Friday, 4 October 2013

The century of DIY part 1

How IKEA has become the template for modern democracy.


Stand up now, look around, do it! You may be in a room full of people, you may be in a busy street, you may be having coffee with a friend but know this; you are alone. We are on the tipping point of a society that completely defers all responsibility to the individual to the point where a social modularism replaces democracy.  

Twitshot

Mankind, like many animals, has an innate ability to create communities.  And, like so many other things we do, we feel superior to the animals in this ability; we create Democracies. We, again like many animals, create hierarchies, a chain of command and responsibility where everyone has their place and duty. This is a structure of interdependencies that break down the complicated mechanisms necessary to maintain civilisation into manageable tasks. This democratic spread of obligations meant that we could specialise in particular skills and disciplines according to our abilities. The quid pro quo is that we take a share of the profits and get to choose those who manage the system.

Karl Marx predicted that this interdependence would develop into a society that would eliminate need and cement communities into a society of equality through socialism. As Marx’s theories were beginning to be put into practice in one of the biggest social experiments ever undertaken, Sigmund Freud focused his attention on the individual.

American Psycho
Do It Yourself
Then came a subtle shift. In America, Edward Bernays, began to develop ways to study consumers’ habits and drives using his uncle, Sigmund Freud’s studies. He discovered that the potency of his uncle’s research allowed him to not just understand individual behaviour but to influence it. According to Adam Curtis, this began a systematic movement from community to the “Century of the Self”. He proposes that the knowledge obtained through Freud’s development of psychoanalysis has been used to manipulate society. As early as 1927, Paul Mazur, a top banker from the now defunct Lehman brothers wrote "We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed." By tapping into these newly nurtured desires marketeers have managed to make us desire their never ending stream of life-enhancing devices and services.  Now, it is not the enterprise of this that is of most concern, it is the side-effect. In the beginning advertising focused on peer acceptance and being a good member of the mass democracy. Then, after the dust of WWII had settled the sense of self became the target. People were told that it was their right to have whatever they wanted and the more they acquired, the better people they were. People became judged by their appetites and their ability to satisfy them. Conspicuous consumption replaced the satisfaction of needs and those who consumed most conspicuously became the billboards of commerce. By the end of the last century it was every man for himself.

We are now leaving the “century of self” and entering the “century of do-it-yourself”.   

IKEA democracy
Cheaper than China
1943, In Sweden, a young Ingvar Kamprad founded IKEA and soon discovered that there was one place where labour could be sourced cheaper than China. By entrusting the consumer to assemble their own purchase, significant savings could be made on production. Now most of us routinely assemble our own furniture and think nothing of it. If anything we are proud of our achievement and attach more value to the item we have built. The knock-on effect for IKEA is that we not only make more impulse furniture purchases due to the convenience of buying a box that fits in the car but that they have deferred the build-quality responsibility from the manufacturer to us.

Driven by the desire culture and the systematic devolution of obligation, civilisation has begun to outsource responsibility to the individual.

Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 best-seller “The secret”  declares that we are all capable of being and having what we want so long as we project the idea strongly enough. More importantly, it maintains that our lack of wealth and success is our own fault. Ok, now I agree that if you sit on your arse and expect everyone else to do the running you will get what you deserve but on the subject of human tragedy such as Indonesia’s tsunami, 9/11 or even cancer, Byrne declares that they only befall people who are “on the same frequency as the event”.  So we are now accountable for epidemics and natural disasters.

Smile or die
Keep Calm and avert disaster
Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Smile or Die” investigates the self-help culture and its apportioning of blame to the sufferer for not being ‘bright’ enough. Her experiences with breast cancer and the support groups that she turned to for help are indicative of our new “keep calm and carry on” society where you are welcome to lean on a friend as long as you don’t make a fuss about it.

The current swathe of motivational speakers and self-help books are pushing the philosophy of individualism and self-support. None of them suggest that you should turn to friends, family or society to share. None advocate building support networks, that may just hit their sales. You are on your own and you better get used to it.

Governments around the western world are reducing state health care and pensions and the message is clear; you have to work through your waking hours until you are no longer able, pay your taxes and insurances but if you haven't made adequate provision for your retirement then just don't retire (the DIY government is coming in another part). The years of double-shifts or building your own business have already weakened your bonds with your kids enough that they have little desire to care for you, even if they weren't too busy doing the same thing and more. The current resistance to Obama's health care plans highlights the attitude of "pay your own way and get what you are given". 

I'll close on my own piece of self-help advice. There is no shame in needing help from others and if you don't need it, offer it. 
      


The next part of this observational study will explore how the IKEA philosophy is being applied to the workplace and how new technology will put us back in the workhouse with one main difference – we will buy the machines.



Twitshot

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From Under Dark Clouds

The Century of DIY