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The Critique of Capital: Reloaded

by
Vince Carducci


 

T

he end of the Cold War and the rise of globalization have made the stresses and strains of life under late capitalism apparent. The reigning theory of rational choice and its application in political economy, neoliberalism, have reduced all human interaction to exchange based on individual self-interest. Market logic rules from the linoleum-tiled aisles of Wal-Mart to the polished marble corridors of Washington DC. Not long ago, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared, "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families." To be sure, it seems the whole of humanity has been set adrift to flounder in the swirling currents of uncertainty that presently mark the worldwide economic system. Cheap goods increasingly pull down the value of wages, and what economists call "externalities," such as pollution and social inequality, never factor into the equation. Yet rather than point out a need for a new critique of capital, this situation suggests that many of the traditional analytical tools of the left are more relevant than ever.

Much of the average American's paranoia about the effects of globalization focuses these days on China and India, but the reality is on display much closer to home. According to statistics compiled by the Migration Policy Institute, America's leading trading partner is in fact Canada (with Japan and Mexico coming in behind it), accounting for US $411 billion in trade in the year 2000 with more than US$1 billion crossing the border on any given day. Some two-thirds of that trade is shipped by truck with about 10 million trips being made annually across the US-Canadian border. A lot of this activity is connected to the automobile industry, which since the 1970s has increasingly disaggregated production in search of higher profits, a process greatly accelerated in the last decade by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a model of neoliberalist policy that eliminates all trade barriers between the USA, Canada, and Mexico.

The Detroit-Windsor border is the primary crossing point for US-Canadian trade, handling one-third of all annual volume. The largest share of Canada's trade with Mexico also passes through the Detroit-Windsor conduit. The preponderance of this activity is funneled through a single point, the Ambassador Bridge over the Detroit River, by itself accounting for more than one-quarter of all merchandise trade traffic between the US and Canada. Semi-tractor-trailer rigs constantly stream across the bridge in the same way tailed-finned Cadillacs once flowed from the assembly line of the old Clark Street Fleetwood plant that used to be just a few blocks away and is now a barren brownfield dotted with rubble.

Looking north from the middle of the Ambassador Bridge, the cylindrical glass-and-steel towers of General Motors Corporation's headquarters are visible on the downtown riverfront skyline. Stretching downriver to the south are coal and slag heaps, decaying loading docks, and in the hazy distance the smokestacks of the colossal River Rouge Plant, where Henry Ford perfected the techniques of vertically integrated mass production that bear the eponymous designation of Fordism. The street grid of the neighborhood around the bridge on the Detroit side has been cut up to accommodate the heavy traffic volume and provide walled holding areas for customs inspections and for security purposes. (The Detroit area is home to the largest Arab population outside the Middle East, fueling ever-lurking fears of a possible terrorist attack.) Looming in the background is the abandoned Michigan Central train station, designed in 1913 by Warren & Whetmore who also did Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Long ago rendered obsolete as railcars gave way to motor cars, its 12-story empty shell has been stripped bare of anything remotely of value by decades of scavengers.

Early in the twentieth century, Detroit set the pace for the modern age with the high output/high wage system first pioneered by Ford at his facilities in Highland Park, a small municipality completely surrounded by the city of Detroit, carved out of it pretty much as a tax dodge. The Highland Park plant is idle, a vast silent hulk that serves as a backdrop for a strip mall, named Model T Plaza, now occupying what was once the Ford Motor Company employee parking lot. The front of the grocery store anchoring the plaza has a replica of the Model T assembly line set above the checkout lanes; behind it is a downsized reproduction of Diego Rivera's magisterial mural cycle, Detroit Industry.  The population of Detroit is now less than half its postwar peak and its unemployment rate more than double the national average. Nearly one-third of its residents live below the poverty line, a statistic rivaled only by New Orleans. Every street has abandoned buildings crumbling into ruin and many neighborhoods are reverting to open fields where wild game freely ranges. The city has been hollowed out like the manufacturing industries that once provided its working classes with some of the nation's highest living standards. And it wasn't a hurricane that wreaked the devastation. The Economic Policy Institute attributes tens of thousands of high-wage job losses and lower living standards in Michigan directly due to NAFTA, with the results for Canada and Mexico not any more encouraging.

