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‘Manufacturing the Future’: The Pioneering Work of Katherine Gibson

by Andrew Brodzeli and Caitlin James on November 10, 2017
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Can the manufacturing sector produce a more equal society? Can it be part of the solution to global warming? Moreover, is the only genuine solution to these problems one that tackles both, as is put forward by Julian Agyeman’s goal of ‘just sustainability’? These questions guided the 10th annual Wheelwright Lecture, presented by Professor Katherine Gibson and titled ‘Manufacturing the Future: Cultures of Production for the Anthropocene’, which we overview here in terms of content and critical engagement.

The event commemorates the University of Sydney academic, Ted Wheelwright, and his contribution to political economy, particularly his study of the effect of international capital upon national sovereignty. Remarkably, Professor Katherine Gibson is the first Australian to present the commemorative lecture. Obtaining her undergraduate qualifications at the University of Sydney before embarking upon a global academic career across the USA, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, Gibson’s work reflects her geographic breadth and spans across human geography, anthropology, sociology, and economics.

During her time in the USA, Gibson began a lifelong collaboration with the late Professor Julie Graham, publishing together under the singular penname J.K. Gibson-Graham. Together they produced and edited a series of globally-renowned books, including The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It); A Postcapitalist Politics; Class and Its Others; Take Back the Economy; and, most recently, Making Other Worlds Possible: Performing Diverse Economies.

While emerging from a background in structuralist Marxism, her work has consistently challenged orthodox and heterodox economics’ primary focus upon the operation of ‘Big-C’ Capitalism. Instead, Gibson has crafted a unique methodological framework she terms ‘participatory action research’, which looks to the diversity of existing community economic arrangements by engaging directly with local subjects.

The method engages with local communities to shed light upon the idiosyncrasies and often non-commercial nature of local modes of provisioning. Rather than accepting the ‘tragedy of the commons’ – the notion of the inevitable degradation of commonly used land and resources – Gibson’s work has revealed the importance of the commons to many existing developmentally diverse communities. She thereby challenges the core tenet of orthodox economics, which prioritises the optimisation of the allocation of scarce resources through facilitating smoothly functioning markets.

However, Gibson admits that this experimental form of community-engaged action-research, which has seen the development of the first worker-owned manufacturing cooperative in Australia, EarthWorker, is often a “slow-burn, two-steps forward, three-steps back” process. As in her work with the displaced workers and coal-mining communities of the La Trobe Valley, engaging with ‘neglected subjects’ to perform new economies faces unpredictable challenges, often relating to the subjects’ perceptions of benefit through participation.

In her most recent fieldwork with the Community Economies Collective at Western Sydney University Gibson turned to the experimental interventions already performed within the complex ecosystem of manufacturing enterprises, including private capitalist enterprises, social enterprises, and worker-cooperatives. Four case studies, spanning the production of carpets, mattresses, chassis, and milk, suggest a potentially revitalised manufacturing sector through an ethical and ecologically-oriented focus.

Interface Carpets, a world-leading provider of modular carpet tiles, based in the USA and Australia, has combined its pioneering eco-friendly textile design with consistently laudable working conditions to provide security to its highly skilled local workforce. Norco, a billion-dollar Australian dairy company and the only worker-owned collective in Australia, has strategically withdrawn from transnational mergers to enhance its cooperative culture, involving democratic negotiations between international investors and local workers to optimise welfare outcomes for all its members.

Varley, a major Australian chassis producer with clientele including defence, emergency and rail vehicles, survived severe workforce shrinkage in the 1990s by maintaining its private (family) ownership structure. The company has been able to protect its investment strategy from the short-term compulsions of international finance, thereby ensuring its workers greater security. Soft Landing, a mattress recycling, non-profit ‘social enterprise’, established by Mission Australia, aims to build collaborative trust between for-profit manufacturers and industry partners to bolster its mission of ecologically-friendly mattress lifecycle management.

Together, these case studies remonstrate against the popular notion of the inevitable automation of manufacturing jobs, by showing how workplace democracy, pursued in several contemporary Australian enterprises, has provided secure employment for skilled manufacturing workers. Simultaneously, these same enterprises have utilised diversity of organisational forms cutting across the for-profit vs. non-profit divide to achieve goals of ecological sustainability. Gibson’s work, by revealing these experimentations, shows how despite the prohibitive structures of financialisation and short-term competitive concerns, an optimistic future is in the making.

Nevertheless, two considerations temper the optimism which suffuses Gibson’s recent work. The first relates to the sources of the qualitative evidence presented in support of her four case studies – each of the quotes selected to celebrate the virtue of the four companies was provided by their executive and management team. Such participants are unlikely to provide evidence that problematises their managerial workplace practices. For this, one must look to the workers themselves, something which was a focus of Gibson’s earlier work but seemed lacking in her recent examples.

