Research Memo: Care, Creativity and Postindustrial Capitalism

This post is a very tentative sketch of a new research project, building on the ideas explored in my first two books but attempting to map out a new direction and engage with a different body of literature. Any comments, suggestions, or scathing critiques – the scathier the better.

“Service work is not capital intensive.” – Matt Bruenig

The transformation of American capitalism—and economies across Europe, Japan, and North America in general—has been framed and interpreted in a handful of fairly limited ways over the last 50 years.  The dominant and most capacious frame has been the “postindustrial.”  The New Left radicals of the Port Huron Statement saw this coming in 1962, when they observed the (proportionally) declining base of manufacturing workers in the economy and the concomitant emergence of universities, laboratories, and other spaces of white-collar work as central to the structure of the economy. (They warned of a “remote control economy” out of the control of ordinary people and local communities, recommending a more participatory model of both politics and economics.)  Journalist and sociologist Daniel Bell was watching similar trends in the 1960s, resulting in the 1973 book that left him more closely identified with the postindustrial society than almost any intellectual. Alain Touraine deserves some credit here too, but Bell—formerly a reporter at Fortune, later a Harvard professor—captured the ear of academics, journalists, and business and policymaking elites more than any comparable figure.[1]

What is the postindustrial? At a minimum, it means that automation and off-shoring (moving production to lower-wage locations abroad) results in manufacturing workers making up a smaller proportion of the workforce, even if material production continues to make up a large part of the nation’s economic output.  More broadly, it might suggest a broader structural change in the organization of the economy, the composition of the workforce, and the nature of labor—which could be characterized in a variety of ways.  There are jobs today that did not exist fifty years ago, or were barely significant—a UX designer in the first case, a dog walker in the latter.  More ambitiously, postindustrial could mean that material production is literally a thing of the past, relegated entirely to computerized processes (i.e. robots) or utterly irrelevant, as with Silicon Valley magnates who dream of being liberated not only from material production but even their very physical bodies.

These are, for the most part, fanciful and faddish illusions.  It would be nice if every Silicon Valley CEO and VC vulture were uploaded to a server and then just went away, like the operating systems in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her.  But it is unlikely to happen any time soon.  Humans live in a material world; in their corporeal selves, they feel the pain of work and aging, the pleasure of sex when they’re horny and the nourishment of care when they’re sick; they feel the agony of depression in the psychochemical swamp of their own consciousness.  As scholars such as the political scientist Joan Tronto have pointed out, the myths of capitalism in its classical liberal form—which Silicon Valley types generally cannot resist—tend to assume that all markets are made up of frictionless exchange between fully formed humans with freedom of contract and perfect information.  The weaselly dodge of ceteris paribus has always acknowledged this fundamental flaw of how classical liberalism envisions homo economicus.  (Obviously people don’t have perfect information; obviously there are power imbalances between buyers and sellers of labor; there are externalities; and so on.)  But Tronto and other feminist scholars have emphasized for decades that this economic vision occludes the extremely obvious fact that humans enter the world defenseless—“naked and screaming,” as Titus Andronicus put it—“and that’s how you’ll leave it.”[2]  Everyone needs care sooner or later (usually sooner), and no one is truly an individual economic atom.

This elementary, if elusive, fact is all the more palpable when one looks at the structure of the economy and workforce of the most advanced nations.  America’s own relationship to healthcare as an industry is unique and widely recognized as pathological, but services such as medical treatment and education have become a more prominent part of the economies of most wealthy countries in the last fifty years.  Healthcare reputedly makes up about 20% of the GDP of the United States (a statistic often bandied about when President Obama and Democrats attempted to “take it over” in 2009-10).  People need medical treatment, especially as they age. When there are more old people, you need more nurses and doctors.  Programs such as Medicaid and Medicare were (and still are) policy interventions that guaranteed that a larger portion of the population would receive some kind of care, however costly or inadequate.  Meanwhile, local communities have embraced an “eds and meds” strategy of economic development that stresses hospitals and universities as drivers of growth.  People pursue more education than they did in the past, in part due to the belief that the contemporary economy requires people with greater preparation, training, expertise, and so forth.  The federal government underwrites this shift (in a way) through the provision of student loans, beginning, like Medicare, in the 1960s, in much the same way that it did for home construction and ownership beginning in the 1930s.  The short answer: more schools, more teachers, more doctors, more social workers, more insurance claims adjusters, more transcriptionists (though that part is changing thanks to electronic medical records).

