Home » Blog » The (neo)liberal politics of applied and social theatre – critiquing ‘self-help’ and ‘self-entrepreneurship’


The (neo)liberal politics of applied and social theatre – critiquing ‘self-help’ and ‘self-entrepreneurship’


Post by Jenny Hughes

I’m putting a health warning on this post – it’s more relevant to readers interested in applied and social theatre, rather than theatre and poverty more generally – it comes out of some research I’m doing for a chapter in a book called Critical Perspectives in Applied Theatre … It’s also a little long …

The research on entertainments in Dearnley workhouse reported in previous posts highlights nineteenth century Rochdale as a town exhibiting what Peter Gurney calls, in his book about cooperative culture – ‘associational culture’ or ‘the art of association’ (Co-operative culture and the politics of consumption in England, 1870 – published in 1996, p25). Gurney links this associational culture to the cooperative movement, famous for its development of ‘self-help by the people’. The first part of this term was taken up by Samuel Smiles in his best-selling work ‘Self help’ (1855), exploring Victorian notions of good character, morality, thrift and respectability. The Rochdale Almanac, throughout the period I’m looking at (following the opening of Dearnley workhouse in 1877) lists glee clubs, minstrel groups, amateur dramatic groups, brass bands, multiple choirs and orchestras, and the Rochdale Observer’s advertisement pages testify to a lively programme of performance in the town coming from these associations, taking place in churches, the town’s Lyceum and Temperance halls as well as the town’s theatre – and also the workhouse. Many of these associations had a presence in Dearnley workhouse, either via entertainments given in the workhouse or by issuing free tickets to paupers in the workhouse to events in town.

Peter Bailey links such associational activity to the ‘rational recreation’ movement – the patronage of cultural activities for (generally ‘for’ rather than ‘with’) the new and anxiety-inspiring working classes by the middle and upper classes. This patronage sought to develop a ‘play discipline to complement the work discipline that was the principal means of social control’ under industrial capitalism (Leisure and class in Victorian England: Rational recreation and the contest for control, 1830 – 1885, published in 1978, p.5). Sanctioned cultural activities sought to sculpt the labouring classes into respectable workers, by prioritizing moral instruction and middle class tastes and habits. John Cole notes that middle class patronage of cultural activity and education was received suspiciously by the working people of Rochdale, who had already developed their own infrastructure of activity via cooperation – Smiles himself had a very small audience when visiting the town in 1845 (such that he decided not to visit again! – see Cole’s Conflict and cooperation, published in 1994, p47). However, my sense is that associational activity in Rochdale did come from an emergent middle class in the town (emergent from, rather than pre-existing the cooperative movement and other radical activity in the town). ‘Self-help’ and associational activity, which uncritically accepted the liberal values exhibited by the self-help ethos (autonomy, self sufficiency, moral responsibility), is therefore a complex phenomena that can be read in multiple ways. In the workhouse, many of the groups performing came from the respectable skilled working classes and lower middle classes in the town – so here you had groups exhibiting the ‘self-help’ ethos of cooperative and associational cultures performing to those unable to help themselves, inside a system designed to separate the deserving from the undeserving poor, caring for the former and stigmatising the latter. A strange dynamic then, is being put into play by these performances in the workhouse …

I recently worked on a project with ‘workless’ communities in Rochdale, where the explicit aim (named in the funding application) was to ‘answer a problem which has been unsolved for many years – how do you help people that: 1) May not want to be helped? 2) May not know they need help?’ In this post, I am trying to explore some connections between a self-help ethos as it has been invented and reinvented across time, and also – on a personal note – get to the bottom of an internal struggle I am having with the uncritical acceptance of ideas such as self-agency, self-creation, self-entrepreneurship inside arts projects working in welfare contexts today.

