Pat Kane: Knights of the working world need our support

editorial image
Share this article
Have your say

‘Thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.” These are the words of the Norman knight Maurice de Bracy in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), after introducing the phrase “free lance” to the English language for the first time.

A mercenary warrior – unsworn to a lord, and able to take payments for his slicing and dicing – is what Scott strictly meant by a freelance (the European Renaissance called them condottiere, the Japanese their ronin).

But De Bracy’s opening line sums up pretty well the necessary energy and optimism of the freelancer, right down to the present day. If modern “knights-errant” have a heraldic crest on their breastplate, or laptop lid, it might be that beautiful line from Bob Dylan’s Masters of War: “he not busy being born is busy dying”. Or more succinctly: “life before death”.

The freelancer – and I speak as an incorrigible example of the species, having swashed my sword around liberally for the last 25 years – has become a significant economic category.

A 2008 report from Kingston University suggested that “skilled professional workers who are neither employers nor employees, supplying labour and services on a temporary basis under a contract, for a fee, to a range of business clients” comprise as many as four million people, making up 8 per cent of UK national turnover. More than 60 per cent are men, and the skill set ranges from heavy construction to flower arranging.

In the US, the Freelancers Union currently flourishes, aiming to organise and provide services for what the State Department defined as a third of the American workforce. Sara Horowitz, the president of the FU – how apropos! – calls it the “industrial revolution of our time”.

The two hurricanes that blow in the age of the freelancer are that familiar pairing of neo-liberal globalisation and new technology. The first chucked many professionals out of their company cubbyholes (and barred entry to as many) as global competition compelled outsourcing abroad and managerial leanness at home. And the second, partly the cause of the first, gives these professionals new tools (such as the internet and mobile and social networks) to turn their talents and skills into useful and valuable services and products.

There are groaning shelves of books which celebrate the rise of the “free agent nation” (Daniel Pink in the US) and the “portfolio worker” (Charles Handy in the UK). Some, such as the sociologist Richard Sennett, bemoan the “corrosion of character” caused by continuous, stable occupations and professions coming to an end. Some, such as myself, argue that we’ve needed to prepare for a “play ethic” to come after the “work ethic” for quite a while, and that freelancers are the pioneers of such a shift in values around productivity and purpose.

Yet if the creativity, flexibility and exuberance of the freelancer brings such tangible value and benefits to our societies and economies, they often come at a cost – and not least to the freelancers themselves. More often than not, freelancers have made a conscious trade-off between economic security and existential freedom (less of the first, more of the second).

Artists, actors and musicians have been acutely aware of this trade-off for centuries. If they are performers, the lifestyle has to be itinerant, taking satisfaction in changing locations or in the company of fellow players. Guaranteed fees are usually secured from venues, but who knows how big the next tour will be, whether the audience will appear again? And if it’s about producing objects, again there’s no stable relationship between the sculpture or song you make, and the vagaries of public (or even elite) taste, season after season.

Of course, the experience of autonomy – of getting up in the morning and deciding how to do what you’ve chosen to do – is for many artists (and freelancers) enough tangible wealth in itself. The artistic template for freelancing rests on the psychological distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: you get a surge of wellbeing from regularly aligning your vision with your action. This is ultimately preferable to the disalignments of normal occupational work, where your alienation from your own deeds is comforted by your increased ability to participate in consumerist society.

Yet some realities have to be faced by the truly free worker. Where one lives, and how one moves about, often has to take a few steps back from the new car, mortgage and flatscreen norm aspired to by most traditionally employed workers. Living spaces tend to be shared rental or (if one has the patience for the housing list) a sole residence in a tougher area.

Places such as East Berlin, and lately Detroit, become havens for the wilder end of freelance life: rents are lower, and the rentable spaces – the empty urban hulks of an industrial or communist era – allow for residence and creativity to happen in the same location.

Cities provide another basis for the freelance life, in the richness and robustness of their public space. A half-decent transport system is like the blood vessels of the body civic, taking you cheaply and sustainably from one meeting to another.

And the locations that freelancers and their peers or clients meet are increasingly in “third places” - not just the crush of coffee shops, but plush interiors such as the Mitchell Library in Glasgow or the Wellcome Institute in London. All are suffused with low-cost or free wi-fi, allowing the benefits of an office table without the rental costs. And with ace caffs usually attached, you are deep within the “bustling times” that De Bracy the knight exulted in.

Are urban planners responding well enough to the challenge of the freelancers? In this post-property crash moment, we have an overcapacity in commercial building in cities, and some freelance advocates are figuring out a way to open these spaces up for use.

The activist Dougald Hine runs the Space Makers Agency, which brokers between creative workers, property owners and councils to re-use office spaces and market areas. A giant new Hub in Westminster, London, will open in 2012, on a peppercorn rent, and welcome hordes of the metropolis’s freelancers. We need more of this kind of convivial enterprise north of the Border.

We live in a Scotland whose immediate future will be defined by a sharp debate over the job-creating powers of a full national parliament. So the question of how top-down governance can encourage a bottom-up culture of enterprise and initiative is highly pertinent.

Freelancers present some interesting answers to this question, as they represent an extreme on the spectrum of flexible workers. For example, should we be exploring and developing what Europeans call “social flexicurity”? In this idea, it’s presumed that people will work episodically, from project to project – but that doesn’t mean they should be subject to “workfare” restrictions on social support between gigs.

We muse on tax breaks for quicksilver multinational corporations, but perhaps we could also look again at the (recently expired) Irish and French fiscal experiments for exemptions to creative workers. Aren’t quirky, unique Scottish businesses – and the mavericks who might start them – worth structural support too?

The incessant challenges of new technologies, new global economic players and new climatic limits on growth and development can drive people to distraction – maybe even, as can be seen in recent Scandinavian election results, xenophobia. We need to imagine subtler, more resilient platforms of social security for daily lives that we have to accept will be increasingly defined by “social precarity”.

Freelancers know all about “precarious” (and some of us went there willingly). We have a lot to tell you about how “men and women of action” can make the best of “bustling times”. Errant knights may have their wider uses after all.

l Pat Kane’s forthcoming book is called Radical Animal: Innovation, Sustainability and Human Nature,