Sunday, 4 July 2010

Is more flexibility the only answer?

Last week UK government floated a proposal to offer subsidies to people who want to re-locate in order to find work. It seems people are just still not flexible enough.

The solution to the economic crisis of the 1970's, was to introduce a series of measures designed to make the global economy more flexible and dynamic and thus create new possibilities for growth. Floating exchange rates were introduced, the principals of free trade were advanced and increasingly countries that didn't get with the programme were punished by international financial organisations such as the World Bank and the IMF. What this meant domestically was that as manufacturing industry was decimated, at an accelerated rate during the 1980's, the workforce was expected to be highly flexible in its pursuit of employment. They had to be willing and able to re-skill, re-locate and reduce their expectations in terms of salaries and workers rights. While the salaries of the rich have grown exponentially since the 1970's, average salaries have fallen in real terms.

This flexibility affected every area of our lives. We were expected to be flexible in our employment choices, flexible in our working practices, flexible in our choices of where to live. Such flexibility inevitably extended to other areas such as values, social bonds between people, loyalty to a region or a specific place and our way of seeing the world.

Of course the narrative is that all of this flexibility has been in order to make the UK more competitive. What this really means, if you don't view it through a nationalist prism, is that people are expected to live their lives increasingly in the service of capital accumulation. Not their own accumulation of capital, of course, but that tiny minority who, in one way or another, are playing the stock market. Any doubt about this should have been dispelled by the role the markets played in UK elections. Political and social processes were subordinated to the reaction of the market.

So the government's response to the crisis is more of the same, but with greater intensity and at a faster rate of acceleration. Why are we collectively incapable of seeing how manipulated we are? Why are we not talking about the damage which has been done to the social fabric by so much flexibility and thinking seriously about alternatives. Have we given up on trying to assert the value and importance of, for example, social relationships over and above the demands of the economy?

It seems to me that the economic crisis should provide an opportunity for a major reassessment of the values that we have been pursuing up until now- but nothing of the sort is happening. The government in the UK, and in other countries, has committed itself to a continuation of the policies of the 1980's and 1990's that got us into this mess in the first place and we believe them when they say there is no alternative. Talk about subdued!

In this video David Harvey talks about this and related themes.

Friday, 2 July 2010

What is Social Acceleration? Part Seven: Conclusion

Capitalism, like any term is loaded. It activates a series of narratives related to Marxism, economics and politics and establishes, for many people, a prescriptive evaluation regarding what is under discussion. Of course nowadays there are plenty of people who, following the likes of Freidman, will hear the term in a broadly favourable way, but for many the term contains an implicit condemnation. This duality is a problem- it introduces a form of oppositional thinking which disfigures that which is under discussion. That’s not to say the term can be circumvented or abandoned. I think that the term captures the central dynamic of the acceleration which is taking place in our societies and in our lives. Not perfectly and not exhaustively; the narrative could be and frequently is recast in quite different terms and is both revealing and compelling. Nonetheless, I don’t think there is anything that captures the dynamic of social acceleration quite as completely as does the designation of capitalism, for all the many reasons that I have discussed in previous postings.

However the problem of evaluation remains, and it is a serious one. After a discussion on some related issue in a class recently a student who quite understandably wanted to defend some facet of the modern world, added somewhat forlornly, “but I don’t want to be a capitalist”. Who would? It hardly secretes ideological glamour (if such a thing is possible). Self-interest, aggressiveness, a dour work ethic perhaps, but not any idealistic desire to right the wrongs of the world. It is not the case that there is, on the one hand, this avaricious capitalistic system driving an acceleration of social processes and on the other, human beings caught up in, but ontologically different from, such processes. We are, rather, its agents, propagators and medium. And what that means is that claims to being in favour of, or opposed to capitalism and the social acceleration that it implies are either superficial or disingenuous. When I attended classes for my Masters in Globalisation at the University of Barcelona, some of the more ideologically committed students would frown upon those of us that drank Coca Cola in class, as if abstinence from certain totemic symbols of capitalism could exempt one from complicity in its logic. This is an obvious example, but examples abound from NGOs and aid organisations to indie rock bands and student demos. All, to varying degrees, ostensibly oppose themselves to the logic of capitalism, whilst carving out niches within its overall architecture. All of which is to say that the logic of capitalism is totalising, leaving barely any corner of our lives or thought processes untouched. Which raises the question of whether, given this totalising characteristic, it really makes sense to designate the manifold processes which are transforming our lives and our world in terms of an economic system. And if we do, does it not, at least, become important that the term resonates slightly differently, so that it does not lend itself so easily to a rather un-nuanced form of oppositional thought.

We might wish to condemn capitalism, but in so doing we will often be implicitly reinforcing a form of traditionalism. Capitalism may have brought us alienating labour practices, massive social inequality and global warming, but it has also been instrumental in the development of rights and inclusiveness for all sorts of previously marginalised or persecuted groups, all the gadgets and technologies that have come to dynamise modern life (see the posting on David Harvey for a description of his views on time-space compression) and a sense of personal autonomy and freedom from the asphyxiating effects of traditional values.

