Book Review: Manufacturing Discontent: The Trap of Individualism in Corporate Society By Michael Perelman, Pluto Press
Capitalism loves those who love it. Thus Michael Perelman, a radical economist at California State University-Chico, labors in relative obscurity. In Manufacturing Discontent: The Trap of Individualism in Corporate Society, he writes for the layperson. To this end, Perelman offers analysis and information on the social causes and effects of modern capitalism. Academic and media praise about the pristine perfection of market competition has made this kind of study hard to find, but Perelman’s book is a strong corrective.
Case in point is the corporate production of autos in the U.S. by unionized workers after WW II. Then, unlike now, business was good for General Motors, and supposedly also, therefore, for the nation. Perelman delves into the underlying reality during this golden age of U.S. capitalism. A central feature of this time was the deliberate design of poor quality cars built not to last but to boost shareholder value via “planned obsolescence.”
Greater quantity did not mean better quality. For Perelman, such waste defines corporate production and distribution under the capitalist economy.
With respect to the individualizing effects of capitalist auto production, GM elites, with a cold calculus, planned to weaken labor union solidarity by offering autoworkers a defined-benefit corporate pension program. They ultimately succeeded. Crucially, the plum deal for this small fraction of U.S. workers was unavailable to the rest of the nation’s populace. Here we see shades of the past policies and practices of the U.S. labor movement, which chose to exclude rather than include all workers into the “one big union” favored by the radical, multi-racial Industrial Workers of the World.
Perelman explains clearly how the United Auto Workers’ involvement with the GM pension fund was limited to their identifying, as individuals drawing retirement benefits, with the carmaker’s future profitability.
Administration of the pension program remained with GM. The devil was in these details. This flawed approach on the union’s part could hardly be more crucial to workers and retirees today and in the future. GM shareholders are responding to market competition from foreign carmakers by attacking UAW pensions. As corporations in the U.S. airline industry use federal bankruptcy courts to liquidate union employee pensions, the UAW’s decision to cede control over their pensions to GM looms large, indeed.
Perelman makes pointed reference to Adam Smith regarding the deception of people who seek pleasure via consumer purchases. Smith’s critique of industrial capitalism would later be deepened, on this point, by Thorstein Veblen, who discussed how the working class became dehumanized by aping the competitive consumption of the status-seeking upper class. Cogently, Perelman mines the writings of Marx, Smith and Veblen concerning money. The store of value that we call currency affects the development of real and imagined human happiness. For Perelman, alienation in a market economy cannot be understood so long as its corporate origin is obscured. His aim is to empower social movements by giving them a firm grasp of the society’s flawed workings.
In the mainstream pro-corporate rhetoric of the past twenty-five years, government regulation harms business and the “free market.” Presumably, a hands-off policy works best for businesses and the consumers they serve with new goods and services. The myth centers on an imaginary community in which consumer and producer thrive whenever government steps aside for the market to work its magic. Perelman refutes this view by focusing on the class-structured conflict shaped by the inequality of social relations.
“[T]he government sees fit to put strict limits on consumer sovereignty,” he writes, “Especially when any substantive consumer sovereignty might collide with corporate interests.”
Take food. The federal government’s complicity with the Monsanto Corp. enabled Monsanto to poorly inform consumers via deficient food labeling of dairy products containing recombinant bovine growth hormone, given to cows for them to give more milk. Corporate accountability for such criminal wrongdoing is shockingly absent. “The government takes corporate crimes so lightly that it does not even bother to publish statistics on this subject,” Perelman says. He makes clear that class control of the state-the “executive committee for handling the common affairs of the bourgeoisie” in Marx’s famous phrase-is, for corporate America today, alive and well. Such control enhances corporate profits- rightly so, according to leading “free-market” economist Milton Friedman, who sees politics as standing apart from economics. Perelman demolishes this notion of supposedly separate spheres which has shaped the past quarter-century of public policy in the U.S.
Besides being kept in the dark about what food they buy, people are subject to constant corporate advertising that appeals to their individualizing preferences for this or that commodity. The commodity form, of course, was a key concept for Marx in his seminal work on capitalist production. As this dynamic and revolutionary system has spread, the production and distribution of commodities has engulfed new spheres of life. One is gender. The beverage industry, for example, targets teen girls with new products that pander to issues of body appearance and self-esteem. Firms such as Abercrombie & Fitch hire workers in Asia to make thong underwear, which are then marketed to pre-teen girls in the U.S.
This corporate push for individuals to pursue competitive and destructive consumption, to “keep up with the Joneses,” supposedly equals consumer power, according to the conventional wisdom. In Naming the System: Work and
Inequality in the Global Economy (Monthly Review Press, 2003), economist and editor Michael D. Yates analyzes such thinking and finds its assumptions and conclusions faulty. The owner/ producer, and not the consumer, is king/queen of the market. In Manufacturing Discontent, Perelman complements Yates’s critique.
Workplace relations in corporate society may be the “strongest example of consumer sovereignty-that of the employers who purchase the services of their workers,” Perelman writes. Such wry humor is sprinkled throughout his book. Daily, working people come to understand that the boss need not be right; s/he need only be the boss, a proxy for the employing class extending and intensifying the working day. This workplace process, in both material and psychological terms, cramps the lives of people by squeezing leisure time from them with grim precision, of which Perelman says: “Such is the reality of our modern version of individualism in which commerce triumphs over all else!”
In terms of political triumphs, the neo-conservatives on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in 2007 favor the rhetoric of persons being accountable and responsible. This language is highly selective, however. Perelman hammers the point home with reference to the utter lack of accountability in the taxpayer-funded fiasco of the scientifically untenable missile-shield defense technology, backed by weapons makers and the members of Congress who represent them. This is one example of many that Perelman cites to illustrate how corporate-government collaboration harms individuals and society generally. To this end, he helps readers to better understand the national security state for corporate America. With U.S. imperialism and militarism increasingly harming the lives of its citizens and people abroad, Perelman’s fleshing out of the economics of the congressional-military-industrial complex is timely.
For many people most of the time, the experience of class power comes on an individual basis. Alone they lack power, exactly where corporations want to keep them. “Although individualism might seem to be antagonistic to corporate power,” Perelman argues, “it reinforces corporate power.”
Crucially, this contradiction flows from patterns in U.S. history established under racial slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the Anglo-American slave owning class, which resulted in the imposition of hereditary lifetime servitude on Africans and African Americans and the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans.
This long history of racialized colonialism and racial slavery defined in no small way who is a citizen and who is not. Considering this factor in the U.S. national identity can, I think, enhance the required coalition-building and learning based in the grassroots to reverse the rise of corporate capitalism and the demise of labor unionism that have helped to atomize the U.S. populace since the end of the Vietnam War. Perelman’s thesis in Manufacturing Discontent is essential to the popular understanding of political democracy, in militant opposition to corporate rule.
Perelman writes in an era that finds U.S corporations in a position of unprecedented strength. One result of this social triumph is that the left is mired in organizational disarray. Progressive actions to reverse this corporate trajectory require laboring and oppressed peoples to join forces around improvements to the common good-a goal that stands in stark contrast to a competitive ownership of corporate commodities. To realize such a society will require ordinary people to have accurate facts and information about ruling circles of wealth and power. Reading Perelman’s book is a useful step in this direction.
Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento