Culture's Value

The price of culture: some thoughts from the Adelaide Festival of Ideas

Keith Avery/Flickr

Recently I got told this joke. Two economists are having lunch. One of them has to make a decision about changing jobs, moving cities, disrupting his family and so on. What should he do, he asks the other? Well, his friend replies, you’re an economist: assign input prices for the different factors, apply a discounted utility algorithm, and compute the costs and benefits. “Oh come on,” says the first economist, “this is serious.”

I was in Spain in June this year, attending the 19th international cultural economics conference, when the UK Brexit vote was announced. Arjo Klamer, the world renowned economic philosopher, was giving the Presidential address the same day. His opening words were: “now we know that economics is not enough”.

There’s nothing wrong with putting a price on culture. The problems start if that’s all we’re doing. One way of understanding Brexit, or Donald Trump for that matter, is to acknowledge that important things have got away from us: that changes in our cultural reality are outstripping our economic thinking.

I use culture in the broadest sense, to mean roughly our sense of identity, who we think we are. There’s a complex network of connections between this and culture in the sense of arts, crafts, and creative practices. When we talk about culture we usually reference one definition or the other. But it’s the network of connections between them that matters, because it’s the network that carries their deeper meaning.

Culture is separable but not divisible, and so not unitisable. Two paintings don’t add up to a symphony. Five films aren’t the equivalent of one digital media experience. The weights and measures we use to break up other areas of existence and create choices, and “cost” these choices according to formulas like “value for money” or “Pareto optimality”, have limited scope in culture for this reason.

Very quickly, price in culture becomes a measure of something that has little to do with the culture on offer. Try this thought experiment. Imagine a sum of money, say $100 and a good or service, such as a meal. We can infer things about their relationship, about what a meal costing $100 should involve. Our inferences might be different. But they would be rationally defensible.

Nothing can be inferred from the statement that a cultural activity is priced at $100 other than the fact that $100 is what we are willing to pay for it. Price is not a mark of deeper meaning, but a reflection of a range of external factors that change according to external pressures. Somewhere in the muddle is culture itself, but to value it, you need to do more than price it. You need to engage with it.

Numbers in culture are often misleading for this reason: because they try to substitute for direct experience. What is supposed to be a tool, a means to greater understanding, becomes a robotic take-over of our intelligence and the ruin of our categories of sense. What is ridiculous in culture can be sinister in other areas.

I have just finished reading Paul Ham’s history of the Battle of Passchendaele, in which the lives of some 200,000 British, Australian and Canadian troops were lost. It was a military engagement conducted through a lens of specious quantification.

Three sets of numbers were crucial. First, shipping tonnage, that determined which country, Britain or Germany, would starve soonest. Second, munitions production that determined which country could amass the most artillery pieces and shells at the Flanders front. Third, casualty lists, that determined which country was losing men at a faster rate.

These numbers were revised frequently, as a matter of what might be called a military pricing strategy, to compute the likely outcome of what was described by generals and politicians – though crucially not by the soldiers in the line – as a “strategy of attrition”.

Paul Ham writes, “quantitative judgements end at the point where individual grief begins”. What these numbers did, we can see in retrospect, was create a skein of cognitive deadness that stopped certain questions from being asked, certain stories from being told, and a different understanding from being achieved.

In early 1917, Germany sent a “peace note” to the Allies looking for a negotiated end to the war. In other words, after the Somme but before Passchendaele, when it became clear what an attritional struggle actually involved, there was a chance of bringing World War I to an end.

The fact that the note was rejected relied on the calculations I’ve just mentioned. To make the numbers publicly acceptable, they were embedded in distancing language that disguised their true import. World War I was nothing if not a war of euphemisms. The term that sent a chill through my heart was the one for describing the dead and the wounded – “normal wastage”.

Perhaps my economist joke doesn’t seem so funny now. Pricing practices distort reality when they stick numbers on things that require a different kind of management. Brexit and Trump have happened because we live in a world where the kinds of valuation strategies we currently use do not fit the problems we actually face. These problems are “cultural” in the broad sense, but are also reflected in song lyrics, drama plots, novels, fashion styles, online memes. In this way, culture takes its revenge on numbers by imposing its own standard of conduct and expectations.

Trump succeeded in the US by applying the dramaturgy of The Apprentice to his campaign for the White House, and rendering obsolete politics as the computation of rational outcomes, and even rationality itself. By underestimating how powerful cultural forces are, we render our attempts to optimise their effects useless and absurd. We are reverse-Hamlets, insisting on madness in our methods.

Culture is not a function, and yet this is exactly and disastrously how it is described and understood by the modern democratic West.

At my cultural economics conference one of the most confronting sessions was on digitisation. Because of the rapid expansion in social media, arts and culture (under the euphemism “digital content”) now feed into some of the largest corporations on the face of the planet.

The impact of these relations is sometimes heralded as the beginning of a new global identity, sometimes decried as the end of local ones. One thing I am sure of after four years researching in the cultural policy area: governments have little sense of what is happening to culture itself under these new market conditions.

I have said before that just as the 19th century was the age of military mobilisation, and the 20th the age of industrial mobilisation, so the twenty-first is the age of cultural mobilisation. In our talk about culture’s value, we need to come to terms with this and what it really means. Like the economists in my joke, we need to get serious about the cultural choices we face, and that means a lot more than putting a price on them.