basic protocols and assumptions exist in policy specifically targeting conditions in developing regions as well. A crucial document here is the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, which reveals some of how underdevelopment in general, and the perpetuation of neo-colonial relations in the stratification of wealth and access, are being conceived and treated by UNESCO.

The Convention treats diversity as a source of several kinds of apparently non-economic value. Indeed it begins by calling diversity a “defining characteristic of humanity” which should be “cherished and preserved for the benefit of all.” It suggests that it is cultural diversity which makes for us a “rich and varied world,” while living in a varied world “increases the range of choices and nurtures human capacities and values.” In order to sustainably develop “communities, peoples, and nations” this diversity of values needs to be preserved. It needs to be the heart of a “framework of democracy, tolerance, social justice and mutual respect”; and it needs to ground peace and security. Culture is said to be important to social cohesion, and is said to have special potential as a means of enhancing women’s status and roles in society. Each of these is made inseparable, however, from economic priorities in turn.

Indeed what is emphasized as absolutely necessary is that culture be recognized as a “strategic element” in national and international development plans, especially where its development might possibly aid in the eradication of poverty (a goal outlined in the United Nations Millennium Declaration in 2000). So culture, whether traditional knowledge or contemporary creative expression, is a source both of intangible and material forms of wealth. In particular “the knowledge systems of indigenous people” are included as a form of culture and convention signatories are asked to “recognize” that such knowledge contributes importantly to sustainable development. This is the language throughout. The convention “emphasizes” and “reaffirms” and “recognizes” and “takes into account”; it is not a set of strictures but a statement of certain affective relations to various ideas about culture’s potentialities. It is accompanied by a new fund and a new measurement device that will track how developed a given region’s cultural economy becomes and how diverse it remains amidst that development.

Often the ideals that the Convention expresses would be impossible to realize without the sort of substantial change that the Convention is in no position to legislate. Yet that is precisely the point: UNESCO has become an increasingly indirect support network that does not fund programs but rather explains to the private sector why it should act in a certain way. It is an example of the way that governance has remained present in the cultural sector as a source of discourse encouraging certain practical measures – discourse which emphasizes and reinforces the supremacy of market-based imperatives, including the imperative enjoining individuals to organize and manage the reproduction of all their social relations without dependence on the state.13

For instance, the convention “reaffirms” that “freedom of thought, expression and information, as well as diversity of the media, enable cultural expressions to flourish within societies,” but in the absence of serious structural reform in the media industries, entailing vast state intervention and a shift of power away from capitalist media industries, diverse cultural expression is unlikely to exist. Media literacy and general education play a key role here: these are not available to the majority of people in the world, which makes the convention’s insistence on “equitable access” seem rather quixotic. There is a logic that explains this quixotic reaching, however – a logic at work in UNESCO and countless other intergovernmental and civil society organizations. It maintains that every social inequity and ill can be repaired by private actors within the market, and the role of governance is to provide guidance and language to support new private accumulation taking place unhindered. Premier amongst its messages is one normalizing the belief that developed markets repair rather than exacerbate or feed on the iniquitous distribution of resources, and another stressing that we must as individuals commit to taking active roles in nurturing ourselves as skilled workers in exciting, dynamic, rising economies.

If the vitality of cultures is manifest in their freedom to create, disseminate, distribute and have access to their own cultural expressions, how is this dissemination to be achieved in the absence of extensive media industries in the underdeveloped world, and transformations that might encourage their emergence? One thinks for instance of more permissive intellectual property regimes that are not designed to preserve the rights of developed-world producers. That the convention has nothing to say about intellectual property rights, excepting noting their importance in “sustaining those involved in cultural activity,” is telling in this respect. The intellectual property system emerged in the developed world during its imperial heyday and serves the interests of its industries. It is designed to reward individuals and the companies that benefit from their work, and it isolates innovation as the key to creativity. Attempts on the part of developing world representatives to reform or opt out of the international copyright regime, or temporarily suspend the requirement that they adhere to the more stringent clauses, have been resisted, precisely because those who benefit from the current arrangement are so powerful and so controlling of the media industries that the intellectual property regime itself subtends. The 2005 diversity Convention insists that cultural activities, goods and services should not be “treated as solely having commercial value,” and yet in the absence of any power to address the dominance of commercial imperatives in the cultural field it is hard to imagine how its vision of fulsome participation in a global conversation about integral human values is not just utopian yearning or a whitewashing of the reality of structural inequities. The only mention of imbalance is in a clause “noting” that “globalization” – not global capitalism or just capitalism – “risks” – as though the threat has not already been realized – “imbalances between rich and poor countries”; even this noting of risk is placed at the end of the clause, after the substantial emphasis of the sentence is placed on all of what new information and communications technologies afford, including “unprecedented conditions for enhanced interaction between cultures.”