Second, how may such case-studies go beyond being merely isolated examples of doing things differently and prefigure an entirely changed political-economy? What of the structural obstacles that continually hinder the viability of such laudable goals as ‘just sustainability’? While responding to this challenge has been a motif of her academic career, the audience member who asked the question may have hoped for a more robust response than Gibson provided, who rejected the generalisability of such case-studies. It is, after all, a goal of socially-engaged academic research not only to reveal the diverse ways of politically and economically ‘doing things differently’, but also to show how this may be done in a manner appropriate to the planetary scale of the problems posed by the Anthropocene.

All-in-all, Gibson’s lecture was thought-provoking, and provided unique insight into the future of manufacturing in Australia. Her work pushes forward the feminist post-structuralist method with the development of Marxist analysis and practices that attempt to abolish, rather than merely critique, capitalism. Her commitment to the “long-term”, as she puts it, is critical for the future of political economic research, as she stresses the importance of ‘unmaking’ structures and tackling barriers head on.

Andrew Brodzeli and Caitlin James

Caitlin James and Andrew Brodzeli are recent graduates of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney, having both completed their undergraduate degrees with honours. Caitlin is a feminist political economist, whose work focuses on development economics. She is particularly concerned with the poverty measurement debate and its implications for women and the gendered experience of poverty. Andrew is interested in the intersections of environments, labour and technologies. He currently holds an honours research fellowship with the Sydney Environment Institute. His work has particularly considered the social and economic implications of decentralised renewable energy technologies.

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  • Don Sutherland
    November 14, 2017 at 12:31 pm

    It gives me no pleasure to say that this is a very light review of what I think is the most disappointing of the Wheelwright lectures that I have attended so far. Disappointing because I was genuinely looking forward to it as an activist in manufacturing unionism for nearly 40 years, as a very amateur political economist, as an opportunity to deepen my understanding of a feminist approach to the economics of manufacturing renewal as a dynamic potential foundation for a material challenge to climate change, and simply because it was the Wheelwright lecture. To be fair, I am looking forward to going over the published presentation when it becomes available. Just for a taster though: the slight against Laurie Carmichael, as an example of some sort of “essentialist marxism”, characterised as “bad”, that started Professor Gibson’s deeper path into feminist economics and led her to her current work on manufacturing and the anthropocene / global warming, was factually wrong and was actually inconsistent with the “logic” of Prof Gibson’s main argument. Carmichael made an outstanding and creative contribution to the development of a strategic struggle by workers against the destruction of manufacturing that was actually kicked off in the period of the Fraser government (some would say from mid way through the Whitlam government). His approach featured mass education among workers and their communities about the political economy of manufacturing (v mining) and the employment of Political Economy graduates to give intellectual and creative power to the union’s intervention. This aspect of the work laid deep foundations for the successful interventions of workers, their unions and communities that rescued various parts of manufacturing from an earlier demise that was acceptable to the major corporations then in control of manufacturing overall. Manufacturing policy and intervention was “workers’ business” and the union had to play a central role in that struggle, not leave it to politicians and arcane academic debate (and there was a lot of that the time, and even more so now). Carmichael had to marshall his arguments and win the battle of idea within the union and the broader movement for this to happen. It was not plain sailing. One very positive spin of from this was the AMWU’s facilitation in the early 80’s of the tour of Australia of the Lucas Combined Committee union leaders. The Lucas Combined shop stewards had led the development of an alternative plan to rescue several large Lucas plants from closure or downsizing based on socially useful production. In other words democratic workers control; not to produce the same product but a radically different concept of what should be produced. There is a conceptual lineage between what Carmichael was on about, the AMWU’s effort to develop a democratic approach to manufacturing policy in both government and on the job, and then in 2007 (to be checked) its adoption at its national conference of a new manufacturing policy that confirmed the reality of climate change and set out how governments and workers could shape manufacturing to help tackle it. Greg Combet’s credible climate change policy rescue – for all of its compromises – featured several aspects of that policy. None of this deemed important by a person who claims to be a student of the industry. A common concept through all of this period is “intervention”. Carmichael was trying to develop a union strategy about production (not just distribution) in which workers could learn to be the prime drivers, even if not at any given moment absolutely in control. Interventionist unionism coming from what might constructively be called an “interventionist marxism”, because it seeks from within an immediate situation to change the fundamental dynamic of that situation so that there is a new momentum for something fundamentally better. It did (does) not put the prospect of manufacturing workers challenge off to some magical future. I am aware that Carmichael drew very much on the “essence” of Marx’ ideas but was looking at how they might be applied creatively in the Australian situation for an Australian strategy. He would growl at the label “essentialist” tough because he was far from that in the sense of being rigid and dogmatic. Having said this, I add 2 things about Carmichael and that period: first, his contribution and style of work was more complex than what I have described and deserves critique, and second, he was not the only one developing and driving these ideas. There was a committed band of thinkers and activists inside the union that were doing that with him that deserve deeper recognition. Carmichael’s and their work overlapped that of Wheelwright’s far more than this year’s lecture, and more importantly, they hold the kernel for the renewal of struggles to make manufacturing green and dynamic far more than what we learned about this year.

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