Chris Harman

Dialectically speaking

Big Mac and Model T

(April 1990)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.130, April 1990, p.10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘A LIE goes round the world while truth is putting on its boots.’ Mark Twain’s adage applies not just to straight lies but also to the half truths fashionable middle class thinkers use to deride ‘old fashioned’ Marxism.

In the end, even many would-be Marxists (and not just the fashionable ex-Stalinophiles of Marxism Today) come to regard them as unchallengeable. This was what that much maligned, old fashioned Marxist Antonio Gramsci meant when he criticised the influence on the socialist movement of the ‘common sense’ of bourgeois society.

One such bit of ‘common sense’ cluttering up the minds of many good left wingers is the claim that the future lies with what are called ‘post-industrial’ (or sometimes, post-Fordist) societies. Capitalism, it is conceded, transformed what had been agricultural societies into industrial societies – and is continuing to do so in some parts of the world. But now, it is argued, industry is giving way before a new era based on services, information technology and decentralised production. It is an era in which old notions of working class struggle cannot fit.

The term ‘services’ is used by economists to lump together all those economic activities that do not fit into a ‘primary’ sector of agriculture and extractive employment (mining and oil) or a ‘secondary’ manufacturing sector. But it is not a category that can provide any clear insights.

The industrial working class was never just the manufacturing working class. It also included those involved in the extractive industries, and in a whole chunk of so-called services – the docks, rail and road transport. It was these services which were the key centres of the new unionism of the late 1880s, of the ‘great unrest’ of 1910 to 1914 and of the 1926 general strike.

Those who talk of ‘post industrial society’ imply that the new services that have expanded within the last half century are somehow innately different to these. They are supposed to be based on small units of production with non-hierarchical, personalised relations between people which leave no room for the old ‘them and us’ class attitudes.

This is nonsense. Among the most rapidly expanding services have been film, radio and TV production, telecommunications, chain stores, fast food outlets, banking and insurance, and mass tourism. The expansion of all of these has been accompanied by the introduction of assembly line techniques that used to be thought unique to sectors of manufacturing.

The shelf filler, checkout operator or bank clerk is expected to work from bell to bell, repeating the same operation, just as much as the car worker is. The ultimate achievement for any great corporation is to know that its employees anywhere in the world will be working in identical ways, on the same equipment at the fastest possible pace – an achievement summed up by MacDonald’s insistence that everywhere in their multinational empire identical working overalls are worn.

The old distinction between services and manufacturing not only breaks down when it comes to the pattern of work. It often also breaks down when it comes to the product.

There was a time when a service was something performed for an individual and was quite distinct from something manufactured to be sold in an impersonal market. But that is no longer true. A film, a TV programme, a package holiday or a pizza is every much a product produced for an impersonal market as a motor car, even if it is consumed the moment it is produced.

Even where there is no product to be consumed, as with the services provided by a high street bank or insurance company, the relationship between the firm and the customer is a completely impersonal, market one.

It is this logic which the Tory government has been attempting to extend to state-provided services like education and the health service. Behind its talk of applying business efficiency methods and the discipline of the market lies the dream of the university or hospital factory.

Far from living in a world where industry is replaced by services, we live in a world in which the output of services has been industrialised.

Those who exalt in the ‘post modernism’ and ‘post Fordism’ of present day society point to the range of choice open to individuals: they forget the range of choices itself comes from centralised corporations, so that the same four or five basic modes of dress or models of car are to be found in New York and London, Tokyo and Budapest.

The symbols of the age give the game away. Coca Cola, MacDonalds, Levis, Spielberg films, the Murdoch newspapers are all produced according to the norms of industrial capitalism. They are as ‘Fordist’ as the Model T.

What we are witnessing is not a decline of the methods of capitalist industry but their spread to the non-industrial sectors of the economy, not ‘post Fordism’ but ‘super Fordism’.

This change is, of course, changing the working class itself – just as the working class changed when the metal industries took over from textiles as the most rapidly expanding sector late in the 19th century. But the change involves an expansion of the class, not a contraction. Any such expansion always means that groups with no tradition of involvement in collective, working class forms of action begin to act for the first time.

That is what we are witnessing every time bank workers or ambulance workers, teachers or civil servants, TV technicians or journalists, Royal Ballet dancers or university dons go on strike. It is also what is happening when bitter protests against the poll tax break out in what people still think of as the rural, non-industrial areas of the south of England – areas which, in fact, are the centres of much new employment in both services and industry.

The Marxism Today crowd twitter on about ‘New Times’. What we really face is an expanded and updated version of Modern Times.

Last updated on 2 June 2010