Here's a recent text of mine. It's about how sound designers sell proof of upper class for clients, and why all of us precarious workers should come together under one trade union, with some cutaways to here and there. I'll put out a few more texts, too, as soon as they've been published.
Warm thanks to everyone at Kenno films for editing and selecting my text for the Takes publication. The texts were proofread by Joss Allen, Katie Lenanton, and Sourav Roy, and I thank them dearly.
This text was written in August 2020. Hope it's still worth its salt!
The Future is Feudal? Global Strike, Trade Unions, and Sound Designers.
Learning to be precarious
Growing up, I’d never known any artists. Not quite so: my maternal grandfather Risto played in a folk band. He taught me how to read sheet music. By today’s standards, he’d be labelled a precarious culture worker. Risto worked as a reporter, teacher, and touring musician, while picking up board duties here and there, from a disability association to the local city council. It sounds not unlike the working life of many of my peers. While he was active in many non-profit associations, I don’t know if my grandfather belonged to a trade union. His “real” profession was teaching. People knew Risto as the principal of a tiny elementary school near my childhood home. This would make OAJ, The Trade Union of Education in Finland, a natural fit for him. But he ran on the conservative ticket for a council seat, so perhaps he didn’t belong to a union. (Then again, Akava, the trade union for academic workers, to which OAJ belongs, is probably the most right-leaning union in Finland.)
While I was aware of the strain such a lifestyle can have on familial ties, the precarious career path my grandfather modelled stuck to me. He even learned to do websites later in life. The many roles he inhabited fell on him, I guess, because money needed to be made. But maybe he was uninterested in—or incapable of—concentrating on just one thing. It could’ve been both; when you’re a freelancer or a gig worker, your interests and realities fold into each other, leaving you unsure of which is which. Am I into project work because I like the constant change, or have I conditioned myself to like the change because I have no other option?
Between 2003 and 2009, studying sound design in the Theatre Academy in Helsinki, I became accustomed to precarious work. To cover my rent, I’d work as a technical assistant, moonlighting at anything from an academic conference to a sound installation by an artist booked for some faraway festival. During the latter gig, I returned to Helsinki the next morning—having not been able to get any sleep on the floor of the venue—and headed straight to class, dozing off while a professor lectured us about minimalist music. Bit by bit, I ended up making exhibitions and performances myself, while sound design duties began to fade from my focus. My budding career crossed paths with my grandfather’s; at one point, I wrote art criticism for the Turun Sanomat, the same newspaper that once published him. I began to receive invitations for board duties. While finishing my BA studies, I joined Äänen Lumo, an association for sound art in Helsinki, and volunteered to organise concerts and sound art events. A board member from Lighting, Sound, and Video Designers in Finland (SVÄV) came to talk to my class about union membership. Being a leftist, I signed up. So far, the membership has yielded little returns. In the eleven years since I graduated, I’ve had only one steady job for three months, which means I’ve never qualified for an earnings-related unemployment allowance (ansiosidonnainen in Finnish), which is considerably more than the basic benefit for the unemployed, and only available for unionised workers who can prove their hours.
Not that I was really looking for steady work opportunities. It had started: unconsciously, I was calibrating my interests to fold into the precarious work life. I would tell myself how much I enjoy the freedom of gig work and freelancing. Like my grandfather Risto, my lifestyle was inseparable from my work: there were always places to be, papers to fill in, projects to advance, gigs to be covered; whatever leisure time I craved, it had to happen within those limits. I remember drinking cheap sparkling wine from plastic cups on a rainy Sunday afternoon, strolling through the hip Punavuori district in Helsinki while hosting a German sound artist, and telling myself that this is not that bad.
Being white, able-bodied, Finnish-speaking, and male-passing has certainly helped in not crumbling under the chaos of freelancing, along with whatever serendipity there may exist; privilege and luck seem to be the keys to successful precarity. But as I got older and went through depression, complimentary drinks didn’t really cut it anymore. Meeting people and seeing places lost their appeal. I was more interested in adequate compensation without the obligatory affective labour. As is typical for professional work in the creative industry, I’ve always had an idea of my ‘own’ work gleaming somewhere in the horizon, excusing the many compromises you’ll make in your career. “[D]ifficulties and hardship are accepted as part of a project of self-regulation and discipline by a worker in pursuit of future creative fulfilment which will never be attained”, write Stephanie Taylor and Karen Littleton, based on the findings of Nikolas Rose on subjectification. The real, lived experience of a creative worker is more complicated. Foucauldian readings render invisible the daily social interactions and networks of friends and colleagues that give meaning to your work (Taylor & Littleton 2013). Failing to see any value in precarious work-life and merely condemning it, the left is only harming itself, like I did to myself by cutting myself off from art’s social circles—and social media—some years ago. As Alessandro Gandini has written on digital creative labour: “it seems wise for the Left to stop fighting digital work as exploitative per se, but actually learning how to represent those that are most negatively affected by the existence of a labour market that makes cheap and unfair labour convenient—and start thinking about ways to create the conditions for making it inconvenient” (Gandini 2016).
