Our Brand Is Uselessness part 6

Posted: June 30, 2017 by Admin in Alienation, capitalist crisis, Class Matters, Economics, Unemployment, United States - economy, Workers' rights, World economy

A six-part series by Laurence Peterson documenting an example of downward mobility in Post-Meltdown America

Part 6: The Uses of Uselessness

Trying to make any sense of it all 

Is there any wider significance to this sorry little tale? Well, it just so happens that Daymon was recently purchased by Bain Capital, the private equity  firm of Mitt Romney fame. Private equity firms often purchase failing and lacklustre companies, load them up with debt, pay big dividends to investors in the private equity firm, charge high fees to the acquired firm for the favour, and then dump the zombified carcass of firms drastically bled of labour and sunk capital back onto the market, sometimes generating a big, second profit on top of the fees, with the ultimate profitability or even viability of the affected firm remaining a big question mark behind the inflated dividends and lean production numbers. Being privately-held (and not required to produce public financial figures), I can’t say for sure whether or not Daymon fits this pattern exactly, but, from my vantage point, limited in the extreme though it was, the purchase of Daymon by Bain was not a surprise: the kind of unproductive, underappreciated and even unwanted work we did at CDS seemed to me to have zombie company written all over it.

Underlying investment in the wider economy has been more-or-less stagnant since the crash a decade ago  (and had been relatively dormant for some years before that), and it’s quite remarkable that many investors can be attracted to keeping zombie firms alive over prospects of allocating capital to anything remotely productive, especially as signs of deterioration and the appearance of new threats like climate change mushroom all round us. But that’s what we see throughout the American economy: a few celebrated and bloated titans attract so much cash (as I write these lines, Apple has been valued at $1 trillion dollars  by the investment firm Drexel Hamilton) that they feel forced to stash most of it offshore, unable to fathom what to do with it all, and requiring tax shelters to accommodate the funds and preserve their bloated valuations in the interim; they actually borrow the money they then pay out to shareholders because interest rates are so low. Small business formation and employment lag way behind, and significant productivity gains seem confined to the same behemoths . Whole sectors, like the one I worked in, retail, are facing imminent devastation  , while many workers, even highly paid ones, find the work they are doing a complete waste of time: and I’m sure the people consulted in these surveys didn’t over-represent those working in unambiguously harmful sectors, such as defence, dirty polluters, insurers, reconfigured pharmaceuticals, or advertising/PR.

But finance roars along, propelled by trillions in indirect subsidies and via a decade’s worth (nearly two decades in Japan) of jonesing on the IV tube known as quantitative easing, providing funds for mergers and acquisitions leading to further jobs losses, stock buybacks and outsized dividend payouts that further skew income gaps, and driving speculative real estate purchases that increase costs to renters and make it more difficult for those workers still able to consider purchasing a home, as well as technology booms that allow monopolies to strangle what’s left of consumers’ control over their own data and privacy. And, if that weren’t enough, this is accomplished by tax-favoured financial engineering that allows for the indefinite dangling along of sickly firms in crippled industries they can be bled of their remaining assets before perhaps being sloughed off on one more financial engineer—or sucker. The workers in these industries are likewise strung along, watching their wages and benefits fall along with their likelihood of improving their prospects the next time they find themselves on the jobs market, as they are stuck in essentially useless jobs that still manage to provide revenues to the financiers.   Debt levels reach pre-crisis levels amongst consumers and governments dedicated to saving the banks whilst increasing outlays to the war and security industries. Meanwhile, the same governments ramp up efforts to provide another obnoxious boon to finance with privatization and austerity once the many of the zombies are finally sucked dry, unless, perhaps, the financial firms cause another crash first.

The servant economy, which allows for a potential increase in the competitive advantages  of the already better-off by providing increasingly competitive, cheap, vital services (from Uber drivers to security guards and on to fitness trainers and aux pairs) for their often-times overworked betters, exists alongside the branching off of another subgroup of servants who remain dangling in sectors that provide less and less utility for anyone, dragging down productivity in the wider economy and decreasing even further incentives to invest.

There’s also a psycho-economic twist worthy of note here: Veblen was famous for asserting that conspicuous waste could take on an essential economic value, but we’ve reached the point now in which uselessness, too, can be incorporated into the circuit of valourisation. And, far from negating Marx’s insistence that every commodity reveal a use-value during its turnover, such an incorporation pays tribute to Marx’s peerless dialectical vision. Here, use-value operates in the M-C-M phase of turnover, and resides primarily in the eye of the speculator valourising circulation, than in the good old C-M-C circuit, which provides only a diminishing residual utility ending in the consumption of the commodity.

Even the self-appointed geniuses in Silicon Valley, to close on fitting note, expend more of their time and energies pursuing Star Trek or Star Wars inspired fantasies (these people are not immune to kidult tastes themselves), or indulging in libertarian-tinged paranoid speculations regarding gold and crypto-currencies, and less on developing technology that benefits anyone but themselves, crooks and the security state. The Israeli historian Yuval Harari has claimed, in his book Homo Deus, that many of these people will soon—perhaps within a generation or two–have at their disposal technological means to render them god-like in many respects, especially compared to the technological underclass that stands to be completely left behind. My position at Costco seemed like a different planet than one in which any kind of merger with the divine could be contemplated; many of the people there don’t want to look beyond the night’s telly listings, sport scores, or lottery numbers. But we can only hope that the wannabe gods will be—somehow–usurped by these Spectres of Uselessness, amongst others.

 

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