Saturday, February 10, 2007

Max Sawicky and Political Economy

I have three or four economics web logs that I like to visit: Max Sawicky, Dean Baker, Brat Setser and Angry Bear.

Sawicky caused a brouhaha about three weeks ago by an essay in the Talking Points Memo Cafe. He was responding to an essay I didn't read, which apparently praised the "Internet left" and was critical of old-time New Leftists. Sawicky wrote a defense of 1960s movement people. The key paragraphs (to me) are the following:

The "Internet left" is substantially a captive of the Internet bubble. It's a nice bubble, full of fun. It is awash in hypertext and flash graphics, but it doesn't demonstrate much depth in history, political-economy or ideology, which is another way of saying it is fairly stuck in mainstream ideology and narrow tactics. It needs to step away from the LCD monitor and crack some difficult books, go to some boring meetings, wear out some shoe leather.

The real Internet left is the Internet of leftists who use the Internet.

The essay led to a discussion on Sawicky's web log, MaxSpeak. A number of the people commenting asked, "Why do we need ideology? What's the point of reading people like Marx today? Can't we all just get along, instead of arguing about politics and political-economy? After all, the real enemy is the Republicans."

I am now going to quote from New Scientist, the January 6-12, 2007 issue. This is from an interview with a sustainable designer named Jonathan Chapman:

To understand why we have become so profligate, Chapman believes we should look to the underlying motivation of consumers. "People own things to give expression to who they are and to show what group of people they feel they belong to," he says. In a world of mass production, however, that symbolism has lost much of its potency. For most of human history we had an intimate relationship with the objects we used or treasured. Often we made them ourselves, or family members passed them on to us. For more specialist objects, we relied on expert manufacturers living close by, whom we would know personally. All this gave objects a history -- a "narrative" -- and an emotional connection that today's mass-produced goods cannot possibly match. No wonder we are dissatisfied, says Chapman.

Without these personal connections, consumerist culture instead idolises novelty.

Professor Chapman has failed to notice that huge advertising and marketing industries exist with the sole aim of making us buy stuff we don't really need; and that many manufactured objects are made to wear out and break down quickly. In other words, Chapman has not noticed capitalism. Presumably he does not know that there were desperate discussions in the 1940s about what going to happen after the war was over. How could people be made to buy things they didn't need? Because if this couldn't be done, the U.S. was likely to sink back into the Great Depression, which had only been ended -- or briefly paused -- by wartime production. (Chapman is English. I assume the same conversations went on in England.)

This is why we need political and economic analysis and some kind of decent grounding in history. So we won't fail to notice things like capitalism, when we are discussing how to change the world.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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2:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your point is accurate, Eleanor, yet I don't think it discounts Chapman's original idea, which was that we have become emotionally disconnected from our things, and that had decreased our valuation of them. Certinaly those things which I have made myself, or which have been made for me by someone I know, are far more valuable to me than the things that I have bought.

Rather than not noticing Capitalism, I think Chapman has--at least in the bit we've got here--taken it as a given. After all, it is generally in first world countries that are running with capitalist economies that mass production seems most made to suit. Yes, the argument could be made that mass production is not a cause of this dissociation from pride of ownership that has thereby engendered such wastefulness, but is rather a symptom of practicable capitalism. Just as most forms of government sound wonderful and function quite well when you are dealing with a population of 300-1000 people, but rapidly deteriorate when you reach a population size where people don't know each other and therefore don't care about one another, capitalism is likely to have some unfortunate side-effects that were unforeseen at the onset--wastefulness due to personal and emotional abstraction, for example--but that doesn't mean that because Chapman's not looking at the root cause that his point is any less valid. It's just that Chapman's point is rooted in the fairytale land of most of those aforementioned political structures--they work great for small groups of people, but quickly become less than perfect when trying to apply them to a larger societal framework.

I would argue rather that Chapman's point is that sustainable society is one that subdivides itself into smaller parcels, reviving the once popular neighborhood where people knew one another, talked on their porches, asked next door for a cup of sugar. That is the sort of place one might buy meat from a butcher one knows, bread from a baker, not a faceless chain supermarket supplier, and so on.

Essentially, we are too big for our britches, and the cloth is going threadbare in less than preferable spots. It may be time to go on a diet.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

A surprising number of people are opting more and more for less manufactured goods. They want the history and story of something they purchase at an art fair or renfest.

Advertizers don't just get us to buy stuff we don't need. They create brands to buy and wear. Brands are the new Tartans and the new clan totems which identify your chosen tribe. This is what people long for in the stuffness of things... to add value to their identity or make a statement. It's not the quality of the object, but the bling of the name they are buying. In the extreme, it's why you hear of someone shooting someone else for their shoes or jacket.

In an economic standpoint, the brand itself, regardless of the health of the underlying business, is often accorded a value on the books.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Tallgeese said...

You might want to read immanuel wallerstein's biweekly commentaries at:

9:44 PM  

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