At heart, when one looks at the main outcomes of the Convention, which asserts the “complementarity” of the economic and cultural aspects of development, it is clear that its central drive is encouraging the building and strengthening of the cultural industries in developing countries. This strengthening is given special attention in the Convention itself, which mentions:

(i) creating and strengthening cultural production and distribution capacities in developing countries;

(ii) facilitating wider access to the global market and international distribution networks for their cultural activities, goods and services;

(iii) enabling the emergence of viable local and regional markets;

(iv) adopting, where possible, appropriate measures in developed countries with a view to facilitating access to their territory for the cultural activities, goods and services of developing countries;


(v) providing support for creative work and facilitating the mobility, to the extent possible, of artists from the developing world

In order to measure success in achieving these goals the Convention also entails a specially devised instrument, the Culture for Development Indictors, or CDIS, designed to chart the extent to which these recommendations are implemented and succeed in helping to develop local industries. A “viable, effective and cost-efficient tool,” the CDIS involves “actors” from the public sector, civil society and academia in the process of data collection and analysis in order to foster inter-institutional and inter-sectoral dialogue, as well as build consensus around decision-making on culture and development. No cultural policy is complete now without careful consideration of its “flexibility and adaptability,” its “multidimensionality,” its “capacity-building and policy impact”; the measurement instrument is itself designed not just to enable the collection of statistics that will be used in the construction of future policy, but to maximize the capacity for data collection at the same time.14

I should mention, finally, the keynote program designed to encourage the implementation of the Convention: the International Fund for Cultural Diversity (IFCD), which is a “multi-donor fund” to foster sustainable development and “poverty reduction” in developing countries via the building of cultural industries. It is quite evidently a scheme to jumpstart digital and creative economies in the developing world. A quick look at the 2014 Fund brochure, which is designed in such a way as to solicit yet more private funding in the form of a desirable “signature partnership with a global corporation and a major media partnership to bring visibility and credibility,” provides a sense of what sorts of projects are preferred. It begins by reaffirming the power of culture “to inspire and unite people, the power to create employment and generate better livelihoods, and the power to foster transformative change within communities, in cities and countries, and across societies.” One finds that all of the key terms are here: employment; social reproduction (“better livelihoods”); management of social inequity (“foster transformative change”). The fund’s aim is creation of a “dynamic cultural sector” that helps revitalize local economies, and it funds project that endeavour to create the right kind of “policy environment” as well as those encouraging the right kind of social change and incorporation into the market; in 2014 around 50 per cent of the funds went to “develop professional capacity,” while 30 per cent supported evidence-based policy making.

The IFCD, we read:

builds a steady path to human development by strengthening the entrepreneurial skills of cultural and creative industry actors, by reinforcing the competence of decision makers in effective policy interventions and by enhancing equal participation of various social groups and individuals in creative activities. The IFCD is therefore first and foremost about empowering people – young cultural entrepreneurs, artists, cultural professionals, civil society actors and local, national decision makers – to take ownership of their development processes and shape their own development pathways. The IFCD has been responding to the specific needs of these actors in 43 developing countries: the need to reinforce cultural and creative industries, to develop professional artistic and creative skills and to establish effective and better informed policies.