While American automobile companies, their suppliers, and employees seem to be facing yet another crisis, automobile manufacturing continues to drive a large part of the worldwide economy. Automotive is still the world's largest industrial sector according to Global Inc., an atlas of the global economic system. More people make cars worldwide than ever; they just aren't doing it in America or under a union contract. As a result of these changes and similar ones in other industries, real wages in the US have fallen over the past three decades and the social safety net is in tatters. In the 1950s, the former chairman of General Motors, Charles E. Wilson, famously quipped, "What's good for the country is good for General Motors and vice versa." With GM on the verge of declaring bankruptcy (and its parts-supplier spin-off Delphi already having done so), can the rest of America be that far behind?
 

Global Capital Unbound

Writing at the dénouement of the Second World War, Joseph E. Schumpeter took stock of the world likely to emerge afterward and predicted, more than a little ambivalently, that capitalism would increasingly take on socialist characteristics until being completely transformed. In Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, he notes that the unrivaled efficiency of large-scale capitalist production and its tendency toward monopoly lays the groundwork for socialism, as he defines it as centralized economic control under public ownership. Schumpeter acknowledges the prescience of Karl Marx's analysis of capitalism particularly considering his vantage point in the mid-nineteenth century. Marx saw sooner than most economists of his time the eclipse of entrepreneurial capitalism and the emergence of the managerial bureaucracy and rationalized efficiency of production under oligopolistic conditions. He correctly understood the role an advanced proletariat would play in bringing true socialism into being, especially in light of capitalism's need and astonishing ability to continually adapt to new circumstances. According to Schumpeter, what Marx got wrong was that he predicted the failures of capitalism would bring on revolution when in fact it would be its unparalleled success that would lead to a socialist order. However, the hindsight of the last half-century suggests that Marx may have been right there, too.

Schumpeter was writing at the dawn of the golden age of High Fordism (usually taken to extend from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s), on the eve of what Daniel Bell once termed "the treaty of Detroit," the détente achieved in the 1950 automobile union contract negotiation in which industry, labor, and government agreed to cooperate in the interests of all concerned. The resulting rise in productivity and stability would lay the foundation for what historian Lizbeth Cohen terms "the Consumers' Republic," the broad-based increase in living and consumption standards for many (though certainly not all) segments of American society during the period. Schumpeter's treatise would soon be countered by the analysis of mass society, in what's known as the critique of other-directedness, mounted beginning in the early 1950s by social commentators like David Riesman, C. Wright Mills, and William H. Whyte in books such as The Lonely Crowd, White Collar, and The Organization Man. At the same time, economist Kenneth J. Arrow's "impossibility theorem" claimed to mathematically prove that collective social decisions couldn't be derived from individual preferences. The impossibility theorem provided the basis for what was to become rational choice theory, the embrace of the "liberal individualist" vs. the "irrational collectivist" underpinning the ideology of American Cold War foreign policy, which ultimately carried over into the domestic arena with the decline of the welfare state beginning in the 1970s. (The genealogy of rational choice theory and its policy implications is outlined in S.M. Adamae's Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: the Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism.)

Schumpeter notes that the revolutions of Soviet Russia and Maoist China failed to meet Marx's prescription of being driven by workers in the advanced industrial sectors of the capitalist economy, and as a result, they shouldn't be used to gauge the potential for success or failure of the communist vision. The demise of the Soviet Union and the unleashing of China's horde of low-wage labor into the capitalist production system underscore the apparent failings of their respective forms of socialism along the lines of Schumpeter's reading of Marx. And it's only in this time of global capitalism unbound that the incapacity of that now-unchallenged system to equitably sustain itself is most obvious. Simply put, pulling the rug out from under the feet of workers, breaking the Treaty of Detroit, has done a lot to raise class consciousness. The crisis of the capitalist profit motive vis-à-vis administration of the nation-state, for example, appears to argue in favor of socialized medicine and pension reform in the United States in the eyes of many in both management and labor. (The US system of welfare capitalism, in which corporations assume responsibility for the long-term well being of employees, was engineered by the corporate sector, an obligation they have unilaterally abandoned and from which they shouldn't be excused. See Sanford M. Jacoby's Modern Manors: Welfare Capitalism since the New Deal, featuring a photo of downtown Detroit on its dust jacket.) It's no wonder that globalization, in particular as it has progressed under neoliberalism, has engendered a variety of discontents.

