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Shipbuilding is out, shopping is in. According to the experts, the old model of industrial production is a thing of the past and the economic future belongs to non-material services like music and high fashion. Dream on, says James Heartfield

Consuming passions

Britain, we are told these days, is the coolest place in the world. British pop music earns more than shipbuilding or electronic components--a staggering £2.5bn a year. Designers like John Galliano have taken over the French fashion houses and British fashion week recently celebrated their success. Artists like Damien Hirst are making London the centre of the art world. The experts assure us that a new kind of economy is emerging in which culture and taste create the dynamic, instead of the brute force of industry. Once the workshop of the world, they say, Britain today is its drawing board.

You do not have to take the patriotic twist too seriously to get the point. Behind all the boosting is a genuine proposition: that to succeed in today's global economy, you need a very different kind of product and a very different kind of work.

This is an idea that we are moving into a 'post-material' economy. Geoff Mulgan, director of the fashionable think-tank Demos, describes the new economic thinking: 'What has happened is a shift from a game with nature, about extracting resources, or making products to what Daniel Bell called a "game between persons".' (Connexivity, 1997, p88) The idea is that in the 'post-material' economy, services (a 'game between people') predominate over industrial production ('a game with nature').

Instead of being driven by technological advance, it is argued, this new service economy is driven by information and by culture. According to the American Labour Secretary Robert Reich, the future belongs not to industrial workers, but to 'symbolic analysts', people who have the skills to navigate the new world of communication. As he says, symbolic analysis could range from Madonna's semiotically wise pop songs to a lawyer's brief.

These are the advertising slogans for the post-material economy. Do they stand up to scrutiny?

The first thing to note is just how self-serving this assessment of the modern economy is. It is a description of the world of work in which the future belongs to writers, administrators and the intelligentsia--the very people who are writing the advertising copy. When Robert Reich coins a term 'symbolic analysts' that identifies his own number-crunching with Madonna's records, it is difficult not to suspect that there is a degree of vanity at work.

At my local launderette the attendant sees the world entirely in metaphors drawn from her own jaundiced experience of society. In her world-view a great river of corruption flows through London from the houses of parliament to Fleet Street--perhaps the subterranean river Fleet itself--carrying away the filthy business that would otherwise be visible. It is an understandable delusion that does nobody any harm. She after all is a laundry attendant and not a politician or a management consultant.

But what should we make of writers who imagine that the world is entirely governed by writing, or a think-tank that sees the country peopled entirely by people who work in think-tanks? The business pages of the Sunday papers prognosticate that work will take place at home, in the electronic cottage industry of the future, equipped with fax and Internet. Shouldn't these writers widen their circle of friends? It seems that more people are making a living writing about the electronic cottage than actually work in one. The overwhelming prejudice of the information age is that the narrow experience of those ideologues who draft economic theory is in fact the archetype of human activity.

In the early nineteenth century, when the German Principalities had more universities than industries, the massed ranks of German professors imagined that the physical and social worlds were a mere reflection of the Mind. Just as German idealism was the conceit of the professors, so the post-material information age is a conceit of the think-tanks, journalists, lawyers and accountants. The information age might be a good pitch for consultants who have nothing to sell but information, but it does not necessarily describe the world. The fantasy is that they are really worthy people, and not the self-serving parasites that most people think they are.

Is it true that jobs in industry are being replaced by service jobs--even if these were 'symbolic analyst' jobs? Comparing the difference between 1960 and 1990 illustrates the real trends behind the propaganda.

The absolute number of people working in industry globally has increased from 247 million to 381 million. But the changes are different according to which part of the world you are in.

In the developing countries, the poorest parts of the world, the increase is largest, from 88 million to 192 million. But as these countries contain a considerable part of the world's population, this only represents a single percentage point increase in the industrial workforce from nine to 10 per cent of the working population. So even though these economies have increased the number of industrial workers in the world by more than one hundred million, that change does not represent a dynamic process of investment. Most people there are still either working at subsistence farming, in the army or are dependants.

In 26 dynamic industrialising economies--mostly countries in the Far East like Korea, Singapore and Malaysia--the increased proportion of industrial workers is much greater, growing from just 17 per cent of their working populations to 24 per cent in the 30 years to 1990. In absolute numbers, though, the change is not as great as in the developing world, being an increase of 21 million (12 million to 33 million). In other words, on a narrower basis of population, these 'Tiger Economies' have made a qualitative leap out of the developing world to something like comparability with the industrialised West.

