An Industry’s Peculiar Character, Composing, 29/01/2016

Here’s an idea that Antonio Negri didn’t think of himself, but he explained it really well. An economy's dominant industry becomes the model for the corporate practice throughout the economy.

My explanation won’t be as pithy as Negri’s own. He illustrates the relationship poetically and precisely. If I wasn’t under some ethical obligation to produce blog posts on this project regularly, I’d just post the citation.* But I’ll at least throw a few hundred words together.

The model of work that dominated the 20th century, at
least in its framework of principles. It came with some
perks, like creating a physical common space for easy
worker organization. The pressure of organized
worker demands led to the corporate obligation to
provide workers with a decent living and benefits.
* Empire, section 3.4, pages 285 to 290.

Here are the main examples. Back when manufacturing employed most people in North America, the factory was the dominant model of business. But not just in the quantitative sense that a healthy plurality of people works on factory floors. 

Business people in many different sectors of the economy adapted essential elements of the Ford factory style to their own businesses. In the early to mid 20th century, business leaders and self-styled gurus advocated that the best businesses ran by hierarchical, centralized, bureaucratic management, and a culture of conformity. 

When I was a child and a teenager, I absorbed a lot of the artwork and comedy that attacked this working culture. That’s why I keep referring to Brazil in my posts about the conformity of 20th century corporate culture. 

Aside from perfectly distilling that culture and its most profound critique,** I saw Brazil at a key time in my young life for it to impact my own personality significantly. And on a societal scale, the critiques of bureaucratic corporate culture were in the hearts of millions of workers and entrepreneurs.

** What is that critique? That a company man can never ask for justice, and can never dream.

The end of the 20th century saw the Western economy transition away from the hierarchies and centralization of the Ford model. Instead, the advent of computer technology, and especially the power of the internet facilitated a new way of working. 

Even so, the modern model of total autonomy has its
problems too. We may avoid the cultural conformity of
the Lifelong Company Man, but we've seen a collapse
in the stability of our work and the obligations of
employers that organized workers fought so hard for.
Companies became deterritorialized, if you’ll allow me to speak Deleuzian for a second. It’s a long word, but it has a very real definition. The work that was once done in a specific building can now be carried out among any set of points on Earth.

Most of us in the information industries – computers, technology, design, the arts, communications – work by distance a lot of the time. Or at least we can. There’s actually no need to have everyone in the same building anymore, so few are. This style of flat hierarchies and labour flexibility is now spreading throughout North America’s businesses.

Even factory floors are adopting these principles of the information economy – collaborative management styles, an embrace of individuality and creativity. That’s the nature of an economy’s dominant industry. It’s not just a matter of most people working in such industries, but the adoption of that industry’s style of work in other sectors.

You’ll notice that this is another facet of the purely cultural argument I made earlier this week. Conformity and regimentation has given way to creativity and flexibility as the ideal nature of corporate culture, the best style of running a business.

Returning to the same transition, understanding it from a different angle because you focus on a different aspect of the transition. It’s the same phenomenon, though. The transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy and style of work.

The whole phenomenon is too complicated to deal with every aspect all at once. You need to move slowly from one way of understanding it to another. Chapter by chapter. Allow a reader time to reflect on one aspect of the social shift, then let the shift in the context of your own writing reveal something else when you return to that phenomenon.

Unable to experience and think through a complicated concern all at once, we understand the whole by reflecting on many different snapshots.

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