Blog: working with Tino Sehgal at the Turner Prize

Working for Tino Sehgal

Let’s Talk about the Market Economy

My engagement as an interpreter for Tino Sehgal’s artistic work for the Turner Prize has been one of the most interesting activities I have ever been involved in.  It was a real pleasure and provided a perhaps unique insight into public views on the capitalist economy during its continuing crisis.

Arguably, the most significant aspect of the discussions was the extent of dissatisfaction with the way the economy is working, or more specifically that it is not working in the interests of the majority of the people.

True, those who chose to visit the Turner – and those among them who agreed to engage with our group of volunteers – were not typical of any particular social, demographic or even national group.  There were large numbers of visitors from the Irish Republic, as well as many from Northern Ireland, along with substantial numbers of English, Scottish, French, German, Spanish and American visitors.

It might also be assumed that those who choose to spend their time in an art gallery are perhaps less likely to be bankers and more likely to have a considered outlook on life.

Perhaps all these factors generated a more anti-capitalist, or capitalist scepticism, approach than the population as a whole. Anyway, my completely unscientific assessment is that 80% of people approached agreed to engage in a conversation about the market economy.  And of those, 80% expressed unhappiness with the capitalist system.

A significant number – I guess around 20% – would like globalisation rolled back.  Many put forward ideas of how to support the local economy – the use of local barter schemes such as ‘Time Banking’ and ‘LETS’ (local exchange trading schemes), or local retailer loyalty schemes.

I repeatedly put forward the view that global trade should have global rules attached to it – such as minimum wages and minimum working ages to prevent child labour.  Not one person I spoke to disagreed, as far as I can recall.

Bangladeshi factory conditions were a prominent concern – and the role of consumers in the West in buying cheap clothes that had been produced in factories that were at risk of collapse and fires.  But the widespread use of this factory system by many large fashion retailers led to the questions of what choice do we have as consumers, how do we exercise choice and what are the limits, in practice, of free market consumerism?

Are there simply too few retailers – and banks – to give us free choice?  In fact, is the free market inevitably constrained by the desire of big corporations to become as large as possible and to eliminate competition to the point that there are just a few oligopolies left standing?  Indeed, what does it mean for democracy that many corporations are bigger than states and more powerful than governments?

There was widespread anger at the banks, most especially from people living in the Irish Republic.  Few people from the Republic believed that either the former Fianna Fail or current Fine Gael led governments have handled the crisis properly.  The vast majority expressed the view that the banks’ bondholders should have been the main losers, rather than the Irish taxpayers, when the banks were recapitalised.

There was a similar level of unhappiness amongst British visitors about the rescues of the RBS and Lloyds banking groups, expressed mostly as contempt for bankers continuing to receive bonuses, while taxpayers provide ongoing financial rescue support.

But the most common grievance amongst British visitors seemed to be about the energy market.  There appeared to be a clear majority in favour of the renationalisation of the retail energy sector.  Energy consumers held a strong view that they are being ripped off through the manipulation of the wholesale and retail prices.  It was also evident that few people had confidence that David Cameron’s government has handled the energy crisis in a manner that was fair for consumers.

One of the reasons why the Tino Sehgal experience was positive, heartening and exhilarating for me was the extent of visitors’ knowledge about the state of the economy and the reasons for the crisis.  While many people felt short of confidence in giving their opinions, when pushed they did have opinions and for the most part these were borne of pretty solid knowledge.

Inevitably, conversations on the economy spread to subjects that are associated, though sometimes only indirectly.  We talked about how we could create the type of political accountability that would ensure finance businesses were properly regulated and held to account.  This led on to discussions about the potential impact of young people increasingly isolating themselves in the home on gaming machines, and what this meant for the potential for collective political action and political debate in the future.

We also discussed the atomisation of society, in the sense that the arenas in which collective action and collective conversations took place traditionally have been in serious decline: trade unions, large workplaces and the pub.  Can and will social media replace these, we asked.  If they can, what influence will this have?

Another concern regularly discussed, was the currently very narrow range of political discourse.  In all the main Western economies there is a form of coalition, or divided government: the United States, the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic, Germany.  Does enforced and perhaps permanent structures of compromise constrain discussion about how the economy should be organised?  Can anyone in the modern political system put forward an alternative to the current structure of the lightly regulated capitalist economy?  Or, as Francis Fukayama put it, did we reach the end of history – and debate – with the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Inevitably, the Soviet Union’s approach to the planned, or command and control, economy featured regularly in conversations.  Most people concluded that this proved that communism could not work – in particular because human nature is flawed and leaders will therefore always misuse power for their own ends.  My two additional description of flaws in the system of the planned economy – that it can never efficiently allocate resources and can only be protected by an unacceptable apparatus of state control – did not seem to strike a chord with visitors.

Surprisingly, though, several people expressed themselves as Marxists, despite the experience of the Soviet Union and the rather different disillusioning experience of Cuba, whose socialism has been undone perhaps most of all by the sanctions of the West.  Advocacy of Marxism was sufficiently common amongst visitors to suggest that left wing alternatives to the capitalist model may become popular again as the current economic crisis moves to other stages.  (Perhaps through a resurgence of the eurozone crisis?)

Comedian Mark Steel expressed confidence that the people will at some point work out a better system, in which we move beyond greed.  While I respect his view, it seemed to me to be based more on optimism than on a coherent strategy for progress.

The lack of clear alternatives to the current capitalist system – or the ‘market democracy’ as Ronald Reagan used to describe it – might also suggest a change in the way philosophers engage in popular debate.  I discussed this with a number of visitors, especially those from France.  In the 1960s, French philosophers such as Sartre, de Beavoir and Camus were involved through popular culture in challenging and questioning the role of the state.  No one, it seems to me, plays a similar role today.  If they did, would it be the philosophers who could suggest a different system in which the economy services the needs of the population, rather than it acting as coercive force that controls much of the population, while providing a small minority with wealth beyond what they need or deserve?

In that context, Russell Brand became a popular topic of conversation. Many, mostly younger, visitors expressed admiration for his call for a revolution in his Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman.  Even those who disagreed with him seemed impressed that he had led a conversation and that he had done so through the use of some telling statistics on the distribution of wealth and by using forceful rhetoric.

I did not complete the Tino Sehgal experience with confidence that Russell Brand was correct in his prediction that revolution is coming – nor was anyone able to convince me that a revolution was bound to replace a very flawed economic system with a less flawed system.

But I was convinced that there is a mood of widespread dissatisfaction with the existing system of lightly regulated capitalism, the use of the state as a guarantor of bankers’ gross mistakes and the exploitation of the financial crisis by some politicians to undertake the biggest redistribution of wealth in modern times.  From the less well-off to the super rich, that is.  The number of millionaires and billionaires has increased during the ‘Great Recession’, while real incomes for average families have fallen by something like 13% in real terms.  And most visitors realised that process has been taking place. Though I did often add my explanation of how QE – quantitative easing – was key to this process.

So the grounds for optimism are that there is a tide of opinion against the current system and a high level of awareness about how the recession is being used to make the rich richer.  If our society also had a cadre of politicians, philosophers, economists or intellectuals who could put those pieces together to suggest a fairer alternative and how to achieve it, the time may be right not for revolution, but for some kind of profound change.

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