Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: Alienation - Part 2

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[S1 E24]

In this part 2 of 2, Prof. Harvey continues his discussion of the alienation of labor and capital.

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Transcript has been edited for clarity.

This is David Harvey, and you're listening to the Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a podcast that looks at capitalism through a Marxist lens. This podcast is made possible by Democracy at Work.

So last week I was talking about alienation in the labor process, and the extension of that alienation given contemporary transformations in divisions of labor, the rise of meaningless jobs, and increasing problems of alienation, not only of labor but also of capital. Now, one of the arguments which has been made by people like André Gorz is that during the 1960s and 1970s many people in the working classes were very well aware of their situation, and felt the alienation, and were actively involved in trying to do something about it: to restructure the labor processes in ways which were less alienating, to set up trade councils, and things of that kind that were going to do something in a very different sort of way. I think that one of the arguments that came out during that period was, there was a struggle over this, but André Gorz and others argued that this was a losing struggle, and that there was something else going on which was equally important. And what was equally important was the response to the uprisings of 1968, which were very much about individual liberty and freedom, and social justice. 

And the response of the capitalist class to this was to try to satisfy wants, needs and desires by moving towards a much more consumer sort of society. And out of this there came a theory of what we might call "compensatory consumerism." It basically was a kind of a Faustian bargain between capital and labor in which capital basically said to labor: All right, we know we cannot be creating labor processes which are adequate to you, but we can compensate you for that so that when you come out of the labor process and go home, you've got a wonderful cornucopia of consumer products that you can have, and that therefore the happiness you will experience from all of these consumer products will compensate for the fact that you have a miserable time at work. And out of this there came the idea of a reasonably affluent working class, an affluent working class which was going to take its, you know, its recreational vehicle and take vacations, and do all of those sorts of things. So the idea of compensatory consumerism became very significant. 

And what we've seen, of course, is a huge burst since the 1970s, 1980s into new forms of consumerism. And the most important thing about them was that these were not mass consumption in the ordinary kind of sense. A lot of it was niche-specific. That is, you created consumer niches and you invited people to occupy those niches. And this was very much attached to a sort of fragmentation, also, through identity politics, of different lifestyles, and the like, including, of course, different modes of expression of sexuality, and so on. So that compensatory consumerism was seen as one of the answers to the alienations which were being experienced in the workplace. 

But the problem with compensatory consumerism was, first off, it required that the consumers had enough effective demand, had enough money, had enough in terms of wages that they could actually go into the stores and buy all of the stuff. Now, one of the answers, here again, from capital was: We may not increase your wages, but we'll lower the cost of all of these consumer goods. So one of the things that happened during the 1970s and 1980s was that while wages remained stagnant, what those wages could buy was increasing at a constant rate because of the "Walmart economy" and the, you know, the general decline in costs of consumer goods. So that the material well-being of much of the working classes at the time could improve to some degree in relationship to a fairly stagnant situation with respect to wage levels. 

But here, too, there comes a point where it's not clear that compensatory consumerism really works very well. And in this, I think, we have to actually start to look at the consumer side of what capital is about, and how capital seeks to transform wants, needs and desires in such a way as to create the kind of market that is required for a rational consumption, from the standpoint of capital, so that the increasing productivity of labor is actually then turned back to the workers through the declining cost of consumer products. But compensatory consumerism hasn't worked very well for a couple of reasons.

The first is that to the degree that as the 1980s wore on, so, if you like, the affluent working class came under attack through automation, and through the revival of, revitalization of, manufacturing along high-tech kind of lines. And the "affluent worker," as it was often referred to in the early 1980s, was gradually under assault. Union power was being diminished by a variety of means of both political attack, but also the substitution of that working class in the factories by automation, so that fewer and fewer workers could actually work in that. So the declining purchasing power of large segments of the population left large segments of that population very much on the margins of this compensatory consumerism. And those that were incorporated in the sort of compensatory consumerism began to have certain frustrations with the nature of the products that they were actually being offered. 

