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The Body in Late-Capitalist USA

The Body in Late-Capitalist USA

by Donald M. Lowe

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In The Body in Late-Capitalist USA, Donald M. Lowe explores the varied social practices that code and construct the body. Arguing that our bodily lives are shaped by a complex of daily and ongoing practices—how we work, what we buy and consume—Lowe contends that as a result of the commodification of these and other social practices in the


In The Body in Late-Capitalist USA, Donald M. Lowe explores the varied social practices that code and construct the body. Arguing that our bodily lives are shaped by a complex of daily and ongoing practices—how we work, what we buy and consume—Lowe contends that as a result of the commodification of these and other social practices in the late-twentieth century, what we often understand to be the needs of the body are in fact means for capital accumulation.
Moving beyond studies of representations and images of the body, Lowe focuses on the intersection of body practices, language, and the Social to describe concretely the reality of a lived body. His strongly synthetic work brings together Marxist critique, semiotics, Foucaultian discourse analysis, and systems and communications theory to examine those practices that construct the body under late capitalism: habits of work and consumption, the ways we give birth and raise children, socialization, mental and physical healing, reconstructions and contestations of sexuality and gender. Lowe draws upon a wide range of sources, including government and labor studies and statistics, diagnostic and statistical manuals on mental illness, computer manuals, self-help books, and guides to work-related stress disorders, to illustrate the transformation of the body into a nexus of exchange value in postmodern society.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Lowe has produced an impressive argument about the transformation of the body in recent society. He presents in lucid prose a complex argument for a revised Marxism in conjunction with various poststructuralist positions as the basis for a new analysis of contemporary capitalism."—Mark Poster, University of California, Irvine

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Duke University Press
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Post-Contemporary Interventions
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The Body in Late-Capitalist USA

By Donald M. Lowe

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8196-9


Production Practices

We live bodily lives within a changing social/historical world, beginning with the work we do and the goods and services, i.e., commodities, we consume, although politics, culture, religion, and personal aspirations provide extra meanings to life. Production and consumption practices are fundamental in the "social" construction of the body. (The "social" is a generic term, which I propose consists of structural, discursive, systematic, and semiotic components.) In this chapter, I argue that production practices have changed a great deal in the past two decades. Specifically, I single out three aspects of late-capitalist production practices in the coding and disciplining of the laboring body—flexible accumulation and the labor market, cybernetic systems and the labor process, and the discipline of neoclassical economics. I hope to accomplish two tasks here: to illustrate how under new production practices the laboring bodies are placed in new, different, and, I would hazard, greater jeopardies and stresses; and to present evidence that these new production practices consist of varying, differential combinations of structural, discursive, systematic, and semiotic components. In the next chapter, I shall discuss the equally important changes in consumption practices.

a. Flexible Accumulation and the Labor Market

Beneath statistical figures, changing labor market practices sort out and discipline laboring bodies along class, gender, and racial lines. Since the end of World War II, capital accumulation in the USA has gone through two phases. In the 1950s, gross domestic product grew at an average annual rate of 3.3 percent; in the 1960s, it reached 3.8 percent per annum. By the 1970s, the average annual rate of growth fell to 2.8 percent; in the 1980s, it was 2.6 percent. In the earlier period, labor costs were low, factory productivity grew apace with Germany's and Japan's, and the cost of capital was more equitable. However, in the more recent period, investment became anemic, real wages stagnated, and the economy's debt burden increased. If the first phase was characterized by a growth that trickled down to the lower classes and minorities, the second has been one of crises and a redistribution of wealth in favor of the wealthy few.

