Features Essays Published 2 September 2015

Post-Capitalist Theatre: a thought experiment

Marek Horn imagines how Paul Mason's theories could apply to theatre and what it might mean for new companies making political work.
Marek Horn

In his article for The Guardian on 17th July, Paul Mason outlined how a future society might look. Based on his upcoming book Post-Capitalism, he argued that, in a new information-centric world, ideas and data will overtake things and their monetary value as the preeminent human currency. ‘Today’ as Mason points out, ‘the thing that is corroding capitalism, barely rationalised by mainstream economics, is information’. Capitalism has no real meaningful way of quantifying and commodifying ideas and data, in the way that it quantified and commodified things and work, and thus; Information Technology currently exists as a sleeper cell of irrational un-commodifiable post-capitalist value, within the capitalist system.

So far, so utopian. But in fact the IT revolution will have, and already is having, a deleterious effect on the production of art. Yes, work requires skills, experience and effort but so does art, and unlike work, art cannot be made by machines, no matter how intelligent they are. What is more, technology and the internet are already destroying creative output enough to cause reasonable concern about the exigencies of an IT-centric future, as music, books, art, and film can all now be captured, copied and redistributed by advancing and rapacious social technologies to the point where what is being produced is rendered valueless. As they are reproduced ad infinitum, images, songs, books will be more ubiquitous than ever, and if ubiquity destroys their financial value now then what is to say that it won’t also destroy their conceptual value? A beautiful thing like a Francis Bacon painting surely has little value when a simulacrum of it can be instantaneously summoned online, or reproduced to the highest spec by an incredibly sophisticated machine?

And yet the ‘original’ Francis Bacon will always hold special value, whether it is conceptual or monetary. Its thing-value will be as irrational in an Information Technology age as its ideas-value is today. It will always have, as mysterious and powerful as it might be, what I will term for my purposes here ‘the authority of the progenitor’, and for me (re)capturing the authority of the progenitor is the key to art’s future survival – and theatre is uniquely suited to this task.

It is for this reason that I disagree with Mason when he – conveniently for my purposes here – muses on the future status of the artist, and identifies the playwright as a potentially endangered species.

“Perhaps there will not even be any playwrights: perhaps the very nature of the media we use to tell stories will change – just as it changed in Elizabethan London when the first public theatres were built” – Paul Mason

I think rather that theatre could take on a pre-eminence that it has not enjoyed since the renaissance. In a socio-cultural matrix that doesn’t value things for their monetary worth and does value the authority of the progenitor above all other factors in cultural -commodification, what could be more valuable than an art form that has, built into its very mode of being, the idea that it should be created anew every time it is experienced and consumed? In Information Technology terms especially, theatre has an extraordinary resilience. It resists, in all meaningful ways what could be termed ‘the tyranny of the simulacrum’. The internet can reproduce sound, and light, and words and pictures. It cannot however reproduce space and it cannot reproduce time, and thus it fundamentally cannot reproduce the experience of watching a play.

Theatre is the only art form that derives its entire life force from the act of being (and I mean this in the most literal sense) conspicuously consumed. In an economy like ours, that it based almost entirely on the late-capitalist need for literal and conspicuous consumption, that is no great shakes. Why consume a play when you can consume this new type of yogurt, or this new range of cheap clothes? But, in the post-capitalist age where consumption will have become almost covert, and almost always isolated, and almost always cerebral and interiorised, the conspicuous, exteriorised, greedy energy of the theatre will be valued more than ever. This is art that says to the consumer, “You matter. You matter because we don’t exist unless we are consumed”. What is more; today we consume things because we fear that we don’t matter, but tomorrow we will consume ideas because to do so will be the only thing that does matter.

Office Cubicles

That then is the case for theatre as an essential utility in a post-capitalist society, but in order to be a commodity (by which I mean a post-money cultural commodity) it is going to have to work a little harder, and focus on making ‘good ideas’. Theatre could be described as an ‘idea explaining machine’ and this is a society, don’t forget, where there will be a constant drive for better and more complicated ideas. There needs to be incredibly effective ways of getting complicated information to the point where it is consumable and digestible. Theatre can help do that. In an age of machines, theatre will provide an organic relatability: Real people saying real words, acting out real actions. Even if those actions are in turn simply a simulacrum of another event, at least they are tangible. They are physically tangible and thus they become, to an organic human soul, more intellectually tangible. Plus, theatre utilises all the main ways in which humans learn. It is visual, aural, and kinaesthetic. It is both real and metaphorical. It is both emotionally removed and deeply empathic. It has something to say to everyone, and in a post-capitalist world it will have everything to say.

But why wait until the revolution comes? Why wait for capitalism to be overthrown to start making post-capitalism-proof theatre? As luck would have it post-capitalist theatre is not only post-capitalism-proof, it is also capitalism-proof. It is the perfect antidote to both the Free Market loving commercial theatre and the precarious and fearful subsidised theatre. It’s not very nuanced but I would say that broadly the type of work that the commercial theatre makes is necessarily reactionary, financially exclusive and wealth creating, and that subsidised theatre has the luxury of being intellectually elitist and culturally proselytising. Put like that neither sound very appealing, and that is because in the context of post-capitalist theatre, they’re not. They both play a part in propping up a capitalist system that is tired and under duress.

