Saturday, July 18, 2009

Taking Wing: Games We Can't Win

It is often said, in justification of the opportunities for monopoly, which our present business arrangements afford, that it is an encouragement to enterprise; and, that without such encouragement, all men would become drones and idlers.—Joshua King Ingalls, "Competition."
The model of competition that presently has us in its grip really comes pretty close to to that "inhuman struggle for the mastery, which characterizes all grades of business, under existing social conditions," of which Ingalls complains. Aside from the obvious big-fish-eaten-by-bigger-fish stuff that is playing out in so many areas of business, at the level of the firm, one of the most remarkable changes in retail culture is the explicitly "militant" (in Dyer's Lum's sense) character that it has taken on. Between the front-line grunts on the sales floor and the investment brokers and hedge-fund managers establishing the basic goals of companies trying desparately not to be eaten, there are all the elements of a good old-fashioned labor dispute, but no real unmediated contacts—and all the everyday contacts are with people perhaps just barely better off, slightly less at risk, if only because they can push off some responsibility on you, can fire you if that's what it takes to survive. All the energy to challenge really moronic policies tends to be dissipated long before it reaches anyone who can do a single damn thing about anything. And while that does pretty rotten things to store morale, there no reason to believe that store morale is much of a concern, precisely because competition—between workers, between stores, between districts, etc.—"inhuman struggle for mastery" of the most preposterous tasks, more often than not—is actively encouraged. I had a chance to work a series of overnight shifts, with crews drawn from throughout the district, doing remodeling work in a different store each night, and it was striking contrast to the usual work day: there were certainly rivalries, but they really livened long nights of hard, tedious work; in daylight, at the home store, surrounded by friends all subjected to the same pressures, answering to otherwise friendly and competent managers, subjected to those same pressures and with much more to lose, the rat-in-a-trap feeling is inescapable. And we all know that managers have been encouraged to read the usual "management by hassling and intimidation" books, and that most of them are smart enough to know that they are subject to the same horseshit. And personnel hours are always short, but somehow there are hours for people to call us about "make books" and quiz us about promotions and policies (while we ought to be taking care of customers.) And the "secret shoppers" are all equipped with Blackberry's. . . . And it doesn't take long to realize that part of the reason that none of it makes any rational sense is that 1) it isn't meant to, as much as it is meant to maintain control, and 2) the "sense" that it could make would respond to rationales very far divorced from the needs and desires of either consumers or sellers.

Why, after all, would we expect the actions of a large corporation to make sense, particularly when it is part of an industry lacking in the other sort of competition—lacking sufficient diversity to generate much innovation? We all understand the madness of assuming a political leader can come in and just sort of decree change. We seem considerably less clear about the limitations on CEOs, even though their job is essentially the same sort of engineering of economic entities. The entire book business is dominated by a really small number of firms, which are pretty much stuck with one another, but which may well, as I have suggested, be really stuck on the horns of a dilemma inherent in centralized retailing. In any event, those few firms are steered by a few hands, and the bulk of the book industry rises or falls on the steadiness of their direction. The "too big to fail" dilemma is certainly at work here, if not necessarily for consumers or for investors, certainly for the dominent firms themselves, which are only surviving by further concentrating their energies on sustaining key allies in the increasingly small circle.

I'm painting a rather extreme, gloomy picture of things, I know. I don't think I'm exaggerating, although I am drawing a lot of my impressions from a particular part of the retail landscape. My impression, based on what I read and what I see as a consumer, is that the loss of robustness and the general fragility of business models, is the rule and not the exception, pretty much across the mainstream retail world. And if that's the case, there isn't much reason to expect things to change by themselves any time soon, except perhaps to become more concentrated. The result of that will certainly be a further erosion of selection, consumer prices and work conditions. If half of us are already under-employed or worse, and if individual indebtedness is already a serious problem, it's not hard to see how this could all get a lot uglier pretty easily.

For those who haven't experienced it, slipping below the level where you can meet your "ordinary" commitments is no fun, and the sort of employment for which one is supposed to be "grateful" under those conditions can be pretty grim. Harried consumers are would-be tyrants. Harried bosses are would-be tyrants. Harried creditors are would-be tyrants. And with the workplace already an arena for the dumbest gladiatorial contests imaginable, there isn't much here to love, except the vague possibility of someday slipping back above that level.

Is this the only way to do things? Of course not. We can opt for diversity of offerings, under better conditions, if we're willing to take our economies into our own hands. In so many ways, we are settling for really, really bad deals. But the change would require significant, in some sense revolutionary changes in our collective and individual playbooks. Kevin Carson has been suggesting some possible changes for a long time now. What I'm going to do, in a series of posts continuing this "Taking Wing" thread—now that this long wind-up is complete—is to talk about my tiny, tiny Corvus Distrobution project, perhaps in more detail than the project itself merits, but certainly not at any too great length given the real need for alternative models that we can apply in the here and now.

1 comment:

Scott said...

As a worker-owner in a small, libertarian bookstore I really enjoy reading your take on the industry. Keep it up!