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.


  1. This is a very interesting blog. I'm beginning to get to grips with social acceleration, and I've recently started planning an MA thesis on this subject, so I'm really glad it exists!

    Meanwhile, I'd love to join your McLuhan reading group, since I need a comprehensive way into his work, but sadly I don't like in Barcelona. Alas.

    I'll be back!


  2. Glad you find it interesting and if you are going to be writing a thesis in this general area, I would be very interested to know how you are developing your ideas.

    I'm currently reading Baudrillard's "For a Critique of the political Economy of the sign" as a way of trying to make sense of his transition from some sort of commitment to Marxist analysis to hyperreality and simulacra.

    The plan is to start posting another cycle of postings soon, focussing more on globalisation, time space compression and symbolic exchange. That will obviously take a lot of fleshing out!

    I would be genuinely interested to know more about the topic of your thesis so if you've got a moment tell me where you're at with your thinking.

    The McLuhan reading group was met with a deafening silence!

    A slightly eccentric way into McLuhan might be to read Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy. McLuhan drew quite heavily on Ong's work and this is a very accessible book that takes you to the heart of some of Mcluhan's concerns. It's particularly good at bringing home to you the extent to which literacy has transformed our consciousness. I think once you gain a sense of that it opens the way for a better appreciation of how transformative electronic communication is.