In the advanced capitalist countries, too, there has been an absolute increase in the numbers of industrial workers, from 159 million to 189 million. But, here, unlike the rest of the world, there has been a relative decrease in the proportion of the workforce in industry, from 35 per cent to 33 per cent. In other words, the numbers in industry have increased over all, but not as much as employment in the service sector.

If we look at the changing workforce in the Group of Seven advanced capitalist economies (USA, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, UK and Canada) the picture is clearer. In these countries the proportion of the workforce in industry dropped from 37 per cent in 1960 to 28 per cent in 1994. In the same period the proportion working in services rose from 46 per cent to 67 per cent. For the advanced capitalist countries, then, it is true to say that industrial production has tended to give way to services.

Even here, though, it does not follow that a move into the service industries means a move up the wage scale, still less that work becomes a game. Not everybody that works in services is designing Web pages. In the USA the most rapidly growing employer is the supermarket chain Wal-Mart. Between 1978 and 1996, its workforce grew from 21 000 to 628 000--'one in every 200 civilian jobs' in America, according to a company press release. In the same period the carworkers employed by Ford, General Motors and Chrysler shrank in number from 667 000 to 398 000. The main difference is in the pay. On the assembly line you earn $18.81 an hour. Wal-Mart pay $4.75. (D Barlett and J Steele, America: Who Stole the Dream?, 1996, p22)

Even among the advanced nations, the picture is mixed. Japan's industrial workforce grew from 13 million in 1960 to nearly 22 million in 1994, an increase of 68 per cent. America's grew by a more modest 20 per cent, but remained the largest in the world at almost 30 million. In the same period, though, Britain's industrial workforce dropped by nearly half, to 6 million, while France and Italy lost around a fifth of their industrial workers.

The overall picture of changing employment is quite different from a simple growth of services. Only in three major countries, Britain, Italy and France has there been an actual decline in the numbers working in industry. Only here have service jobs replaced industrial jobs. Not surprisingly, these are the three countries whose scholars write most effectively on the transformation from industry to services: clearly one of the services that they have provided for the rest of the world is an economic theory derived from their own particular experiences. One of the difficulties in understanding the modern economy is that most economists are looking at the world through the prism of their own narrow experiences.

What is more, the very features that are now flagged up as positive are often more reflective of economic decay. The three countries that have seen the biggest change from industry to services have also seen a decline in their world standing. Most of these new jobs are less secure and worse paid--McJobs. In that light the growth of the service sector seems more like an attempt to stave off decline than the dynamic future of work.

The other implication hidden within the figures is that the relationship between the advanced countries and the rest of the world remains parasitic. New value is being created through rapid industrialisation in the Far East, and by the expansion of production in the developing world. But the advanced nations are dedicating a growing proportion of their resources to cultural life, or financial chicanery.

The picture is one of a new division of labour in the world, where more and more of real production takes place outside of the West. The advanced nations are using their monopoly over capital to exploit that production, making money on loans, insurance and through portfolio investment. Meanwhile, the real work is done outside of the City and increasingly outside of the country.

When looking at the £2.5bn profits of the record industry, creative as the artists might be, it is the plastic and the aluminium where the profits are made. George Michael and The Artist might think their contracts onerous, but it is the humble labour of bauxite miners, Asian oil workers and plant operatives that is filling EMI's coffers.

One objection to the argument that material production is still important is made by the sociologist Ronald Inglehart. Inglehart has been surveying attitudes in Europe and America since 1971, asking the question are we more or less materialistic. Inglehart started by asking people which things are more important: maintaining order, fighting rising prices, giving people more say or protecting freedom of speech. The first two are reckoned to indicate a materialistic outlook, the last two, a 'post-materialistic' one.

Over the years, says Inglehart, more and more people elevate the post-material values over the material ones. With each generation post-material values are more important. In his latest research, Inglehart has extended his survey to include the former Soviet Bloc and the Third World (Value Change in Global Perspective, 1995, with P Abramson). Surprisingly, Inglehart reports that the gradual shift towards post-material values is uniform, and by no means an exclusively Western phenomenon.

