The Existential Dimensions of the Creative Economy: Insights from a re-reading of Kierkegaard

Daniel R. Smith

The creative industries have a strong socialist thread within them. Or so the story goes. Much of the literature on the communism of capital, in various spheres, stresses the communality of acts of production: value is made out of a common collaboration, a community of productive activities which is both the beginning and end of the social life of the community (e.g. Negri, 2011). Yet while this argument is, theoretically, very compelling I can’t help but notice that those in the creative economies don’t themselves articulate the communism of capital. Instead they remain stuck between a claim to the communality of the industry and the capitalist realities they remain positioned within. One case in point is YouTube.

YouTube is engaged in increasing commercial developments, so much so that it has become the drama of YouTube itself. Many videos of late speak to the perils and problems of YouTube ‘celebrity’ (as a synonym for capitalisation) and the development of an ‘industry’ around YouTube filmmaking as a space for profit and fame. One documentary, yet itself a feature of YouTube’s celebrity economy and monetisation, ‘Becoming YouTube’ by Benjamin Cook dramatizes precisely to this dialectic. At the heart of ‘Becoming YouTube’ is a drama around the communism of YouTube, a space where collaborate valorisation is the norm and the sociality of the site consists in the ‘shared, collaborative and dialogical’ making of products, i.e. videos. ‘Becoming YouTube’ is a meta-commentary, a dramatization of what YouTube ‘is’ as a creative industry. Speaking to the problems of commercialisation, Cook states:

“Why do we resist change? Why do we care if YouTube isn’t as good as it used to be? I’d argue that it’s because YouTube can be an artistic platform for anyone and everyone. And there aren’t so many of those around. If YouTube f**ks up by striving to appeal to advertisers over viewers, by prioritising the quantity over quality, by championing the lowest common denominator at the expense of creators making fresh, brave, original content; …then some of your favourite YouTubers’ might have no place else left to go…”

(‘Becoming YouTube: Everything Changes’,

Here is the closest point to voicing something of the socialist principles to YouTube, yet Cook avers:

“Ask yourself just what is that you want to do? Most of us on YouTube just want to be free to do what we want to do. And we want to get loaded. And we wanna have a good time. That’s what we want YouTube to be, a place where we’re free to create and make some of the best friends we could wish for…” (‘Becoming YouTube: Everything Changes’,

There is a strong threat of socialist democracy running through YouTube and the creative industries more generally but I suppose the question ‘is socialism on the cards – or even minds – in the new creative economies?’ isn’t quite the right one to ask. If all are equal before new social media, such as YouTube, then why are they not involved in a socialist project?

One answer comes from Cook’s comments here: ‘We want to have fun and get loaded’ This chimes in nicely with Nigel Thrifts opening claims in Knowing Capitalism:

“…capitalism is not just hard graft. It is also fun. People get stuff from it – and not just more commodities. Capitalism has a kind of crazy vitality. It doesn’t just line its pockets. It also appeals to gut feelings. It gets involved in all kinds of extravagant symbioses” (Thrift, 2005:1).

On this reading, the creative economy of YouTube is a fun, vital and pocket lining enterprise. But this could be the case and still involve a thread of socialism, surely? The fun communal vitality could muster some sense of redistribution of profits? Maybe; but it doesn’t seem to quite chime in with the ‘get loaded’ idea that Cook voices for the YouTube community. An alternative approach, found in Angela McRobbie’s work, is that the creative industries simply liberate the monotony of the 9-5 grind that the parent generation suffered:

“Work has been re-invented to satisfy the needs and demands of a generation who, ‘disembedded’ from traditional attachments to family, kinship, community or region, now find that work must become a fulfilling mark of self. In this context, more and more young people opt for the insecurity of careers in media, culture or art in the hope of success. In fields like film-making or fashion design there is a euphoric sense among practitioners of by-passing tradition, pre-empting conscription into the dullness of 9–5 and evading the constraints of institutional processes. There is a utopian thread embedded in this wholehearted attempt to make-over the world of work into something closer to a life of enthusiasm and enjoyment.” (McRobbie, 2002:521)

This argument is the most sociologically apt for the YouTube community of 20-30 some-things and the creative economies. Yet the utopian thread that McRobbie points to is not a socialist one; it is merely turning work into play in line with a neoliberal agenda.

