In which The Author stands up
Back in 1994, Alan Sedgeman was the rep for Blackwell Publishers. I’d known Alan since my days working for Blackwell’s Bookshop (in business terms they were first cousins) and we always had a good chat when he was in town. I dare say he’s retired now. He’s a nice guy, I wish him well.
Anyway, I was working in Dillons at the time. I remember sitting down with him one day to look through the forthcoming titles from that venerable academic house, as well as Polity Press and Verso Books (which he carried together).
I was used to Alan’s lists dealing with the sort of topics I discussed in Bullshit Detector
, but one title in particular caused me to raise an eyebrow. It was Post-Fordism: A Reader
by Ash Amin.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to ask Alan what ‘Post-Fordism’ meant.
I’d heard of Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, Post-Freudianism, Post-Marxism, and enough miscellaneous ‘Posts’ to keep the US Philosophical Postal Service in business for decades to come.
But ‘Post-Fordism’ was a new one on me.
Alan explained it in simple terms, because I was a bookseller of very little brain and big words bothered me. It was the current model of industrial production, apparently. It was based on the principle that consumers formed many specialist niche groups, not just one homogeneous mass. Henry Ford had been able to churn out hundreds of thousands of identical cars, secure in the knowledge that they would sell. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley has the calendar marked off in years AF – After Ford. As always, the SF writers saw the future with absolute clarity.
According to the received wisdom of Amin’s book, people didn’t want identical products by the hundred thousand. Modern consumers wanted commodities that were ‘different’, ‘tailored’, ‘custom-designed’.
In short, they wanted choice.
According to this school of thought, nobody wanted to be the same as everyone else. They wanted to be unique. That, to my naive mind, with my limited understanding of economics and business, was the essence of Post-Fordism.
The story sounded quite idyllic, the way Alan told it. It seemed almost as though the Ghost of William Morris had appeared to the CEOs of the Forbes 100 Companies, and convinced them of the beauty of small-scale production.
But something didn’t ring true about it.
After all, I’d worked the previous Saturday, with an inrush of students in the afternoon. Then I’d gone out for a few beers in Aberdare in the night. Thinking about the people I’d seen that weekend, I knew deep down that, for all of Alan’s seductive words, I was seeing the Emperor’s New Clothes yet again.
So I actually challenged Alan. I asked him when the last time was that he’d sat in Queen Street (Cardiff’s main shopping area) or the Broadmead (the equivalent in Bristol, closer to Alan’s home) and really looked at the people walking past. I told him that that was how I’d spent my Saturday lunchtime. (This was in the days before Laurie introduced us to Kitty Flynn’s, after all.) While I was eating my lunch on a bench in Queen Street I’d seen a couple of thousand of people milling around. It seemed like a broad enough sample from which to draw some empirical data.
If it had been an Identity Parade, the guilty party would have walked free immediately. Most of the men had the same hairstyle as whatever footballer was currently in vogue. Most of the women had the same hairstyle as whatever pop singer was riding high in the charts. Most of them were dressed alike. If checked ‘lumberjack’ shirts had been the height of fashion at the time, then ninety per cent of the men would have been wearing checked ‘lumberjack’ shirts. If long skirts had been the ‘in’ look, then ninety per cent of the women would have been wearing long skirts.
By this time, Cardiff was rapidly becoming a Clone Town (see Location, Location, Location
) and the small retailers were starting to collapse under the pressure. Some of them held out longer than others, but Queen Street was already Clone Central. The majority of the people I saw would have been to the same shops and bought the same products for the same prices.
I was fairly sure that a lot of them would be heading to a fast food place for lunch, where they could buy a burger, or a pizza, or some fried chicken, with fries (not ‘chips’, of course, because that would involve acknowledging that US English isn’t universal) and a ‘regular’ drink – all made to a precisely measured and preordained recipe, with strict portion control. They’d receive exactly the same meal whether they were in Newport (Gwent), Newport (Co Mayo), Newport (Queensland), Newport (Nova Scotia) or Newport (Rhode Island).
