There’s no easy way to say this. Most Western companies that make things make trash. It’s not up to standard. Much of it is breakable, worthless, prematurely-obsolescent junk. Don’t believe me? As a trivial example, compare and contrast the glossy, plump, sumptuous, salivation-inducing images of burgers on display above the counter at the average multi-national, fast-food restaurant with the soggy, miserable, disintegrating, unappetising, gooey, visually unattractive, industrial chemical cocktail, with ingredients of dubious provenance, that is slapped together by minimum-wage, temporary staff and served to you in exchange for your hard-earned money. The reality falls far short of the marketing fantasy. We’re short-changed in nearly every purchase we make, compared to the promise.
Even our beloved mobile devices fall well short of embodying what we that are old enough to remember used to call “product quality”. It’s an old fashioned notion, I know, but there you have it. Where this impinges on art and artists is in how things are created and made. We’ve relegated the artists, artisans and craftspeople to underemployment and cut crucial corners. How did we get here?
Today, there are essentially two ways to make anything. Either you can do it the small scale way, where people are intimately involved in and accountable for the products made, which we can loosely refer to as “the loving way”, versus the robotic, soulless, large scale way, typified by the near-monopoly corporations that remain in each particular market, for every product made, which we can refer to as “the loveless way”. Governments of all complexions have, over recent decades, insisted that the big way, the loveless way, is the only viable way and that there is no alternative. If your campaign donations were utterly reliant on the largesse of huge, nearly-monopolistic corporations; you would say that, wouldn’t you?
The question remains: is there really no alternative to making things using robotic, disinterested, minimum-cost drones? Isn’t there some value in considering creating the things that modern life relies upon using motivated thinkers, who apply initiative and intelligence to the making of things?
In a world wedded to return on investment, instead of discovery, experimentation and continual striving for improvement and excellence, there are several mandatory imperatives. I don’t use the word “mandatory” lightly, because the core requirement is written into law. Under our economic system, corporations exist for only one reason – to make profit and for those profits to increase, year on year, both in absolute and percentage terms. The underlying motivation of every corporation and hence every corporate executive, is to ensure that financial performance improves, year on year, irrespective of what the real world limits to doing so might be.
In this world of financial and investor primacy, there is no such thing as a saturated market, a scarcity of resources, the laws of physics, the limitations of the properties of materials, a bare minimum that the actual makers (employees) can survive on or a quality bar below which the company can never dare to dip. Those things are incidental to making money for shareholders and corporate owners. Every corporate manager therefore has no choice but to cut the costs of production relentlessly. In actual fact, when you make anything, there is a minimum cost of doing so, unless you make an entirely different thing.
And so that’s what executives do. They cut out cost, variance and risk, while telling their consumers, with hand solemnly on heart, that they still make the thing they represented themselves as making before, when the newly cost-cut item can’t possibly have more than a passing resemblance to the previous model. In short, they hoodwink the consumer into accepting a product inferior to last year’s version of it, under the guise of it being exactly the same, or even new and improved. Nobody ever confesses to releasing a degraded product, yet that is precisely what they do, in order to make the numbers in their balance sheets look right.
While they argue that uniformity of product is a good thing, they never confess that uniformly sub-standard is not in the interests of the customer, the maker, or the company that employs the maker, in actual fact. They want to eliminate risk, when risk is where improvement comes from. Hence, they eliminate the very mechanism that produces improvement – risky experimentation, at variance with standard, uniform product.
Truthfully, the primary motivation is to cut costs, to improve apparent company financial performance annually (at least on paper). Rather than chancing their own executive position by working to create products of such uniqueness, utility, durability and superior value to customers that it improves the company’s top line extraordinarily, the safer alternative always appears to be to cut the cost of production. Consequently, every manager, in dreary succession, comes up with the same old, tired, ineffective ways of cutting costs, as if they were the very first to think of it, even if there is no actual waste to cut out of the cost of production. Even when the production operation is operating on a shoe string, wholly dependent on employee loyalty, donated time and goodwill, at the lowest cost possible short of not making a product at all, some clown or other will try to cut something else – health benefits, bonuses, share options, sick days, pension contributions, paid public holidays, national insurance contributions, security of tenure – whatever it takes. They think this is the best thing for the company.