On the first of these points, exclusion of certain groups from the social mainstream also excludes them from the market. This is an intolerable barrier to capitalism, which will then seek to re-insert them within the commercial field. Consider what a boom-market the gay scene has provided since the 1960’s. On the second, there are few among the relatively affluent of the planet who would be willing to dispense with the tools, the internet foremost among them, that have enabled us to so comprehensively overcome barriers of space and time. This can be seen in many different guises from the various dynamised production networks that enable us to buy cheap Chinese imports or provide novel Christmas present ideas on Amazon to the anti-globalisation activists who are able to communicate and organise globally thanks to the space-annihilating new technologies. These processes have been greatly facilitated and accelerated by the tendency of capitalism to creatively overcome barriers to capital accumulation. The third point mentioned above also relates to overcoming barriers, but this time the very intransigent barriers of social values and customs. Here the question of evaluation is particularly problematic and shifting. What seems like an unpardonable breach of a social value today can appear in a very different light with the passing of time. Sunday opening in the UK (the overcoming of an important temporal barrier to capital accumulation) seemed like a big deal when it was first introduced. Nowadays people would probably feel their rights had been violated if they were unable to shop on a Sunday. And how are we to judge the undermining of social institutions like marriage? It could be viewed negatively, in terms of the atomisation of society, or positively in terms personal liberation from confining social conventions. Either way, in the case of this example, people are being forced to re-evaluate and often re-negotiate the ground rules for their relationships. Even if a couple goes for a church wedding followed by a nuclear family, they are well aware that, these days, that this is but one option among many. Previously such an arrangement had not been option, or if it was, it was so to a much lesser degree, and so could not really be seen in terms of a choice. However, once it becomes optional, it also becomes a choice. This phenomenon of optionality is highly subversive of social institutions and identities (see T. de Zengotita, Mediated).

The key words and phrases here seem to be ‘overcoming barriers’ and ‘dynamism’. This seems to get to the heart of the acceleration of societal processes that is taking place. Over the course of the previous postings we have seen repeated examples of systems becoming increasingly dynamic, and how the rhythm of that dynamism is accelerating. This could be seen during the introduction of the factory system, which spelled the end of the craftsman, and the introduction of specialised, repeatable tasks controlled by the rhythm of the machinery. It is clear that technological innovation has been right at the heart of social acceleration as human beings are increasingly forced to adapt to the new technologies that are foisted upon them and which, increasingly, they greedily embrace. The paradigm example was the ‘just-in-time’ production method, where speed of turnover and the tight coupling of the system are of the essence. People have to adapt to the accelerated rhythm of such a production method as best they can. Stress in the work place is not an undesired consequence of imperfect institutional organisation, it is oftentimes a virtual condition of employment. We also saw a similar dynamic at work with airline scheduling, household chores, the working day and the timetable. As people adapt to these technologies and organisational forms, they become subtly reconfigured. In the same way as you can often spot an ex military man because of his mannerisms, way of walking and talking and values, so the curious, but rarely fully committed browsing and skimming of the internet subtly reconfigures our expectations, attention span and tolerance for mental effort (see Nicholas Carr).

It’s as if we have broken free from well established conceptions of time, space and historical development to occupy instead a timeless, spaceless universe in which anything of value from any time or space is decanted into the present in order to extract that value. Such a transformations could not be achieved without some violence to existing systems, conventions or values. Hence the breaking of barriers. Collectively the relatively wealthy of the world, which almost certainly includes everyone reading this blog, are acting like the loving middle class boy who becomes a junky and quickly fritters away all of the emotional and literal capital that he had accumulated over the course of a lifetime of good behaviour, all in service of the next fix. First he drains his trust fund (literal capital) and then starts using his parent’s credit card and stealing from them (emotional capital). The paradigm illustration of this is the stock market which operates both figuratively and literally.

Some embrace this whole transformation. There are a lot of people who simply see technology as the saviour. And the religious language is no accident. The highly influential Ray Kurzweil is convinced, and argues persuasively, that the accelerated rates of technological innovation form an unbroken continuum with the development of RNA and DNA, the evolution of species and the first use of tools by humans. He predicts that the current exponential rate of transformation will result in a paradigm shift sometime around the middle of this century at which point the rate of technological change will be too fast for human beings to cope with from within their existing conceptual paradigms. Technological enthusiasts and futurists of this sort would advocate riding the wave of technological change. It’s heady stuff, although I can’t help being struck by the strong parallel with Christianity and wonder whether it is not an unconscious attempt to redeem religion. Arguments of this sort tend also to be strikingly uncritical and fail to satisfactorily locate technology within a broader social context.

At the other end of the spectrum we find Baudrillard who would have no argument with the idea that society is undergoing a rapid acceleration, though he would see this in terms of the production and consumption of signs. Having replaced the physical commodity as the source of value in society, all manner of signs and symbols are manipulated towards the end of extracting value. This can be clearly seen with companies like Nike which produce nothing. The production of their sportswear is subcontracted to hidden-away sweat-shops in China where the workers can be exploited in 19th century European factory conditions. The brand, however, is everything and that’s where the money goes and that’s where the value is generated. His vision is ultimately pessimistic in that he senses an extreme desperation in the extraction and utilisation of all types of value, wherever they might be found. For Baudrillard this is what explains palaeontology, archaeology and history. This is not exclusively capitalistic, but part of a social imperative for symbolic meaning which has been largely forgotten and obscured in the West, though it remains alive and well in the Muslim world.

Broadly speaking I am sympathetic towards Baudrillard’s approach, especially the direction in which he took Marxist thought, and in subsequent postings I would like to explore some of the areas that this blog is dedicated to, in the light of Baudrillard’s emphasis on symbolic value. However, with respect to evaluating the social acceleration that I set out to define with this series of postings, I think that before any sort of evaluation can be proffered the multi-faceted phenomena that I have tried to capture with this term must be recognised. That is difficult because we tend only to see what is in front of our noses. We don’t really see the historical processes which we are caught up in, we don’t recognise the degree to which the planet is interconnected and networked and we treat with an apathetic shrug the extraordinary transformations that are being wrought on the planet and on our species. Evaluation tends to be a way of fore-stalling further thought about any of these matters.