Then they’d get in their Renaults, Peugeots, Vauxhalls, VWs, Nissans, Fiats, Rovers or Fords (yes, that very same Ford Corporation) and drive home to their 3-, 4- or 5-bedroom executive homes on a new-build estate somewhere in what should be the Green Belt, and watch the same TV shows before going to bed.
That was what Post-Fordism meant in reality.
When the Third (or possibly the Fourth – I forget …) Punk Revival came along, and the teenagers all adopted a half-hearted bondage style, it didn’t wash with me. Ripping up your own jeans and buying a dog collar from the pet shop in the market might have worked first time around. Buying pre-ripped jeans and a hugely overpriced collar (which fastened with Velcro, for fuck’s sake) from Blue Banana was simply lining the pockets of the corporations while pretending to be ‘individuals’.
There was a fantastic cartoon in a magazine years ago. I’m vague on the details. I’m pretty sure it was by Michael Heath. I’m fairly certain it appeared in The Spectator. Then again, it might have been in Private Eye. Possibly it was Tony Husband in Private Eye. Or it might have been in New Statesman. I might have just imagined it entirely. (I told you I was vague on the details, didn’t I?)
Anyway, the point was that there was a bunch of what we’d now call ‘Chavs’ in a school yard. They were all wearing the standard White Gangsta gear of the time – really baggy jeans, trainers, hoodies, baseball caps, bling – and one of them was reading a newspaper item to his droogs. The caption read:
It’s outrageous – they want us all in uniform!
The only flaw in an otherwise perfect piece of satire was the assumption that one of the kids would be able to read.
Amin’s book came along nearly two decades ago. Since then we’ve had the Internet and Ebay and Amazon, and all sorts of shake-ups to revolutionise the classical economic model. We should be looking at Chris Anderson’s ‘Long Tail’ model by now.
Post-Fordism should have been a blip in historical terms – a transitional period between Fordism and Andersonism. In 2012, surely everybody should be kitting out their homes, their fridges, their libraries and their wardrobes from the largest catalogue ever available in human history. There’s no rational explanation for why any two people should even think in the same way.
About five years ago, in the pub, French Judith asked me why all the women in Aberdare looked the same. I didn’t have an answer. I’m still not entirely sure.
However, I suspect that Neo in The Matrix Reloaded might have come closer than anyone else so far.
‘The problem,’ he tells the Architect, in that extraordinary scene where they debate the nature of Free Will, ‘is choice.’
I tend to agree. The Thatcherite mantra of ‘Choice’ was taken to its logical extreme in the book trade several years ago. As I mentioned in I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue
, fifteen years ago there were about thirty books in normal circulation on the topic of the Internet. Now there must be literally
a couple of thousand. I wish I had a pound for every customer who’d asked me, ‘Why are there so many books on … (insert topic here)
I always told them, ‘If there was only one book which contained everything you’d ever need to know, the Government wouldn’t approve the monopoly.’
The customers would usually start complaining about having ‘too much choice’. I was often tempted to ask them when the last time was that they’d voted Communist. Most of them were either New Labour intellectuals, or wealthy suburbanites for whom the Liberal Democrats were far too left-wing. They’d embraced the Free Market at the ballot box, but when they actually had to deal with it in action they were out of their depth.
There were too many books, too many TV channels, too many power suppliers, too many newspapers, too many magazines, too many clothes shops, too many hair salons, too many clubs, too many bars, too many restaurants, too many train companies, too many rock festivals, too many political parties …
No, what there really was, was too little money. And it isn’t possible to be everywhere at the same time. In theory, there were too many parallel universes. (That would be a quantum mechanical issue.) For the first time in their lives, British people had to actively make a choice.
Britain was going through an economic boom, something which hadn’t happened since the mid-1960s. There was real competition, and the consumer was in the driving seat for a change. But when you’re unaccustomed to the idea of economic choice after a lifetime of State Monopolies, tried and trusted brands, and a few chain stores, you’re in unknown territory.