So, for example, the fund supported a project in Guatemala designed to get indigenous students “in sync with the digital era” and become “entrepreneurs through digital technologies.” Nearly $100,000 went to the Instituto de Relaciones Internacionales e Investigaciones para la Paz (IRIPAZ), an NGO promoting Guatemala’s cultural diversity through audiovisual media. It is noted that as a result “indigenous students were introduced to the digital world and were taught skills in entrepreneurship in the creative audiovisual sector,” two of whom are celebrated because they have since gone on to start their own businesses. Other projects include the creation of a network for creative workers in the Balkans; professional training in design and arts for women with disabilities in Yaounde in Cameroon via the Cameroon Art Revolution organization; a project to measure the value of creative cities in Croatia, and support for a National Framework for Cultural Statistics for Mongolia.15

The Fund and its existence within UNESCO thus exemplify a number of the crucial contemporary realities. There has been a delegation of tasks to the ostensibly non-political private sector of civil society agencies. There has been the elaboration of substantial and apparently “objective” assessment measures charting how effectively programs have embodied the ideals of the Convention and like documents. There are clearly delimited parameters forbidding any sort of appeal to industry regulation or reform such as nationalization or even just, say, the elimination of tariffs on the import of cultural goods from the developing world.

We seem to have travelled a long way from the literary, but my point has been to illuminate precisely the immediate context in which the City of Literature and World Book Capital programs emerge. Their process of channelling public resources into what are ultimately private cultural capital and accumulated profits is evident across the whole range of UNESCO activities. The difference is simply that the cultural development framework is more focused on the developing world, where one cannot help but notice the absence of any concerted emphasis on literary programming. When we contrast UNESCO’s literature programming with its broader cultural offerings we see a relatively straightforward delimitation of access to literary experiences to relative elites in the developed world, where extensive literary industries already exist. Literature appears to be for UNESCO a fundamentally residual rather than an emergent practice.


The World-Literary System in Crisis

We can now place UNESCO’s cultural programming, which I have positioned as the immediate context for the emergence of its treatment of literature, in determinant relation to the more extensive transformations – spatial, technical, and social – in the world system of capitalism since the early 1970s. It has become conventional to describe the period I am concerned with here as neoliberal, however I am cautious about this label. The term neoliberal has been used to describe instrumental applications of culture, for instance culture-led urban renewal strategies. It has been used to describe broad shifts in governance, such as privatization of industry or defunding of social welfare. Yet if no reference is made to the constitutive transformations in capital that occasion these phenomena then the analysis is simply incomplete. Similarly, where particular shifts in subjective life are deemed neoliberal – the rise of a self-managing entrepreneurial ethos for instance – and the objective material conditions that occasion these subjective mediations are not touched upon, the analysis is also lacking what I would consider the fundamental element. When phenomena are labelled neoliberal, and little is said about their connection to global capitalist accumulation and evolving social forms, the account fails to have any purchase on the real determinations of contemporary life.

Of fundamental relevance here, as the frame for the analysis of particular developments in the world-literary sphere, is the “contradictory arc of expansion and crisis-formation” which has defined global capital since the early 1970s.16 So many attendant developments ask to be understood in fundamental relation to this arc, such as, just for example, cuts to social welfare, and attacks on organized labour, both of which foster individualization and introjection of working conditions; or consider, in a related case, the wage compression and attended increases in reliance on credit, accomplished through technological boosts to labour’s productivity as well as expansion of the reserve army of labour via sizable waves of accumulation by dispossession. These phenomena might seem far afield from literary studies, but in discussing cultural governance and its ramifications for the world-literary system, what I think can be usefully designated neoliberal is precisely the unique set of policy provisions that attend those attempts to secure profitability amidst crisis which became definitive for capitalism from the early 1970s on.

This means that, in effect, it is precisely in the realm that has been of least interest to literature scholars – the realm of national and international policy proscriptions and their embedding in particular institutions and programs – that I think the term neoliberal is most useful as a means of designating particular forms of state support for capitalist social relations and accumulative drives. So I am understanding neoliberalism mainly as a set of fitful attempts to define and refine policy that will efficiently and effectively secure profitability, and I argue that in the cultural sphere the goal of such policy cannot adequately be described as simply the state’s withdrawal. What tends to be the case, rather, is that governing bodies such as UNESCO are assigned a central role in the provision of particular narratives about culture’s relation to economic reorganization and capital accumulation. Three narratives are particularly dominant: one asserts the inevitability and superiority of private investment in culture; another stresses the centrality of personal training, talent, and initiative to culture’s development; and a third simply asserts the by no means unquestionable claim that culture can in fact do the work of soothing social antagonisms to thereby ease accumulation (or “foster economic development,” in the mainstream parlance).

