Last week I received an email saying,
‘My band, The Size Queens, are about to release our 5th album, in part due to your work. The cybertariat was the inspiration for it — though we’ve been progressively moving in this direction, to try and understand why the economic promise of weightlessness seems heavier than before. Our entire project, to be released on Election Day in the States, is a song cycle and accompanying video … no guarantee you’ll like the project at all. But we like you. .. The new record [is] “Consumption Work: Tammy, Cybertariat, At The Aral Sea.” I hope you’ll find it edifying to see that your work in economics has inspired those of us working in music.’
I’m not sure that ‘edifying’ is quite the word, but I was certainly very pleased and flattered. And this reminded me that the concept of ‘consumption work’ that played such an important part in my thinking in the late 1970s first came to me as a result of listening to music. So the idea could really be said to have come full circle.
The original inspiration, so far as I remember it, was Lord Buckley’s Supermarket. His work seems little known now, but, although he died in 1960, so I never had a chance to hear him live, for me, and for the group of friends (I have now forgotten which) in whose company I first heard his records he was an important figure, not least because he first introduced us to a kind of Black American hipster slang we had not come across before, although much of it later entered the hippy mainstream. I think he was the first person I heard referring to the police as ‘the fuzz’ and mentioning in public, in various lightly-coded ways, the smoking of marijuhana. There was something irrestistably cool – intelligent and funny in equal parts – about his semi-improvised verbal riffs, performed against a jazz background. I suppose nowadays he would be thought of as a performance artist, or even a proto-rapper. In his eloquent monologues, Jesus was resurrected as ‘the Nazz’, Shakespeare as ‘Willy the Shake’ and Gandhi as ‘the Hip Ghan’. With a typical touch of genius, in Supermarket the store owners are referred to as ‘Greed heads’.
The observation that stayed in my head described the experience of self-service in a supermarket, a phenomenon that must have been pretty recent in the 1950s when he performed it.
‘Remember the first supermarkets?’ he asks. And, after describing the process of getting a cart he says,
‘And there you are pushin’ in the supermarket with the cart.
You grab the cart and you go strolling up and down the aisles
and you load up all your jazz
and you’re working for them, see?’
At first, he explains,
‘It’s alright, because you’re getting –
this is the beginning –
very, very, low, low, low, low prices.
Saving, you see.
So you don’t mind, you know, pushing a little bit.’
But then, after the prices have risen (or, in his immortal words, ‘Prices – whhhhooooo!’)
‘you’re still pushin’ the mother cart.’
This idea that employers save money by getting consumers to carry out, without payment, the work that was previously done by paid workers lodged somewhere deep in my brain. Nearly fifty years later, I can still summon up the exact intonation, rhythm and self-parodying sexiness of tone of his ‘You’re working for them’.
The phrase ‘consumption work’ came from a 1976 article in Monthly Review by Amy Bridges and Batya Weinbaum, called ‘The other side of the paycheck: monopoly capital and the structure of consumption’, a socialist feminist analysis of the relationship of housework to capitalism.
These two insights came together for me when, in 1978, as a member of a study group on new technologies, organised by the journal Capital and Class, I was trying to solve two intellectual puzzles. The first of these was how it is that the amount of time people spend doing housework carries on going up despite the ever-increasing number of ‘labour-saving’ products they buy. The second was how it is that prophecies that automation will lead to permanent mass unemployment have never been fulfilled.
The resulting article (reprinted 25 years later in my 2003 book, The Making of a Cybertariat) made singularly little impression at the time (it was not included in the book the group produced). In fact I had more or less given up hope that anybody would take the idea and run with it*. Though, of course, it remains an active part of my thinking and I have developed the idea further over the years. If ever I find time to write it there will be a book….
So it is a really wonderful surprise to discover that the idea has spread so far, and helped inspire such creativity. And these guys make good music too.The video, which can be found here is a knockout! Their main site is here: http://thesizequeens.bandcamp.com/ .
*The term was taken up by one academic who did not acknowledge my work at all, although I had given her quite a bit of my material. (I should have been suspicious when she asked me ‘who knows your work?’. But I was feeling very intellectually lonely at the time and anxious to discuss the concept and its implications with someone at last, and I misread the clues and thought, in my naiveté, that perhaps she was asking this because she wanted to help promote my ideas. I was more or less unemployed at the time and she had a senior academic post and it would certainly have helped my career). I was in two minds about stating this here. It does sound a bit bitter and paranoid. But I discussed it with a friend this morning who thought I should put it on the record, so here it is. Thinking about it again now I realise that I am myself partly to blame: for acting like a kid in a playground holding out my toy saying ‘please play with me’ to the other kids and then being hurt when they grab it and make off with it; for not taking sufficiently into account the incredible damage done to any idea of sisterhood or collaborative working by three decades of attempts by neoliberal governments to destroy the radical tradition of British social science and discipline its practioners into habits of competition and commodification and marketisation of intellectual property; and finally for neglecting to play the game of self-promotional publishing in A-list academic journals.