On one hand there are those trying to reform the capitalist system from within. From this perspective, the fall of the Soviet Union and the abuses of what should be more correctly understood as if not an ersatz communism then at least an incomplete one of twentieth-century experience has taken Marx off the table. The journalist William Grieder and John Bogle, founder of Vanguard mutual funds, are both in search of a soul for capitalism, a way of bringing the bonds of civility to bear on the narrow definition of rational self-interest asserted by neoliberalism. But much like the Tin Man of The Wizard of Oz whose search for a heart ends with his receiving a heart-shaped testimonial watch and chain to wear instead, their answer is regulation by the external forces of government and activist shareholders, a system of checks and balances bound by jurisdictions being world-historically transcended in the age of transnational capital. A similar tinkering is advocated by Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz and financier George Soros, who propose amending the transnational institutions of capitalist regulation, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, etc., to adopt a kinder, gentler brand of development, a way of harvesting value in the global economy along the lines of the abandoned Treaty of Detroit.

Another more holistic approach is offered by Paul Smith (co-founder of the retailer Smith & Hawken) and Jane Jacobs, who tie markets to ecology, seeing economic development as part of the natural process of human evolution. Smith and Jacobs, in Natural Capitalism and The Nature of Economies, respectively, advocate aligning economics with the cycles of nature--investing, nurturing, harvesting, and reinvesting anew--to assure long-term sustainability rather than the short-term focus on accumulation that the ever-forward-moving clock time of modernity seems to demand. While there is much to appreciate in these proposals, especially Jacobs' well-taken observations on the early vertical integration of the American automobile industry and its subsequent effects on the destruction of the city of Detroit under globalization, they require accepting responsibility of externalities for which there is absolutely no incentive in the current environment. They are perhaps cautionary tales doomed to go unheeded until it's too late.

Then there are those diaphanous studies of empire that deal in abstract metaphors appealing primarily to graduate students and devotees of literary criticism, abstruse cultural expression in lieu of political action.

Perhaps most promising is what's come to be known as the global justice movement. First coming to worldwide prominence with the Battle of Seattle in 1999, where protestors representing organized labor, environmentalists, consumer groups, and international fair-trade activists confronted World Trade Organization policymakers, it has all the makings of a global people's movement. Underlying its heterogeneous public face is an advanced understanding of media and social network theory. Coordinating efforts through the Internet and other global communications systems led to the worldwide protests of February 15, 2003, the largest-ever gathering of people on earth to protest the impending US invasion of Iraq. Since then, a loose affiliation of activists has shared information and resources to support a host of local actions in various parts of the world. While seemingly concerned with a wide range of social and political issues, the global justice movement essentially directs its efforts against two main concerns: the economic oppression and environmental exploitation that seem to go hand-in-hand with the global capitalist system. What it lacks is the theoretical underpinning an understanding of Marx's critique of capital could provide.

Most global justice activists see themselves as anti-capitalist; however, few have seemed willing to take the next step in accepting outright socialism, embracing anarchism instead. This is a result no doubt of perceived failures of Soviet-style communism along with the "one nation, two systems" disconnect of Chinese state-sponsored capitalism, coupled with residual disillusion over the inability of 1960s and 1970s social movements to affect lasting change. There's also the dominance of rational choice theory, the hegemony of self-interest, in virtually every aspect of public discourse, from economics to education to politics to reality TV. The global justice movement has made inequality a worldwide public issue, primarily in terms of the economic exploitation of workers and environmental degradation in lesser-developed countries by transnational corporations. Bringing that awareness and solidarity to workers in advanced sectors of the global economy, as advocated by Peter Bohmer of Evergreen College in Washington in a paper on Marxism and the global justice movement, opens possibilities for considering alternatives to capitalism that transcend national borders.
 

Rebooting the Critique of Capital
for the Postmodern Age

Indeed, the economic structure of the postmodern world has arguably set the stage for the Marxist critique like no other time before. The slippery character of global capitalism reinforces Marx's admonishment of the Young Hegelians and social democrats in works like "The Jewish Question" and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that political solutions in and of themselves aren't sufficient to end exploitation without a realignment of property relations. "Sacrificing the crown to save the purse" is embodied in supra-state organizations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization, all nongovernmental entities dedicated to promoting the interests of global trade and capital flows as they are currently dominated by transnational corporations. There may be many nations but increasingly there's only one economy, physically dispersed yet managed through a worldwide telecommunications and information technology network by an international elite--what London School of Economics sociologist Leslie Sklair terms "the transnational capitalist class"--and its subalterns.