In order to cut cost, variance and risk, managers will typically introduce processes. Now processes are a double-edged sword. When processes are discovered and relied upon by artisans and makers, their purpose is to make a better product. They are the result of experimentation and trial and error, representing a personal commitment to finding the very best way to make the finest product. A process found and utilised by a maker, or a team of makers, is the embodiment of all their skill and experience to date, with the goal of making better things, with each iteration of their process.
While prescribed processes often start with the same noble goals in mind, when they are imposed on makers from the outside, without reference to their personal commitments to quality, their skills and experience, their preferred modes of creating things and their willingness (or not) to work in a semi-mechanical way, the same process rapidly becomes a tool of oppression, rather than an adjunct to achieving fine results. The process can become the very means by which product quality is irreparably damaged, in fact. Instead of increasing value, the processes can serve to create valueless products. The joy of making, the experimental risks, the initiative and the satisfaction derived from the work and its products can be driven out, relentlessly, by the inappropriate application of processes prescribed from outside of the workshop.
What the company gets are mercenary agency staff and contractors, in the end, who watch the clock and are not personally committed to the quality of the product being made and offered to customers. They have no meaningful stake in the product or its quality. They are offered no ownership over or participation in the profits arising from their labours and intellects. Treated as disposable, replaceable, commodity, identikit units of production, people who make things under these conditions do as little as they can to get by. It doesn’t pay them to do any more. They’re not bought into the mission or values of the company. Frankly, with values that clearly state that the company cares not a jot about the people that actually make the things that earn the corporation their money, without which there would be no balance sheet to balance in the first place, who would want to sign up for that mission and set of values anyway? It’s clearly insane.
Also clearly missing in the cost cutting agenda is any acknowledgement or accommodation of what the customer actually wants. The idea fixated upon is that the customer wants things to be cheap, but they don’t. They want good value for money. That’s a very different thing. Cheap is no use, if cheap means it has to be replaced frequently, for little consumer benefit. The only thing that forces customers to settle for cheap is the reduction in real wages; the direct result of decades of corporate and governmental cost cutting, which has eroded their disposable incomes to the point where all they can afford is cheap.
The result of all the cost cutting focus is sub-standard products made by heartbroken makers. Corners are cut, makers are relentlessly pressurised and have no ownership over the results. The process is used to drive out initiative. Makers, with no alternative but to make worthless products and “ship s**t”, as the process is colloquially known in my native vernacular, are deeply frustrated and demoralized. Customers that are force fed things they know aren’t going to serve a purpose for very long also feel robbed. These are some of the more significant societal impacts of cost cutting, but not the only undesirable ones.
Small scale production, in which things are made with love, is ridiculed by “no alternative” globalists as somehow on par with tree hugging and talking to plants. It is considered quaint and anachronistic. Consider the benefits, though. Products made with love have higher quality, greater durability and are tailor made and fit for purpose. The process of making things on a small scale results in higher levels of meaningful, satisfying, fulfilling employment, which give rise to healthy, flourishing local communities, a reduction of transport and distribution costs and the pollution associated with the shipping of goods from centralised warehouses and factories and a general improvement in the mental and physical health of the people, reducing the burden on health services. In short, it creates a functional society.
The obsession with high volume, low margin manufacturing is utterly inexplicable, when it causes so much dysfunction within companies and the wider society. If we are designing production processes to help us make worse products, at lower cost, by people paid less, for customers that will need to replace these products more frequently, due to their planned obsolescence or sheer shoddiness, what is the ultimate point of this frenzied activity? Yes, it continues to take wealth from the pockets of customers / employees and shifts it into the pockets of shareholders and owners, increasing inequality, but to what end? What purpose is served by being the wealthiest hoarder in a ghetto?
