Like lemmings, the obedient workers of today are expected to crush themselves on the myths of crisis, budget deficits, inflation, global competitiveness or high technology. Mysterious explanations of our falling wages appear and disappear like villains on day-time soaps. Stern bank presidents give unquestionable reasons why we must give one more pound of flesh for financial stability. CNN suddenly tells us the remote-control computerized world-market is the final arbitrator of our wage and work conditions. The 1994 US recovery was worse than the 1993 recession. The unemployment rate may have dropped a big 1% but unemployment benefits and youth summer jobs got cut more. The hours of those who had jobs have gone up to torture levels.
The usual rhetoric is that no one understands a 100 billion dollar deficit, a 3 trillion dollar economy or 1-trillion-dollar-a-week currency speculation. Of course the workings of the economy aren't simple. But we can still use abstraction and approximation to understand the system.
The Federal Reserve sells us inflation, unemployment, and the deficit as forces independent from how we live. But no matter how elaborate the computerized money system becomes, the economy will always boil down to the way people relate to each other. A single person now cannot challenge the economy. The initial barriers are the cops and the merchants. But the larger barrier is that no one person has a community, a collective response, to fall back on. The LA riots ended when people had looted most of the stuff that was in the area. They didn't form a community to either create a new way of living or to fend off the National Guard.
Wage labor seems simple. You sell your activity for something of value. But it hides how people's power to create, their productive activity, then winds up confronting them as something external, outside their control. Cars, Nintendo games, houses and TV programs seem to come from the magical economy rather than coming from our activity. The single separation of wage labor gives birth to the whole vast host of apparently autonomous economic forces.
We use the loose term crisis system to describe the methods of using its up and downs against us that the economy has developed since about 1970. To show how the crisis system rests on our alienation, we will look the two faces of wage labor - production and consumption.
The American form of the crisis system bares the marks of the affluent society that produced it. Even when 60% of workers live two pay-checks from homelessness, the image of massive wealth still dominates their lives.
The classical affluent society lasted from 1950 to about 1973. This model was promoted as a way to deal with excess labor militancy and factory capacity after WWII. It admitted that society produced enough to give everyone a bigger piece of the pie. But the pieces of the pie were only given in terms of participation in an artificial patriarchal community.
Workers sold their lives, their productive activity, to buy back enriched survival. Enriched survival (the "Package deal") is survival on both the physical and the social level. A conformist society expected a white, male, "middle-class" worker to have a well-paid factory or office job in the suburbs. He was expected to own a car and a house, support a wife and children and save enough money to send his kids to college. All his money would thus be spent keeping-up a pre-package life in the TV-defined pseudo-community. If the ideal "middle class" worker didn't have a wife and a house, he could be fired. Blacks, poor whites and women were excluded from this model. But enough people were affected that the newly created television networks could show a universal image of America having a happy "Leave It To Beaver" life-style.
Myth: "My father worked hard so his children could get a better life. I think it's time our children had more of the same spirit." White House Chief Of Staff Leon Paneta, on working for a chance to work harder..
Myth: wages are equal to how productive a worker is.
What myth hides: wages tend to go down to the cost of reproducing a person on the level of social survival.
When workers are fighting defensively in this society, the fight comes down to negotiating the basic level of social survival - the social contract. The implicit question people collectively answer each is "how much can we take?"
Government, businesses and unions created the affluent society by engineering a high cost and highly policed system of social survival. "Corporate America" embraced the affluent society for twenty five years. It gave them a willing, well-controlled work-force. Since they had a monopoly over the world economy, the U.S. capitalists preferred this conformity. With the struggles of the previous fifty years were in their minds, they chose "happy" workers living on suburban housing tracts over poor, angry slum workers.
Working class resistance and the force of the world markets eventually made corporations give up the affluent society package deal. Inspire by Vietnam, drugs and social disintegration, children of both workers and professionals had refused the social policing of the package deal. During the sixties and seventies, many people "dropped out." They used the affluent society's massive social slack for hedonistic, counter-cultural living. Welfare and alternative work were often scammed.