The problem is not precarity but its terms. I don’t mind doing gigs—I can’t imagine doing anything else—but I don’t want to be alone in the uncertainty, stress, and mindless competition. I want to figure out how we can fight successfully together against the exploitation of poor and working class people. First, we need to make sure people understand they are workers, no matter what shiny perks or dreams of class advancement their bosses or educational institutions dangle in front of them. But before we get to that, let’s take a quick look at precarity’s history.
The power of neoliberalism
Precarious work is probably as old as human culture. There’s always been travelling salespeople, temporary farmhands, and hustlers and peddlers of many kinds. The neoliberal era has embraced this phenomenon in full with its insistence on keeping the work force fluid: workers must be ready to move, re-educate themselves, and accept any and all changes both in pay and conditions. The dawn of neoliberalism appeared roughly a hundred years ago. A group of economists dreamed that a global market, free of all constraints, would be the optimal world order. Their recommendations included demolishing tariffs and crushing unions. Led by economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, the impact of these policies peaked with austerity politics and waves of market deregulation in the 1980s. The heavy-handed economic interventions to budding marketplaces in the Global South favoured corporate interests over those of the state. Loans were given to target countries under the condition that those on the receiving end must ease their property and tax laws, thus welcoming multinational corporations who are always out to scavenge for natural resources and cheap labour. Virtually every country on earth has followed—or was made to follow—suit. Parties, too: as Margaret Thatcher remarked, Tony Blair turning the Labor Party into a replica of Thatcher’s neoliberal policies was her greatest achievement. Staying outside globalism is not an option, because like the case of independent retailers forced to accept Amazon's draconian conditions, there is no alternative marketplace. And as always, the strongest nations and corporations set the rules while having no intention to adhere to them. Historian Quinn Slobodian has described how “the right of the hegemon is the right to break the rules. Just as the U.S. subsidised its agriculture while preaching free trade, the CAP [EU’s system for setting farm produce prices] created a protectionist Europe even as it began pressuring the EEC’s [a precursor to EU] Associated States to transition their exports to world market prices” (Slobodian 2018).
But beyond its creation of a functioning free market, the neoliberal program was even more successful as a form of control. The project set forth by von Mises and Hayek, among others, was “developed precisely as a response to the growth of mass democracy” (ibid., 34). Budding democracies were forced to adopt austerity measures and were told they wouldn’t stay competitive otherwise. These policies helped in fragmenting society into individuals competing against each other. To achieve the competitive edge, neoliberalists proposed wages and corporate taxes be set as low as possible. Unions were antagonised early on, and strikes would be treated as bumps on the road, to be flattened out by any means necessary. As Slobodian shows, “The right to kill with impunity under emergency powers met [Ludwig von] Mises’ approval” (ibid., 45). An organised workforce has neither offered an equally-sweeping worker’s movement, nor a set of widely adopted programs to counter both the global domination of the neoliberal model, and the internal opposition it has created in the ranks of workers and the poor. A key tenet of neoliberalism is the idea of global markets. Ironically, it can’t be realised without centralised planning: institutions such as the World Trade Organization guard the free-market policies, even though neoliberalism is often regarded as being against centralisation. The other side has not come up with similar tools. The socialist left in Europe has spent the last hundred years stuck sussing out its relationship to nationalism, with little to show for it. We haven’t evolved into a global movement with similar reach than neoliberalism currently enjoys. Another scathing irony is that we in the left have no centralised power: leftist politics rely on national parliamentarism or local grassroots activism. While both are important, they should be seen as sub-sections of a more universal opposition against inequality.
