This text highlights relationships between different regimes of labour and how they are exploited by capital, in the context of textiles and clothes. Global inequalities are being exploited through the help of ICT and the general drive to labour saving techniques. What makes matters worse is that those participating as producers and consumers remain invisible to each other.
In 1810, here in Vienna Joseph Hadersperger invented a sewing machine that could make a ‘chain stitch’ that is, every seam sewn with two threads, giving them a strength they had never had before. It is displayed in the Technisches Museum but as with many inventors it did not do him much good, dying poor. This was in large part because of the expense and drawn-out nature of gaining a patent which he was unable to renew in 1818 because of a lack of money. In France in 1830, a Barthelemy Thimonnier with a machine that could also do chain stitch did not, in the end, fare much better. By 1841 he had 80 machines working to produce uniforms for the French army, but these were destroyed by rioting tailors who feared this would put them out of work. Perhaps ironically, at around the same time, an inventor himself, Walter Hunt in the USA, did not patent his machine with an eye-pointed needle for fear it would create unemployment.
Looking at it now this would appear not to have been the case, but before moving on to its take-off as an international means of production with the Singer company this history is already suggestive. For example, that a factory-like set-up for the making of clothes rather than of cloth, should be for military production. The uniform, naturally enough, is –excuse the joke – ready-made for mass production. There is archaeological evidence of highly organized textile production for the armies of the Roman Empire, and a whole range of technological innovations, both for armaments and their bi-products have been financed by military bureaucracies. In modern times the US Defense budget has been crucial in this regard, including the development if what are called intelligent textiles.
There is also the closeness in time of the French tailors rioting and the famous Luddites of early 19th century England. Their image as being simply anti-technology has been properly contested. They did not attack mechanical weaving devices per se, but those controlled by capital and used in its interests. In the case of the tailors, it may be that it was not unemployment as such that worried them but a fear that it would initiate a process of de-skilling, or rather, de-skilling through advancing the division of labour within the process of making clothes, a theme to which I will return.
Then there is the matter of patents. Inventors as we know have often not done well personally and I do not anything of the Hapsburg Empire bureaucracy to comment on Hadersperger’s case, but in the United States, legal processes for patenting were, I would suggest, were made easier and taken more seriously because of the success of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin that was commercially developed , and which made possible the take-off of a capitalist, slave-based cotton-growing industry on a mass scale which still now, with politically determined subsidies, dominates the world. Loopholes in the 1793 Patent Act, the very same year as the invention itself, had meant he too was in danger of losing out, but by use of licensing and then consequent changes in the law did not suffer the fate of Hadersperger. Since then there has been a to-and-fro between necessary incentive for innovation and those of capital to use it, and this is reflected in how seriously patent law is taken. In the USA, having lapsed in importance it became a major political issue at the start of the 1980s with the Bayh-Dole Act, partly because of the discourse of Japanese ‘copying’; because of a belief that in bio-technology especially the USA would be the dominant force in a dominant technology, and because the individual inventor was of the past, that it was now the business of corporate capital backed by the state. Intellectual property rights is corporate business. I make this obvious point in the context of techno-politics.
There is no ‘invisible hand’ at work here, in the development of technology, political decisions are made which can have a determining effect.
As it happens, the Singer sewing machine was itself the subject of a patent dispute initiate by one Elias Howe in 1854. Isaac Singer’s response was as sophisticated as the company’s development, he created a ‘patent pool’ of capital with investors, and paid Howe royalties. I say sophisticated because the success of the Singer company that came out of the ‘patent pool’ , was based on marketing and support services and included machines payable with an instalment plan. Its ‘innovation’ if you like was the creation of a brand identity. Early in the 20th century it was the 7th largest company in the world, selling 2 and a half million machines a year both industrial and a different version for home use. Just as significant, it employed twice as many workers in its marketing operation compared to the actual production of machines.
Very modern, it appears but the ratio also had to do with the nature of the production itself. Most machines were produced in Glasgow, Scotland with a history of religious sectarianism and where the company refused to recognise any trade union. Despite both this sectarianism and divisions both of gender and skill, nearly the whole workforce came out on strike in 1911. It was finally defeated after the company had gone on the offensive by closing down the factory and making the threat so familiar today of moving production elsewhere if the workers stopped their strike. It is how and why it began that is especially significant. The company in effect provoked it when three defect repairers were taken off a team of 15 women in the cabinet polishing department, one of 41 departments, so that 12 must do the work of 15 without any increase in pay. This was a straightforward increase in the intensity of labour, that is the amount of work done per minute or hour. It is no different to a Mexican clothing worker working for a Korean-owned company in the present day having her weekly production quota increased from 3000 to 3600 pieces a week.