A self-help ethos is – arguably – very present in arts and social welfare programmes today, which seek to justify themselves by improving participants’ ability to take responsibility for themselves, engender a sense of ‘self agency’, become more confident, ‘move on’ etc. We can map 19th century ethos of self-help onto a neoliberal ethos of the self-entrepreneur, which, arguably, is present in such justifications. As Foucault has famously said, under neoliberalism the self is less shaped by relations of production, exchange and consumption, rather, the self is shaped by demands to become more creative and reflexive. Here, ‘self’ is a resource for ‘capital-ability’ – ‘the stake in all neoliberal analyses is the replacement every time of homo œconomicus as a partner of exchange with a homo œconomicus as entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer’ (from The birth of biopolitics lectures series published by Palgrave in 2008, p226).

Does this trans-historical comparison, then, inspire a reappraisal of applied and social theatre’s left-leaning impulses – and a repositioning of applied and social theatre as framed by a liberal and neoliberal, rather than socialist, politics?

I’m becoming increasingly frustrated by our (and I place some of my own work in this bracket) search for ‘theories of change’ or whatever they might be called, to explain how participating in theatre might facilitate personal transformation. In the field of arts and social welfare, this search has become ubiquitous, with funders asking for such models and, increasingly, offering funding on the basis of ‘payment by results’ that show the models working. I recently worked with a colleague from UCLAN, Ali Roy, to articulate a response to these pressures, based on some research with a brilliant arts and social welfare project called the Men’s Room in Manchester. The research was funded by the Lankelly Chase Foundation, which supports projects working with people experiencing severe and multiple disadvantage. We gathered material from a series of ‘walking tours’ led by young men with experiences of homelessness, the criminal justice system and sex work (we asked each person to take us on a tour of city centre spaces they connected with their survival). In the report, we tried to articulate an argument against the ‘moving on’ rhetoric of welfare practice. You can read the full report here – http://www.mroom.co.uk/history/articles – click on the link at the bottom though do have a look at Janet Batsleer’s brilliant piece at the top too! (and if you want to read more, take a look at my article on the Men’s Room – ‘Queer choreographies of care: guided tour of an arts and social welfare initiative in Manchester’ in RIDE: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance (2013, Vol 18, Issue 2) (contact me for a copy if you can’t access this online).

It’s not that the ‘self help’ and ‘progress narratives’ that are everywhere you look in this field of work are necessarily wrong – it’s just that I’m worried that they fail to take account of the complex problems that many people struggle with, and which mean that, for many, ‘progress’ as it is commonly understood may be forever out of reach. My sense is that notions of ‘self’, ‘help’, ‘moving on’, ‘progress’ – all need to be thoroughly, comprehensively and radically re-imagined. For example, a focus on ‘self-agency’ also relies on the ‘self’ being something stable, that can be sensed, narrated, faced up to, and mobilised as resource. A more radical notion of self help and association might recognise ‘agency’, if it exists at all, as existing ‘in relation’ rather than as an autonomous thing. Most importantly, self-help and progress narratives fail to take account of the economic inequities programmed into a free market economy. 19th century liberals prized autonomy, self- sufficiency, a moral responsibility to the community, discipline and hard work, values essential to the working of a liberal economy – those who could or would not conform to such principles suffered stigmatising and punitive encounters with the poor law. Neoliberalism prizes creativity, adaptability, innovation and invention, and here ideas of ‘self’ are colonized by such imperatives – ‘be more creative’, ‘do less with more’, ‘we have to learn to adapt’, and ‘our economy depends more than ever before on our people … we need a welfare system that enables people to become authors of their lives’ (a phrase from the UK’s 2008 green paper on welfare reform called ‘No-one written off: reforming welfare to reward responsibility’ – was this title was ironic?). Under the coalition government in the UK we now have – with Universal credit and ATOS – a welfare system that supports a new class of worker whose ‘self’ must be ready and available at all hours and every day for temporary, non-contracted, non-unionised, often part-time work.