Even relatively well-paid workers refused the discipline of the factory and went on wild-cat strike against company and the union. Also many smaller industrial corporations had broken unions and directly pushed down the price of survival. In both these trends, there was unfortunately not a collective response defending the interests of all of the exploited together.
The end of U.S. domination of the world economy was official when the Brenton-Woods treaty broke-down. The value of the US dollar could no longer be fixed artificially high. It came down and then high-priced energy imports pushed down wages. And average wages have kept going down ever since.
The consumption system kept expanding after the sixties. The marketers of today sell not only gadgets but entire fields of existence. The medical technology field demands people pay for being alive. The insurance, courts and police together demand that people pay for the damage done by every kind of consumption. The justice system forces workers to pay massive insurance to drive to jobs that have moved to the suburbs. Software companies produce copyrights and patents on whole categories of information.
The marketing system of today covers a ridiculous, bloated area of life. Thus fewer and fewer can afford to buy simulations. The number of people covered by the corporate "package deal" is less and less each year. The workers who are covered toil ever more desperately to keep the same "life-style" on massively decreased wages. In the US, the average work-week is approaching 60 hours. Many former-housewives work to make the income needed for a "middle-class" life-style.
The number of "plastic surgery" operations done in the US has doubled every five years since 1969. Clerks in large department stores must spend a large percentage of their wages simply on clothes for their jobs. The standards of appearance and attitude are daily raised to the point where fewer and fewer people can satisfy them. Appearance as an endless staircase of prestige was systematically begun with fashion magazine femininity (glamour) sold to middle-class housewives. It is now being intensified and generalized to all men and women.
Fewer people being able to pay is not by itself a problem for the giant corporations. It only changes the way business works. The crisis system supplements the affluent society with a greater accumulation of confusion, competition and rackets. The new rhetoric: To preserve the pie, fewer people will get a slice.
All the producers of simulations also become owners of rackets. They extract surplus value directly out of those who will not pay for their package deals. Record publishers quietly collect royalties from the blank tape makers. The law assumes that a certain percentage of people who use blank tapes will make illegal copies of records. Coca-cola and Pepsi promote a whole life style and are moving to control this life style more and more beginning with legal trade-mark litigation to protect their image. Multi-media companies which own images, ideas or ways of doing things far out-do any mafia street protection scam.
The expansion of the police, copyright controls, gangs and "Intellectual property" are the after-life of extended survival. They gives corporation profits beyond the corporations ability to contribute to the social survival of those in the package deal. (See ASAN #4, pg. 26, The Information System).
The most "advanced" systems of capitalism have been the most desirable to export to the former colonial nations. Thus arms and intellectual property - the tools of rackets - are the most widely exported commodities world-wide.
The rotten "middle class" of government and corporate functionaries in South America, Africa, or the former Soviet Bloc look to Levi's Jeans and take up American corporate culture. These classes created by rackets - war economies and nationalist looting.
The Myth: we are now in a post industrial society where robots have taken "the good jobs."
The new rhetoric of this society is that capitalists have automated everything to the point where workers are no longer needed. It continues the "end of the working class" with a different rhetoric. The TV once said everyone who worked was middle class. The TV now says everyone who works is gone, useless.
In terms of bare technology many companies could have started firing half their workers ten or twenty years ago. Even an un-automated factory can supply the needs of a vastly disproportionate number of people. The American "Great Depression" saw unemployment hovering around twenty percent for years. Thus a part of the population wound up supporting the entire economy. Today, six million people work two jobs.
Robots, for example, have not had quite the labor-saving impact the propaganda claims. Toyota Motors recently opened-up a special less-automated factory in Japan to produce less-expensive cars. For the market, a human has an advantage over a robot. Humans are general purpose. They can be produced with commonly available materials. They reproduce themselves without being told to do so. They can be supported with modest supplies or even no supplies at all for a while.
The advantages of robots can often be illusionary. The power machine and the computer have already eliminated the top and the bottom of labor leaving a wide middle. While robots can produce much more of a single item, they still require supervision. They must be programmed for each given task. They are expensive to produce. They must be maintained periodically. They are only applicable to a single production method.