Starting in the 1970s, in the wake of the initial restructurings of the global political economy that often goes under the rubric post-Fordist (which began initially in the automotive, apparel, and electronics industries and soon spread to other sectors), Immanuel Wallerstein and others affiliated with the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations at State University of New York-Binghamton developed world-system theory as a way of understanding the movement of capital and goods outside the boundaries of national markets. Given impetus by then current events, Wallerstein et. al. sought to explain from a broad historical-materialist perspective the apparent contradiction between an increasingly integrated global economy and the discrete system of nation-states that has come to characterize the geopolitical order, a condition having origins in "the long sixteenth century" of early European colonial expansion. Rather than focus on the nation-state as the primary unit of analysis, world-system theory speaks in terms of core, periphery, and semi-periphery, that is, the relationships of power within the international division of labor in the production of specific commodities from initial inputs typically in peripheral and semi-peripheral regions of the world to final output typically in the core.

One of the more fruitful analytical tools of world-system theory is the concept of the commodity chain, the complex of interlinked steps in the creation of value. In an article published in 1977 in the Braudel Center's journal Review, Wallerstein and Terence Hopkins define the concept thus: "Take an ultimate consumable item and trace back the set of inputs that culminated in this item--the prior transformations, the raw materials, the transportation mechanisms, the labor input into each of the material processes, the food inputs into the labor. This linked set of processes we call a commodity chain." This archeology of the means of production operates both on an economic and on a social level, seeking to uncover what from a Marxist perspective are the conditions of the reproduction of class power within the base and the superstructure of the capitalist system. (Be that is it may, world-system theory is often criticized for underemphasizing culture in favor of pure macroeconomic analysis.) Commodity chain analysis as practiced by the world-system theory school is primarily historical, analyzing the division of labor in the production and distribution of flour in the early European colonial era, for example, with a goal of demonstrating globalizing tendencies as being a function of capitalism from its very beginning.

The need to explain more recent developments in the global capitalist system has spawned a variant of world-system theory that is especially relevant to revitalizing the critique of capital in the present day. What's known as global commodity chain analysis emerged in the early 1990s to examine links in the division of labor in mass-industrial and so-called postindustrial segments of production. Generally associated with Duke University sociologist Gary Gereffi and colleagues, global commodity chain analysis seeks to identify where value is created in the various steps of production and by whom. Global commodity chain analysis offers an agenda of amelioration for peripheral and semi-peripheral actors to advance in the value-creating process, thereby attaining an element of self-determination in the economic segments within which they operate.

The primary way for exposing these opportunities is by understanding the governance structure of particular commodity chains. Producer-driven commodity chains tend to be resource-oriented and vertically integrated. Buyer-driven commodity chains tend to be demand-oriented and disaggregated. These governance structures tend to dominate the division of labor of long-run, standardized mass production on the one hand and the division of labor of short-run, flexible batch production on the other. These distinctions are those commonly assigned to Fordism and post-Fordism, respectively. Since the 1970s, global capitalist production is increasingly being organized around buyer-driven commodity chains. Outsourcing, independent contracting, just-in-time delivery, turnkey systems, and full-package services are just a few of the prevalent techniques in buyer-driven commodity chains. The opportunity for upgrading, then, depends on the ability to recognize and occupy positions in the chain that have the potential to offer the highest rewards. Yet, as Yale sociologist Jennifer Bair (whose unpublished paper on the evolution of commodity chain analysis informs this discussion) points out, empirical evidence suggests that "moving up" the commodity chain doesn’t necessarily lead to greater rewards. What Giovanni Arrighi terms "the hierarchy of wealth" still determines asymmetrical relations of power within various commodity chains and, as important, between them. For example, Wal-Mart increasingly demands "value-added" services from suppliers without compromising on specifications for efficiency and cost reduction, squeezing ever-more profit from every segment along the chain.

There are also the barriers to entry from "intangible" aspects of production, such as branding, product design, marketing and promotion, etc., that constitute core activities of buyer-driven commodity chains and from which some of the greatest value is derived. For example, the so-called intangible value in a Nike basketball shoe is generally more than three times that of material production. Regulating intellectual property on a global level has become one of the primary concerns of transnational capital with nearly every nation now having some form of official oversight as a result of efforts to coordinate such control by the core. The Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) was adopted in the 1990s, and is overseen by the World Trade Organization. The World Intellectual Property Organization, a United Nations agency, also helps promote intellectual property rights around the world, especially among lesser-developed nations in the periphery and semi-periphery. (Among the UN's other efforts is World Book and Copyright Day, a series of events to promote "reading, publishing, and the protection of intellectual property through copyright" held annually throughout the world, this year on March 23.) If the aristocracy ruled over land and the bourgeoisie over labor, then the transnational capitalist class rules over language, the exchange of information, ideas, images, thought and expression, relations governed by loan contract, purchase order, and an increasingly vertically integrated global media and telecommunications network.

A kind of commodity chain analysis has been used with some success by the global justice movement, although whether activists fully comprehend its genealogy in the Marxist response to the modernization thesis and dependency theory in development studies is certainly open to question. Specifically, the notion of identifying lead firms and supplier relationships in the commodity chains of many consumer products has enabled pressure, generally in the form of consumer boycotts, to be put on the leaders to develop and enforce codes of conduct among the suppliers, generally with respect to anti-sweatshop and environmentally friendly production. What's known as "peeling away the brand veneer" to expose the backward links of a commodity chain-- examining production practices, environmental impacts, monopolistic competitive strategies, antiunion activities, etc., that are normally obscured under the "aura" of the brand--has forced companies such as Nike and The Gap to alter some of their business practices (or at least be circumspect about them) or face sanctions in the consumer marketplace. However, these efforts, though certainly well-intentioned and even effective to a certain extent, are tactical and rarely make connections across broad social categories or national borders beyond a general recognition of the exploitation of low-wage labor and resources in the peripheral and semi-peripheral sectors.

The most pressing limitations of commodity chain analysis are the external forces that bear upon the networks of firms and processes that are typically the objects of study. Bair cites regulatory factors, such as trade and monetary policies, and the institutions through which they are implemented that construct global commodity chains, for all intents and purposes dictating certain configurations of authority (and thus opportunity) and geographical distribution. And while the primary value of commodity chain analysis is its ability to "cut through the clutter" of the ossified geopolitical system in understanding the workings of global capital, there is also much to be gained by factoring the nation-state back in to better understand how nimble transnational corporations use comparative advantage to exploit opportunities for value accumulation. Another externality is the interdependency between commodity chains, i.e., the role particular links play within the different commodity chains of which they're a part. As Wallerstein notes, the output from an agricultural commodity chain is at the same time an input to an industrial one in that factory workers eat.

Then there's the issue of culture, which commodity chain analysis, like its forebear world-system theory, doesn't adequately address. What economists call "intangible" other social scientists recognize as "cultural production," a concept analyzed at depth most notably by Pierre Bourdieu and his disciples. Given the very tangible economic value of cultural production to the core of global capitalism, it's an aspect of commodity chain analysis that merits further scrutiny. For example, how does cultural production, in this reputed information age, bear on questions of economic dependency and social inequity for a world in which half of the population has never received a telephone call let alone swapped MP3s peer-to-peer? A "culture-revitalization" approach to development and commodity chain management has enabled Bolivian cooperatives to use local knowledge in producing for and accessing worldwide markets for fair-trade sustainable products, such as cocoa, quinoa, and textiles, while providing upward mobility for workers and educational opportunities for women, as Kevin Healy reports in his 2001 book, Llamas, Weavings, and Organic Chocolate: Multicultural Grassroots Development in the Andes and Amazon of Bolivia. Any consideration of cultural production, however, needs to retain its connection to a base/superstructure analysis, the need for which can be seen by looking at purely "culturalist" approaches to globalization.

The rapid growth over the past few decades of an integrated worldwide mass media and linked network of consumer markets has spawned awareness of (and concern over) the potential convergence of communication and community on a global level, of global markets producing a global culture that is homogenizing, rootless, predictable, and ultimately devoid of meaning, a process American sociologist George Ritzer terms the "globalization of nothing." Against this vision of a burgeoning worldwide United Markets of Generica has emerged the riposte that globalization constitutes a hybridizing process, a creolization of global culture when consumed at the local level. This notion inheres in Roland Robertson's term "glocalization," asserting that the world gets more pluralistic as individuals and local groups adapt global culture to their own tastes and needs. Anthropologist Karen Tranberg Hansen argues, for example, that salaula (the Zambian term for secondhand clothes meaning "picked from the rummage bale") enables indigenous consumers in Africa to create unique meanings in their use of Western castoffs, thereby theoretically escaping to a significant degree dependence on their former colonial masters. Yet the glut of used Western clothing (which enter the commodity chain as charitable donations) coming into Zambia in the wake of International Monetary Fund-mandated reforms has decimated local cloth and garment manufacturing because these sectors simply can't compete with the high-quality low-cost imports. While it may be, as Hansen asserts, that salaula truly reflects the sui generis Zambian love of fashion, it's an eddy in a tide of global forces, more a defensive tack than a self-determined course of grassroots empowerment. On the other hand, Ritzer's concept of "grobalization" (a mashup of the words "growth" and "globalization") recognizes Arrighi's hierarchy of wealth as by and large propelling the global system in a particular direction, with media and commodities as key forces in the process.