As we have imposed automated, computerised, mechanised, regularised processes on things that really require human initiative and ingenuity, we’ve also eschewed craft training and apprenticeship in favour of dubious university degrees that tend to produce no discernible output. Students might be getting smarter and using their minds in more expansive ways, as a consequence, but they aren’t given an opportunity to apply their knowledge. It’s a cruel irony that somebody can learn more than their forebears could but that it turns out to be less use to them and less effective than the meagre knowledge their parents had.
The search for volume growth in consumption of over-specified, needlessly-complex, under-designed, overpriced, shoddy products is no longer the survival tactic we need. This “no alternative” system has produced banking failures, which the people are expected to bankroll, economies that refuse to recover, despite having money literally thrown at them, huge increases in wealth inequality and a historically unprecedented transfer of power from labour to capital. None of these have served us well. The “no alternative” agenda has only one inevitable outcome: the macro-economic domination of the micro community. This is jargon that simply means less say for all of us in what’s being doing in our name, within our society. We become disenfranchised in our own homes. More generally, it means the privatisation of politics, because only the wealthy can influence policy. This ultimately leads to the destruction of democracy. It means the victory of big, faceless process at the expense of small, personal creativity.
Instead, we must be focusing on smaller volumes with much higher value. The products of tomorrow need to embody more quality and utility, as well as durability and serviceability. They must be repairable, ungradeable and renewable. In summary, they can’t be uniform, cheap, and disposable junk. They need to be the fruits of our most creative and capable makers. Smaller companies need to be encouraged and incentivised, by law if required, to offer honest, well-made products of which they’re proud, at a price that keeps them competitive.
It turns out that mutualised companies, where the makers have a direct stake in what is made, are the fastest growing company form, globally. Strangely, though, the current political consensus and the media/distribution elite so distort the working of markets that they ensure only big companies, with big operations, big numbers, big ambitions and big PR budgets are the only ones allowed to compete. This is anomalous, to say the least.
Automation, mechanisation and computerisation ought to be for making better products, not for cutting costs. When they are used to cut costs, it throws more skilled artisans out of work, onto the street, unable to pay their rent or mortgages, or else it shifts the work to people desperate enough to work for peanuts, offshore (or both). Neither population of workers can buy any of the company’s products. They don’t have the money. Yet, having created unemployment or gross under employment, through cost cutting, these same companies resent bitterly any social welfare handouts or paying for the social destruction they cause. In effect, they resent paying to fund customers, whether their customers are in work or not. Consequently, there are no customers. There are no alternative ways that customers can be funded. A focus on cost cutting in production, to the exclusion of all other activities to improve company performance and its products, is fundamentally an aggregate method of reducing the number of customers that companies have and diminishing their purchasing power.
Artists have always known that the most exciting and exquisite products require risk. Production cost and product variance reduction are not as important or valuable as quality, workmanship, stretching the bounds of what’s possible, originality and innovation. Products that have these attributes require that the makers take risks. They are also the most avidly sought products, by consumers, provided they have the means to pay for them.
In contrast, under our current methods of corporate management, we reward the production of sub-standard crap and drive out the making of fine things, made by motivated and fulfilled makers. We reward dysfunction, the squashing or initiative, the promotion of a layer of unproductive correctors and straighteners and a rentier society.
Externally-prescribed production processes distort the qualities of the products customers value most and provide a constant irritant and constraint to the makers. Personal commitment to product quality, on the other hand, may or may not embrace processes to reduce cost, variance and risk, but they will derive organically from the craftsperson and maker, refining their way of making. The best makers will not want to create one million identical units. They will want each unit to be more valuable than the last, because it is an improvement on the one they just made. The approach to voluntary process is very different to an imposed one. Personal commitment to a process used to improve the product is very different to begrudging compliance with an externally imposed process whose sole aim is cutting production costs.
What do you want? As a consumer, do you want mass-produced rubbish, destined for landfill in a short space of time, or handmade items of value, durability and beauty, made by people that genuinely care about the product and its users first, rather the shareholders and investors? How would we get them? How would we compel companies to make such products and also be able to afford them?