Here, in play-capitalism, the socialism that may possibly arise from the realisation that communality involves a communistic ethos of ‘each according their ability, each to their need’ (cf. Graeber, 2011) is still not present. Instead what is present is a real angst, an existentially poignant and charged sense of isolation, despair and fear of the uncertainties and precariousness of life – not work-as-life, just life. One could give examples from the YouTube community – for instance Charlie McDonnell’s ‘I’m Scared’ – but another is the stand-up comedy of Liam Williams.

Williams’s existential angst is expressed precisely McRobbie’s terms. In skit which details his moving away from his parents but having to rely on them for money due to his career in stand-up comedy, he explains his foray into the industry:

“…Mum, Dad, … Now I’ve gone and got all good and educated, like, I’ve been thinking about how I want to live my life.”

“You will live just as we have lived, won’t you?”

“You mean comfortably but never luxuriously. You’re entire life juggling the tedium of parenthood with the gnawing feeling that your day-to-day life might just be futile?”


“No Mum and Dad. There’s this alternative lifestyle I’ve read about. It’s called following a slightly unorthodox career trajectory in the self-expression industry. …I want to be a comedian.”

“But you’re not very funny…”

“I don’t think that matters all that much.”

Yet this escape from tedium is countered by an existential fear, a dread and despair. This could easily to be the consequence of liquid modernity. But it goes beyond that. What the self-expression industries value is the very veneration and exaltation of the individual self that is denied in the other forms of work regimes. One may suggest that socialism and the ‘exceptional-ism of self’ striven for in the creative industries – where one has fun while getting loaded and famous – are two competing, mutually exclusive ventures.

Kierkegaard seems to have thought so. Or so Herbert Marcuse claims – Marcuse being one, along with Adorno, who pits Kierkegaard as the enemy of equality and social emancipation: the existential focus on the individual as the site of ‘truth’, where individuals lives, experiences and actions constitutes the ultimate reality, in Kierkegaard goes against any collective reformation of the injustices of the social order:

“There is no doubt, he says, that ‘the idea of socialism and community cannot save this age.’ Socialism is just one among many attempts to degrade individuals by equalizing all so as to ‘remove all organic, concrete differentations and distinctions’. It is a function of resentment on the part of the many against the few who possess and exemplify the higher values; socialism is thus part of the general revolt against extraordinary individuals.” (Marcuse, 1969:266)

Kierkegaard may have been blinkered to most political issues; he was certainly socially conservative and not an advocate of democracy. (One may wish to dismiss him for this alone). But beyond this political naivety, Kierkegaard isn’t as much as the threat to social emancipation as it may at first appear. Kierkegaard may believe that all are allotted there calling in life; the king to be a monarch and rule, the charwoman to clean – and calling here is meant in the Lutheran sense of life is dedicated to task. But Kierkegaard’s critique of socialism, or social democracy, isn’t couched in any real – or least politically charged – sense of duty to retain the status quo on this-worldly terms. For him it rests upon one’s relationship to God. As such Marcuse’s accusations that socialism, for Kierkegaard, is a regime against the extra-ordinary and the markings of differences and distinctions which are necessary to the social order, are misjudged.

The source of most attacks on Kierkegaard from the Frankfurt School is his Love’s Deeds (Hampson, 2013:211, n.29). It is in Love’s Deeds that his social conservatism is most marked, as Hampson demonstrates (2013:208-214, 216-220); yet the rationale for this is rooted in interests other than the sanctity of the social hierarchy, namely interests of the individual’s relationship to God. What I want to use and reformulate in Kierkegaard is this relationship of the individual to God in the context of the creative industries, elaborating on some claims I’ve made elsewhere (Smith, 2014).

To secularise the ‘God’ part and attempt an atheist reading of Kierkegaard – which doesn’t, I feel, dissolve the power or application of Kierkegaard’s work nor render it unintelligible, – recall Durkheim’s claims on the ‘cult of the individual’: the sanctity allotted to all persons is one where the ‘individual’ as the sacred object, the individual is ‘both believer and God’ (Durkheim, in Giddens, 1972:149). While Kierkegaard would disagree with what I want to propose from this, namely that the individual falls in love with themselves, removing the religious dimension to the argument he makes in Love’s Deeds can stand; furthermore it helps sustain some of the claims Marcuse highlights, namely the refusing of socialism on the grounds that it loses of the concrete distinctions between people and the exceptional-ism of the self that goes with that. The claim I want to make is that the creative industries, with their exceptional-ism of the self-ethos, promotes an idea that ‘we are all exceptional, all unique, all individuals as the site of truth’. It is the consequence of this world-view with develops a Kierkegaardian outlook to form in the minds of the creative industry practitioners over the socialist dimension to the practice.

Love’s Deeds is Kierkegaard’s work which outlines his position on the ‘love thy neighbour’ philosophy in the Christian tradition. Love of one’s neighbour, for Kierkegaard, is a love out of a sense of duty, a duty found in the position that it is loves nature to love (Hampson, 2013:180). When it came to understanding ‘love’ as the universal attitude toward all human beings, as conditioned by God’s love of all, the logical conclusion made by Kierkegaard was that any social station is irrelevant – whatever the social and political order – aristocratic or egalitarian, patrician versus pleb, oligarchy, etc. all are equal before God and universal love, understood as acceptance of others and deeds expressing this consolidates this. As the individual is ‘both believer and God’, the love issued in acceptance of others and of deeds recognising this, the point is we all love ourselves as much as we love each other. All this, spoken in Christian terminology, really means that each person is given their latitude to pursuing their existence alongside others. And this is ‘law’ for Kierkegaard: the power relation inherent within it demonstrates the obligation – duty, bonded service – we owe not to social hierarchies or ‘worldliness’ but rather God (and remember here, for my purposes, God is both ‘self and other’, the resolution of two opposed individualities). Hampson writes:


Kierkegaard is concerned lest recognition of the right relationship to God become lost through societal changes. The ‘abominable’ era of bond service is past ‘and so there is the aim of going further – by means of the abomination of abolishing the person’s bond service in relation to God’ to whom each human being is bound by his creation ex nihilo. We are to love God in adoration and obedience, ‘receiving our orders’ from God. (Hampson, 2013:192)


Speaking of this passage in Love’s Deeds, Hampson notes that Kierkegaard’s line of thought is directed toward not preserving the social hierarchy – as noted by his condemnation of feudal bonded service – but rather an appropriate relationship of self-other (me and my neighbour) which does not loose itself to a servitude to a master who resolves this concrete distinctions between each person who, out of nothing, was granted existence. This is not mere metaphysics but a social philosophy; if people were to fall into love with others, to “make ‘gods’ of others” (Hampson, 2013:192), they would lose sight of what Kierkegaard called ‘eternity’s equality’: the relationships between human beings is not established on the basis of government, political hierarchies or socially sanctioned gradations (caste, class or whatever system of distinction and categorisation). Relationships between humans are ‘a matter of conscience’ says Kierkegaard (Hampson, 2013:193). We are all equal before God (which is the self as ‘believer and God’) and therefore shall all be granted autonomy from such equal standing.

To return to the creative industries, we may see that the equality each person is granted to pursue their own deeds in relation to others who are equally able to legitimately recognise other peoples autonomy and freedom to do so while it does not hinder their own: this is Loves Deeds for the secular models of eternity granted by the internet. And the freedom granted here is not, as it may sound so far, a negative liberty which is completely in-keeping with neo-liberal capitalist regimes of production and accumulation. No, rather it is a freedom that is part of the human progress made by capitalism, as indicated by Marx as other commentators note (Varul, 2013), that our ‘spheres of existence’, our activities and exclusive practices are made practicable. What is the issue is that these freedoms to pursue one’s own activities are constricted; consigned to a servitude of occupation (labourer, farmer, fisherman, office clerk, etc.). Kierkegaard’s position, in fact, in keeping with this recognition of servitude to station in life but open to the claim that human freedom to recognise the freedoms of others and themselves are mutually commensurable in the face of God. And when God, for us, is ‘self as other, self as self’ (believer and God), the realisation is that contemporary forms of stations in life, occupations or servitudes, are manifesting themselves alongside such an ideal – and putting in place a regime which sees us not bound by one single sphere of existence but multiple so long as we make ourselves open to a generalised freedom for each to pursue their own relationship to themselves as much as another may do so themselves. It is, quite simply, a freedom where the individuality of another is consummated in ‘deeds’ which do not impair the individuality of oneself to consummate themselves as such.

