I read a couple of things recently that are connected, but perhaps not in a way intended by all of the authors. The first is by Sally Goerner, on the rise of American oligarchy. The second is a paper from McKinsey on capitalism’s short-termism problem.
The Sally Goerner post takes a long view–around 250 years–and positions America’s current political crisis as the latest in a series of 70-90 year cycles in which oligarchy flares up. It follows a familiar pattern, says Goerner, like so:
- Economic “Royalists” infiltrate critical institutions and rig political and economic systems to favor elites.
- Rigged systems erode the health of the larger society, and signs of crisis proliferate.
- The crisis reaches a breaking point; seemingly small events trigger popular frustration into a transformative change.
- If the society enacts effective reforms, it enters a new stage of development. If it fails to enact reforms, crisis leads to regression and possibly collapse.
- Over time, transformed societies forget why they implemented reforms; Economic Royalists creep back and the cycle starts a new.
I suspect we could map similar cycles in other countries.
The systemic model that sits behind it is this:
“Scientifically speaking, oligarchies always collapse because they are designed to extract wealth from the lower levels of society, concentrate it at the top, and block adaptation by concentrating oligarchic power as well. Though it may take some time, extraction eventually eviscerates the productive levels of society, and the system becomes increasingly brittle. … In the final stages, a raft of upstart leaders emerge, some honest and some fascistic, all seeking to channel pent-up frustration towards their chosen ends.”
A long time ago, in an article I can no longer find, the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole developed the idea of “cargo cults” as the objects of politics. Heathrow and its expansion has long been such a cargo cult in British politics. To save non-anthropologist readers among you from having to google it, a cargo cult refers originally to the belief among Melanesian islanders that material wealth can be achieved through the ritual worship of an object. Pleasingly, some of the Melanesian cargo cults involved building models of runways and planes. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
World Factory is an extraordinary theatre project that sets out to explore the impact of globalised production (and by extension, globalised trade) by creating an experiential space for its audience. I saw it in Cambridge last week; it has dates scheduled in Brighton and Manchester between now and Christmas, and may return for another run at Cambridge Junction.
For the show, the audience is seated at tables around the space, each a team charged with running a Chinese textiles factory. Once the experiential part of the production starts, the group has to handle a series of problems and dilemma, starting with whether we should handle a cashflow crisis by cutting wages across the board or firing half the staff.
The four cast members double as ‘dealers,’ issuing the cards, keeping track of the money, and exhorting us to work faster or harder. They also delivered the ‘samples’ of the different types of clothing we were ‘making’ in our factory.
Our decisions were recorded by scanning a barcode on the cards, which also meant that the decisions of each table are recorded in real time.
As you play, at speed (my team lost a lot of money early on by failing to make a decison quickly enough) you’re faced with questions about what goods you’re willing or able to make, about your workers, about dealing with local officials, about compliance and standards, about outsourcing production to other parts of China, about demands for labour rights. And so on.
The experiential part of the game is bookended by sequences that animate the recent history of globalisation and the impact of the global trade system–for example, we were told at the end the amount of water and oil consumed in producing the goods we had ‘made’ collectively during the show.
The play is supported by as vast database of research. At the end of the show we were given a print-out, on a till-roll, of all our decisions as factory owners, with a URL linking to the research that sits behind the question that was on each card. For example, one of the decisions we had to make was whether or not to move from regular wages to piecerates. Here’s the research on this decison.
World Factory is also more than a play in that the group behind it, notably the co-directors Zoe Svendsen and Simon Daw, actually went into the business of making a shirt in a Chinese factory as part of the research. A barcode above the pocket reveals the history of its production. It might seem paradoxical that a show that is about over-consumption and over-production should, in effect, have its own merchandising, but perhaps it is a mark of the play’s effectiveness that there seemed to be no-one trying to buy one as we left the theatre.
I’ve read quite a lot about the global production system over the years, and plenty about Chinese factories, though more about the electronics sector than the textile sector. I’ve also sat on the Board of a retailing business, making business decisions in conditions of uncertainty. For me, the surprise of the game (although I shouldn’t have been surprised by this) was the way in which the pace and the relentlessness of it, together with the ambiguity about the possible consequences of many of the decisions, forced you constantly to make choices at speed that reflected the imperative to keep the factory working. Capital has its own logic, as Marx says somewhere, and once in role it is hard to refuse it.
One of the video interviews shown on the screens that surrounded the auditorium was with the owner of the factory that made the World Factory shirt. She had been in debt up to her eyes after her first business folded, to the tune of several hundred thousand RNB. She took a job in a clothes factory that paid 2,000RNB a month, described in the rules of the game as low but enough to live on, so would never have managed to repay her debts, so started another clothes business. As she said, once you have the business, you have to keep going.
The show is also good on the politics, or more accurately the political economy, of the global textile industry. Who knew, for example, that Chinese factories outsource novelty Christmas jumpers to British factories? The quality is low, the margins are thin, and making them close to the end-consumer, with minimal delivery times, allows enough flexibility to respond to fluctuations in demand. They also spelled out the impact of cheap disposal clothes on the countries unlucky enough to get our recycled hand-offs. We think we’re doing people a favour by recycling through charity shops; actually we’re killing off indigenous textiles business in poor countries.
The actor who was also our dealer said that working on the play had changed her attitude towards recycling clothing, from thinking it a good thing to finding it uncomfortable.
One tip if you’re lucky enough to be able to go to see World Factory: decide on your table before you start whether your strategy is going to be about maximising profits or looking after your workers, and then stick to it.
The images are by Andrew Curry, and are published here under a Creative Commons licence.
Gillian Tett had a column (may need registration) in this weekend’s Financial Times in which she reflected on trying to find a bar in upstate New York to watch one of the Presidential debates. It turned out the bars weren’t keen, and not just because there was a big football game on at the same time. The barmen observed that showing the debate would cause unnecessar rancour between their customers.
She is a good reporter, and once she’d got over her surprise that others were less interested in the debate than she was, she reflected on the experience using her training as an anthropologist.
[O]ur biases are important. And that, in turn, suggests we could all benefit by looking at a concept that I first learnt about when I was studying anthropology: the “dirty lens” problem.
This “dirty lens” tag refers to the idea that when scientists peer at an object through a microscope, their view can be distorted by a clouded lens. In a laboratory, smudges and smears can usually be wiped away with a cloth. But in the social sciences, the “lens” is our mind, ears and eyes, and it is harder to spot and remove our mental smudges. There is no cloth.
There are, however, some exercises you can do to clean the lens.
In anthropology classes at university, we were urged to do four things. First, to take the obvious (but oft-forgotten) step of recognising that our lenses are dirty. Second, to consciously note our biases. Third, to attempt to offset these biases by trying to see the world from different perspectives; we must listen and look without preconception. Last but not least, to remember that our personal lens will never be perfectly clean, even if we take the first three steps. We must be humble and remember the limits of knowledge.
There are some obvious lessons here for futurists as well.
The first modern theorist of the city, Henri Lefebvre, said a couple of things about the city that seem relevant here. I found these in the anthology Restless Cities. First, that to understand the city one must “situate oneself simultaneously inside and outside of it.” And second, that to understand the rhythms of the street, “it is necessary to get outside them, but not completely; be it through illness or a technique.”
A technique, perhaps, like Remote London, an experiential artwork that journeys through the city, and which sets out to unpeel layers of the city by making the familiar strange. It is the latest of a number of “Remote X” events held in different cities in Europe.