Manufacturing Discontent

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I was asked to write something up about my book, Manufacturing Discontent. I thought that I would share it with you. Any comments would be be appreciated.

Of all my books, Manufacturing Discontent may seem to have the least links with Marxism. After I published The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation , some people argued that the subject was purely historical and had no contemporary relevance. Of course, the seizure of property continues throughout the world, even in the United States, where government can take property through the law of eminent domain and then turn it over to private interests.

The debate got me to thinking, though, how capitalism continues to redefine social relations, as well as property, to further the process of accumulation. Manufacturing Discontent, in effect, became an appendix to The Invention of Capitalism. What the book shows is not primitive accumulation in the narrow sense, but rather the way that capital continues to go beyond the marketplace in attempting to stave off the natural tendency for the rate of profit to fall. By changing the rules of the game, capital creates an impression that it is prospering, when its prosperity depends on other factors than its productivity.

For example, the first chapter describes how capital went to great lengths to influence people to redefine themselves as consumers rather than producers. Capital’s success in this regard partially confiscated workers’ identity, leaving them less able to recognize their own interests, both individually and as a class.

The second chapter addressed a less abstract form of primitive accumulation by looking at how capital deforms workers at the workplace. Building on Marx’s observation that “Moments are the elements of profit,” employers attempted to harvest profit from every

available second, so much so that one employer even prevented workers from going to the bathroom. This policy left them with no choice but to wear diapers in the workplace.

The contradiction between the ideological concept of consumer sovereignty and the complete lack of rights in the workplace is striking.

The book next turned to a more open form of primitive accumulation by directly attacking workers’ benefits. Capital became increasingly desperate to maintain profits, as I described in The Confiscation of American Prosperity . Capital’s response was to shed what few social responsibilities remained. Jobs with decent health care and pensions disappeared. The tax burden on corporations was shredded. The right to form unions rapidly frayed. In this environment, workers were told they had to accept personal responsibility, even though the opportunity to earn a decent wage was fast disappearing.

The fourth chapter describes the inverse of the demand for increasing individual responsibility: the shrinking of corporate accountability. The regulatory framework for addressing capital’s abuses was largely dismantled. The legal system increasingly prevented individuals – the same supposedly sovereign consumers — from taking their grievances to court. Businesses used subcontractors to shield themselves from responsibility. The business press even made the claim that corporations have the responsibility to skirt the law in order to increase profits because their primary duty is to their shareholders. The same corporations, however, were willing to bilk their shareholders when it was convenient to do so.

In this environment, capital managed to deform the idea of risk, shifting the burden of risk from capital to individuals or society as a whole. This transformation of risk also furthered the accumulation of capital. Business was allowed to introduce dangerous technologies without many repercussions, even though such technologies may have had lethal consequences for workers or for other members of society.

I learned a great deal in the course of this analysis of risk. Although I did not pursue the subject there, I could see that the effect of shifting of risk in a world of fictitious capital was setting the stage for a crisis; however, I only pursued this analysis later in The Confiscation of American Prosperity, which appeared exactly at the time that the stock market in the United States peaked.

Of course, the subjects treated in this book are not exactly primitive accumulation, but they had a similar effect by undermining the traditional rights of workers. Woody Guthrie had a famous song that proposed an equivalence between those who robbed you with a gun and those who used a fountain pen. Manufacturing Discontent analyzes the world of fountain pens.

Again, this book is not ostensibly Marxian, although I hope that it made a modest extension of Marxian analysis. Whether my hopes are justified is another matter.

I cannot pretend that this book has been influential. It was not widely reviewed, which is not entirely surprising because Pluto is a small publisher. Its only translation into Korean is supposed to appear this month.

Cross-posted from Unsettling Economics with Michael’s permission.

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One Response

  1. Small Girl

    March 24, 2010 12:03 pm

    For an Irish mammy like myself it’s great to get the chance to engage with modest writers in this way.

    I agree with everything Michael says in his first 3 chapters. In relation to the fourth chapter I think there are 2 separate industries at work – production and financial. A lot of Marxism has tended to concentrate on modes and relations of production (technologies and the move to services)and sees production and finance as capitalism. I think they’re separate and that explains why the financial end screws the production/services end with off-balance sheet financing and the shareholders (Gods from a production perspective) can end up getting wiped out. When Naomi Klein handed a signed copy of NO LOGO to Walden Bello, he said it was a brilliant portrait of capitalism (branding, good corporate image, outsourcing, exploitation in the global south, reducing people to consumers etc) but she didn’t factor in the financial markets. She focused on the co-optation of capital in the things and ways of life or culture. Financial markets are an industry we don’t see and don’t realise it affects our lives, it’s not tangible to ordinary workers – until now of course. Now we’ve a bellyfull of it with workers recapitalising Irish banks and national production dipping as a result of labour costs/lack of credit/capital withdrawal. So production is important but the ‘markets’ are more important in terms of risk (fictitious and real) and outsourcing of responsibility. I might be a little off topic but is this roughtly the same point Michael is making?

    Can I move sideyways? How does Michael’s work frame my identity and interests as a worker? I’m a part-time producer and I’m a consumer but mostly I’m a carer for my two children. It’s the most important thing I do and it takes up most of my time although it’s not considered work (tell that to my aching feet at 9 o’clock at night!). Indeed, capitalism affects my social relations with my family ie. time spent with them, our expectations, and the activities we choose/can’t afford. Marxism sees me as producing the next batch of workers. I see it as rearing two well-rounded people until they tell me to bugger off. My care work is not measured in GDP although I think it’s crucial in reproducing a healthy society. Are there any economists that measure the value of my work? There is risk without this work, emotional damage and the state/taxpayer has to fund the care deficit I could leave behind – we know this to be expensive and it was further damaging when the Church filled the deficit. With Marxism, how do you measure social gains like care when there is no direct profit/class interest?

    For anyone interested: The American academic Will Kaufman does a Woody Guthrie set and he’s coming to Athy, Co. Kildare for our May Day celebration – four x speakers on labour history (early agrarian, Nights of the Plow, 1922 minimum wage for ag workers, and 1947) and Kaufman’s set with a few simple sangwiches and wine.