"The de-industrialization of America" is not a matter of production technology. It is a matter of capital imposing social reorganization on us. The affluent society has broken-down in American more completely than in Europe or other industrialized countries. When more American workers bought the suburban package-deal, more real solidarity was worked out of the culture. In Europe or Australia, old forms of working class solidarity survived a little more the build-up of the consumer society. So these societies now have been less successful smashing social solidarity.
The period of "post-industrialism" is simply capital reaping the false consciousness it had sowed in the affluent society. Once the affluent society broke down, capitalists no longer had to put automation in terms of giving people more "free time." They could rework the production process as much as they wanted.
The importance of robots and computers is often to allow a new type of production. Since the mid-eighties, auto companies have produced engines with micro-fine tolerance of parts. This makes them both more efficient and makes it impossible to maintain them with normal tools. Thus the large manufacturers have managed to capture the home-grown car maintenance market. This hasn't lowered the production cost of a car - indeed prices have risen and have no been entirely artificially held up. It has thus simply re-distributed the production process over a wide area.
"Labor-saving" improvements are more important for changing the way workers confront their jobs than for total labor savings. If a General Motors can break the production of a factory into many parts, each of which happens in a different part of the world, GM can give the impression that no single worker is necessary. They can eliminate the effect of a strike of the whole factory or of any crucial element. They can force workers to expend the maximum creative energy doing "all the jobs" instead of each worker having fixed duties. This reorganization is a political accomplishment. The rhetoric of "the death of the working class" helps this happen. The capitalist may not have changed either the technology or the production process.
The constant re-organization of production is part of the permanent market-based churning of all life. The production process is fragmented and transferred over a larger and larger area. Large companies no longer dream of fully automating everything. Instead, each corporation creates an ideal versions of a person's relations to production - their "corporate culture." The power machine and the computer eliminate the top and the bottom of work. The perfect simulation is the perfect relation of worker to production but this has no one single perfection.
The permanent chaos of production is driven by the electronically organized world market. The operation of the market is so utterly short-term that it forces managers to over-turn the conditions that guaranteed their profits and power before. "If it's not broken, break it" urges one management guru. The churning of the world market gives capital a free hand in exploiting it's natural enemy, us, the working class. The extension of the market has divided the working class as much as it has united the ruling class. Every ostensibly oppositional organization serves as a means of increasing this division. Unions only exist to teach workers to only struggle in certain areas in certain ways. Nationalists today all say they want "their people" to win in global competition.
Thus capital makes constant war on the working class. There is no effort to create a truce, even to make things easier on the ruling class. Employer constantly try to destroy the working class as a category. They try to destroying any hint of solidarity, They lower wages to bare survival or lower. They create a vast police state. They give the impression that all activity is acquiesced on by the masses, etc..
The myth of work itself no longer mattering is a part of this war. Wage labor, in it's most horrible incarnation in decades, is still at the heart of capitalism. It simply no longer has the garments of respectability that unionism or Budweiser commercials once gave it.
From the numerical logic of production, the ideal worker is the dispossessed worker of the third world country, the bottom worker. From accounting's logic, there is no need for them to have more than "bare bones" existence.
The ideal worker from the logic of consumption and management is the top worker. She or he extends the domain of the simulation. She or he produces programs, does research or otherwise uses the full power of existing machinery. The ideal higher level worker is skilled and flexible. But since they are good consumers, they won't band together with other workers to make demands about working conditions or types of work done etc.. This ideal worker lives in conditions of perfect atomized consumption. European countries attempt to adapt their workers to this role by having their unions create cowed simulations of rebellion thereby removing any real threat of rebellion. This model has been harder to sell to workers or on the world market.
The "shit worker," the worker at the bottom resolves, the points where the simulation has failed. The bottom worker uses out-dated machinery to construct junk when the robots fail.
The ideal bottom worker makes pennies a day. A strong patriarchal state is best at guaranteeing their hard work. This state crushes all rebellion but keeps the worker in adequate health and spreads the ideology that work is a privilege.