After all, life was so much easier when your grandparents and your parents and your mates told you what to buy, what to eat, what to wear, what to listen to, what to read, who to vote for …
Neo had identified the problem with remarkable precision. Quite simply, the problem is Choice. It’s much easier to follow the herd.
Over two decades ago, my Chinese friend from Singapore, Michael Ong, told me that in his part of the world, ‘The nail that sticks up gets hammered into place.’ That, apparently, is one of the teachings of Confucius (or K’ung-tzu). It sounds remarkably like Fascism to me. Or maybe Communism. Perhaps it’s the reason why Communism has had such a strong and enduring grasp on parts of the Far East.
I might be reading too much into Michael’s words, but I suspect that he pointed me towards an important truth. To paraphrase David Icke, when you’re up against the dogs, just be a sheep. There’s safety in numbers, remember.
A few months ago, C– and I bumped into each other in town. We were wearing almost identical grey cowl-neck sweaters (but I had a black poloneck underneath). She joked that we must have read each other’s minds before we got dressed that morning. When I commented about it on Facebook, Neola pointed out that there was hardly anything else in the shops to buy. She had a point. Mind you, I’d bought mine in Cardiff a few years earlier, so I was ahead of the trend for once.
I was in town earlier today. I thought I’d spotted a friend of mine in the main street. There was, after all, a petite woman with long black hair, wearing a colourful dress and calf-length boots, walking a few yards ahead of me. I’d just about caught up with her when I realised that she was a complete stranger. She had the tan, the hairstyle, a couple of visible tattoos – the whole package. She just wasn’t the person I’d hoped she was. While I was walking around town afterwards I saw at least another dozen plausible lookalikes.
My friend is naturally beautiful and doesn’t need any artificial aids. She comes from mixed North African and Welsh parentage. She’s a dancer, a singer, a model, and a fantastically lovely person. The girls I saw are just sheep. They rely on sunbeds and hair extensions and stupid diet plans to try and look like my friend. But just looking like her will never enable them to become her equal. They’ll never manage it. The best they can hope for is to cop off with some highlighted steroid monster and try not to end up pregnant or hospitalised once he loses his temper.
If I told my friend to her face that she was being Single White Femaled by half the teenagers and twenty-somethings in Aberdare, she’d be horrified. Conceivably she’d go blonde tomorrow and shave her hair to a Number 2 all over. Maybe that explains why it’s almost impossible to meet a woman these days who actually looks distinctive in some way. They don’t just follow fashion. They’re afraid of being different. The nagging feeling at the back of the mind that actually looking distinctive, expressing one’s own identity, standing out from the crowd, seems to terrify them.
The SWFs I saw in town don’t turn heads. My friend the model turns heads. C– looks amazing too, mostly because she doesn’t follow fashion. She turns heads. I modestly think that I turn heads as well. There aren’t many guys in Aberdare who’ll go to town on a weekend in a skirt, after all. Maybe that’s why we C– and I hit it off in the first place. That whole ‘dedicated non-follower of fashion’ thing might be what brought us together.
This all came about because I had a Friend Request on Facebook last night. The name was vaguely familiar. The profile picture looked like something you’d see on the cover of a gay porn magazine. I had to admit that I didn’t know him. Muscular. tattooed, styled, gelled pretty boys are more common in Aberdare than SWFs who stalk my friend. Like Judith asked, ‘Why does everyone in Aberdare look the same?’
Maybe it’s because they’re afraid of being different …
Robert Silverberg wrote a great story entitled ‘Caliban’ a few decades ago. It’s been anthologised several times. I expect you can find it online. I’ve got it in a paperback collection of his short stories. It’s thought-provoking and not a little frightening. It’s Post-Post-Fordism encapsulated into a couple of dozen pages.
Here’s the last word on Fordism, by way of the late, great and extremely fucked-up American cartoonist John Callahan.