A reasonable observer might look at this situation and say that the postindustrial economy is increasingly oriented toward care.  Hospitals, schools, the interpersonal, affective work of therapists and social workers, the advice of a financial planner, the watchful attention of a daycare (or even “doggie daycare”) worker, the listening and helping of a server or bartender in a restaurant (the “honky-tonk psychiatrist,” as David Berman once put it).[3]  However, for the most part this is not how economic change has been interpreted by scholars, journalists, or policymakers.

After the postindustrial, the key tropes have been knowledge, information, and technology (i.e. “high tech”).  Not a day goes by when someone on NPR doesn’t say something to the effect of, “In today’s knowledge-based economy…”  This is the master narrative of economic change in the late twentieth and early twenty first century.  Sociologist Manuel Castells speaks of the “informational city” and the geography of high-tech industry, historian Margaret O’Mara of the “city of knowledge.”  Even radical theorists such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri concede the idea of “informational capitalism,” while their kindred comrades have advanced the notion of “cognitive capitalism.”[4]

By and large, these analyses center on a few key factors.  First, the changing structure and composition of the economy—new jobs, new industries, new agglomerations of economic output and productivity growth.  Second, the nature of production itself—“we don’t make stuff anymore, we make ideas.” Such rhetoric was central to the push by intellectual property interests in Hollywood and Silicon Valley to attain greater copyright and patent protection, from the 1970s to the present. (See Democracy of Sound.)  Despite the obvious counter-evidence—the US produces quite a lot of “stuff,” albeit with less labor—this cliché has gripped the imagination of conventional wisdom.  We make intellectual property such as movies, software, and pharmaceutical formulas, using our big brains—the “cognitive” in cognitive capitalism.  What we do is “knowledge work” and the output is immaterial in an important sense, apart from whatever container it might be in—say, a laptop or a pillbox.

It is not surprising that this analysis would resonate with elites in academia, media, and politics.  They are all highly educated, and their work literally is producing information (such as it is), in the form of books written by professors, new patents developed by scientists, and syphilitic columns written by New York Times op-ed pundits.  They are truly the “symbolic analysts” that economist Robert Reich spoke of in his work of the early 1990s—people who manipulate a spreadsheet or Photoshop to create a product more immaterial than material.  Professors are the original producers and distributors of information in a certain sense, so it is not surprising that they would find such an account of the economy appealing.

Finally, I would suggest that this school of thought also centers on immanent qualities of people themselves—chiefly knowledge or expertise but also skill, a certain capacity to do something that not everyone shares.  An electrician has skills, but she is not necessarily (or at all, really) thought of as a “knowledge worker.”  But a network engineer has both knowledge and capacities that other people lack and is a knowledge worker in good standing.  I suggest that this maneuver displaces our attention, by reifying (sorry) knowledge as if it’s a “thing” that can be bought, sold, and traded, either as a copyrighted or patented product or as one’s labor power.  Knowledge, to paraphrase Hamlet, is the thing.  Hence the focus on human capital and “investing” in people (either young people, if you’re a politician, or yourself, if you are someone applying for college and taking on debt), as a means of ensuring eventual economic payoff in the form of greater innovation, creativity, and earnings in the future.  Information is a thing we can have, we can make, we can use, and it is the key to progress and growth.

