26 October, 2009

Capitalism, Drawing and Cartoons (Part 2)

Read Part 1 of this article.

This article is inspired by some comments by ace cartoonist, John Kricfalusi, about Capitalism and cartooning. I would encourage everybody to read John's excellent blog, but at time of writing, it has been made private. (I left links to John's posts in the hope that sometime in the future he opens up his blog to general readers again.)

My first post considered the nature of work in creative industries from the perspective of animation students.
Pete Emslie caricature of Michael Moore
John K's second post considered the aims of Capitalism. John says that Michael Moore, in his recent documentary Capitalism: A Love Story, makes one of the classic caricatures of social democracy: 'nobody is allowed to get rich.' Of course this is quite fatuous.

It would be more truthful to say that a social democra
tic system should allow more people to get rich and that all people should have the same access to the means of getting rich. (Okay, maybe they will not be quite as disgustingly rich as today's super-Capitalists, but they'll get by nicely.)

This example seems to illustrate a persistent problem in debates about Capitalism v Socialis
m: the former is an idea about economics that may mold society, the latter is an idea about society that may mold economics.

Capitalism: What is it for?

Broadly speakin
g, I believe the aim of Capitalism is to produce markets and from these markets wealth. Socialism (or Social Democracy) is a delivery system for democracy. There is no like-for-like comparison between Capitalism and Socialism. So let's forget about it and just deal with Capitalism and whether or not it's giving us what we want.

Capitalism tries to produce markets. Big markets, small markets, markets for everything: markets for healthcare, markets for entertainment, markets for food. Companies and individuals try to enter those markets with products and services and to control them.

Is that a good thing? Well it's one approach to economics and it's pretty swell, as far as it goes, but there are trade-offs in every economic model. And some of those trade-offs are social (and creative).

ACME: Quality is our #1 dreamSay Acme Animation Studio corners the market in cartoons. They hire the best artists and make the best cartoons. It 's unlikely, but let's just say that if somebody wants cartoons they go to Acme.

Acme can now charge whatever it wants. There is a market for cartoons and Acme fills that demand. Acme can now lower the quality of their product, because there is no other supplier of cartoons, lowering its costs and increasing its profits.

And that is to say nothing of the fact that Acme must buy or put out of business other makers of cartoons and must devalue the labour that goes into cartoon-making to reach its dominant position.

And if you imagine this to be a fanciful scenario, consider that a handful of huge media organisations produce most of the world's entertainment. Capitalism's problem is that it tends towards monopoly.

Individual incentives v Capitalist incentives

Individuals are motivated to achieve success: for
some that means heaps of gold and dancing girls on tap, for others it is creating a character that makes them split their sides. Sometimes the goals of individuals and the profit motive of business overlap and everybody wins, but less frequently than we might imagine.

Despite the unprecedentedly wealthy period of history in which we live - even as we try to unf*ck the global economy - the wealthiest Western societies we have been growing steadily less happy over time.

In the early twentieth century, the best, most profitable way to produce cartoons also provided the most creative opportunity. Everybody one:
Tex Avery, Bob Clampett and Co produced Looney Tunes and Warner Brothers turned a buck. It was a narrow window of creative opportunity.

Capitalism is motivated by growth and business by profit. There is an obvious disconnect here between the interests of the truly creative person - for whom creativity is an end and not a means - and the capitalist, who wants to make a profit (and for whom cartoons are merely variably profitable widgets).

In search of a profit, Acme must devalue the labour the goes into making a cartoon -
by mechanising its production or outsourcing it to poor countries - to maintain the value of its product. So the problem is not merely technical (poor technical skills or standards) but cultural (poor imagination).