This morning I noticed how the material of my lightweight summer work trousers has thinned and developed a small hole. It reminded me of how the quality and durability of goods has deteriorated over the last few decades. Growing up in the sixties, I am still amazed at how quickly modern jeans wear out. I use leather gloves when I am cutting and stacking wood – they only last one season, I have to get a new pair each year.
How come? New industrial practices, new technologies and rising standards of education mean that goods can be manufactured more and more cheaply. We could have the same quality and durability at a lower price. Post WW2 economics was concerned about how we would cope with all the leisure time progress would bring.
Through the sixties, seventies and into the eighties, there was a sense of things improving, surely we were approaching a golden age as the world became a better place. Suddenly communication meant more than talking on the radio, people were coming together, there was hope. The notion of liberatory technology was inspiring – soon machines would do all the boring routine stuff, freeing up humans to be creative and have fun.
But it has not turned out like that, liberatory technology has liberated corporations, not people. As it became cheaper to make things businesses were faced with a choice: distribute the benefits as higher wages or retain them as profit. What did they do? – they kept them for themselves, of course. But there were two problems. The first was that people would not buy new products because the old ones still worked, the second was how would people pay?
The first took a while but is now with us every hour of the day. Advertising and PR are about making us feel we are missing something; about manipulating ‘wants’. By the 1920s they were already moving from creating products that people needed to creating human needs for products. For instance in 1927 Charles Kettering of General Motors wrote an article entitled ‘Keep the consumer dissatisfied‘, in which he said: ” If everyone were satisfied, no one would buy the new thing because no one would want it “.
The second has also taken time. The solution was not to give us more pay, but credit – with interest. Credit for everything: refrigerators, cars, houses, computers, on-line gambling … you name it. The bankers have used this credit to gamble in their officially sanctioned casinos (otherwise known as investment banks and transnational corporations). They have created trillions of dollars worth of debt, while they skimmed off personal fortunes through mega-salaries and bonuses.
They have moved us back into a new form of serfdom – economic slavery. Money is no longer related to the value of work – it has no fixed worth, most of it is not even paper, but simply digital bytes, an illusion. An illusion with a powerful hold on our imagination such that consumerism has persuaded us to give up our leisure and quality of life for it. (The average Briton or American works 300-400 hours more each year than their French of German counterpart, that’s up to ten 40hr weeks each year!)
Now this unsustainable Ponzi scheme is collapsing in a great depression – credit is disappearing faster than they can print more ‘money’. Underneath the surface, the world is changing as global economies implode. We have massive, global pollution, deterioration of the environment and the destruction of the middle classes.
What has the last century of progress created? An enormous inequality of wealth distribution: the few have the money while the many have the debt. And squeaky little Osborne, the British Chancellor, exhorts us to embrace austerity, because ‘we are all in it together‘!
Feeling angry yet?