Let us pause for a moment on the reality that since the early 1970s capital has been recomposing labour at a lower standard of living, exacerbating structural asymmetries in the distribution of wealth and in access to opportunities to enter the workforce, including of course the cultural workforce. In 1990 the Midnight Notes collective called this “the new enclosures.” Arguing that primitive accumulation was an ongoing rather than a completed process, they claim that, like the first enclosures, which created a population of workers “free from any means of reproduction and thus compelled…to work for a wage,” the new enclosures sought to end “communal control of the means of subsistence.” People were being uprooted on every continent “from their land, their jobs, their homes through wars, famines, plagues, and the IMF ordered devaluations…scattered to the corners of the globe.”17 In McNally’s analysis, the result has been a “dramatic decline in the number of people living on the land.” Processes of “rural impoverishment, dispossession and war have swelled the ranks both of the employed global working class and the global reserve army of labour,” such that for the first time in history the majority of the world’s people live in urban areas.18

The history of colonial and neo-colonial relations manifests in these new enclosure, as the affluent North continues to benefit from and exploit the needs and instabilities of the global South, via IMF structural adjustments programs forcing states to seize land to pay debts, for example, and via the outsourcing of commodity production to sweatshops, and of dangerous mineral extraction for consumer electronics to the most precarious and desperate workers. The 1980s and 90s were a time of “de-development,” George Caffentzis argues, in which a new global division of labour, fostering and capitalizing on “the armed conflict and social disarray resulting from labour’s recomposition,” secured cheap labour and land and mineral resources for Western and Chinese transnational corporations.19 For, Caffentzis writes, “the computer requires the sweatshop, and the cyborg’s existence is premised on the slave.”20

So there has been a reinforcement and exacerbation of the global division of labour that produces surplus, impoverished, and underemployed populations at the peripheries. This makes access to the amenities crucial to the demographic profile of those with a literary sensibility all the more exclusive. Things like a relatively advanced education, exposure to literature and to the idea of its value, relative solitude, the time to write, and eyeglasses, among other things. The possibility of belonging to the group of regular readers of literature has quite simply been diminished. In Griswold’s account, the expansive reading that Raymond Williams described as having emerged from “the long revolution” – the slow transformation that made leisure reading habitual even for working-class people – was in fact an exception to the general rule. It was a geographically unevenly distributed practice as well. Throughout most of literate history only a distinct social elite read for anything other than basic information. Now, too, the culture of literary reading is in fact in decline, and the reading class is shrinking and closing ranks. Thus structural asymmetries in the organization of capital have a direct bearing on who enters the literary field, and also inform how the literary field is perceived by those inside it as well as outside of it or on its edges.

Now, turning to the second feature of the contemporary that I wish to highlight, we find what appears to be an entirely opposite matter: the expanding interest in culture’s social and economic protagonism. In some unique ways culture has become part of governance strategies, labour management, property development, and the everyday life of social media and corporate branding. Where some see opportunity, with culture being granted now a unique agency and dynamism, others see a creeping instrumentalization that proves art no longer has any critical purchase.

Phenomena like the incorporation of public art into officially planned gentrification schemes, bringing of art and artists into the workplace as a technique of management, government interest in the social ills that cultural experiences, aptitudes, or training might address, and the increasing role of commercial cultural production in branding, are all crucial to the contemporary fate of cultural expression and activity. The new neo-colonial enclosures I highlight above are one means by which capital has attempted to secure the accumulation of surplus in trying times. Turning to culture as a potentially endless “immaterial” resource is another.

This turn to culture has two entwined dimensions of special interest here. First is the oft trumpeted growth of cultural sectors of the economy. We can think for example, just in terms of the literary sphere, of the bringing of literary houses into larger publishing companies and in turn into a handful of mega media conglomerates like Pearson and Bertelsmann, where titles that will sell are the priority, but the prestige attached to a particular colophon is allowed to offset the occasional commercial failure. Or think of a company like Amazon, which started with books of course, but is now a premier digital utility company – on par with Google, and known for its innovations in warehousing and delivery logistics.