A method that seems to strike the right balance is global system theory, which has emerged as one of the most useful tools for the critique of capital from an historical-materialist perspective in these postmodern times. Where world-system theory and global commodity chain analysis tend to minimize politics and culture in favor of economics, and global culture theory minimizes economics and politics in favor of culture, global system theory seeks to understand transnational capital in its many dimensions, tying base and superstructure together. First codified in book form in Sklair's 1991 Sociology of the Global System, the global system model is based on the transnational practices of non-nation-state actors across nation-state borders. These practices fall into three spheres: economic, political, and cultural-ideological. Each sphere has a major institution: the transnational corporation in economics, the transnational capitalist class in politics, and the culture-ideology of consumerism in culture-ideology. Each of these spheres and institutions operates within nation-states, between nation-states, and at the supra-state level. The goal of global system theory is to understand how transnational corporations, the transnational capitalist class, and the culture-ideology of consumerism work to transform the world along lines favorable to global capitalism. One of the most significant achievements of global system theory is bringing together production and consumption as a nexus of relations that serves to reproduce capital on a worldwide basis.

In particular is the way the culture-ideology of consumerism stimulates demand for new goods in the core through niche marketing to select status groups and promotes consumption generally in the periphery and semi-periphery to bring them into the global system. The global consumer-citizen constitutes a new form of subjectivity, a universalizing of identity politics in the neoliberal individualist whose interests lie outside local, nation-state, and even international jurisdictions. The culture-ideology of consumerism is promoted primarily through the increasingly vertically integrated global media, which channel news, information, entertainment, and advertising through a transnational corporate hierarchy based for the most part in the core. Alongside these global image and idea factories are linked networks of goods and capital that flow worldwide. (Media theorist Robert McChesney has analyzed the growing interconnection between global media conglomerates, advertising agencies, and marketing firms as primary institutional structures for the culture-ideology of consumerism, although he doesn't use that term.) Much of the content of the culture-ideology of consumerism originates in the US, though this shouldn't be viewed as a process of Americanization specifically so much as an economic amortization of investments in cultural production for worldwide consumption. The flow from core to periphery and semi-periphery is more a matter of path determination: the images begin in the US as the world's primary consumer market and move downstream to realize economies of scale. The flow could as easily move in another direction as demonstrated by the growth of such cultural production as so-called world music. It should also be noted that the process isn't appreciably different structurally from the logic described by Raymond Williams in his mid-1970s study on the culture and technology of television. If anything, what needs to be better understood from an historical-materialist point of view is the role of the consumer in the global system. That requires examining traditional Marxist perspectives on the relationship between production and consumption in light of present circumstances.
 

The Production of Consumption

Marxist theory has traditionally had a "producerist" bias.  (This is true for a good deal of social science as well: The Encyclopedia of Sociology has no entries for “consumption,” “consumer society,” or any variation on those terms.) If considered at all, consumption is typically understood as a site where material and social inequality are reproduced. As Marx sets out in Chapter 1 of Capital, commodities are mystifications of production, fetishes that obscure relationships of property and therefore class. For later theoreticians like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (as well as heirs like Stuart Ewen), commodity consumption constitutes consensus to the force of the economic and ideological hegemony of capital. Under the labor theory of value, commodities bearing the full value of the labor time required to produce them are purchased with worker wages that are discounted, allowing for the accumulation of surpluses that become the basis for subsequent exploitation. The culture-ideology of consumerism (conceptually linking bottom-up consensus and top-down force) doesn't contest Marx, especially as it describes the trickle down as it were from core to periphery and semi-periphery, so much as it opens up the possibility of using the concept for more critical ends.

While it may seem obvious, it's necessary at this point to acknowledge the appeal of the commodity as both a material and symbolic fulfillment of the promise of capitalist productivity. In her study of US living standards over a large part of the twentieth century, economist Clair Brown shows a dramatic increase from 1918, when mass consumables became more broadly available, and 1973, the point David Harvey and others identify as the postmodern turn, after which they decline on an absolute basis to 1988 when the study ends. Marx and Engels were unabashed in the Communist Manifesto and elsewhere in their respect for capitalism's prodigious capability to provide a cornucopia of goods and to muster surplus accumulation to make broad social and political reforms possible. These observations made in the nineteenth century were to be fulfilled perhaps even beyond their expectations in the next century by the innovations initiated under Fordist production.