The existential dilemma arises when we recognise the inherent authority this ‘love’ relation imposes: love is domination as loving out of the necessity to love arises from the position that, given we are all equal under the regime of creative online culture, YouTube, Vimeo, etc., the equality we are granted becomes an imposition – our deserts, what we have made out of ‘love’ (the freedom to pursue practices in recognition of others freedom to do so), become increasingly products to be appropriated by others. While we are not bound by one service – our social station, our occupation, etc. – and the concrete distinctions between ourselves and others remain, the point is that the creative industries allow individuality to be performed and made whole, consummated, through what we ‘create’. Yet these creations of self, so consummated by the self who made them, soon lose their specificity and become generalised entities for others to appropriate and play with.

The existential dilemma is, then, the realisation that what we made for ‘ourselves’ (as God creating a believer ex nihilo) was never really our own to begin with (for it always belong to ‘God’ (ourselves) whom must continue to believe in). Any talk of socialism here isn’t really a matter of property distribution or equalisation of deserts (monies) but rather how best to treat, recognise and understand the deserts (‘deeds’, ‘creations’, ‘products’) of others…

For instance, a video-blog, say, is a double edged sword: a consummated self, an aesthetic product, but also a cognitive device, a floating bit of information that lives on beyond the consummation it has been granted by the author, the video-blogger. As Beer says of Web 2.0 media, “users are involved in acts of invention or content creation (both actively creating content and passively generation informational traces as they go about daily routines.” (2009:992) These informational traces, a ghostly self of the vlogger who authored themselves through a video, are powerful entities – where power, as Scott Lash points out, is “in the flows …in the emergent non-linear socio-technical systems that channel, block and connect the flows.” (Lash, 2007:67) The algorithms of YouTube’s analytics are the veins that channel power’s flow: they hold information about aesthetically consummated selves and then turn them into cognitive entities again, as alive, and alive for what purpose? To sell. “It is perhaps no surprise that web applications like MySpace and YouTube are commercial ventures, particularly as we consider the possible value of the information they hold, how they are embedded in the routines of the users, and what they know about their collective users…” (Beer, 2009:995)

The search for a consummated sense of self, a self that is whole is impossible in the current culture of the creative industries, especially Web 2.0: a finished product is only finished in so far as it is ready for the next step, to sell it. What is required, as Steigler (2009) points out with YouTube, is a politics that is appropriate in our dealings with the products of each other’s individuality.



Beer, David (2009), ‘Power through the algorithm? Participatory web cultures and the technological unconscious’, New Media & Society, 11(6):985-1002.

Hampson, Daphne (2013), Kierkegaard: exposition and critique, (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Lash, Scott (2007), ‘Power after Hegemony: cultural studies in mutation’, Theory, Culture & Society, 24(3):55-78.

Marcuse, Herbert (1969), Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the rise of social theory, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd)

McRobbie, Angela (2002), ‘From clubs to companies: notes on the decline of political culture in speeded up creative worlds’, Cultural Studies, 16(4):516–531.

Negri, A. (2011) ‘In search of the Commonwealth’, trans. A. Bove, transversal.


Smith, Daniel (2014), ‘Charlie-is-so-‘English’-like: nationality and the branded person in the age of YouTube’, Celebrity Studies, DOI: 10.1080/19392397.2014.903160.

Steigler, Bernard (2009), ‘The Carnival of the New Screen’, The YouTube Reader:

Thrift, Nigel (2005), Knowing Capitalism, (London: Sage)

Varul, Matthias (2013), ‘Towards a consumerist critique of capitalism: a socialist defence of consumer culture’, Ephemera, 13(2):293-315.


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