Brands 'R' Us? | The Nation


Brands 'R' Us?

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Jeremy Rifkin wants to rock the world of the jaded reader: He predicts that we're entering a completely new--the final--stage of capitalism. This new era Rifkin variously calls "cultural capitalism," "hypercapitalism" and the Age of Access. We've reached a "defining moment in history" that "already is challenging many of our most basic assumptions about what constitutes human society," as "a new human archetype is being born."

About the Author

Jane Slaughter
Jane Slaughter is a labor journalist in Detroit.

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At a "Lean Workplace School" for union members, sponsored by the monthly
magazine Labor Notes in 1996, the discussion centered around how
to fight employers' speed-up and worker-manageme

The reader might be excused for wondering if this year's fundamentally new era is fundamentally different from the "great historic transformation" Rifkin warned us about in his equally wrongheaded 1995 book, The End of Work. In that book we were alerted to a "momentous change taking place--change so vast in scale that we are barely able to fathom its ultimate impact," one that "could spell a death sentence for civilization as we have come to know it." Come 2000, and in his all-new apocalyptic vision, Rifkin barely mentions his central thesis of five years earlier.

That could be because Rifkin's earlier forecasts appear to have been a little off-target. Automation was supposed to make manufacturing "near-workerless" by the early decades of this century, and the service sector would follow suit soon after, thus "the end of work." Instead, the trend is in the other direction: The 65 percent of the US population now working is the highest percentage in history. To take just one example--one that any good futurist assumes is an industry on the way out--there are more auto workers in the United States today than there were in 1980. (The number of unionized auto workers is far less, but that's a different story.)

So completely has Rifkin moved on from his earlier preoccupation that the disappearance of jobs plays no role in this year's central proposition. Today the main thing we need to know (besides the fact that "the foundation of modern life is beginning to disintegrate") is that ownership is on the way out. "Owning things, lots of things, is considered outdated and out of place in the more ephemeral, fast-paced economy." Instead, the new organizing principle is "access": access to the web (of course), but also access to "the experience economy," a k a "the weightless economy." Consumers today don't want to be tied down by owning a carpet; they just want the experience of having one in their homes.

Property itself, Rifkin tells us, is outmoded; he repeatedly disparages the notion of "mine and thine," the organizing principle of a fading era. His main proof is that leasing is increasing and that some companies give their products away (cell phones, software) when you sign a service contract.

How to argue against ideas like this and the other quarter-baked assertions that make up The Age of Access? It's a mishmash of management guru-speak (Tom Peters is cited often), musings on postmodernism and assertions that various well-known constructs are over and done with. The latter include markets, class warfare and the nation-state.

Markets are being replaced by "networks," buyers and sellers transformed into suppliers and users in "win-win" relationships. The right-left dichotomy of the industrial era, with its class warfare among "the upper class, middle class, working class, and poor," is over, subsumed by the struggle between intrinsic value and utility value. The "end of the nation-state" is upon us, evidenced by the fact that the web knows no borders and by government's inability to collect taxes on purchases made on the Net. Guess those corporate types spending millions on Gore, Bush and Congress don't realize they're wasting their money! I almost expected Rifkin to announce "the paperless office," but he admits that's "not yet in sight."

Among his central arguments, Rifkin throws in occasional howlers: Small business is the backbone of capitalism. Property is a social convention for negotiating individual spheres of influence (not class spheres of influence). And "the work environment is steadily being transformed into a play environment." Evidence: Kodak has a "humor room." (Cf. The End of Work: "Millions of alienated workers...experiencing rising levels of stress in high-tech work environments.... Millions who experience their own individual deaths, daily, at the hands of profit-driven employers.")

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