Produce to work! The ancestral "quest for leisure" had ended, and now it would be: anything for a job! All tricks for toil would be tried and then we would go for work without results, without purpose if need be, without even an effort, if it could be managed. To keep the labour force at work and wealth productive, we would send them in parking orbits of null-production... and wait for the Second Coming of the Machine: the perfect slaves.
Our society would take a first step towards "affirmative action" and it would be to create jobs. Until then, we had thought that Santa Claus could do the job and that giving money to the poor would be enough to keep demand effective; now it was obvious that, to keep the wheels turning, it would be necessary to give money almost to everybody, to create more demand artificially, to go further than the profit motive and, for the sake of job-generating optimal stress, to pull a few fast ones, for their own good, on both investors and workers-consumers alike.
With good planning and a strong will to survive, manpower and wealth
could make it in orbit until transition was over and re-entry possible without
harm to the structure of power and the social order. Of course, many things
could go wrong, the worst of which being that the capricious, reluctant
consumer would refuse to be stressed optimally and would not buy the goods
he would be offered. Should that be the case, the grand strategy would call
for the reluctant consumer to be seduced, deceived... or raped.
1 - COURTSHIP AND DECEPTION
In a fight or flight situation of Global Glut, the first reaction is to fight. Fight! Make the most of what you have, rake the bottom of the barrel. Would the Lord Consumer please consume! The Grand Strategy called first for maximum sales in the industrial sector, to create a demand for investments on available wealth, and to allow for the largest possible number of workers to remain in the industrial sector as long as possible. We would replace used assets, revamp their shape and put more glimmer to them, sell as much more of anything as we might possibly dump on the consumer. The behavior of consumers was too important to be left to chance, so the courtship began, with smooth talk and seduction.
First, seduction. In the early Fifties, Publicity, which was already a well-known fact of life in America, really went to work. Billions were to be spent, apparently to convince the average buyer that Toothpaste # l was better than Toothpaste # 2, or that Soap A could really wash more than Soap B - which all seemed quite inconsequential - but in fact to convince people to buy a lot of toothpaste and soap, which was not superficial at all, but deadly serious for the economy! As serious as the sales of pop drinks, cereals, and all other types of processed food. "Processed" here is the key-word. It is not actually food which is promoted, but the processing, the all-important idea that machines can tamper with food, or anything else for that matter and make it much better.
Do not be so unpatriotic as to eat fruits and vegetables unless they have been properly processed! Do not drink orange juice unless it has been canned or frozen! There would be some publicity also in favour of fresh apples, bananas or what not, but the overwhelming majority of the publicity messages that seemed contradictory, on the surface, basically reinforced each other and began to sound like one great, continuous leitmotiv. "Buy what has been processed... and thus" - it said implicitly - "show support for the friendly Machine which in turn will create jobs".
It was quite efficient. We may lament that the money spent on publicity was put to some other uses, but it did work some minor miracles. My favorite story about publicity has all the elements of a thriller; it is the Story of Superblade.
The little blue shaving blades were probably the first example of a victory of the disposable over the durable. When the first generation of blades came on the market - I mean those that your grandfather used instead of the murderous straight razor - they showed all the signs of bringing a genuine improvement of the human condition and conquered the market almost completely. Time went on, though, and at a point blue blades almost fell victim to a "hi-tech" development of the late Forties: the electric razor. The electric razor made the disposable blades look pedestrian; they were cheap and they didn't buzz.
Then, some unknown genius realized that no dreams of Manhood were vested in the electric razor, and that it might be possible to stage a come-back for the little disposable blade, if only it could be made to look gracious again. The innate instinct of man to play with dangerous toys could be revived, if the blue blade was given more class, that is, if it would cost more money.
Make it expensive. Now, you cannot just increase the price of something; people are not dumb, not that dumb anyway, so something new appeared: Superblade. It was not a blade..., it was not a sword..., it was Superblade the faithful companion of the swashbuckling executive. It was much more expensive, it had real class... and it would last longer. It must have been quite a decision for the manufacturer of a product, for which the main sales pitch had been that it was disposable, to launch a publicity campaign that emphasized durability. This credibility gap disappeared, however, in an irresistible burst of flashing, and very virile sounding, steel. The quasi-permanent disposable blue blade came back and vanquished.
Then, it became unfashionable, of course, to abuse this quasi-permanency. Publicity would show the modern hero using his ten potential shaves in one great free-spending spree; then "double track" and, finally - (leaving aside some fancy marginal developments like "surgical steel", chromium and platinum coatings) - the completely disposable razor, handle and all. Unless I am mistaken, the man-about-town who throws his double-track superblade in the basket, after using it once, has shaved himself perfectly 20 times over before going to work, which reminds me of the soldier who received a posthumous medal for "nine mortal wounds received in various actions" ... You can skin a cat many ways, but how many times?
The next development will probably be the disposable electric razor to be thrown out after four months, and it will be proven, figures in hand, to be much cheaper than Superblade. When Superblade is almost dead, Superazor may grow gadgets, like small electro-magnets to draw the beard erect for a better shave, and it may become more expensive. After which it may begin to become more disposable... Then, why not propose a surgical-steel, straight blade "Daggerazor", to get rid of this ugly five-o'clock shadow in front of one's secretary and impress her with this new bit of machismo? The cycle would then have been completed, and people would simply shave the way their great-grandfathers did, leaving the door open for a new Gillette.
There is no end to human creativity, be it in search of eternal truths
or absolute trivia; publicity did miracles, from the Fifties onward, to
convince consumers to buy, to spend and thus to support the industrial system.