It is easy to miss the way a problematic discourse of self-help and self-entrepreneurship can creep into the ways we think about, talk about and do theatre in the community. A few months ago I attended a conference on homelessness and theatre in Manchester, during which a local Labour MP gave a speech – he stressed the ways in which the people he’d encountered during his (very short) time at the conference evidenced how much money was saved by arts projects with the poor. ‘I’m a politician and for me, this is about politics’, he began. He continued – ‘look at ‘A’ (he gestured towards ‘A’, a formerly homeless person who was hosting the conference, stood next to him) – ‘think how much ‘A’ has cost us during his time in prison and on benefits and now drama has helped him turn his life around’. I’m not sure how ‘A’ felt about this moment. Besides feeling disturbed by the profound lack of compassion for ‘A’ expressed here, plus lack of understanding of the complex causes of homelessness and the potential of the arts in these contexts, I was also shocked that the politician felt it would be ok to make reference to how much a person costs in such an environment. I was also surprised at the implication that drama was a cheap solution here … drama projects are neither cheap, nor ready-made solutions to the problems that create homelessness. On reflection, perhaps the politician’s real (unspoken) concern was in fact this – that is, about the cost of the arts (a luxury) in these austere times for those who seem unable to help themselves. But I think I was most surprised at how my responses to this speech were dissonant with the generally warm responses expressed by some of the others – artists, professionals working with homeless people – attending the conference.

Concerns about cost underpin the self-help and self-entrepreneurship rhetoric of the liberal and neoliberal political positions that I am engaging with here (and that I am seeing as threaded through theatre with the poor across time). It is uncanny how a Labour MP’s concern about economic cost in 2014 contains echoes of Victorian poor law principles. The former Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone, addressing an audience of paupers and Guardians of the poor following an entertainment given to the inmates of St Pancras workhouse in 1879 (the year before his second period as Prime Minister), had this to say:

‘My life presents to me a great variety of scenes and occasions. But among these scenes and occasions, I tell you, with unfeigned sincerity, I have not witnessed one for a long time that has filled me with heartier or livelier pleasure than to be a guest at this present assemblage. In this great establishment of which you are inmates it is not possible, consistently with the interests of the community, to give many indulgences … Ladies and gentlemen, it is not because the receiving of these indulgences would be dangerous or mischievous to yourselves that they are not given; it is because of the effect – which I am quite sure you will appreciate – that could be produced upon the community at large if these establishments, which are maintained out of the labour of that community and at its expense, were made establishments of luxurious living. It is necessary that the independent labourer of this country should not be solicited and tempted to forego his duty to his wife, his children, and the community, by thinking he can do better for himself by making himself a charge on the community’ (The Manchester Guardian, 23rd August 1879).

As a theatre researcher, I am interested in the notions of performance, affect and effect (and temptation, solicitation, indulgence) that are present in this speech, but for now I want to sign off this post with one final comment – about ‘equality’. Gladstone in 1879 and the Labour MP in 2014 both understand equality in economic terms (with ‘economic’ here referring to the efficient and equitable allocation of resource). But equality can be understood very differently – as, perhaps, a situation of encountering another without condition, preconception, end goal in mind. Philosopher Giorgio Agamben (in his book, The coming community) writes about ‘whatever being’, or ‘being such that it always matters’, which is also ‘being such that it is’ (p1). For me, he is referring to an unconditional relation or encounter, one that is disavowed, perhaps, by self-help and self-entrepreneur rhetoric. Does this idea of equality provide a basis for criticising the politics of arts projects, and welfare systems, which construct the poor as in need of fixing interventions before they can ‘move on’ into precarious employment? Perhaps it provides a way of thinking about and doing theatre that is more open to engaging with the vibrancy and potency of life ‘such as it is’, without predetermining deficiencies or ‘ends’ at the outset of an encounter. And even, supports the development of theatre practice that, as a result of this, provides effective, associational, infrastructures of support that are more likely to enable people to ‘move on’?

Of course, it is easy for me – paid a regular wage by a University to research theatre and the poor – to proclaim such things from the safety of a blog site. But how can these ideas be translated in practice? How can they be used by artists working in communities, and dealing with funders who are beholden to neoliberal economic agendas? How might researchers – like me, for example, as I continue to work with theatre projects grappling with all this in the present moment – translate such a critique into useable ideas for artists who have to evidence how far participants have ‘moved on’ as a result of taking part in their projects?

Tags: , , , ,


No comments

Be the first one to leave a comment.

Post a Comment


Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.