Customers could withhold their support of corporations by simply not buying their crap. However, consumers have now become so inured to the low quality of products offered to them that they no longer even notice how bad they are. In a sense, they don’t know any better or realise that better products are possible. When it comes to exercising their purchasing power in fair markets, they have no alternative, higher-quality products offered to them, in the marketplace, to spend their money on, to express their consumer preference. They also don’t have the disposable income necessary to exercise a choice for higher quality. If what’s on offer in the market is a monopoly of s**t, then the customer has no choice but to put up with it, or do without entirely. Markets are broken, when competition reduces to a choice between which overpriced, shoddy garbage you want to buy.
The answer is really simple. People without jobs, disposable incomes or in fear of losing their jobs imminently, don’t buy anything and certainly don’t borrow money to fund their purchases. This is why the so called recovery has been so weak.
There is a massive, egregious error in law. It’s a huge mistake that requires immediate correction. The sole purpose of companies is not to make profit. That idea is posited on the notion that if companies make profit, then through the action of the invisible hand, the best outcomes for all in society will result. That was the theory, but through practice and observation, we may readily conclude that the theory is wrong. The invisible hand has not created optimal economic outcomes for all. In reality, it has provided acceptable outcomes for a very few and fewer, each passing year. We have ample evidence that this is so.
The pursuit of profit has caused widespread dysfunction in society. It results in waste, inequality, the destruction of society and the elimination of hope in the lives of the many people that actually make things. There can be little doubt about this. The proof is everywhere to be seen and can be readily observed. Only the most chauvinistic, pig-headed, wilfully-ignorant ideologue would deny it (and yet they do).
In fact, the real purpose of companies is (and has always been) to provide the requisites of a functional society. By equating the profit motive to this deeper purpose, we allowed a distortion to be introduced into the system. When it turned out that the profit motive alone was not consistent with providing the requisites of a functional society, as the theory erroneously promised it would be, we ought to have reviewed the law and taken out that one level of indirection. We never did want to maximise profits for their own sake. We always fully expected that the maximisation of profits would inevitably lead to the provision of the requisites of a functional society. But it hasn’t and we did nothing about that disconnect. What should have been written into the law is an explicit statement of what companies were for, not an implicit assumption that profit maximisation would inevitably lead to the real goal, which was never explicitly stated.
The fact that psychopathic behaviour has been written into corporate law is a serious mistake that requires urgent correction. If companies were explicitly chartered to provide the requisites of a functional society, it would be illegal to create waste, to under-employ, to shift costs onto society as externalities, to plunder resources, to ship garbage products, to advertise dishonestly, to exacerbate inequality, to stress and thereby physically and grievously assault the health of workers, to despoil the environment and the requisites of life (air, water, food), to create work-life imbalances, to rely on unearned income, to take profits by destroying value, to monopolise and to act in sociopathic and psychopathic ways.
This simple change to the law could have far-reaching, positive outcomes for all of us. It’s not hard to change the law. We have politicians and lawyers (some would argue: too many of them). All we have to do is convince the elite that most influence government policy that it’s in their best interests, too, to create a functional, rather than dysfunctional society in which to live. They need to see that they are unable to remain apart from and unaffected by society, though they have tried their best to do so, to date. They’re not separate and they’re soiling their own feed.
It would be refreshing and transformative if, rather than focusing on cutting the costs of production, the new charter legally obliged companies to focus on the top line. If they were compelled to explore, discover and risk creating products that are so obviously superior to previous products and of such high value, that people flock to buy them, buoyed up by decent wages and standards of living and unencumbered by the dead weight of waste, society would be very different. Many of our current perils would evaporate. The precariat would disappear. Recovery would be deep and meaningful, yet sustainable.
We’ve spent a long time racing to the bottom, through cost cutting. We’ve used process to displace personal commitment to product quality. We’ve just about reached the bottom. Risk creates failures, but it also generates fantastic value. You can’t have one without the other. This was supposed to be how capitalism worked. Risks were supposed to be rewarded, not risk aversion.
The essence of all human activity seems to be to strive and take risks. Regeneration and progress rely upon it.