The two phases in US economy were demarcated by the decline in American productivity and growth, and the challenge of revived German and Japanese economies in the late 1960s, followed by the monetary crisis and the recession of the early 1970s. As the growth of the US economy slowed, the country became more dependent on foreign trade. That trade's share in the US economy increased from 9.4 percent in 1960 to 22.8 percent by 1991. (All figures from Business Week: Reinventing America 1992, pp. 22–23, 54) However, the increasing dependence on foreign trade occurred at the very time when the USA's share of the world exports of manufactures dropped from 25.3 percent in 1960 to 18.3 percent in 1980. (SAUS 1982–83, p. 781) The situation has not improved since then. As we all know, US merchandise trade balance became increasingly unfavorable, with exports increasing faster than imports. The balance dropped from +$4.9 billion in 1960 to +2.6 billion in 1970. It became —$25.5 billion in 1980, and worsened to —$108.1 billion in 1990. (SAUS 1992, pp. 746, 784)

In the two decades after the end of World War II, the USA was uniquely advantaged by its military and nuclear, as well as financial, industrial, and technological superiority, in dominating the non-socialist world. The USA's postwar hegemony was due as much to the wartime devastation of its allies and enemies as to its own strength, so that immediately after the war, American corporations could harvest the rewards with little competition. That hegemony was the foundation for the convertibility of the dollar into gold, an instrument which steadied capitalist investment calculation and therefore accumulation through growth. As Howard Wachtel observes, historically the world economy has grown faster when there is a pre-eminent economic power that writes the rules for the game, enforces their acceptance, and underwrites the risks. (1986, p. 33)

By the late sixties and early seventies, the Vietnam War, the collapse of the gold standard and the free-floating currency exchange, the economic challenges of Germany and Japan, and the imbalance in foreign trade put an end to that hegemony. The situation worsened with the explosion of the US national debt in the 1980s. Though still "number one," the USA could no longer prevail over the rest of the world. Concurrently, the world economy moved from crisis to crisis. Thus, the New York Times reported on December 17, 1986 that duplication and competition among national industries, as well as automation and technological improvement in production, resulted in over-production capacity and a persistently high level of unemployment. Dozens of industries throughout the world—such as steel, petrochemical, auto, aircraft, semiconductor, television, glass, apparel, shoe, toy—could not find sufficient markets for their products. By then, manufacturing and mining in the USA were operating at only 79.3 percent of capacity, as compared with more than 86 percent in the late 1970s. Overcapacity in production was reflected in a continuously high level of unemployment, both abroad and at home. The rate of unemployment for all of Western Europe rose from an average of 3.4 percent in 1970 to 12 percent in 1986. And in the USA, unemployment rose from 4.9 percent in 1970 to 7 percent in 1986.

Accumulation in a slower growing, less stable, more competitive capitalist world economy fundamentally differs from that in the faster growing, postwar capitalist economy under US hegemony. David Harvey has characterized the period since the early 1970s as one of flexible accumulation, necessitated by the crisis in the postwar pattern of capital accumulation. Instead of one based on the mass production and mass consumption of standardized products which relied on economies of scale, the new pattern favors the production and consumption of a variety of rapidly changing, specialized products targeted at specific market segments. Now, production can and has to be more flexible, utilizing the new machinery technology in small batch production. Flexible production implies not only new products and new consumption patterns, but also changes in managerial organization, capital investment, labor force, and labor market segmentation, as well as different roles for the nation state. Ultimately, according to Harvey, flexible accumulation entails "a new round of ... 'time-space compression' in the capitalist world—the time horizons of both private and public decision-making have shrunk, while satellite communication and declining transport costs have made it increasingly possible to spread those decisions immediately over an ever wider and variegated space." (1989, p. 147)

Space has always been important in Marxist analysis. Dependency theory, underdevelopment theory, and world systems theory, with their emphasis on core/periphery relation, all emphasize spatial distribution in capitalist production and reproduction. From a different perspective, the French Marxist Henri Lefebvre wrote The Production of Space (1974), which concerns the urban spatial development that favors the reproduction of the social relations of capital production. Harvey himself has done extensive work on the built environment. In The Condition of Postmodernity (1989) he extends the analysis of late-capitalist space to discuss how new technology and communications enable finance capital to overcome spatial distance, and multinational corporations to transfer stages of their activities to different geographic locations, (chapter 11) And from a non-, though not necessarily anti-Marxist perspective, Edward Soja (1989) has argued for a postmodern geography which utilizes the category of space in analyzing the world economy.