In Northern Europe, the most noticeable attempt of late at a global movement has been the Extinction Rebellion (ER) movement, which tries to halt the climate crisis. Being leaderless, non-violent, and with extremely ambitious aims, it has struggled to create enough unified, unidirectional pressure to challenge and ultimately break the neoliberal status quo. The rhetoric wielded by ER activists is not hostile to class issues: they acknowledge the climate crisis stems from the choices made by industry giants and world’s most powerful politicians, not from individual consumer choices. After all, the concept of a personal carbon footprint was created by ExxonMobil as a PR stunt to shift the blame from oil companies to consumers (Westervelt 2018). Such stunts remind us how the need for global, collective action is absolutely crucial. Yet ER has signed off from “party politics”, which—as we’ve seen with the wobbly trajectories of Green Parties in various countries—often leads to a de facto alignment with the liberal right. A recent tweet by Extinction Rebellion UK spelled out their stance: “Just to be clear we are not a socialist movement. We do not trust any single ideology, we trust the people, chosen by sortition (like jury service) to find the best future for us all through a #CitizensAssembly A banner saying ‘socialism or extinction’ does not represent us.” Socialism isn’t the only way to fight the climate crisis. But trying to come up with a citizen assembly, i.e. a novel form of governance, instead of relying on tried-and-tested platforms such as unions, workers’ movements, and social justice organisations—most of which stand decidedly and vocally on the left—seems like a huge stretch under this pressing global catastrophe. Finally, while labour unions aren’t inherently leftist—the union for police officers being a prime example—the idea of collective workers’ action is deeply tied into the history, and the future, of labour parties.
Let us return to the term “neoliberalism”. Should we not use it? Can one concept work as a blanket statement for all that’s wrong in the world? Perhaps the term makes no sense anymore; for example, the European Union’s protectionist policies are a far cry from classical neoliberalism; Keynesian stimulus policies are making a return with the COVID-19 crisis; and what should we call China's system? Call it what you will, we must accept that after a century of forcing deregulation and anti-union policies down our throats, neoliberalism is winning everywhere, even if current liberal economic policies cannot be classified as neoliberalist. Its victory won’t be diminished by belittling anyone who dares to use the word. True, neoliberalism doesn’t explain why the world is full of misery. It could be that way regardless: in changing the world for what you deem is better, people can inadvertently create something worse, and often have done so. And neoliberalism might not even be the worst of it. According to Ajay Singh Chaudhary, capitalism’s gains can be largely “rolled back”, if income equality keeps rising: democratic societies could be dragged back to the static class divisions and hereditary rulers of feudalism. American meritocracy is little more than inherited wealth paving the way for a family's offspring. History is non-linear and might not bend towards justice. Perhaps the future is not female, as the slogan for mainstream feminism goes, but feudal. Another example: in Pankaj Mishra’s telling, the decolonisation of India—moving from British rule towards a process of independence—has been anything but a neat story of uninterrupted expansion coupled with democracy and equality. In the decades following World War II, as India was hailed a “non-communist nation-state of overwhelmingly poor people, trying to create an egalitarian society and an internationally competitive economy”, it has been led astray by “cold-blooded fanatics” such as the current prime minister Narendra Modi, bent on eradicating all minority religions from India. It’s worth asking if any of our model democracies—such as India or the USA—are what they say they are. Following Samuel Huntington, Mishra notes how “the American republic continues to resemble a Tudor monarchy more closely even than Britain’s constitutional monarchy”. It’s also worth remembering that the worst effects of neoliberalism, such as a precarious workforce or colonial theft disguised as a streamlining of commerce, are not new. But before our time, they didn’t constitute a set of aggressively guarded, all-encompassing commandments. At the very least, they weren’t safeguarded by a professional class and a global corporate elite. From mainstream economists parroting these views in the media, to political leaders feverishly selling deregulation and privatisation to voters, neoliberalism has no shortage of willing mouthpieces. In Finland, the National Coalition Party (Kokoomus) has managed to make all alternatives to its economic policy seem utopian and naive, while infinite growth by any means necessary and expanding deregulation and privatisation are made to look like the natural state of things. Labour unions, too, have auditioned for the part: their leaders today talk about the primacy of perpetual economic growth. Since it means, without exceptions, that workers in other countries must lose if we are to win, seeing unions spitting out this faux-realpolitik rhetoric feels bizarre. Labour unions have been remodeled so that they would pass for a market-friendly centrist who has no qualms about pitting workers against each other.
Which class for you?
When all other avenues of influence seem hopeless, is it any wonder a section of the online left are idealising armed conflict via Maoist-Leninist memes? How to negotiate if the terms have been set in advance? Why boycott anything if it lets corporations off the hook by shifting responsibility to consumers? By making us choose product A over product B due to it offering a supposed ethical gain—when we know virtually all our consumer picks often do more harm than good regardless—we are diminished into focus group zombies. And why would you join a union if there’s nothing to gain but meager pay rises for professionals and employees lucky enough to have a steady job, leaving no benefits to us freelancers, self-employed, and gig workers? Perhaps the solution to our anxieties could be found in forging much larger horizons of solidarity between workers? For example, we could take out the narrow lens of profession-based unionising and instead look for the similarities in our situations as micro-entrepreneurs. Currently, we have separate associations, called trade unions, for hairdressers and sound designers. But how is our situation that different, apart from pay? How come we have so little horizontal alignment? Dreams of upward class mobility might partly explain this. Increasingly, professional sound designers working in Finland have acquired a Master’s Degree in Arts. In 1986, sound and light design studies became part of what is today Uniarts Helsinki’s Theatre Academy. The latter was transformed from a vocational school to an academy in 1979. One can only imagine how different the class identity of sound designers—and artists—would be today, if all artists and creatives would receive vocational training instead of higher education. An artist has no need for higher education, unless you’re particularly interested in a particular academic subject.
