I was recently in Genk, Belgium – about 100 km from Eindhoven. The small city of 65.000 people was founded to serve three deep shaft coal mines. The city itself was divided into three sections following the employment patterns of the workers and it even used to have three football teams in the Belgian Premier League. I was told that this work-based identity has somewhat diminished since the football teams merged and employment in the three mines was replaced by employment in single huge Ford factory. In Genk’s case, ironically, post-Fordism meant the arrival of the car company, and a real post-Fordist future is looked on with fear.
Genk is a good reminder that material production didn’t stop with the new economy, it just relocated, mostly east and south but also to out of the way places like Genk. When we speak about flexible working, immaterial labour and the creative economy, it seems important to remember places like Genk and the manipulation of raw materials there that still forms the essential base for our service saturated economy.
What the visit to Genk really got me to thinking about however was the nature of that flexible, creative service economy that is understood to have replaced heavy industry. Our contemporary forms of labour are certainly very different. In the mines or the car factory, workers are clearly visible as such. There is a regime of discipline and order that keeps the human body circulating though a factory as efficiently as the goods it produces. Today, these clearly visible disciplinary structures – factory architecture, physical division between workers and management, masses of bodies moving to the same rhythm – are no longer present in much of the former western world. But the new economy could not function without some disciplinary controls in which most of the fruits of your labour, delivered by hand or by brain, can be plucked by the non-workers (the ruling class or (democratic) government) to use and invest as they wish.
After all, without this discipline why would we be persuaded to put in more than we take out of a system in which increasingly large groups work as precarious, self-exploiting employees or freelancers. We would have to be stupid to do that, and we are not. Yet especially when our business and financial leaders so obviously take out more than they put in, and even do this on a collective basis (think about recent bank bailouts, regular state subsidy of private business through infrastructure, tax breaks etc), we still don’t have the means to reform the status quo in any significant way.
Following the logic of this analysis, it is fairly reasonable to say that the site of this discipline must have moved rather than dissappeared. Let’s say it shifted from control of the (material) body to control of the (immaterial) mind – fitting in with the shift from material to so-called immaterial labour. Where once the worker was free the dream but constrained to move, many of the freelance producers in the creative economy today are caught in the opposite trap.
The same goes for the role we play as consumers. It is the psycho-sociological techniques that shape desire towards economically productive ends that determine how we think and how far we can imagine. It is these conditions that keep us tense, active, looking for opportunities and, as a consequence, little time for focusing on the system itself. In this condition, is it any wonder that we seem to be so lacking in political or poetic visions of the future that are more than slight modifications of the present? Might we say that dreaming up a new paradigm for society is today as revolutionary as downing tools in the factory was in the industrial system? Certainly it seems as closely controlled as the early trade unions were, though by the very different, psycho-tools of the private media and their techniques of ridicule, cynicism, and dumb pragmatism amongst others.
In these circumstances, the task of intellectuals and artists (who are often the role models and ideal examples for workers in the creative economy) is to make the techniques and systems of control visible. The task for institutions funded through and thereby dedicated to the public interest is to provide the means to produce the analyses internally and to distribute them as widely as possible. Such institutions as government watchdogs, public universities and museums amongst others are limited in their reach, but they still can make a difference, as might be measured by the threats to their survival from neo-liberal politics and public service cuts.
Those of us responsible for such institutions need to defend them by constructing new, more urgent tasks than those they inherited from the past. In large measure we have to reinvent our ways of working and core objectives to address a society for which we were not originally established. This is difficult, but the chance of constructing wholly new public institutions in the current climate seems very unlikely, so we must use what we have. In the arts, that means understanding that leftist nostalgia for the avant-garde and top down social education projects is as wrongheaded as the conservative yearning for the old certainties of modernist essentialism and visuality. We have to leave both behind as we leave modernity to history, and find ways to depict and then defend ourselves against the core of the problem – the techniques of mind control and psycho-social conformism.
There’s an old saying that sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Today words and images are more deadly to the possibility of transforming future social relations than any artillery. Now, we have to find a way to produce those words and images so that can free our dreams and allow us to experience the joy of thinking for ourselves again.