There is a kind of an interesting history here, on the sales side. I always remember reading Zola's novel about the department store in Paris, the new department store. And the prefect of Paris is talking to the main shop owner and says: How do you manage to make such a profit? The answer came back: Well, get the women. Get the women as consumers, and then the men will have to pay. And that was the gendered way in which it was set up. And I always think about that every time I go into a department store, because the lower floor, the first thing you encounter, in almost all department stores is perfumes, and handbags, and all of women's products. And you have to go up on the fourth floor in the corner to find the men's stuff. So "get the women" was important. But, actually, since 1945 there's been another line – and it became very strong after the 1970s and 1980s – and that's get the kids, get the children. Get the children as consumers, in a kind of real assault upon consumerism, so that, you know, you see kids in the stores kind of saying, oh well, can I have this, can I have that, can I have this, can I have that? And get the kids became a very much important part of this.

But this is not very satisfactory. To begin with, a lot of the products which were entering into the compensatory consumerism were rather shoddy products. And a lot of them fell apart. And, of course, one of the things that capital does not want is to have products which last a long time, because if they last a long time, then there's no new market. So the compensatory consumerism, given the dynamics of the market, was about actually trying to create new fashions on a daily basis. Trying to create, also, products which did not last, so that you had to plan obsolescence all of the time. So you find a tremendous kind of dynamism in consumer markets which, at a certain point, people find frustrating. 

Furthermore, it turns out that many of the goods which come into the compensatory consumerism which are sold to you as saving time, and labor, and all the rest of it, turn out not to do that at all. And there's a very interesting kind of moment in Capital when Marx talks about John Stuart Mill. And John Stuart Mill kind of was wondering out loud why it was that the new technologies which were coming into the factories were not actually lightening the load of labor, but they seemed to maybe be making the burden of labor much heavier. And Marx, his answer to that is, well of course that's the case, because the purpose of the new technologies is not to lighten the load of labor. It's actually to increase the rate of exploitation of the labor force.

And I feel the same way about many of the new technologies which come into households. Household technologies, consumer durables, became the basis of a lot of this compensatory consumerism. So everybody had to have a refrigerator, everybody had to have a washing machine, everybody had to have a dishwasher, everybody had to have a TV, everybody had to have computers, everybody had to have computer games, and all the rest of it. So I actually see that there's a tremendous amount of expansion of that consumer demand which is absorbing much of the surplus productive capacity which exists in a capitalist economy. So that the role of these household goods and consumer durables is really to create a new market, and to create an ever-expanding market, and a market which is very short-term, does not, often does not, last. So that we need a new computer every three or four years, we need a new iPhone, you know, once every two years, those kinds of things.

So we have a very rapid turnover in consumption, even to the point where capital starts to cultivate forms of consumption which are pretty much instantaneous, and are non-exclusionary. By this I mean that a lot of capital gets invested in making, say, a Netflix series, but that Netflix series can be consumed instantaneously by a vast population, and it's not exclusionary in the sense that if I watch it, it doesn't stop somebody else watching it. So the forms of consumption start to change. So instead of making things that last a long time and which satisfy a particular need – like knives, and forks, and plates, and things like that – you create a vast industry of making spectacle. And it's fascinating to me to actually, suddenly, look at the range of new films which get released. And there's a huge number of them, most of which I've never heard of, but that absorbs a vast amount of capital in terms of its production. And it then feeds a consumer market which is, like I say, instantaneous or very short-term in the sense of, you know, you watch a Netflix episode in an hour, and that's it. It's done. That's your consumption, and then you turn to the next hour. And then you get people binge watching, and all the rest of it. So the whole consumer world is changing and transforming, but that's not changing and transforming in a way which necessarily is more satisfying and more satisfactory. 