Many development theorists working in the South would argue that Inglehart's findings come as no surprise. The vast majority of work done in Southern societies, they say, does not fit the narrow definition of industrial production. Domestic toil, especially in a subsistence economy, represents a considerable area of work, done principally by women, that does not show up in the statistics of Gross National Product.

Here, post-materialism seems like less of a yuppie eighties outlook and more of a caring nineties one. There are, however, some problems with Inglehart's research. For a start the aspirations that are considered to be post-material vary from country to country in Inglehart's schema. So, for example, in China self-betterment is considered to be a forward-looking post-material value, while in Britain the self-same desire to get on is taken as a backward materialistic value. The contradictory desires of the aspirant Chinese and the English slackers are both arbitrarily cited as evidence of a growing post-materialism. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Inglehart is simply projecting his own preferences as the coming enlightenment.

More importantly, opinion polls are of limited value when the clash of ideas has become muted. What they tend to measure is the extent to which the ideas of the dominant elites in society have been imposed more widely. Reading Inglehart's research, the desire that lies beneath his objective style of presentation is easily discernible: materialistic, bad; post-materialistic, good. The recalcitrant expectation of material success, of reward for your efforts, is something that Inglehart looks forward to seeing the back of. This is a view that the wealthy can live with.

For the development theorists, too, a post-materialistic assessment of Southern societies serves the apologists for underdevelopment better than it serves the Third World woman. Reckoning women's unpaid work as equally part of the Gross National Product as men's paid work is flattering, but it is not real help. Telling somebody that they are valuable might be good for self-esteem, but you cannot eat self-esteem. Southern people need real development, not a Tory-style rigging of the figures. It is no good counting up Bangladesh's subsistence farming and calling it production if it remains unpaid work.

What the elevation of post-material values represents is not simply a change in the work process, as the actual numbers of the growth of industrial workers demonstrates. The demotion of the 'game with nature'--industrial production--does not indicate a simple shift towards other kinds of working. Rather, it reflects the fact that the contest over production--the dispute between workers and employers over their respective share of the product--has been shut down. What the post-materialists are saying is not that production need not take place, but rather that it is a question of no real importance, a solely technical question.

In years gone by the realm of production was a highly contested one. Organised workers challenged the division of the product, campaigning for higher wages and shorter hours. Employers sought to guarantee their profits by pushing in the other direction. With that kind of contest in society, the question of material production was always at the forefront of political life. Today, however, the contest over production is virtually at a standstill. The number of days work lost through strike action has fallen to a fraction of what it was 20 years ago. The defeat of the organised labour movement in the eighties means that the realm of production is one that can be pretty much taken for granted by today's social commentators.

For a post-materialist like Geoff Mulgan, the assumption that production will take place is now automatic: 'A sum of capital expands, the web of trading partners widens, the range of products diversifies.' But why does a sum of capital expand? Only because of the exploitation of labour in production. Nothing comes of nothing. Without the appropriation of all that which labour produces above its own means of subsistence, there would be no basis for the accumulation of capital.

Mulgan's account of the new post-materialist society pretends to a greater sensitivity to relations between people, as opposed to the merely technical relations of production. The irony of that claim is that the most important social relationship of all is precisely the one that Mulgan is oblivious to, the exchange between capital and labour. Imagining that production is simply a technical question, Mulgan turns a blind eye to the one human relation that shapes all the others. The exploitation of labour at work is the living premise of all the other activities that are celebrated under the rubric of post-material values. No cat-walk without a rag trade, no Britpop without a plastics industry, no Internet without an assembly line in Korea or Silicon Valley.

But because the question of production is closed, the 'game between people' is extraordinarily narrow in its remit. The only relations between people that count these days are relations of consumption. As consumers, of course, everybody is free to do what they want. The possibilities for self-creation are without limits. Any identity you choose is yours,
off-the-peg, at a price.

It is often pointed out that the post-materialists are positively revolutionary in their attitudes to gender relations, racial stereotypes or sexual orientation. Those conservative values are readily overthrown in the arena of playful self-creation. The one arena that is closed to such critical thinking is the arena of production itself. All kinds of cultural and personal relations are held to be negotiable, but the one relationship that is beyond challenge is the exploitation of labour at work. This is necessarily the case: it is the production of a surplus in the realm of production that has to pay for all the cultural experimentation celebrated.