It was not enough though, and our society had to move from seduction, the friendly persuasion and brainwashing of publicity, to the second stage of the strategy: deception. We might say that outright deception began when it was realized that the best - and maybe the only - way to keep momentum in the sale of durables was to increase turnover, that is to produce goods that would deteriorate faster.
For millennia, Mankind had been looking for quality, affluence, leisure for the few and for all; now, we would behave as if we had a longing for poverty, a
yearning for the yokes of yore. More work was needed, so durables would be made more fragile and ephemeral on purpose. Planned obsolescence was the most gross, if not the most cynical, trick for toil and artificial consumption, the simplest way to work more and have less.
The best known and most rehashed examples of planned obsolescence are in the car industry. If all the cars built in America after the war had been built to last twenty years, there would soon have been more cars than people in the United States and production would have had to be interrupted a long time ago. "Twenty-years" cars could have been built; pre-war cars still roamed the streets of London in the Sixties, Volkswagen built a cheap, dependable, durable car until it flooded its own market and really embarrassed the neighbors, and Rolls-Royce, considering re-sale value, were probably always the best buy in the world. A Rolls in time would save nine ... if you could afford this type of bargain.
It was possible, but Detroit did not envisage cars that would last twenty years, and a production that would stabilize at a replacement rate of about 5% of the stock. This would have meant millions of unemployed in the automotive industry and its suppliers, and a major haven for investments would have been closed. Detroit planned cars that would become obsolete or would self-destruct within a couple of years, and a replacement rate more like 20%, even if that meant bringing the client back to the saleroom to buy a new model on credit, long before he was through with his previous obligations.
Detroit was not only allowed to think that way, but strongly encouraged to do so by the system, provided it would also, as a public service, keep as much manpower on payrolls in industrial production as was possible while continuing to make a profit. For two or three decades, the real purpose in the automotive industry would be not to produce cars, but to keep people busy making cars, with the result that millions of tons of steel and billions of hours of work were spent to produce exquisite disposable trash.
The turnover was gratuitous, since no development really more significant than the flashers occurred in the automotive industry after the automatic transmission - which was operational in the Forties. This was not for lack of imagination, but for the simple reason that, by that time, the automobile was already a well adapted and satisfactory means of transportation... except for economy and durability, of course.
The car industry is the classic example, but obsolescence was all-pervasive from the Fifties and on, as most everything became more modish and more fragile. Some of the best examples were in the field of the cheap semi-durable goods that could become completely disposable. In some cases - (paper tissues to replace handkerchiefs, for instance) - it was certainly for the best; in some other cases it appears more dubious.
Take synthetic fibres for example. It may seem like pre-history to the
younger generation, but there was a time, not so long ago, when most wives
would mend socks for their husbands. It was definitely a labor-intensive
activity, not very efficient, but also a concrete application of the principle
that we must live on Buckminster Fuller's "Spaceship Earth", with
a limited amount of resources that, one way or another, must be well used
first and then recycled.
During the Second World War, people like paratroopers developed a marked dislike for mended equipment and a new thing called nylon was put to use. Nylon was really something! I still have a pair of nylon socks which I bought circa l950; they are a rather sick grey and not very beautiful, but they are indestructible. When the new wonders were put on the market, the population was rapidly convinced that nylon was the thing. Not only was mending them unnecessary, but you hardly ever had to replace them: you went back to the store when you lost one. These socks were a real challenge to our economy. Quietly, over the years, they became much more beautiful and thinner of course..., and thinner. Now "nylon" socks are good for ten wears and when they go, they go. Forget about mending them!
To really understand what obsolescence has done to our economy, compare the bug-free quality and resilience of photocopying machines or of the traditional telephone sets, or of most anything which is usually leased from the manufacturer, to that of the durables usually bought, or rented from an intermediary, like television sets or cars for instance.
For quite a while, we could have telephones that did not break because there was a huge market to be satisfied and, over decades, the company that leased the equipment could concentrate on improving real service rather than issuing new models. Recently though, it was realized that the technique had reached quasi-perfection, that there was little more left to be desired... and that the market was satisfied. The time was ripe for another genius of the Superblade variety to find out that telephones - not the real things which are telephones, but the pretty encasements - could be sold to the customers. Now, people are expected to change their telephone sets every time they change the wallpaper and, mark my words, they will soon begin to break. Progress, I suppose.
By all known criteria, seduction coupled with deception should have turned the trick. After all, you will never fill the bath if you do not insert the plug, you will never have a bank account if you spend as much as you earn, and the total material assets of our society should never become enough if we discard them at the same rhythm we produce them. Global Glut though, was stronger than we thought. The gains in productivity were such, that things could not be made badly enough to guarantee adequate turnover, for there was a limit to obsolescence. The threat that foreign competitors, working on cheaper labour, could produce and export to the U.S. sturdier cars, radios, televisions, etc., and steal away American effective demand for the benefit of their economy. Planned obsolescence was not enough... and risky
Manpower was fleeing to the third sector as fast as could be, we had done everything legit to titillate the appetite of the well fed consumer, but he was resisting courtship and deception, and becoming even more reluctant. He was not playing his part, not buying enough. In the years that followed the implementation of planned obsolescence, the percentage of the labour force in the industrial sector did not stabilize at all but took a nose dive!
It seemed like the end of the line. No way we could keep the manpower at work if consumption of industrial goods did not increase. So, if the total private consumption of gadgets and durable goods could not be increased anymore and individuals could not be trusted to waste enough to keep the system running, then the State itself would have to become more active on the consumption side and to assume the leadership of the campaign for wastage. The stubborn customer would find out what it meant to resist Santa Claus.
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