So that compensatory consumerism can also work in other areas and with all sorts of problematic consequences – for example, the growth of tourism. Tourism is, of course, a huge industry now. And it's a vast amount of expenditures going on on that, and again, you know, tourism means that people will go and visit a place, and in effect consume the vision of that place in one day, and then turn around and go to the next place and consume the vision of that. So it's a particularly interesting form of consumption. But increasingly tourism is having all kinds of negative effects. And in fact, one of the ways in which you would say that, the problem right now is, the forms of consumerism of this sort are neither particularly satisfying. Because you go to someplace, and you're, you know, and you want to go to someplace where it's peaceful and quiet, and what you find is millions of people milling around. There are all these consumer sights now that are rated in terms of how impossible it is to do anything there for any length of time. I recently visited Florence, and I couldn't wait to get out of the place because it was just absolutely killed by excessive tourism. I think Venice is the same, though I've never actually been there. And there are some cities now that are trying to control tourism. Barcelona, for example, suffers from an excess of tourist industry, so they're trying to cut back on Airbnb, and hotel construction, and all the rest of it. Because once all of those hotels are there, the character of the place starts to disintegrate, and it becomes less and less satisfying. And who wants to go to a place which is beautiful to look at to find oneself, you know, with mobs of people milling around, you know, usually eating hot dogs and hamburgers, and drinking Coca-Cola, and littering the place? 

So there are these modes of consumerism which at one time seemed to offer some compensatory consumerism now to the point where modes of consumerism no longer are satisfying. And so here we have a situation in which the form of consumerism is not compensating, the form of the labor process is not doing too well, and out of that we find ourselves in a situation in which there are discontented populations. Discontented populations because the two basic elements of their lives – which is the daily life they're leading in the residence, and the daily work rhythm that they're engaged upon – that neither of them are representing anything that is very satisfactory for many people. 

And the dissatisfaction kind of says well, there's something really clearly wrong with the way in which our society is headed. If you ask the question is our society headed in a good direction or a bad direction, most people, I think, would say it doesn't seem to be like it's heading into a good direction at all. And then you kind of say: Well, what are the institutions which are supposed to protect us? In the sense that the length of the working day got regulated in some way, is there some way in which regulatory apparatuses can be created which will control the unregulated forms of both production and consumption which are now dominating in our society? And here, too, I think there is the sense that the political side of things has gone from bad to worse, that the political side of things has not actually addressed many of these foundational questions. Which is why I think the question of alienation becomes very, very significant. Because if you have alienated populations, then alienated populations are likely to look around and say: What are the kinds of institutions, and what are the kinds of means, by which, somehow or other, I can find some satisfaction in this world?

And I think one of the things that has been increasingly evident since the 1980s has been the rise of religion, and particularly evangelical Christianity, and more radical forms of Islam, and the like, as in a sense a compensatory process for the lack of meaning in the sort of daily life and daily work rhythms that surround us. Beyond that, of course, there is a vast well of discontent with the political process. The political process is more and more working in terms of the ruling ideas of a ruling class. And the ruling ideas of a ruling class are essentially saying: You should actually recognize that it's important that capital work efficiently, and the efficiency of capital is everything. Its responsibility for the environment, and its responsibility for everything else, is irrelevant compared to this quest for more and more efficiency. 

Now, this creates a situation in which there's alienation from labor processes, widespread alienation in relationship to contemporary consumerism, alienation in relationship to the political process, alienation in relation to many of those institutions which traditionally helped us cope with things and given meaning to life in a certain kind of way. And out of that comes a situation where alienated populations are, in a sense, sitting there, discontented, engaging in what I would call passive-aggressive withdrawal. That is, kind of an inability to care for anything, because if you try to care for anything, it soon becomes meaningless because it gets taken over. So that what was once a beautiful kind of vacation suddenly becomes a very marred vacation because of the situation of mass tourism, and the like. So you find this world around us is infused with alienations of all sorts and of all methods. And what happens with alienated populations is that they have a hidden anger – a big, deep well of anger – that somebody somewhere is gaining at my expense. And alienated populations can then be mobilized. 

And this is where, I think, there is the kind of question of who is to blame for the current situation of alienations. And one of the things that capital ensures – given that it has control over the ruling ideas – is that capital will be the last to be blamed, that the whole capital-accumulation process will be the last to be blamed. And that therefore there is a quest to find others to blame. And the others are immigrants, lazy people, people not like me, people who offend the moral code, people who do not share my religious views, or something of that kind. So what this leads to is a certain political instability. And we're seeing now that political instability emerging all around the world in the form of these strange authoritarian figures who suddenly capture the anger of people and say: Give me your anger, and I will channel it in ways, and I'll tell you who the problem is. The problem is the immigrants, the problem is this, the problem is that. We can redirect you. It's minorities, it's people of color, it's women, it's whatever. And then what we get is the kind of politics that there are today.

Now, I know this is a very crude kind of representation of the situation. But I think there's a certain virtue in the crudity, because it says basically that capital has reached a positionality in terms of the dynamic of accumulation, the dynamic of continuous expansion, the dynamic of debt peonage, and the dynamic of wage slavery, and the dynamic of people slaving away to try to make sense of their daily lives in terms of compensatory consumerism and household technologies which absorb a lot of time and don't free it up. So the frustrations are manifold. 

And I think that we need to bring back the concept of alienation into the dialogue because we will not understand what is happening to politics without actually saying, well if you have an alienated population, an alienated population that is engaging in the blame game – or which can be, if you like, encouraged to engage in the blame game – we will find there are whole populations which have essentially given up. And when we start to look at some of the things that have been happening in, say, rural Ohio, or in the smaller towns of East Germany, or the smaller towns in Europe, we find, essentially, whole life configurations being abandoned, and people disappearing into, you know, drug and alcoholic addictions, and opioid crises, and so on. And for the first time for a long time, actually, life expectancy in many of these places has been declining. It's been declining in Britain, has been declining in many parts of the United States. 

And what this suggests is that there's a general malaise in populations, that they feel abandoned, they feel neglected, they feel that there's nothing possible to do except when somebody comes along and says, follow me and I will create the protest which will release your anger and channel your anger. Then we're seeing emerge an emergence of these very right-wing sort of populist movements all around the world. Just look at the situation – I've just come back from Brazil. The situation in Brazil is disastrous with not only Bolsonaro, but it's the whole kind of society has moved very much to the right. And he's using these circumstances to sort of try to establish the power, re-establish the power, of capital on the basis of an authoritarian, neo-fascist kind of politics. We see the same thing going on in Hungary, the same thing going on in Poland. We see attempts for this to go on in Germany and in France. We see Modi in India. We see Erdoğan in Turkey, Sisi in Egypt. I mean, just go around the world, and what you're seeing is the emergence – and, of course, Duterte is one of the most disastrous forms of this, in the Philippines – we're seeing disastrous political forms emerging. 

And I think we need, therefore, right now to be able to connect the emergence of these new political forms – which are obnoxious and disastrous – but we need to understand their rootedness in the economic situation. That is, we need to actually create a political economy which puts together an understanding of alienation, which has been always latent within a capitalist society, the inability to cure that alienation, and the spread of that alienation, with the political consequences which we are seeing to this day. This to me is the potentiality for a very tragic situation. And I think the left needs to confront this full-on, not just simply kind of complain about fascism, but understand the rootedness of it, and where it's coming from, and what we should do about it, in terms of addressing the foundational forms of alienation that Marx unraveled, particularly in the Grundrisse, and actually unraveled in Capital without calling it alienation. And I think this is something which those of us who are concerned with trying to create modes of thinking and modes of analysis to address a contemporary situation, that this is one of the things that we should all be thinking about and working upon. 

Thank you for joining me today. You've been listening to David Harvey's Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a Democracy at Work production. A special thank you to the wonderful Patreon community for supporting this project.


Transcript by Marilou Baughman
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