Commercial theatre doesn’t create lavish spectacles because it can, it creates them because it needs to. Its modus operandi is to make profit, and in order to do that it must seem to be producing a highly cost-effective outlay for its consumers. They want more bang for their buck, and the more bang they get the more buck they’re willing to give, and the more buck they’re willing to give the more bang they’re wanting to get, and so the whole ludicrous matrix spirals inexorably upwards.

But is subsidised theatre (by which I mean also leftist theatre) really any better in this context? The major political and cultural figures of the left have been oppositional figures and thus they are nothing more than the punctuation marks in a narrative that has otherwise been decidedly, dynamically, intoxicatingly neo-liberal. Progressive, subsidised theatre is no exception. It might be better theatre, and more worthwhile theatre than its commercial counterpart, but, in the main, determination for its existence still resides with its neo-liberal paymasters. This is theatre at the mercy of the commissars. And so, because of this, subsidised theatre, like many leftist projects, is essentially a defensive beast- its lifeforce sapped by the burden of opposition and its financial/cultural need to justify itself.

To discuss post-capitalist theatre in capitalist terms, you end up with something that finally sounds like a successful formula for a viable alternative. This, after all, is work that seeks to maximise its creative and conceptual capital, without giving a flying fig about its potential to accrue commercial monetary capital. It doesn’t worry about competing in a ‘bang for buck’ death spiral and so it doesn’t want or need things to make it worthwhile. This is theatre with no outlay, and no overheads. Thus not only is it not commercial, it has no necessity for subsidy and doesn’t long for the Arts Council’s financially constituted seal of approval.

Now, this work almost certainly already exists today in practice, only without subscribing to the underlying theory. Because it operates using low-overheads, the work that we want to look at is currently identified, in the parlance of the capitalist system, as being ‘fringe theatre’. Mainstream theatre, because it ‘thrives’ in the capitalist system, is structurally obstructed from consideration. Instead it is necessary to look at the fringe scene, the emerging scene and the student scene, where low-overhead work, and work with a high yield of experimental and dynamic ideas, can be found in abundance. Even having taken a straw poll of my own recent university experience, an embarrassment of riches comes to mind. In the last few years alone Warwick University has churned out Fat Git, FellSwoop, Walrus, Barrel Organ, and, the now positively venerable, Curious Directive.

The work that these companies make is often brilliant. In criticising it here I mean only to criticise it within the terms of the thought experiment in play. I say this because, in spite its brilliance, this work is often disbarred, as of yet, from being identified as post-capitalist theatre. This is for two reasons: Firstly, this is theatre that has often found itself, by virtue of its success, sucked into the production and consumption matrix. I think here of Curious Directive’s last show Pioneer. Although enjoyable and full of thoughtful notions, the show was, in post-capitalist terms, overladen with stuff.

Secondly, this is progressive work that remains oppositional. Barrel Organ’s first show Nothing had this issue. It was pleasingly post-capitalist in that it was stripped to the bone in terms of what it required, and in the workings of the company we find a methodology that could easily be identified as one of Mason’s new ‘sharing economies’:

[Sharing economies] exist because they trade, however haltingly and inefficiently, in the currency of post capitalism: free time, networked activity and free stuff. – Paul Mason

Moreover Nothing’s ideas-value was through the roof in terms of its form, and in the changing and dynamic nature of the truly ‘conditional’ performances generated. My issue instead is with its content. Nothing was quite rightly lauded by critics. In part this was for all the elements identified above, but it was also celebrated for its oppositional stance and because it represented a desire amongst ‘up and coming’ theatre-makers to use theatre as a means of progressive social change. The unfortunate paradox is that, by being oppositional, the show automatically placed itself within the twentieth-century leftist matrix, and thus within an economic model and cultural landscape that doesn’t value theatre (in the way a post-capitalist culture would), and that has a vested interest in the left remaining oppositional.

ViolenceLandscape

Barrel Organ’s Some People Talk About Violence

My argument is that, rather than opposing an economic model they have lost the battle for and using a medium that has currently limited sway, the theatrical left should seize the initiative and seek to control the discourse of the incoming system. Assuming that the post-capitalist world will be an inherently leftist one, progressive theatre will have no need to be oppositional. It will be for things, rather than against them. The argument here is polemical, but not defeatist, rather it advocates for a kind of ‘asymmetric warfare’ where leftist theatre diverts from regurgitating the obvious evils of late-capitalism, and instead starts making joyful, communal work that seeks to explore the extraordinary exigencies of the Information technology revolution. It must also steal a march on a post-capitalist right that does not yet exist, and strive to help make the narrative of the coming age a fundamentally progressive one. It does this, as I say, by being positive, dynamic, and focused on the sort of inspiring ideas and concepts that make the blood fizz. It should be theatre for theatre’s sake, and theatre that revels in what the medium can do. It should focus on education and outreach, and on tackling big philosophical ideas. It should have a positive attitude and it should exist for its own ends. This is theatre as a broad church that welcomes all comers, and helps to make sense of the mind-landscape that is already becoming predominant in the way humans experience their world. No Profit. No Burden. No veneer of necessity.

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