Adopting the standpoint of the individual consumer is characteristic of today's limited economic thinking. Businessmen have long entertained the fantasy that money could be made without having to get involved in the messy business of production and exploitation. But it is only in today's conditions that this fantasy could be given its head.

The contemporary models for business all revolve around the desire to liberate making money from the dirty business of producing goods. Business gurus dream out loud about the office-less company or even the company without a workforce. The example of Visa, where a skeletal 'overseeing administrative organisation' handles over seven billion transactions a year, worth $650bn dollars, is often cited. Visa's founding chief executive Dee Hock says this is 'the largest single block of purchasing power in the world economy'. But this purchasing power is only a 'block' in the sense that they all have Visa cards. The money is earned from a variety of sources, and spent just as variously. And of course the Visa organisation itself is only a small part of the service. Around 20 000 financial institutions handle Visa cards, whose staff must be considerable. Still greater must be the number of people creating the seven billion goods and services purchased. Visa's relationship to these myriad exchanges is essentially parasitic.

The idea that we are living in a 'consumer society' misses the point. It is, in the words of the American critic Mas'ud Zavarzadeh, 'the stupidity that consumption is just as productive as production' (College Literature, 21.3, 1994). Before we can consume, somebody has to produce.

During the post war boom years, the 'consumer society' idea took hold because of the expansion of leisure time and disposable incomes. Then it was assumed that production would just carry on growing. Today, the fact that the arena of production is not up for debate means that consumption seems to be the only avenue for self-expression. But the truth is that any identity organised around consumption will always be superficial, because it is derivative of something outside itself. Knowing about films, fashion or football is a good way to hold your own in a conversation, but nothing to write home about.

Frustration with the emphasis upon consumption is palpable. There are no end of critics of the consumer society. The tragedy is that these critics all accept the fatal premise that this is a consumer society. That means they end up sharing the same narrow conception as the apologists, that the arena of consumption is the only one in which you can act.

The Big Issue recently showcased a Shopping With Attitude section, where Body Shop entrepreneur Anita Roddick challenged:

'Who is reinventing society? Not government but big business. Who could reinvent society? Not government but consumers. Let's face it consumers are the people who hold the strongest hand.'

At one level this is incontrovertible. Since all people consume we can assume that the people who do hold the power are consumers. But there are consumers and consumers. The people who own capital, who purchase and 'consume' the working capabilities of other people month in and month out, have considerable power. They tell us what we can and cannot do. 'Fellow consumer' Anita Roddick is one of them.

What about the rest of us? Could we mobilise our purchasing power to effect social change? Vigilante consumer Joanne Mallabar thinks so: 'This trolley is a lethal weapon. And I know how to use it' she writes. 'Supermarkets beware! I am issuing this threat as the self-appointed figurehead of the growing army of shoppers prepared to flex their muscle over moral and ethical issues down the local supermarket.'

Of course, this is a movement whose figurehead could only be self-appointed. Imagine trying to organise an election as you are elbowing your way to the front of the one-basket only queue at Sainsbury's. And what are the moral and ethical issues down the local supermarket? Are the mangetout pickers more or less exploited than the broccoli producers? Which products are not marked 'environmentally friendly' these days?

As consumers, no doubt we all wield enormous purchasing power. But the very condition of being individual consumers militates against any common programme of action. The minute you have a niche market for 'ethical' goods like tofu or herbal cigarettes, an equal and opposite niche market for unethical goods like Kangaroo meat and Havana cigars opens up. The very idea of 'ethical' shopping means that you can feel good about your choices without actually doing anything you would not otherwise do. Ethics, like tastes, are wholly personal choices, unyielding to any debate or reasoning. But no doubt such 'ethical' businesses as the Body Shop and the Big Issue will be happy if we continue to patronise their overpriced goods. This is a kind of 'post-materialism' whose outcome is all too material.

Far from being an arena of human liberation or ethical choice, the supermarket is just a dull necessity for most people. To envisage this as the stage of emancipation is to forswear any real influence in the world. The goal of escaping the domination of man by the conditions of production is a laudable one. But the one way of making sure that it never happens is to assert that we are already free.

With thanks to Phil Murphy.


Enough is a feast?

