Friday, 4 November 2011

Exploiting our leisure time
How do companies like Diesel build a £1bn business on selling new jeans which already look worn out? How do junk food manufacturers convince consumers, against all scientifically-based health advice, to buy their products?
Despite the recession, sportswear group Nike beat analysts' forecasts to post a jump in quarterly profits for 2011 of 13.8% to £371m. Firms like Nike, with aggressive advertising, even manage to target children as young as seven, who already want that tick on their clothes.
Profits also jumped at fashion company Burberry. The group saw a 49% rise in first half pre-tax profits to £129m. They are just two of such ‘brand’ companies seemingly defying the recession. Slick and well-targeted advertising is the key to their success - what we buy and what we wear gives us status, particularly when these products are associated with the names of film and sports stars and other assorted ‘celebrities’. Global firms like McDonalds and Coca Cola realised ages ago that the key to bumper profits is to make your product as cheap as possible, but keep your advertising huge.
The intensity and pace of work is now at an unprecedented level and is unsustainable in the long-term. However the damage done in the meantime to workers’ mental and physical health, to communities, family life and leisure is enormous.

Have you noticed how the share price of public companies rises every time sackings are announced? This seemingly contradictory fact only demonstrates that the more intensively you can exploit your workers, the more profitable you are likely to be, so fewer workers working harder is the goal of the system. The facts and figures, however, don’t reveal the underlying dire sociological alienation that is buried under the welter of economic data.

The monopolisation of ownership of the media, the means of mass distribution and dispersal beyond previous geographical, cultural and political boundaries also has a profound impact on the way big companies operate; it is not just workers in the producing countries that are shamelessly exploited but so are the duped consumers, who are conned into valuing brand labels before quality.

Marx eloquently described how we become alienated from our own humanity by the exploitive capitalist system. Alienation from the work we produce and from our fellow workers or producers. Capitalism, he points out, reduces labour to a commercial commodity to be traded on the market, when it once was primarily a social relationship between people involved in a common effort for survival or betterment. Citizens are dehumanised by being valued for the function they perform, as surplus-value-generating units, rather than the all-round beings they are.

The competitive labour market in industrial capitalist economies is designed to extract as much value as possible from those who work, to fill the coffers of those who own the enterprises and control the means of production; these days largely anonymous equity companies, pension and hedge funds rather than individuals.

Not only are the producers alienated from their product – they have little control over the production process, the final product itself or its sale - they also become alienated from their fellow workers and their class. Worker becomes pitted against worker and their mutual goal - to get the best out of their employer, through combining in solidarity - becomes blurred. The owners of capital also control the mass media, so that we are fed a diet of trivia and titillation. The effect, if not the aim is to turn us away from politics, deprive us of real information about the world that could help us understand it and thus think about changing it. This produces an effect Marx called false consciousness: we fail to see ourselves as we are, as exploited and manipulated beings.

Alienation is not only profound at work, but also in our leisure activities. Exhausted from the working day, we come home to unwind, but often have little energy for mental or physical activities; it’s so much easier to push a button and have our means of relaxation piped into our homes. In the era before mass electronic communications, people did make their own entertainment and their leisure was enjoyed with family, friends and neighbours in an active participatory way. In the post-war era, with increased incomes, cheap consumer products and increased leisure time, a rich potential source of profit opened up. The result has been a radical commercialisation and leisure activities have become based more on passive consumerism than active participation. So that we now face a double form of exploitation and alienation, as workers and consumers.

This alienating process is, of course, not limited to industrial workers, but to every working person. Cultural workers – those who produce our entertainment, works of art, books and music – are also victims of the same process. Today, with the unprecedented mechanisation of reproduction, together with electronification, the process of cultural production has engendered an alienation far beyond that which Marx could have imagined.

Whether in television, music or film, there is now a globalisation and simultaneous downward levelling of taste. The creative input of cultural workers now resembles more a car assembly line than an artistic process. Television is dominated by cheaply produced game shows, soaps, and competitive gladiatorial competitions like X-factor, The Apprentice, Dragon’s Den, Master Chef etc. which perpetuate the worst aspects of an individualistic capitalist system: we are passive onlookers as individuals fight it out for fame and fortune. Soaps create virtual communities, based on the real ones of the past as well as a nostalgia for those that have been destroyed; there is a substitution of real life discourse for a virtual one.

Film is dominated by horror, violence and escapist fantasy stories, and music is monopolised by the big record labels, that promote bland, soporific muzak instead of real individual voices. Even in those leisure areas, where there is a level of participatory activity, like sport, we see a domination of designer labels and aggressive individualism over-shadowing the sporting activity itself. Football teams have become little more than global advertisers of consumer goods, while the players are live capital to be bought and sold like any other asset. Of course, there are still examples of genuine artistic creativity, participatory sport and individual voices, but they are marginalised niche activities.

Only by consciously rejecting ‘junk-food-entertainment’ and instead becoming more involved at a local level in community activities, in organising and re-connecting with our neighbours and our own humanity will we begin to overcome the worst effects of this alienation.

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