A false economy of knowledge
The minute division of labour in a market economy takes away our competencies and sells them back to us.
(Jeremy Seabrook, The Guardian, 04 August 2009)
The division of labour in rich societies is so minute and particular that an individual's specialised knowledge is often sealed off from that of other people. It isn't my field. I'm not an expert. I didn't cover that period. That isn't my responsibility. It's not my department. I know nothing about that. These are some of the phrases with which people explain a narrowing apprehension of the world.
As a consequence many basic common human competences lapse. A concentration on the specific is accompanied by the loss of other forms of knowing, which come to appear archaic in the modern world.
Abandoning basic skills may seem like liberation, especially at first – forgetting how to grow, or even to prepare, our own food, how to make the simplest garments, how to provide ourselves with shelter: to pass over such tasks to others is to set aside a great burden.
But once lost, these simple accomplishments become irrecoverable; and other, precious human powers also fall into decay as they become someone else's labour: knowing what to do in times of want, sickness and death, how to behave in the presence of suffering; but also how to celebrate our own lives through our own stories, songs and poetry – all this is forfeit in the interests of an ever more elaborate partitioning of social function.
This gives a clue to why there is much debate over whether a new generation is becoming more clever or less instructed than those that went before. On the one hand, there is dumbing down, simplifying, losing abilities formerly taken for granted, being cut off from knowledge of history and literature; on the other, improving examination results, greater "awareness", different forms of consciousness, the acquisition of new skills – the hand-eye co-ordination of the computer game, the dexterity and sharpness of youth. The argument is inconclusive. Perhaps in what looks like a contradiction, both sides contain a measure of truth; and young people can become simultaneously more and less capable.
The only thing you need to know in "advanced" or "developed" societies in the throes of perpetual reform and modernisation is how to get, acquire, earn or make money, because with that you can get everything. The range of verbs is significant, for it covers both licit and forbidden methods of coming by it. Since the great majority of us rely on a wage or salary to maximise income, we have to know a good deal about something. But in acquiring and intensifying the particular knowledge, the more likely it becomes that mastery of other capabilities will sink into oblivion. The complexity of the division of labour is accompanied by a reduction in areas of active competence.
This is how money both empowers and depowers: it permits us to buy in all that is necessary for a full and creative life; but it also divorces us increasingly from what Ivan Illich called "our native capacities for healing, consoling, moving, learning, building our houses and burying our dead"; the work of those who now service our needs were once common property, but are now jealously guarded professional qualifications. In this way, ignorance co-exists with highly specialised knowledges. In a sense, we are all existential sub-contractors, like the character in Villiers de l'Isle Adam's drama, Axel, who said "as for living, our servants will do that for us".
This social and economic mechanism is itself the generator of the real dependency culture. It is fragile and easily disrupted: all it takes to throw it into disorder is a strike of deliveries to supermarkets, an interruption to the power system, a natural calamity that blocks the delicate yet cumbersome process by which our daily bread comes to us. The image of empty supermarket shelves, a breakdown in the petrol supply, a blank TV screen are frightening reminders of our dependency on a system that takes from us as much as, or more than, it yields, but which must be kept going at any cost.
This subjection is the opposite of the freedoms of which our society is supposed to be the supreme embodiment. The choice, democracy and liberty we enjoy are highly conditional upon others; yet these easily vanish, since our social and economic purpose appears detached from theirs – our own needs are foregrounded, our own indispensability in the labour structure, and above all, that most private of all our relationships (no longer love or even sex) but the secret, sacred communion that subsists between ourselves and our money.
Outside our own sphere of knowledge, we are a nation of gilded incompetents; since in the unfamiliar world of other people's expertise, we grope in ignorance and helplessness.
This is what the apparently benign phenomenon of "the market economy" actually means. For its growth and expansion, it must appropriate more areas of human proficiency, reshape them and sell them back. It involves a relentless mining, not so much of human needs as of human competences. It robs us of abilities and markets the results of that larceny in a new shape.
If we are constantly fascinated by whatever novelties appear on sale in the showcases of the world, this is because, more often than not, they embody the predations of lightning raids on our internal resources; and indeed, parallel the pillage of their material counterparts. Shopping, in this context, becomes not so much addiction or therapy as a desperate effort to recuperate some of the lost capacities and aptitudes through the conjuring power of money.
It is a truism that we now occupy a "knowledge economy". This is an ambiguous terms, for it suggests also an economy of knowledge, that sparingness that makes it a scarce commodity; and one for which we pay dearly and doubly, since not only is it removed from our hands, heads and hearts, but also can only be regained by paying for it.
It is not, as some moralists have claimed, that "artificial wants" or unnecessary needs are created by consumerism and the expanding market; it is, rather, that something vital is always being taken away, which can never be compensated adequately by the buyback scheme that is global retailing, since it lies, inert, captured and stored in the growing array of things set before us. If they beguile and enchant, this is because they belonged to us in the first place.-----