Intensity is the English translation from Marx’s Capital, and I raise it now in order to disentangle what capitalist economics calls productivity. In reality it disguises what may be an increase in the intensity of labour, or may be more efficient machinery, or, likely as not this ‘efficient machinery’ (what Marx calls ‘productiveness of labour)’, demanding an increase in intensity. I raise it also because this mixture of the two passes under the deceptive name of ‘labour-saving’ and so much innovation in a range of productive processes has been labour saving. This focus and investment in technological innovation that labour-saving is creating surplus, expendable populations so that in many parts of the number of people surving in the so-called informal economy – informal as if it were an easy-going social gathering – exceeds those in the ‘formal economy’ which is also a misnomer in that that only 100 or so of the 1000 workers in the Baldia factory in Karachi where 286 people ddied as a result of fire had no contract, were not officially recognized.
In Marx’s day the number of weaving looms that could be operated by one worker was increased but this was not painless. In recent times, the 1990s, workers operating knitting machines in North Carolina loading and unloading bobbins, checking for faulty needles and examining emerging cloth for defects were tending 11-12 of the machines compared to 3 in the 1960s. This involved much more walking and carrying more yarn. A woman worker said “Each cone is ten pounds and we carry three at a time. A human being’s not meant to carry like that all day.”
At the same time as Singer were pushing less workers to do the same amount of work, they had introduced Taylorist methods into the Glasgow factory or what has been quaintly called time-and-motion. Taylor himself called workers “intelligent gorillas” but called his own work “Scientific Management”, and a book of that name was published in 1911, the year of the Singer strike by which time his methods were already being applied. Here is taste of what he says:
“No…one workman has the authority to make other men cooperate with him to do faster work. It is only through enforced standardisation of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured…The management must supply continually one or more teachers to show each new man the new and simpler motions, and the slower must be constantly watched and helped until they have risen to their proper speed. All of those who, after proper teaching, either will not or cannot work in accordance with the new methods and the highest speed must be discharged.”
It is under exactly such conditions that so many tangible objects are produced in the world be they a pair of jeans or an Apple Mac. The forming of simpler motions was Taylor’s main work. Here by observing how workers through their own ‘cognitive’ intelligence and experience do their work, with the object of breaking it down into those simpler motions. It is an enhancement of the principle of Division of Labour which, from capital’s viewpoint hit the jackpot twice: speed-up, and a reduction in the power of the worker over the productive process. Already, by the time he was writing, the process of making a jacket in New York had been divided into 37 unskilled sewing tasks, applauded by employers for the “unerring accuracy that is gained…by years of practice at one thing only.”
There has been increased intensity of labour in the production of cloth, and probably more so now that those North Carolina weaving mills have relocated to Mexico, but cloth production has been highly automated and requires a high level of capital investment –CAD automated cutting, automated washes and dyeing labs with more than 10,000 colours. However just as handloom weavers in 19th century England survived by self-increasing their own intensity of labour for some 50 years after the introduction of the mechanical loom, modern dye labs co-exist in the world with the physical stonewashing of denim that is proven to cause serious respiratory illness. Here as in clothing factories themselves, it is risk that is outsourced. Risk to the worker.
The sewing machine has changed very little since the 19th century. The work done on them has largely been outsourced to the lowest wage areas of the world, though there are highly exploitative sweatshops in Los Angeles, Buenos Aires and London still now. Their work is the division of labour taken to its limits, a young Cambodian woman sewing only the top half of a belt loop hundreds of times a day. Not just that but under conditions of extreme intensity of labour with in the face discipline. On the one hand supervisors who shout and slap on the other systems of hourly Quality Control. Enforced overtime and the use of speed-type drugs are the reality all in the name of Standard Minute Value in which even empirical Taylorist time-and-motion studies are not bothered with, nor the realities of the machinery nor infrastructure, but virtual targets are set and used to set real world piece rates. This overload produces burn-out on workers and short-circuits on electrical systems which cause the fires that have killed over 400 clothing industry workers in the last 3 months. This Taylorism is bloody though the phrase itself –coined by Alain Lipietz refers to such work under authoritarian governments under which there is no interest in reproducing the labour force in the long-term.
It would apply most directly to the post-war history of South Korea whose economic ‘miracle’ was no miracle at all but built on mostly young women working 16 hour days for minimal wages in factories where they could not stand straight and often forced to take a speed drug called ‘Timing’. They made clothes for export and in the process the surplus value used to develop the hi-tech industries the country now boasts. This jump to what I have loosely called cognitive capitalism is however unlikely to happen anywhere else. There are campaigns, and also government bans in place to stop the importation of 2nd-hand clothes in African and Latin American countries on the grounds that it prevents the development of domestic clothing manufacture. This is true, it does do that but in addition to the fact that even within Africa the work is being outsourced from unionized South Africa to cheaper wage Lesotho, the idea that clothing manufacture is a starter industry that will lead to fuller industrial development seems unlikely. Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea are one-offs.
