The Economics of Culture

So here we are. 2008 – Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture – is over. Nine years after announcing the bid, and five years since winning it, we’ve now handed the title over to cities in Austria and Latvia.

But, hasn’t the period in-between been interesting? The slow warm-up to bid year, when it was highlighted, to ourselves as much as outsiders, that, actually, Liverpool is a pretty damn well cultural place, and then the rush of joy on winning. The first real vote of confidence in Liverpool for years, it provoked a citywide emotional outpour.

But did we expect too much? After decades of degradation did we overreact to something that was, after all, just a title?  Dissenting voices began soon after the win and slowly began to get louder; who is it all for exactly? Where will this money come from? What does ‘Culture’ mean anyway?

Fuelling this cynicism was a bumbling City Council which, in planning 2008, initially ignored the city’s strong artistic base, preferring to haemorrhage cash on consultants and generic cultural events while wining and dining themselves on ‘culture money.’

The ‘resistance’ to 2008 grew from grassroots groups Nerve magazine and the Save Quiggins Campaign, but pretty soon even the Liverpool Echo began to question the actions of the Culture Company. Soon, much of the city’s population didn’t have a kind word for 2008.

The debate carried right onto, and even after, January 1st 2008. Thankfully, half way through the year, things improved. A brilliant range of events received global attention – from the spectacular and official likes of the Gustav Klimt show and La Machine to class underground shindigs by Hive and Mercy. With the highbrow balanced by the absurdity of the Superlambanana hunt, 2008 has, by and large, been a success – popular with both locals and the many paying tourists boosting Liverpool’s economy.

Pulling off 2008 has also been excellent PR for Liverpool, and the city has proved a lot of people wrong by delivering the goods. Image may not be everything, but the fact remains that people do not invest in places with shitty reputations, and Liverpool has suffered for years under the intense prejudice placed upon it by even supposedly liberal people.

Even the opposition to 2008 has produced great results. If we hadn’t won the title, the underground resistance to it wouldn’t have happened. Artists are often at their best when they are resisting something and the ‘creative scene’ in Liverpool is now perhaps the healthiest it has been since the early 1980s.

Despite the success though, we must remember that most of city’s leaders care little for culture for its own sake. It is, as the old saying goes ‘about the economy, stupid.’

When art and culture are commodified for tourism and place marketing they become dead, belonging more to economics than creative expression. But it’s naïve not to realise the importance of money in making a city work. We should have a Beatles Museum; we’d be dumb not too. We shouldn’t mistake these things for real art and its ability to question society. But nonetheless, at a fundamental level all cities need an economic reason to exist, and tourism and leisure can fulfil that, at least in part. Take away the economics and, as with post-war Liverpool, the place nearly dies.

While there has rightly been questioning about what sort of jobs this new tourist city is creating, the question remains, what else was Liverpool going to do? The city has a low skills base, high levels of unemployment and amongst the lowest levels of internal enterprise. For all the protests against regeneration and re-development, no one has managed to offer a real, workable alternative to the current developments, other than vague noises about ‘structural change’. Believe me, we tried that for real in Liverpool in the 1980s with Derek Hatton and it failed. The vast majority of the working-class in the city no longer have any interest in such things having seen how much damage it caused us last time, and the left in the city is instead dominated by middle-class dropouts with scant understanding of how most people in the city live their lives.

On a wider sphere, another brutal reality is that Britain as a whole is losing its manufacturing and primary industries that once employed so many. Like Egypt and Greece we are becoming a country whose only real trade is what it did in the past, our culture and history as tourism. It is likely Britain will continue on this path, breathing the last gasps of its fallen Empire.

2008 will help Liverpool compete for that, and without it, the city risks stagnation and potential death. Becoming a culture, heritage and tourism city may not solve all Liverpool’s problems, but it’s probably the only hope at the moment.

Perhaps giving up is the honourable path? If we opted-out, Liverpool would perhaps remain out of the global hegemony, a dark, edgy, independent place. But that could also mean further decay and decline, the city becoming a crumbling backwater. And, as those that can get out do, a continued brain-drain of bright Liverpudlian kids could turn the city into a ghost town.

When the city was dying, it had a sort of dignity, the last remnants of the romantic old sailor-town that Adrian Henri and his crowd cherished. A dignity that this brave new city, brash, patchy, tacky, doesn’t always have. But life and growth is imperfect. So there’s the rub, would you rather the dignified, slowly-dying Liverpool, with interesting-looking abandoned warehouses, or a city moving forward, for better or worse. A real city whose’ residents might just have the chance of a decent life. Not just some ‘poetic’ space outside the global economy for arty students to get some easy breaks in before fucking off to the Smoke.

We’re right though to retain an element of fear. Cultural tourism and retail remains insecure. Just like when we were a great port, all this new development could leave as quickly as it came. And then there is the ever-widening division in Britain’s society. Between the consumers of this leisure and culture, and those who serve the need of these people, for whom culture is a burden of minimum-wage work.

But you never know. All this might just make Liverpool a better place. If you’d told most people 30 years ago that Dublin would be an important European city, they’d have laughed in your face. That poverty stricken, heroin infested backwater? Now it is, and much of its population now live much better lives, and part of what first had the money rolling in, in tourist terms at least, was its impoverished charm wooing the middle-class weekend-breakers of England.

The answer though, whatever it is, is in our hands. Liverpool should have learned by now that money flowing in from outside, public or private, will not save the town, neither will the ideals of town planners, politicians or global corporations. Only we can make the city work. If Liverpool should learn one thing from its history, it’s that it can’t rely on anyone else. Only Liverpool can save itself. 2008 can be a great catalyst, but the future is in our hands.

By Kenn Taylor