The real reason for art's academisation seems to be in upward class mobility. In my experience, sound designers often want to be seen more as architects and less as technicians, and I feel this goes for all other creatives, too. The Finnish art scene at large has betrayed its working-class sympathies, to which they keenly pay lip service, and opted for upward mobility instead of class solidarity. The academisation of art that has taken art education and discourse by storm during the last twenty years has been a death blow to artists’ working class sympathies. It might explain why for many people, art seems far removed from their reality, as Su Braden showed already in the 70’s in her book Artists and People. It’s because we the artists are reaching for another reality, one with natural wines and freedom to do endless group shows about post-humanist self-care strictly for our friends. This detachment from working-class issues is all the more painful to witness when you're well aware of how the economic realities of most artists place them undeniably within the working class or the poor. For the sake of appearances and shame, we keep on pretending we belong to a higher class. (Due to familial wealth, some of us do.) It’s an expensive and exhaustive facade that ultimately works against our best interests, just like voting for right-wing populist parties has done for workers everywhere. At a minimum, we should start having our meetings with international curators at Hesburger, instead of fancy restaurants we can’t afford; at best, we could think of controlled downward mobility, meaning that by decreasing inequality between the classes, vocational education wouldn't be regarded as a lesser goal. More of higher education doesn't erase the fact that parents who are better off can offer their children better chances to game the (educational) system. “Higher education is largely a positional good: what counts is one’s place in the distribution”, writes Adam Swift. They continue: “Mobility researchers disagree about a lot, but it is common ground that the best way to increase movement between rungs on the ladder is to reduce the distance between them”.
The pursuit of a higher class status is not new. The engineering profession in Finland underwent a similar, though more successful progression some hundred years ago. (It was more successful because of the differences in the respective labour and material realities of artists and engineers that I won’t cover here.) In 1878, when Finnish engineers founded their association Tekniska Föreningen, part of the reasoning was to secure a place for educated engineers in the upper echelons of society, while keeping at bay self-taught workers who had risen up the ranks of engineering jobs the old way. The forming of an association was a step towards a unified and standardised engineering profession. At the time, the title of engineer was used freely by anyone from factory bosses to artisans. Like today, an important aspect in protecting the profession from the underclass was education. The association favoured engineers with a higher education. Like all other associations in Finland back then, Tekniska Föreningen was unapologetically exclusive, which made them efficient in setting the terms for their profession. They maintained a hygienic distance from the politics of the day, such as the race for Finland’s independence. It was a move that catered for an understanding of engineers as a “neutral” body, outside the political struggles of the day (Michelsen 1999).
Sound designers—or designers of any kind—should be well tuned to navigate similar balancing acts in their line of work. The core of our job is to provide either a decor or a decoy. The former describes the effective “sprucing up” of an object, artwork, environment, or a project. A sound designer might not end up doing anything more than editing together a few tracks into a mixtape and lending their name to the client: their work might not always require high-level professional skills; what the client is buying, above everything, is the taste and name of the designer. A designer sells proof. The client doesn’t have to worry whether their publication looks amateurish, since a graphic designer has selected the font, or if their launch event’s atmosphere is dodgy, because a sound designer has curated the playlist. Another thing we trade in is client safety. Being protected from being deemed uncool or unprofessional also includes a kind of class guarantee. Without too much exaggeration, any project or object that includes work done by a professional designer belongs to middle or upper class tastes. A refined style is always that which the well-off people prefer. Working class and poor people come up with new styles, fashion sensibilities, and trends constantly, but it’s only when designers decorate them into a commodified experience that it will be taken seriously as an aesthetic phenomenon by the gatekeepers of public and historic taste. Not incidentally, these gatekeepers belong to the same professional class as designers: they are journalists, researchers, and curators. The work of one aspiring professional is weighted for its class credibility by another. To design means to upgrade the class appeal of a work. This is what I mean by decor.