Marx anticipated the potential to greatly accelerate capitalist production through the relative surplus value realized by what Schumpeter terms "creative destruction" in contrast to the absolute surplus value of traditional working methods. Absolute surplus value is surplus value realized by expanding the total amount of labor time dedicated to commodity production, whereas relative surplus value is surplus value realized by increasing what can be produced within a particular time period as a result of technological innovation. This happened at Ford's Highland Park plant with the standardization of component parts, the harnessing of electricity, and, most importantly, the invention of the moving assembly line, which dissolves the work site into a flow, a dynamic mechanism for reaping labor power. The process is made visible in the full-scale version of Rivera's Detroit Industry, created for the Center Court of the Detroit Institute of Arts at the height of the Great Depression under the patronage of Henry Ford's only son, Edsel. The central panel of the mural features a gargantuan stamping press in the figure of the Aztec goddess of agriculture with gangs of men, arrayed like rows of maize, attached to the belts and pulleys of the line, representing the production cycle from the gestation of the automobile in raw materials until its harvest as a finished product at the end of the line.

The Fordist system increased productivity ten times and enabled prices to be cut in half, all the while making Henry Ford the world's richest man and its first billionaire. This was possible even though Ford doubled wages to an historic $5 a day in part to combat a staggering 380 percent worker turnover rate. As Antonio Gramsci notes in his essay on Americanism and Fordism, this unprecedented largesse also laid the foundation for the social and political system that drove mass consumption and the welfare state for most of the twentieth century. Mass media advertising helped stimulate desire to absorb expanded productivity through increased personal consumption, a process made easier with the availability of time payments for durable items such as cars, houses, and appliances. Modern brands also streamlined the consumer decision-making process, enabling faster turnover of product at the point of sale. But as Marx also foretells, relative surplus value only provides temporary productivity gains and capitalism must eventually return to the extraction of absolute surplus value. Even in the heyday of High Fordism, in the Pax Americana after the Treaty of Detroit, the net profit rate wobbled and toward the end of the period began to fall so that by 1975 it had declined nearly 60% from its postwar peak two decades earlier, as reported by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development statistics.

In the 1970s, the return of absolute surplus value took form in expanded total household work hours with the entry of more women into the workplace in non-managerial positions and an increase in the commitment of future labor in the dramatic growth in revolving credit debt. Accompanying this was a decrease in household net worth, primarily as a result of higher home mortgage balances secured with lower down payments. This was coupled with the more primitive forms of accumulation that Harvey terms "accumulation by dispossession," for example, in Detroit where tens of thousands of homeowners abandoned all claims to evaporating equity by fleeing a tumbling housing market, leaving properties to revert either to banks or the government. Absolute surplus value was also being realized with the initial forays into Mexico and overseas with outsourcing and the mobilizing of enormous new pools of low-wage labor pioneered by the automotive, apparel, and electronics industries. And yet consumption continued virtually unabated over the decade even as real incomes fell, US government statistics show. It's in this period that logos first moved from the inside of clothing to the outside, when Nike and Esprit turned consumers into walking billboards for their products, when Calvin Klein and Gloria Vanderbilt transformed the utilitarian blue jean into a marker of democratized designer distinction, when the culture-ideology of consumerism connected with the transnational commodity chains of post-Fordism.

The producerist bias of conventional leftist perspectives casts consumption as passive, typically seeing the consumer as either a dupe of capitalist ideology or a victim of its material processes. (The culture industry of Horkheimer and Adorno, including advertising, is by their account an instrument of "mass deception.") This in part responds to utilitarian notions of political economy that present consumption as a matter of rational choice. But consumption can and should also be viewed as an active form of expression. Active consumers express individual sovereignty through identities constructed by acquiring and displaying goods that convey information about themselves and their self-proclaimed position within a constellation of social networks. And as the reception theory of the Birmingham School of cultural studies maintains, these expressions may concede to capitalist hegemony, oppose it, or seek to negotiate a position somewhere in between.

One form of opposition is the consciously irrational potlatch of Burning Man, a festival of expenditure that takes place each year in the Nevada desert that bans corporate logos on any and all items brought into the festival campgrounds as well as financial transactions of any kind. (Although it hasn't entirely escaped market logics: economies of gift giving, bartering, and other forms of symbolic exchange have arisen within the confines of the festival over the years.) Another opposition is the "brand boomerang" of culture jamming, often an adjunct of the global justice movement, that becomes a negotiation as it provides an incentive for producers to respond to consumer demands for environmental sustainability and an end to labor exploitation, ameliorating certain market failures of the global system. On Canal Street in New York City and at swap meets around the world, counterfeit designer handbags and other pirated items provide mechanisms for negotiating symbolic status markets at deeply discounted prices. Even in terms of consensus, producers in highly penetrated market segments acknowledge the authority of the consumer through the emphasis on trend spotting, cool hunting, "viral" marketing, and the like, constituting deference to a buyer-driven commodity chain of another sort. All of these positions must be factored alongside analyses of production of transnational capital in the global system.
 