The bottom worker survives mostly on the official margins, on stolen time or in shadowy areas not recognized by the world market. In the third world, most labor is also outside of the world market's accounting. It appears as support, a corollary of the world market that is not measurable in the dollars of this market but which the system still needs.
In Nigeria, Mexico and Peru, the largest population group is a vast army of "unemployed" scavengers. These are former peasants driven off the land and into the cities. They survive through combing trash and cooperating in shanty towns on the outskirts of huge and growing cities.
China has been the fastest growing economy in the world for the last five years. Here the former Stalinist state indirectly subsidizes export production. They sell land, electricity and labor at artificially low prices supported by the still surviving Stalinist central planning system. These prices can only be sustained by a state which simply takes much of the produce of the Chinese peasant.
Planners naturally try to merge the top workers and the bottom workers while perfecting each model's special properties. Cycles of recovery and recession allow hedonism and puritanism to alternately dominate ideologically.
The first world/third world division of labor under capitalism is being broken up. It is reappearing in the ideological division of the population in each area into apparently different "races" or social classes - who are all proletarians.
To preserve its rackets, the marketing system extends hierarchical consumption. In the classical "industrial revolution," low-paid workers could consume the food, clothing and shelter needed for bare survival. Workers knew they were dispossessed since they had nothing. Under hierarchical consumption, survival is never guaranteed. If you consume more, you are just more likely to survive. The better the neighborhood, the less likely a "psycho" is to kill you. The better the clothes, the more likely you will have friends. The better the health plan, the less likely you are to die in a ditch. The better the insurance, the less likely a disaster is to destroy your life savings. So if one accepts the terror as given, every level of consumption can masquerade as a level of privilege. So you can feel even if you are more miserable than a medieval surf.
Hierarchical consumption is a world strategy of development. Consumer society is still, is even more, devoted to creating artificial needs now that these needs can be met by fewer and fewer people. The terror of increasing needs calls on workers and managers to donate extra labor to capital in the vague of gaining favor. Everywhere, the multi-national corporations use more of this surplus, unpaid labor.
"You pout, you're out" - David Hasselhoff, star and co-producer of the low budget sit-com Baywatch demands total "effervescent enthusiasm" from anyone who works in the production company. (Sf Chronicle, dec 2,1991)
In advanced nations, much of the activity of creating ideologies comes through this unpaid, "entrepreneurial" labor. New "life-styles" come from subcultures on the edge of consumer society. From Raiders jackets to acting classes to tattoos, isolated consumers labor to add the meaning missing in the vacuum of modern life. They then sell these ways of living to merchandisers at a discount.
The full crisis system tries to merges consumption and production in the racket worker. The racket worker is a low-level entrepreneur. The racket worker perfects hierarchical consumption. They must constantly fend for their survival with little or no knowledge of what will follow. The independent designer who does the work typesetters used to do, the trainer, the taxi driver, and most exactly the cop all fit this ideal. They must guard their piece of little capital. They move ambiguously between shit worker and privileged worker - knowing only vaguely how far they are in either direction.
The development of the means of production, the resistance levels of key workers and the resistance of the entire society decide how much the crisis system can exploit us.
The weapon that has been lacking is a view of the entire process. This view would give an extra enzyme to any attack by explicitly questioning the system.
Still today, not quite as many people see cars, fancy clothes, and houses in the suburbs as privileges. Ads more often show them now as desperate escapes from even more desperate situations. When you buy natural food, you pay extra for food they promise not to put poison in. When yuppies buy gap cotton clothes, they pay for "the soft, natural feeling that escapes a plastic impersonal society." When you pay for insurance on a car, you pay for the cost of the accidents and death from an irrational transportation system.
The working class has both rejected the "values" that are promoted by the ruling class, resisted particular incidents of increased exploitation and risen-up in "irrational" attacks on the entire system.
GM worker went on a short strike start September 24, 1994 against the forced over-time in the "Buick City" plant. This strike shut down most of GM's US production, which had been going at maximum capacity.
The question of exactly how far this misery can go will be answered in term of misery, spirit, and physical survival.
We will see as always.