Growth in the cultural sector has often been understood as a sign of, or compensating response to, dematerialized, postindustrial conditions in particular nations in the developed world. Yet if we are to approach capitalism as a world system, the goal of which is ultimately simply accumulation rather than development of any one national economy – an economy which could never be bounded within particular geographic borders anyway – arguments such as these quickly reveal their limits: capital may have been reorganized spatially by the search for a low-wage workforce, but it cannot accurately be described as postindustrial, given that we access the content circulating in the cultural economy via devices whose production entails factories and resolutely material labour; there is, moreover, as we seen in the case of the IFCD, now celebration and statistical analysis of cultural sectors in regions that never had much heavy industry. Moreover, in fact, as suggested in Benjamin Brewer’s work, discussed below, it may be that the expansion of the cultural economy, measured by the growth in the percentage of workers who identify themselves as belonging to the “immaterial” cultural sector, has in part to do with the fact that someone needs to produce the content that helps to circulate other kinds of goods, for instance personal electronic devices, by persuading us that those devices are integral to our lives as our means of access to content we would otherwise miss out on.

In any case, entwined with the expansion of cultural sectors of the economy is the rise of government interest in creating policies designed to help in developing culture in ways that will expand those sectors – both for their own sake, if you will, and so as to secure the modicum of social cohesion necessary, at least in some sectors, and in some regions, to capitalist accumulation in general.

What Brewer has done, in a way that invites a more expansive application than he imagines, is connect commercial cultural production in particular, meaning branding and advertising, to “the broader set of social, political and economic transformations by which historical capitalism has been restructured and reorganized on progressively larger scales over time.”21 He reads the shift toward the “intangible” or “immaterial” in the global economy in relation to a broader move toward buyer-driven commodity markets. Histories of mass culture tend to place the formalization of “advertising, branding, marketing and sales as a standard part of business practice in the final decades of the 1800s and the early 1900”; the challenge facing the corporate capitalist system is market disorder and generally falling rates of profit endemic to crises of overproduction, and culture in Brewer’s account is a way this challenge has been confronted.22

Technological change and corporate expansion and consolidation in the advanced economies “drove this dynamic,” Brewer argues, but at the same time downward pressure on wages significantly undermined the ability of households to participate. As a result, “mass consumption had to be institutionalized as a social practice if the expanded capacity of mass production was to be profitably absorbed.” Then the producer-driven commodity chain dominated, requiring the construction of consumer markets that could absorb what was produced. Since then, however, Brewer observes, there has been “an underlying trend toward a larger proportion of all of those commodity chains becoming more buyer-driven over time.”23

Especially in the 1970s and 1980s, with the “global dispersion and expansion of manufacturing capacity,” growing “competition within consumer markets worldwide” has meant widespread market congestion or saturation. There has been “consolidation and concentration in retailing in the global North, as well as the growing discursive and practical emphasis on maximizing ‘shareholder value’ and measured ‘return on capital invested’.” Buyer-driven commodity chains, as an instance of demand-driven economic organization, arise with this market congestion; in the process, consumer cultural production goes from being a means of stabilizing an economy “driven by large, multinational, multidivisional corporations,” to assuming a central role in its own right.24

It is now the primary specialization of many firms seeking competitive advantage, leading to intensified pressures for uniqueness and distinction. Market measurement and assessment become crucial tools; and market making becomes a huge priority for firms that exist simply to drive the commodity chain. Brewer mentions socio-cultural status here as a generative engine for the creation of value through branding. Status depends on distinction: on the scarcity of a desirable attribute, or the threat of exclusion from a desirable realm. The process is thus never stabilized, as today’s “successful ‘edginess’ becomes tomorrow’s status quo,” and new resonances and leitmotifs most be uncovered and associated with the act of buying commodities.25

Consumer culture signifies for Brewer the production and distribution of images and ideas designed to create, direct or expand the demand for particular goods and services, most often via advertising, marketing, branding, merchandising and retailing. Yet I would insist that his points can be expanded significantly, to highlight the structural connections between commercial cultural production and cultural production more generally: an overlapping workforce, audience of potential consumers, sensitivity to cultural queues and codes, and priority accorded to distinguishing products from one another in a glutted marketplace. Also shared is a particular media infrastructure, since the expansion of commercial cultural work in branding and promotions means the creation of new media venues and formats for this work’s dissemination – venues and formats which require content both to fill the space between advertisements and to give people a fuller cultural experience that has more appeal in some markets than any bold, blunt sales pitch. There are deep structural links, put simply, between the work in commercial cultural production and the work of cultural production in general. The extensive dissemination of the aesthetic sensibility, the self-conscious stylization of life, the glorification of endless newness that arises in a world of consumer culture, all assert their influence on commerce and on literary production.