Not everybody celebrates consumption today. Campaigns like Enough maintain that we can enjoy a better life by having less. Andrew Calcutt still wants more than 'an equitable lifestyle'

'If we want to end global poverty and create a sustainable environment which is equitable for all six billion people on the planet--an equitable lifestyle--then we are going to have to start questioning the level of wealth which we, as members of the rich nations, assume as normal.'

'Equitable' is the key word in the vocabulary of Paul Fitzgerald, who describes himself as the 'spokesperson, not organiser' for Enough, the anti-consumerism campaign. Enough organises No Shop Days in shopping malls, using 'satire and humour' in order 'not to alienate' people from its message: 'you've got to consume less.' Before Christmas, the campaign won media recognition when Enough activists dressed up as aliens to warn the good consumers of Manchester against the evils of Xmas shopping.

Fitzgerald believes that the bulk of the world's population will only escape poverty if 'the 20 per cent consuming 80 per cent of resources' learn to consume less. A lot less. Fitzgerald wants those in the West to give up the expectation of a higher standard of living. 'That's got to become, not a taboo', he says, 'but something which is seen as anti-social, unless it's within fixed limits negotiated between everybody'.

'Living at the standard we are now is draining resources out of countries and is creating poverty', Fitzgerald claims, citing the example of Ethiopia. He rejects the 'traditional model' which envisaged 'impoverished nations' becoming wealthy like the West, on the grounds that 'everyone in the world continuing to increase their wealth would spell out environmental destruction'.

Why are the likes of Fitzgerald so sure that humanity is incapable of both increasing the production of wealth and coping with any problems thrown up, as people have done in the past? The man from Enough dismisses this idea as waiting around for the future development of 'Star Trek technology', and insists that, on the basis of 'current technology or immediately predicted technology', we must settle for less.

But wealth in the West does not cause 'global poverty'. Indeed, the fact is that, if the Third World enjoyed access to the 'current technology' already employed in the West, it could feed the entire population of the globe five times over and still have time to watch Star Trek on satellite TV.

The arguments of people like Enough do not reflect the real state of the world, but their own state of mind; the jaded nineties cynicism which concedes that There Is No Alternative, that nothing can be done except to share out the misery among the world's inhabitants--a kind of survival with equity.

If Fitzgerald is cynical, he is also naive. Talking about 'the end of multi-national corporations', he seems to think that this can be brought about by equitable negotiations involving all six billion people on Planet Earth. As if simply being alive really makes you a stakeholder, and the people with all the power are going to volunteer to become as powerless as everybody else.

Fitzgerald declares that 'there aren't any really huge advantages' in having an affluent lifestyle. 'It doesn't improve the quality of life', he says. Half-jokingly, he speaks highly of the seventies sitcom The Good Life, in which Tom and Barbara downshifted to subsistence farming in their Surbiton garden. 'I have a perfectly good life', he says, in which the highpoints seem to be 'going down the pub' and 'travelling a bit'.

Trouble is, Fitzgerald wants everybody to accept what he can 'get by on'. He berates me for 'not knuckling down' to the prospect of falling living standards. We must all 'bite the bullet' about living on less. But he does not want to square up to my question about exactly what we must do without. 'That's always going to be a tricky one', he concedes: 'Facts and figures don't exist in hard form yet, because there's so much avoidance of the issue.' A nice touch from one who is avoiding the question.

However, Fitzgerald is adamant that 'what we'd immediately want to see missing from a post-materialist society is the drive to ever-increasing consumption'. He thinks that we only want to consume more because we are not yet 'an educated public who are properly informed', which strikes me as the latest incarnation of the old elitist crap about people not knowing what is good for them. Although Fitzgerald denies any puritanical intent, he clearly believes that the desire for what most of us would consider a good life is some kind of sordid fetish which must be repressed through re-education.

Fitzgerald maintains that Enough has a global perspective which is 'demolishing conventional thinking'. But his perspective is really that of an inhabitant of a Western capitalism which has lost faith in itself. Like many today he speaks wistfully of the past, particularly of the 'Coronation Street image of the shop-owner who gets to talk to people and trade is part of the social exchange'. Far from convention-busting, such a loss of faith in the future is the new orthodoxy. Enough is enough of all that.

Cyberspace: surfed from Islington but made in Taiwan


Reproduced from LM issue 99, April 1997
 
 

 

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