Harvey also discussed the acceleration in the turnover time of the production and consumption of products, so that the half-life of a product is cut down. Quite independently, Juliet Schor has shown how American workers are caught in a time squeeze, putting in more hours and more days on the job, and having less leisure time. Between 1969 and 1987, she estimates, the annual hours of paid employment for male workers increased 98 percent, and for female workers 305 percent. Women's working hours increased even more than men's, because the former are now more likely to work full time and to take less time off for childbirth and child care. Wages have deteriorated in the last two decades, forcing men and women to resort to working overtime and holding more than one job at a time, in order to defray the higher costs of living. The situation is doubly burdensome for women employed full time who, after more than forty hours of paid work, have to do anywhere from twenty-five to forty-five extra hours of work around the house. This, despite the fact that, in married couple households, some husbands are helping more in domestic chores than before. (1991, pp. 29–31, 103–4)

I will return to Harvey's concept of "time-space compression" in flexible accumulation again, in chapter 3. But more immediately, I want to discuss here how flexible production has led to a resegmented and more flexible labor market in sorting out laboring bodies.

The employment of the labor force occurs not in a freely competitive market, but in a segmented labor market, reflecting the diverse demands of the different sectors of the economy. Edwards (1979), and Gordon, Edwards, and Reich (1982) have shown two dimensions of segmentation which resulted in a tripartite division of the postwar labor market. One dimension was the distinction between primary and secondary jobs. Primary jobs were defined and organized by the large core corporations that controlled key industrial sectors, whereas secondary jobs laid outside of core corporate control, mostly in the smaller firms and in the peripheral industries. The other dimension was the division within the primary sector between the non-union, independent jobs which required education in general skills, and the subordinate jobs which required mostly on-the-job training and were negotiated by collective bargaining with trade unions. Thus, the postwar labor market was divided into the independent primary, the subordinate primary, and the secondary segments.

The independent primary segment included middle-level corporate employees, skilled craft workers, and professionals in both the corporate and public sectors. Independent primary jobs in both the corporate and public sectors had professional standards governing work performances. The workers here usually obtained formal skills at the college level, internalized the formal objectives of their firms, and were usually given greater discretion in their work situations. In return for education, responsibility, and experience, they could usually expect greater returns, high job ladders, and greater job mobility both within and between firms.

The subordinate primary segment included industrial workers, lower-level unionized sales, clerical, and administrative workers, and production-type workers in large transportation, retail and wholesale, and utility industries. These were semi-skilled, blue-collar, and white-collar union jobs. The work was usually routinize, typically machine-operated, with repetitive tasks governed by specific supervision and work rules. Workers here needed some formal education, but acquired most of the necessary skills on the job, within the firm. Controlled by company rules and union regulations, subordinate primary workers often lacked job mobility, but have job ladders, advancement, and security.

The secondary segment consisted of the non-union jobs in the peripheral industries. They included low-skill workers in the non-union and smaller firms, in the services, in retail and wholesale trades, as well as the lowest-level clerical workers, and migrant farm workers. Unlike primary jobs, these jobs were casual and dead-end, requiring little formal education, lacking stable employment, opportunity for job advancement, and security. Workers in the secondary segment typically earned, for comparable work, from two-thirds to four-fifths of the wages in the primary segments.

In 1970, the independent primary segment accounted for a third of the total nonagricultural employment of 68.2 million workers, the subordinate primary segment for a little less than a third, and the secondary segment for a little more than a third. Forty-three percent of working males were in the independent primary segment, 25 percent in the subordinate primary, and 32 percent in the secondary segment. On the other hand, only 18 percent of women were in the independent primary segment, while 40 percent were in the subordinate primary, and 42 percent in the secondary segment. As for minorities, 60 percent of all African-American workers and 50 percent of all Hispanic workers, both male and female, were in the secondary segment. Thus, women and minorities were underrepresented in both of the primary segments, and over-represented in the secondary segment. In 1970, 95 percent of all women were employed in the lower-paying jobs in the peripheral manufacturing industries, retail trade, clerical occupations, and the health and educational sectors. (Gordon, Edwards, and Reich 1982, pp. 211–12, 204–10; Edwards 1979, pp. 167–70)