In more specific terms, we can think for a moment about the branding function performed by the distribution of the writer’s prestige. The broader social field – the whole milieu made up of academics, commentators, journalists, bloggers, trolls, anthologists, marketers, agents, and funding bodies – produces the value that adheres to the writer’s brand. In turn, if it is the name of the author and the value attached to the author’s ostensibly original creativity that does so much of the work of distinguishing the literary work from other kinds of commodities, that name also nonetheless functions in multiple arenas as a means of generating demand for products. The name’s socially produced non-commercial status does commercial work. The association between a particular writer’s branded name and the status of a given media outlet magnifies and ramifies throughout the field, in a frenzy of synergetic inter-promotion.

So when Ben Lerner reviewed the third volume of My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s literary behemoth, his review served to promote Knausgaard’s work, and his own work, and to sell London Review of Books subscriptions and secure the loyalty of existing readers. Those who shared the review via social media showed themselves as possessing a particular international cultural sensibility and exposure. The social media outlets they used were happy to have the content to generate shares and likes and to fill in the space not already filled by advertisements, and they were happy as well to have the user data about the review’s posting as part of the stock of information they store knowing that it will one day be monetized. I could go on and on, but the simple point is made: it is characteristic of the contemporary media landscape that the divide between consumer cultural production and the literary sphere is exceedingly thin, and the name of the writer as the source of the original creativity protected by copyright both asserts the commodity’s distinction from regular goods and helps to generate demand for further goods.

What cannot be left out of this account of the contemporary literary landscape is what we have already seen in considering UNESCO: the way that the successfully branded literary property has in turn been asked to perform a number of expedient, interlinked social and economic functions. What has arisen in policy circles and in international cultural organizations in recent years is a model that promotes literature as an expedient, neutral or at best soft left resource to be applied to social, cultural, and economic development goals conceived as inseparable.

A recent paper by UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova is telling in this respect, and a fit document with which to conclude. The overall focus of the paper is her effort to justify UNESCO’s continued interest in protecting cultural heritage sites and experiences, especially in situations of conflict. She emphasizes that culture is a sector of the economy whose importance grows every year. To illustrate her point she mentions that, in 2006, culture was brought up in less than 30 percent of UN Development Assistance Frameworks (these are the key documents of the UN’s development programs); six years later, 70 percent of these frameworks mentioned culture, and most linked culture explicitly to social and economic development.

Bokova is eager to indicate however that culture is also a source of forms of wealth that cannot be measured; she mentions in particular that culture can “promote social cohesion and youth engagement” and serve as “a wellspring for social resilience.” She consciously frames this emphasis on resilience as a response to the 2008 economic crisis and resulting downtown. In what she calls “a new age of limits” – planetary, material limits – culture, now read as synonymous with innovation, emerges as the pre-eminent renewable resource. And it is crucially needed not just for economic reasons, but because, even more importantly, it is a “source of identity and cohesion” that helps people deal with any development’s “bewildering change.”26

So culture’s non-economic value is here imagined as a means of dealing with the distress of the crisis and what has unfolded in its wake; it is basically a psychological bulwark that can help to keep one grounded in a world of otherwise uninterrupted and ever changing flows. This echoes profoundly other key documents of contemporary culture, such as the official reports and attendant studies written in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Australia and the UK about the new power of the creative economy.

We see then that in understanding recent cultural imaginaries and practices it is crucial to stress that it is not just a matter of statistics about culture’s economic value. It is also about instrumental applications of culture’s non-economic value, as appeals to a realm of experience that transcends and exceeds value appear side by side with attempts to justify public monies reserved for culture, to sell membership in UNESCO, to sell arts funding. Culture is presented as a realm protected from the exigencies of capitalist reason, but also as imminently available for application to real world problems precisely because of being so protected. It will help people manage in a messed up world. It will produce social inclusion and reduce unhappiness and encourage wellbeing by bringing outsiders into a coherent nation of happy cultural producers and consumers. It will make distressed urban neighbourhoods sites of regeneration and community. It will make people happier workers. And so on, ad infinitum, all these many means of making culture’s “inherent” value crucial to its ability to serve as a “resource” for the accomplishment of social and economic goals.