Another aspect of the designer’s work is creating decoys. It can mean anything, including hiding the mediocrity of a performance with audiovisual trinkets to alleviate the existential crisis of a director or producer—at least our show looks credible, right? Designers can conjure a facade of meaning for pointless projects. (Overall, the professionalisation and academisation of art is meant to offer proof of—white, upper class—quality.) Pausing to think why you’re making something remains out of the picture when there are simply too many people reliant on the production staying afloat. Ultimately, designers help create things so that the calendars at rental firms and production agencies aren’t empty, and so that other professionals can keep on telling themselves their work is important. When comparing professional productions to the work of amateurs, the biggest difference is almost never in the ideas but in the execution and quality. By making the kind of work that’s out of reach for non-professional people, designers make sure that the culture they participate in creating isn’t judged by its ideas but by quality, which is to say its success in pulling off an upper-class drag. You can see this in education, too. The next time you encounter ads by an art university, consider the class dreams those images are selling to the artists-to-be and audiences alike. Design as decoy describes a process of bluffing the audience into noticing the spectacular moving lights instead of the sub-par performance; of shifting attention from what the work is saying to how well it’s been made. Lastly, the concept of decoy can be read through the designer’s identity, too. Hiring creatives from underrepresented backgrounds sometimes allows the employer to let themselves off the hook—although this happens in the knowledge economy at large, not just in design work. We are rarely doing the work we thought we were hired for, and are tied into helping the employer accumulate cultural-political capital.
The future is organised
Let us return to trade unions. What are they good for? National collective agreements with employer associations for a given industry are the core function of trade unions. It’s where they demand pay raises and other benefits from the associations representing the employers. If your work is made up of temp jobs, freelancing gigs for small companies, or precarious labour of almost any kind, it’s likely you’re not benefiting from your trade union membership. What would benefit you instead is a large-scale labour union, one that is not tied to any specific craft or profession. In a sense, though, this is already how trade unions function in Finland. My own trade union belongs to SAK, The Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions, which boasts around 900,000 members. Other member unions there include, for example, the Finnish Prison Officers’ Union, and the Finnish Electrical Workers’ Union. Sadly, the breadth of the ranks in our umbrella organisation doesn’t show itself anywhere, except in May Day celebrations, and very rarely during a strike. But what it does mean is that SAK has great leveraging power to defend all workers’ rights in Finland. A union of this size can create international connections, as SAK has done. It’s a member of a host of international trade union organisations, such as The International Labour Organisation (ILO). Within the European Union, SAK has advanced workplace protections covering all of the EU. But the times we’re living in demand more. National strikes are not enough, either. To truly oppose global capitalism, we’d require an international, coordinated strike affecting the production from top to bottom. We must learn how to stand with our siblings who are, to quote Daft Punk, around the world. That’s what a contemporary sound designer must learn how to do. For me, this would be the ultimate sound design gig. Cue the Daft Punk track and let's get moving.
There are so many of us who have no use for craft-specific trade unions, but would sorely need a labour union that protects and advances workers’ rights at large, with issues around precarity at its core. My understanding of what this could mean in relation to existing unions—and the work already done by various grassroot organisations—is limited. I am writing this text to reach out and tell you that you’re not alone, and that global workers’ solidarity is a realistic albeit momentous goal for us.
Braden, Su., Artists and People (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.,1978).
Chaudhary, Ajay Singh., “We’re Not in This Together”, The Baffler, Vol 51 (April 2020). Accessed 3 September 2020. https://thebaffler.com/salvos/were-not-in-this-together-chaudhary
Gandini, Alessandro., The Reputation Economy: Understanding Knowledge Work in Digital Society (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2016).
Littleton, Karen., and Stephanie Taylor, “Negotiating a Contemporary Creative Identity. Cultural Work and Higher Education”, in Daniel Ashton and Caitriona Noonan (eds.), Cultural Work and Higher Education (London:Palgrave Macmillian, 2013).
Michelsen, Karl-Erik., Viides sääty: Insinöörit suomalaisessa yhteiskunnassa (Helsinki: Baishideng Publishing Group Inc.,1999).
Mishra, Pankaj., “Flailing States”, London Review of Books [Vol. 42 No. 14] (16 July 2020). Accessed 3 September 2020. https://lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n14/pankaj-mishra/flailing-states
Slobodian, Quinn., Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (London: Harvard University Press, 2018).
Swift, Adam., “What’s fair about that?”, London Review of Books Vol 42:2 (23 January 2020).
Westervelt, Amy., “Drilled” [podcast], Drilled News, Seasons 1 & 2 (2018). Accessed 3 September 2020. https://drillednews.com/podcast-2/
The text was written in August 2020.