I contend that this interpretation provides an account of postindustrial capitalism that is lacking in a number of important ways.  Education is not just the transfer of knowledge, for instance—facts leaving the professor’s mouth and landing in the students’ brains, where they reside, waiting to be deployed. At its best, teaching involves mentorship, nurturing, interpersonal and emotional engagement, collaboration between teacher and student in developing insight and new abilities to understand and interpret, something more than just a “skill” that can be subject to operational definition.  (One might say this is the qualitative difference between information and wisdom.  As philosopher Bertrand Russell pointed out, “the King of France is bald” is definitely a statement more or less equal to any other. But it’s meaningless. Those 21 letters are information, but they don’t mean anything.)  As Tronto has argued, sitting with an elderly and infirm person is a form of care, one that can’t be made more productive or efficient.  (This is what Shahra Razavi and others have referred to as the “cost disease” of healthcare; you can’t speed up an hour of talk therapy, any more than you can listen to a Berlioz symphony in a shorter time, as theorist and musician Ian Svenonius suggested vis a vis the difference between music and visual art: “While, according to statistics, an American tourist can race through the Louvre Gallery in 9 minutes and 46 seconds, absorbing thousands of nuanced artworks with each moment, it takes 41 minutes and 57 seconds to listen to the Enantiodromia album by AZITA in its entirety.”)[5]  One has to listen, think, empathize, improvise, and care to provide emotional relief to an old person who is lonely and suffering.  Whatever this is, it’s not information and it’s not exactly skill either.

What is it, then?  Feminist scholars have argued for ages that care (or now known, more fashionably, as affective labor) is a huge part of the economy, culture, and society.  The historically unwaged labor of women and mothers (though also some men and other relatives and neighbors) has made “social reproduction” possible—i.e. the making and raising of new people, who can eventually contribute to the economy by working.  Some second-wave feminists in the 1960s and 1970s urged that women’s unpaid labor within the home (cooking, cleaning, parenting, and so on) ought to be waged, so that it has a dollar value in the economy and can be accounted for in much the same way as anyone working in a shop or a factory.  More recently, feminists have focused on the time squeeze of the “sandwich generation” and the “second shift”—women who have entered waged work since the 1970s, yet still maintain highly significant commitments and responsibilities in the home, to children and spouses or elderly parents or, often enough, all of the above.

This work has been tremendously valuable, especially that of scholars such as Nancy Fraser, Joan Tronto, Linda Gordon, Juliet Schor, and Nancy Folbre.[6]  (Notice a pattern?  Though Gabriel Winant appears to be working in a similar fallow now.)  But much of this discussion has been about how the work of care, which is utterly essential to keeping society from falling apart and extinguishing itself, has been rendered invisible and valueless within a market economy.  This is an important point to make, to put it mildly.  But it does not provide a unified understanding of affective labor in both its waged and unwaged forms.  And even more, it does not help us understand the continuity (or perhaps discontinuity) with other forms of postindustrial work in a variety of settings.  How is child-rearing in the home or teaching in an elementary school similar to (or different from) writing code or laying out a newsletter in Pages—or blogging, or working in Human Resources, or standing behind a register in a store?

Are these just fundamentally distinct and dissimilar kinds of work?  If so, then there is no overarching analysis that is possible except that they are all not working in a factory or picking lettuce.  But perhaps there is a way to conceptualize all of these different types of postindustrial work along lines different from knowledge or information technology.

Which brings us to creativity.  The last and most recent way of thinking about the postindustrial economy is the “creative.”  Urbanist Richard Florida introduced the wildly popular concept of the “creative class” in 2002, to provide a concept that could group a wide range of occupations from art and music to management and software design under one rubric.  Of course, other scholars had written about “the creative city” in the 1990s, and sociologists such as Sharon Zukin had recognized the growing significance of the arts and artists to urban economies as early as 1982.  But the shopworn cliché of the creative became the holy grail of local development in the 2000s, akin and cognate to the “eds and meds” phenomenon.[7]

Florida’s theory, like any good theory, included a measure of flattery. (Those who trumpeted it, such as academics and journalists, were of course all members of this creative class.)  But the urbanist also introduced an invidious distinction in the process, one that he seemed to be somewhat conscious of and felt guilty about.  There is rote work (cleaning toilets, operating a press) and then there is creative work (graphic design, writing, research).  This is the axis along which the postindustrial economy is oriented, at least according to Florida, and the distinction is obviously laden with value judgment.