To conclude, then, uniting again the two features of the contemporary we have noted – so, one, the exacerbation of structural asymmetries in the global economy, and, two, the expansion of culture’s general protagonism – it is no surprise that the result has been a generalized nervousness about the work that literature does and can do, and about the social and cultural capital attached to literary interpretations of lived realities. Because on one hand, it seems the protagonism of access, exposure, and affective relation to art has been expanded in unprecedented ways; and on the other hand the actual ability to achieve such access, let alone success as a producer, has been diminished seriously. Thus when we approach the literary world as an element of a global totality we find not an even horizon of autonomous literary creation, nor a homogeneous “now” inhabited by aspiring writers who take the contemporary as their material. Integral to the whole rather is a constitutive unevenness of relations, produced by and enmeshed with histories of colonial occupation, and of subjugations via race, language, gender, and other forces.

These variegate exposure to everything necessary to participate in the literary world and to benefit from whatever formal and conceptual insights literary works may allow. They also inform the whole way that literature as a system operates today, and that includes of course the nature of its formal articulation and “content.” It is incumbent upon us to understand the contemporary moment of global literary production, the moment exemplified by UNESCO’s recent programming, as a moment of purportedly global circulation that is really a moment of uneven distribution of the agency and ability to author and of uneven access to reading materials and to the means of publication. These conditions touch literary production at every level, including at the level of “the text,” where self-reflexive unease about the act of writing, about art’s critical purchase, and about the author’s elite status and right to represent others, are by now entirely common.

  1. Sharae Deckard et al., Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World Literature (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015). 

  2. Wendy Griswold, Regionalism and the Reading Class (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). 

  3. UNESCO, “Report of UNESCO to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations on the Translation of the Classics” (Paris: UNESCO, 9 June 1948), 8. 

  4. UNESCO, “Report of UNESCO to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations on the Translation of the Classics,” 3. 

  5. See Julian Huxley, UNESCO: its Purpose and Philosophy (New York: Public Affairs Press, 1948). 

  6. For an account of this period in UNESCO’s history see Sarah Brouillette, “UNESCO and the Book in the Developing World,” Representations 127.1 (Summer 2014): 33-54. 

  7. David McNally, “From Financial Crisis to World-Slump: Accumulation, Financialisation, and the Global Slowdown,” Historical Materialism 17 (2009): 45. 

  8. Julian Huxley, “Colonies and Freedom,” The New Republic (24 January 1944): 106. 

  9. Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of our Times (London: Verso, 2010), 69. 


  11. UNESCO, “Creative Cities Network: Applicant’s Handbook,” 22 November 2013. 

  12. UNESCO, “Creative Cities Network: Applicant’s Handbook.” 

  13. Massimo De Angelis, “Neoliberal Governance, Reproduction and Accumulation,” The Commoner 7 (Spring/Summer 2003): 8. 



  16. McNally, “From Financial Crisis to World Slump,” 43. 

  17. Midnight Notes Collective, “Introduction to the New Enclosures,” Midnight Notes 10 (1990): 3, 1. 

  18. McNally, “From Financial Crisis to World Slump,” 52. 

  19. I quote Marina Vishmidt’s incisive account of work arising from the Midnight Notes Collective: “Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle,” Journal of Cultural Economy (2015): 5. 

  20. George Caffentzis, In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines, and the Crisis of Capitalism (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2013), 79. 

  21. Benjamin Brewer, “The Long Twentieth Century & The Cultural Turn: World-Historical Origins of the Cultural Economy,” Journal of World-Systems Research 17.1 (2011): 40. 

  22. Benjamin Brewer, “Global Commodity Chains and the Organizational Grounding of Consumer Cultural Production,” Critical Sociology (2013): 7. 

  23. Brewer, “Global Commodity Chains,” 7-8, 10. 

  24. Brewer, “Global Commodity Chains,” 10-11. 

  25. Brewer, “Global Commodity Chains,” 14. 


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