Seminar 1: paper 1

Growth of What? New Narratives for the Creative Economy, Beyond GDP

by Dr. Jonathan Gross

In recent years GDP has taken a lot of flak. On methodological, environmental and political grounds it has been widely critiqued as the dominant measure of economic success. Yet it has demonstrated a remarkable ability to maintain its hegemonic role in public life – including within policymaking for the cultural and creative industries. We need to ask, what can be learnt from the success of GDP in order to move beyond it?

I recently wrote an oral history of the UK government’s 1998 Creative Industries Mapping Document, interviewing politicians, civil servants and creative industries leaders involved in New Labour’s Creative Industries Task Force. This body commissioned the famous Mapping Document, which defined and measured the creative industries as a sector of the economy for the first time. One of my findings was the significance of telling a simple story. It was by setting a benchmark with the first mapping and demonstrating ‘growth’ with the second (in 2001), that policymakers’ attention could be grabbed. 

But why growth? And growth of what? Dipping into the history of GDP is instructive. It is easy to naturalize this measurement – but economics existed before GDP, and it was devised for quite specific purposes. Its creation was tied to the economic and political circumstances of the tumultuous 1930s. FDR needed to know whether his New Deal policies were working. And as the decade proceeded, the US and UK governments wanted a better grasp of their productive capabilities to fight WWII. These were the immediate drivers of GDP’s creation. It was then put to a range of uses, making possible macroeconomics as we have come to know it. Without a way of measuring the economy ‘as a whole’, much Keynesian and social democratic policy of the post-war period would not have been possible. 

However, its uses have of course developed in subsequent decades, and the neoliberal project weaponized GDP, employing this statistic for ends its creators never intended. It has been wielded as a catch-all proxy for prosperity, setting a narrative framework for economic storytelling that derives its power in large part from its simplicity – providing a single number with which to summarize an enormous diversity of activities and their ‘progress’. This is what we can learn from GDP: the political significance of being able to tell a clear story of how things are going. If we are to supersede GDP as the marker of success, including for the creative economy, we need to develop new narrative frameworks that can rise to the challenge.

This is a big task. I make just two initial suggestions. The first is to draw on the capability approach to human development, initiated by the Indian economist Amartya Sen. It asks, what kinds of lives can people live? What valuable beings and doings do people really have available to them? I’ve written about how this might be applied to cultural policy, and I am continuing to work with colleagues to explore how it might be operationalized within creative economies. The promise of the capability approach is to do justice to the multiple dimensions that make for a good life, whilst committed to people’s real (materially conditioned) freedom to choose how to live. This has great potential at micro and meso scales. It provides the basis for running deliberative processes in which socio-economic ‘success’ can be articulated by communities, identifying the capabilities that matter to them and which policies should follow. But with its anti-paternalistic commitments and emphasis on deliberation, the capability approach faces challenges for how to narrate a clear story of aggregated ‘success’ at the macro level. How to challenge the narrative simplicity of GDP?

The second framework I’d like to highlight is therefore one that operates at the macro scale: the Green New Deal. Its championsinvoke the historical precedent of FDR’s New Deal to make the case for collective action. Only government supported interventions on a large scale can meet the enormous challenges of climate change. But unlike its Depression-era predecessor, this programme needs to be committed to social justice of many kinds. As Naomi Klein has put it, this is “a grand story […] to repair our relationship with the earth and with one another”. I have written recently about the role that cultural policy could play within a Green New Deal, suggesting its task could be to support the ‘cultural infrastructure’ required to develop and sustain a radical programme of socio-economic transformation of this kind. 

That paper is a first go and a call to arms. Asking ourselves how creative economy can align with the project of the Green New Deal is a big and urgent question, requiring an ongoing collective effort. The answers we give might suggest some of the most important ways in which the CCIs have a role to play in enabling good lives and an inhabitable world – part of a new collective story – regardless of whether they help GDP to grow. 


The full version of this paper will be published as: Gross, J. (2021) ‘Growth of What? New Narratives for the Creative Economy, Beyond GDP’. In Comunian, et al. A Modern Guide to The Creative Economy. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.


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