In this world of uneven development, bloody Taylorism and Cognitive capitalism exist together but seem a world apart. The clothes designer with his or her Apple Mac, their capital in their heads, will however require in a world of fast-moving fashion will depend on flexible speeds of production. More generally in the richer world in its post-2007 ‘austerity’, the cheapness of clothes produced under conditions of Bloody Taylorism have taken some of the edge off its impact; in crude Marxist terms have lowered the costs of the reproduction of labour. In this sense the relationship exemplifies the sleight of hand on which the ideological edifice of the Division of Labour is built. That is as Susan Buck-Morss says it so well whereby “The impoverished producer shows up on the stage again, this time as the well-clad consumer.” The pay-off for the individual worker reduced to doing the same simple task week after week, and therefore replaceable, indeed expendable being greater productivity to benefit the abstract consumer where, as the company KiK - for whom jeans were produced in a Karachi factory where 286 workers died in September – would say, the Consumer is King.
The big difference now is that the stage is so much bigger than 18th century Britain so that consumer and producer are not just in separate ideological spheres but wholly invisible to each other. Along with precious metals textiles were the first products to be traded over distance. They are both light and compact. From the 16th century onwards, that is from long before the factory system, the system now operated by large scale clothes labels and/or retailers existed whereby merchant capitalists had no manufacturing facility themselves but operated a ‘putting-out’ system or ‘dispersed manufacture’ giving them power over even those weavers for example who owned their own looms. Closer to the present day the East India Company used a similar system in a colonial context, demanding not just a greater intensity of production from but also arbitrarily rejecting some cloth because of defects as judged by themselves. This latter is a tactic used today by retailers against manufacturers whether those be Los Angeles sweatshops or Bangladeshi factories in order to shift the risk of an unsold line back down the value-chain.
This is where are now and has been made possible, as has the putting-out system on a global scale by the technologies of surveillance, tracking and distribution crated by cognitive capitalism. It has too depended on the relative cheapness of oil for transport and the invention of the shipping container, but most of all because of what is generally called electronic data interchange and the transformation of the logistics industry starting with the bar code and including point-of-sale scanning, computerized linked to inventories, and automated distribution linked to both inventory and retail outlet sales. These technological developments have had profound effects. Whether we call this ‘supply chain management’ or ‘lean retailing’ it has lead to a concentration of capital in the retail sector both in clothes and food because of the initial costs of such systems. Such costs will now include some of the new fruits of cognitive capital, sourcing software that enables one to coordinate the cheapest costs of production worldwide. Most of all although outsourcing over great distances involves time, internet-based data management has reduced all other time associated with international transactions to close to zero. It has also meant as I’ve said, the shifting of risk down to the manufacturer or rather through chains of sub-contractors so that the defect tactic can include the slightest deviation from packing and shipping specifications. It also has the great benefit of shifting all the moral and legal responsibility for working conditions down the chain. Labels and retailers, even retailer manufacturers can reap the benefits that come from designing and marketing with out getting their hands dirty. It is the owners of the Karachi factory who in prison, not any KiK executives. From the subsequent deadly fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh comes the most recent picture of the sewing machine whose technology has barely change in 150 years, its use by workers using it to try and break the bars in the factory whose fire they were trying to escape from.
One last thought. I have used ‘cognitive capitalism’ rather loosely as that which has produced iCT to its own advantage. More specifically it has been the smug utopianism whereby one no longer requires huge outlays of fixed capital to be productive. You and your brain- or you and your Apple Mac are your own capital. Last year I gave a talk on the clothing industry in the Urania and mentioned what had happened to the hand-loom silk weavers of Varanesi in India who, using Jacquard looms had their own looms producing their own designs and how many have died of starvation after a political decision in the name of free trade to allow in cheap Chinese imitations. I was asked if I wasn’t romanticizing their work. Not I think, if the alternative is starvation for people who have cognitive capital as those weaves have. Free trade an ideology that hides a whole variety of massive inequalities of power is a political decision. It, like that other icon of pick and mix capitalist ideology, favours a wholly abstract figure of the Consumer. Free trade is a political decision, just as the decisions about what technological developments are made are based on interests that are neither neutral nor natural.
This text was a talk given at the Techno-Politics Group meeting in Vienna on December 11th 2012. It is partly based on research conducted by the author in the context of the artistic research project "Loom Shuttles War Paths" by Ines Doujak.
John Barker is a novelist and has written extensively on
political economy for Mute, Variant, and Adbusters magazines
as well as the journal Science as Culture.