The postwar segmented labor market was based upon a revision of the capital-labor accord developed between management and unions in the mid-1930s, under the sponsorship of the New Deal. That revision, as Bowles, Gordon, and Weisskopf pointed out, included a purge of militant union leaders and the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. The result ensured US management's control over mass production, technology, plant location, investment, and marketing. In return, and as long as they did not challenge these managerial controls, unions could bargain for the workers' immediate economic interests. In effect, "unions would help maintain an orderly and disciplined labor force while corporations would reward workers with a share of the income gains made possible by rising productivity, with greater employment security, and with improved working conditions." (1983, p. 73) In this way, the real value of the spendable hourly earnings of production workers rose at an average of 2.1 percent yearly from 1948 to 1966; workers' job security improved; and working conditions improved, with industrial accident rate, declining by nearly one-third between 1948 and the early 1960s; and aggregate unemployment rates dropped officially to 3.8 percent by 1966.

However, by the late 1960s, signs appeared to indicate problems in the existing postwar pattern of capital accumulation—a pattern based upon mass production and mass consumption, with the revised capital-labor accord and the welfare state playing important supporting roles. The growth of US productivity, which averaged 3.2 percent per annum between 1948 and 1965, slowed to an average of 2.4 percent yearly between 1965 and 1973. By the mid-1960s, Western European and Japanese economies began to grow faster than America's. (Reich 1983, p. 118) And as James O'Connor already pointed out in 1973, capital accumulation in postwar USA required increased support of the state in social investment and social consumption; but growth in that necessary support has resulted in the fiscal crisis of the state, (pp. 7–9)

The economic crisis of the 1970s accompanied and worsened the fiscal crisis of the state. In the last two decades, corporations had to learn to move away from mass production to flexible production. And the Reagan-Bush administrations tried to help by dismantling the capital-labor accord, deregulating industries, and privatizing certain governmental services.

The domestic labor market has been very much affected by the international competition in non-union labor supply, and the promise of special tariff reduction and tax write-offs. With advances in cybernetic systems and information technology, transnational corporations are able to rediscipline American workers with the threat of overseas manufacturing. They have dismantled the New Deal capital-labor accord by asking union workers in the subordinate primary segment to give back wages and fringe benefits, and to invest union pensions in the company. In addition, they are closing union plants, subcontracting more in the cheaper secondary labor segment, and employing greater numbers of temporary workers. Finally, corporations are consolidating and eliminating some independent primary jobs, especially the more expensive, middle-level managerial positions.

Instead of a segmented labor market, the new labor market conforms much more to the Flexible Patterns of Work characterized by the London-based Institute of Personnel Management. (1986, quoted in Harvey 1989, pp. 150–51) A core of primary jobs with full-time, permanent status, central to the long-term future of the corporate organization, is shrinking. Besides this core are two peripheral groups. One group consists of clerical, secretarial, routine, and lesser skilled manual jobs. Workers for these jobs are readily and cheaply available. They can be easily hired and discharged in tune with the needs of the company. The second group consists of the even cheaper, less secure, part-time, casual, temporary, fixed-term contract, subcontract, and publicly subsidized trainee jobs. This new pattern destructures the segmented labor market, enabling capital to adjust more flexibly to changing, new economic demands.

Three trends characterize changes in employment from the postwar to the more recent pattern of capital accumulation. Between 1970 and 1990, total employment increased from 78.7 million to 117.9 million. Agricultural jobs declined slightly from 3.5 million to 3.2 million. In 1970, these jobs represented 4.4 percent of total employment; by 1990, only 2.7 percent of the total. Manufacturing jobs grew slightly from 20.7 million to 21.2 million, but as a percentage of total employment, they declined from 26.4 percent in 1970, to 18 percent in 1990. On the other hand, services jobs of all kinds jumped from 49.1 million to 85.1 million. The former number represented 62.4 percent of total employment in 1970, whereas the latter was 72.2 percent of the 1990 total.


Excerpted from The Body in Late-Capitalist USA by Donald M. Lowe. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author

Donald M. Lowe is the author of History of Bourgeois Perception.

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