In December 2013 US auto giant General Motors announced it would wind up production in Australia. It signalled the end of domestic production of the iconic “Australian” Holden motor car, and subjected thousands of workers and their families in Adelaide and Melbourne, where their plants and components suppliers were located, to the spectre of unemployment. Along with similar announcements from Mitsubishi, Toyota and Ford, as well as major retrenchments in the steel, clothing and textiles industries since the global financial crisis (GFC) in 2008, the announcement fuelled a growing sense of crisis about the future viability of manufacturing industries in the face of seemingly hegemonic overseas competition from cheap labour-cost countries.
The assumption in Australia – as in other advanced economies such as the United Kingdom and the United States – has been that the decline of manufacturing is inevitable, exemplified in commentaries by “experts” in metropolitan broadsheets who have depicted recent crises as part of an inevitable and permanent transition, a “historic shift in the structure of the global economy as the Industrial Revolution finally reaches the developing countries,” as Ross Gittins (2011), economics editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, put it. According to this argument, de-industrializing western countries such as Australia must now find other things to do to replace manufacturing: dig up resources to supply manufacturers in China or India; become tourist destinations; export services (“know-how”) rather than physical commodities; or focus on the so-called “knowledge” and “creative” industries, where the greatest proportion of the value of a product is said to be in its intellectual or design content, not its material fabrication.
At the very same time, proponents of the creative industries have claimed prominence in economic policy debates by presenting such sectors as design, film and advertising as alternatives or “replacements” for heavy industry and manufacturing. Much of the emphasis has been on intellectual property or immaterial design processes rather than on the physical crafting and manufacture of goods. The assumption among many creative industries proponents is that the physical manufacture of products is by and large an uncreative, repetitive task undertaken elsewhere. Accepted as “normal” is an international division of labour that posits creative genius with “creatives” in the affluent West, and deskilled factory production with “blue collar” workers elsewhere in the world, wherever labour costs can be most effectively minimized.
In this chapter we critique this state of affairs and ask, what are the deleterious effects of falsely distancing manufacturing workers and cities from the creative industries debate? We discuss a range of such effects, from setting up novelty and innovation as superior to creative repair and re-use of physical things, to divorcing design processes from physical production and haptic, bodily skills. Dematerializing conceptions of the creative industries also eschews consideration of deeper questions of the social injustices of low-waged labour, and the environmental imprint of forms of cultural production.
We thus seek to broaden the debate, in two ways: first, by questioning the ontological and political premises underpinning the false distinction between making material things and creative labour processes. We respond to recent calls for analysis to look beyond the artistic and creative subjects that have been privileged in creative economy thinking (Banks 2010; Christopherson 2008), to bring into frame the labour of those who sit apart from the “rewards of authorship” (Lovink and Ross 2007: 231). Second, we argue that a broader cultural economic frame, rather than a narrow focus on creative industries, enables a different kind of debate in which the social or moral dimensions of economic activities are foregrounded (Gibson 2012). Put differently, what things do we make, or do we need to make, given the spectre of economic and environmental crisis? Under what conditions are they made? And what role might culture and creativity play in refocusing forms of material work and production? Re-connecting cultural production, creativity and the way we make (and re-make) physical things is an urgent task – lest the cultural and creative industries become marginalized as mere “entertainment” or “content” amidst socio-economic and environmental volatility.