None of this is to say that there isn’t a degree of truth to what Florida has proposed—there is definitely something different from washing dishes in the back of a restaurant and writing code.  But again—the obfuscation.  Is caring labor not creative?  Presumably Florida was not thinking about low-paid home health aides who provide vitally necessary but physically and emotionally demanding work when he wrote about the creative class.  Yet anyone who has cared for a child or a senior suffering from physical and cognitive incapacities knows that it involves a good deal of creativity and improvisation.  Mentoring a student or providing therapy to a suicidal patient is at least as creative as any other kind of work.  Providing financial or legal advice (ideally) requires not just knowledge but also empathy and ingenuity.  Adjudicating disputes in the workplace and training employees as an HR person both involve affective capacities of feeling, judgment, and intuition that go well beyond the mere deployment of information.  We are not just automatons of knowledge; we are dynamic and complex humans mediating relationships that result in emotional and intellectual outcomes—outcomes, states of mind, capacities, not necessarily things or even a copyrightable bit of information.

How can we understand all of these different types of work, and thus better interpret the nature of contemporary capitalism as a whole?  From the home to the hospital, the checkout line to the office, the laboratory to the bus stop, a large portion of work today involves both affect and innovation.  If we saw postindustrial society along this axis, what would we see differently?  Very few people actually make information, even within a tech company (most people are in administration, sales, clerical support, and so on).  And even if information technology mediates almost every form of work, from the fields of Iowa to the auto plants of Alabama to the food truck that swipes your credit card with Square, focusing exclusively on tech itself seems to risk mistaking the vehicle for the passenger.  These are all tools—very important ones.  But who we are and what we do with them is what matters most.

How can you structure a research project around this?  Does it even have to be archivally or empirically based, or could it be a kind of cultural or intellectual history—or perhaps operate on a more philosophical plane?  This is what I want to explore.


[1] Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973); Alain Touraine, Post-industrial Society: Tomorrow’s Social History: Classes, Conflicts, and Culture in the Programmed Society (New York: Random House, 1971). For a broader discussion, see me, “Of Sorcerers and Thought Leaders: Marketing the Information Revolution in the 1960s,” Sixties (2016).

[2] Titus Andronicus, “My Time Outside the Womb,” The Airing of Grievances (XL Recordings, 2008).

[3] Silver Jews, “Buckingham Rabbit,” American Water (Chicago: Drag City, 1997).

[4] Manuel Castells, The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic

Restructuring, and the Urban-Regional Process (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1989); Margaret Pugh O’Mara, Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

[5] Ian Svenonius, The Psychic Soviet (Chicago: Drag City, 2006), 118.

[6] Nancy Fraser, Fortunes of Feminism; Linda Gordon, Pitied but Not Entitled; Nancy Folbre, The Invisible Heart; Arlie Hochschild, The Second Shift; Joan C. Tronto, Caring Democracy and Who Cares?; Juliet Schor, The Overworked American.

[7] Geographer Jamie Peck offered perhaps the finest dressing-down of Florida’s thought with his “Struggling with the Creative Class,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 29 (December 2005): 746.  See also Andrew T. Simpson, “‘We Will Gladly Join You in Partnership in Harrisburg or We Will See You in Court’: The Growth of Large Not-for-Profits and Consequences of the ‘Eds and Meds’ Renaissance in the New Pittsburgh,” Journal of Urban History 42 (2016): 306–322.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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