Working hard and doing what you’re told is no longer yielding the promised American Dream of security, agency and liberty.
Volume One of Fernand Braudel’s oft-recommended (by me) trilogy Civilization & Capitalism, 15th to 18th Century is titled The Structures of Everyday Life. The book describes how life slowly became better and freer as the roots of modern capitalism and liberty spread in western Europe, slowly destabilizing and obsoleting the sclerotic tyrannies of feudalism.
Today I want to discuss the erosion of everyday life as a manifestation of the endgame of the current version of state capitalism, more precisely neofeudal state-cartel financialization, which combines financial predation of the home (core) economy and global exploitation of the Periphery (a.k.a. neocolonialism.)
Unlike the era Braudel describes, our era is characterized by the decline of liberty and the distortion of capitalism to serve the few at the expense of the many.
The over-used analogy of the boiled frog remains apt in understanding the erosion of everyday life: everyday life has become increasingly more difficult, more stressful, less rewarding financially, more deranging and less free for the past two generations. This erosion has gathered momentum in the 21st century as the status quo has ramped up its dysfunctional dynamics to keep the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, power and liberty in place.
Consider the costs and capital flows of planned obsolescence. The consumer, who once was implicitly assured decades of reliable service from an American-made appliance, now gets an appliance that rarely lasts more than a decade, regardless of the brand or origin.
In the relentless drive for higher profits, every component is outsourced to the lowest cost supplier. I can assure you nobody checks the electronic components for durability; the circuit boards that operate your dryer, washer, refrigerator, etc. are checked to make sure they function coming out of the factory (though even this step is slipshod), but that’s it.
Since I’ve replaced defective boards in appliances, I can report that 1) the labor component of the repair is insanely expensive (which is why I did it myself, of course) 2) the boards are insanely expensive–$150 for what I estimate is $10 of commodity chips embedded in a $5 board, to more than $300, depending on the age and brand and 3) replacing the board is no guarantee the new board will last more than a few years, being made of the cheapest components in the lowest-quality factories.
This is the only profitable model of late-stage state-cartel corporate capitalism: force the consumer to upgrade their perfectly functional mobile phone, tablet, etc., every few years, or engineer the appliance/device to fail in a few years.
The favored corporate exploitation/predation mechanism is the long-term maintenance plan: since consumer, distributor (Best Buy et al.) and manufacturer all know the product has been engineered to fail in a few years, consumers are blackmailed into buying incredibly costly long-term maintenance plans, which work for the blackmailers because:
1) many consumers will lose the paperwork or get confused by the claims process and give up
2) other consumers will just decide to buy a new product, having been conned by “new features” or the ease of buying new rather than being on hold for hours trying to get Corporate America to do anything remotely beneficial to customers and
3) if the consumer is especially obdurate and grinds through all the barriers Corporate America sets up to wear them down and gets a repair person to actually show up, the corporation pays its actual cost for the replacement part–$15–not the $150 the consumer is charged should they fail to buy the long-term maintenance plan.
Here’s a related issue: corporations have made it essentially impossible to repair or service their products unless you are willing to jump through numerous hoops. I have personally observed how auto manufacturers have covered the oil plug with extraneous shielding, using multiple connectors to make it even more difficult for owners to perform the once-simple core of changing the oil in their vehicle.
I could go on, but those of you who actually maintain and repair stuff know there is no good engineering reason for the rising difficulty of performing basic maintenance and repair.
Traffic congestion. When did two-hour or even three-hour round-trip commutes become a standard feature of American life? When did subways and trains move from being occasionally comfortable to standing room only?
Workloads. When did the workloads expected of private sector workers become heavier (outside a few islands of state-funded torpor) as a matter of course?
Loss of purchasing power, a.k.a. inflation. While we’re constantly assured by the federal government and the corporate media that inflation is 2%, real-world prices are leaping higher. (And yet somehow this bogus 2% inflation rate isn’t “fake news”?) As the chart below illustrates, healthcare costs have been outpacing modest wage increases for years if not decades.
Loss of political agency: no matter who you vote for, the dysfunctional, grossly unequal status quo grinds on unchanged. No matter how many more bonds you pass, giving local governments billions of dollars to fix traffic congestion, homelessness, public education, crumbling infrastructure, rundown parks, etc., nothing ever actually gets better.
Financial insecurity: if you happen to master entering and exiting the asset bubble inflations and bursts just right, you can maintain some financial security–but don’t make a single mistake in buying or selling the bubble du jour, or you’ll be wiped out.
Nonsensical narratives: Here’s a simple test to prove the derangement caused by the ceaseless hyping of nonsensical narratives: stop watching “the news” and indeed all social media and all corporate media–go cold turkey other than following your local college and high school sports.
Do you feel less upset, less stressed, less deranged, less angry, less hopeless? Of course you do.
I could go on, but you get the picture: everyday life is eroding, getting harder and less free for the bottom 95%. And even the top 5% has increasingly had enough: working hard and doing what you’re told is no longer yielding the promised American Dream of security, agency and liberty.