De-Rationalizing Choice

One of Marx's primary intentions in undertaking his analysis of capital was to rebut the political economists of the English Enlightenment who sought to ground all human interaction and morality in the individual pursuit of self-interest. So too must the critique of capital in the present day confront political economy's more radical heirs, rational choice theory and neoliberalism. As S.M. Amadae points out in her historical account, Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: the Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism, rational choice theory is the brainchild of the American military-industrial complex, a "regime of knowledge production" designed to provide the ideological underpinning for US foreign policy during the Cold War. It sought "objective" (i.e., quantifiable) criteria to guide decision-making in the bipolar power struggle (pun intended) against the Soviet Union and for doing so in a way that would not be subject to popular democratic political debate. Rational choice theory continues to drive the neoliberal assertion of individual sovereignty in all areas of life and the supposedly natural preeminence of so-called free markets. Its universalizing of absolute self-interest independent of all specific social contexts is the genetic code of the culture-ideology of consumerism within the global system.

Rational choice theory was initiated under the auspices of the RAND think tank (at the time still a division of military supplier Douglas Aircraft) with start-up capital provided by another Ford, in this case Henry's grandson Henry Ford II, who at the time controlled the Ford Foundation in addition to serving as chief executive of Ford Motor Company. Rational choice theory has its foundation in economics but has spread to other areas of political and social science research. Rational choice theory uses game and set theory to assess risk and uncertainty. One of its first accomplishments was to mathematically demonstrate a "missile gap" between the US and the Soviet Union that history has proven didn't really exist. It did, however, fuel a national debate that resulted in a massive arms build up, greatly benefiting military contractors like Douglas Aircraft. Mark L. Lichbach, a self-proclaimed adherent to rational choice theory in political science, acknowledges that it prevails most often in environments that are evidence poor. This admission is born out by recent empirical studies suggesting people are far more altruistic than rational choice thought experiments such as the Prisoner's Dilemma predict. (The Prisoner's Dilemma pits two suspects against one another with the logical outcome of each reasoning to protect them self by testifying against the other, resulting in a less than optimal outcome than would have been achieved if both had maintained their innocence.)

Rational choice theory also can't account for externalities, such as the reciprocal obligations of preexisting social relationships required for making and enforcing contracts and ensuring fair competition. (Even Adam Smith knew that!) Nor does it factor in the often irrational desires that decades of consumer research show drive actual purchase decisions in the marketplace, rationalizing choices rather than choosing rationally While rational choice theory can perhaps be waived off as academic (or maybe even ignored as the domain of socially inept libertarians flaming one another in Internet chat rooms), its real-world application, neoliberalism, has had and continues to have serious consequences. So-called free market reforms in both developed and lesser-developed nations have increased social and economic inequality and created turmoil for millions around the world. Structural adjustment programs and free-trade agreements are the cannonballs for breaking down Chinese walls in the postmodern age, allowing for the unfettered flow of goods and capital for the benefit of the new transnational capitalist class. Nearly 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, rational choice theory and neoliberalism can now be seen for what they really are: increasingly apparent and thus unconvincing masks for the brutal way capitalism really works. In the face of this stark reality, resistance is growing. The global justice movement has made social and economic equality and environmental sustainability issues of concern at the highest policy levels and broadly throughout the world. South America, through a series of democratically elected progressive governments, is coming together to oppose the machinations of the global system, providing a model of self-determination for others in the periphery and semi-periphery. What needs to happen next is for these trends to galvanize and align with growing discontent among workers of all kinds within the core. The tools for doing this exist in the independent media and social movement networks sprouting up from the cracks of the global system.

Meanwhile back in Detroit, Super Bowl XL recently played to great fanfare. Prior to the Big Game, the city's homeless where rounded up and shuttled off to a shelter to watch the spectacle on large screen TVs out of the range of cameras and tourists. And the trucks continue to roll off the Ambassador Bridge.

 

Vince Carducci is an adjunct instructor in Liberal Arts at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and a PhD student in sociology at the New School for Social Research in New York City.

 


Logos 5.1 - winter 2006
© Logosonline 2006