Framing the Project: Shifting Scales & the Reorganization of Capitalism

Last time (and, yes, it was ages ago, but I can get this out before the 1-year anniversary of the blog!), I began by trying to frame my motivation for this project in the broadest possible terms. I was doing so through reference to the large scale socio-ecological crisis humanity faces with climate change. Thinking it over, I think the simplest, clearest take-away point from that framing is something like “change is coming, like it or not!” Change is always inevitable, of course – that’s all the world does. But, the idea here is that even more fundamental shifts in the ways humans have organized their work, consumption, leisure and [whatever else] will be required in the coming decades – perhaps more so than in the last few centuries. This reorganization is coming our way whether for “good” (trying to forestall or fully mitigate the carbon and greenhouse gas pollution that creates climate change before things get too bad), for “bad” (just trying to lessen the impact of, or adapt to, the changes wrought by unchecked and accelerating climate change, even if the underlying cause of which isn’t being addressed). Or – as is probably most likely – a combination of the two, in which case we must reorganize to partially forestall the worst of climate chaos while also being forced to restructure for adaptation to the change that is already “baked in” to the climate cake. 

To cut to the chase, I think that the changes on the horizon are going to be being marked by the shifting of scales in multiple different dimensions of social organization. That is, change and restructuring are both needed and demanded, and this reorganization will necessitate shifting scales – sometimes to bigger and broader scales of analysis and social action, but sometimes to smaller. Although some of this scale shifting corresponds to geography – with larger-scale analysis and “fixes” corresponding to the cross-national and global and smaller scales to the local/regional – it isn’t just spatial, for these shifting scales can also be organizational (to both larger and smaller kinds of organizational forms). As is often the tendency when looking at the biggest picture, that might seem fairly abstract and obtuse. Thus, in the next few blog posts, I would like to make this more concrete by covering a number of different forms of “scale shifting” and how they frame my investigation into the realm of handmade bike builders. 

We can start with one “big picture” and provocative perspective on this kind of social, economic and political scale shifting, this being Jerry Davis’s recent work on the decline of the corporation as a central *social* pillar in American life. [If you are into that sort of thing, you can find some of Davis’s big argument in the 2009 book “Managed by the Markets” but also in summary form in a “Politics & Society article from 2013 (v.41 n. 2) called “After the Corporation”…and in blog debates online like this one at orgtheory]

Davis’s foundational claim – contra much of our conventional wisdom in which corporations feature as dominant and dominating entities – is that the multinational corporation is no longer the central agency and organization in American life, at least in the way that it was in the period from about 1945 to the early 1970s. While corporations still exist (though, by numbers alone, far fewer of them than at the height of the American corporate century, according to Davis), and while understanding corporations remains absolutely central to understanding contemporary socio-economic life, Davis argues that most of the core socio-economic functions that corporations served for much of the 20th century have been fundamentally eroded if not abandoned. Those functions, in summary form, have been: organizing production, providing employment, social welfare services (health care and retirement) and providing a vehicle for savings.(2013: 285-286)

Why has this been happening? Davis identifies a set of inter-related forces leading to the decline that should be familiar to most scholars or political-economy but that are also well known to much of the general public: the rise of “hostile” take-over deals leading to the disaggregation of corporations (e.g. private equity and take-over firms using highly leveraged cheap debt to take control of firms and pull them apart to “unlock” market value and yield large immediate profits) and the development of deep subcontracting networks that allowed for global off-shoring and outsourcing and the ultimate “Nikefication” (as he calls it) of the world-economy. After three decades of such changes, Davis boldly claims, “the public corporation in the United States is now unneccessary for production, unsuited for stable employment and the provision of social welfare services, and incapable of providing a reliable long-term return on investment.”(2013: 290)

So, there you have it – the death of the corporation. Where does Davis see things headed? Who knows, exactly – the goal isn’t prognostication per se, but identifying lines of inquiry to understand ongoing changes – but he gives us a few principles for thinking about the relevant scale for social action and organization in this post-corporate world:

  • The size and location of the institution should match the size of the project.
  • Risk sharing works better on a larger scale; democratic participation works better at smaller scales. Notably, he believes “employment and the production of physical goods and services are best organized locally”(299).
  • “Form follows function”, meaning (in part) that formal organizations aren’t always the best.
  • Carbon constraints should prioritize the local, all else equal.
  • Local control is good, but “lateral connections to the rest of the globe are useful”.(300)

Davis draws particular attention to a variety of “alternative” (my word, not his) organizational forms and models suggesting that “a good start would be to examine some of the many new experiments in postindustrial co-ops and other formats that are sprouting around the world.”(302) The rise and expansion of the “maker” movement – with maker spaces, shared workshops, 3D printers and milling operations, etc. – is a particularly fertile space in which these experiments with relevant scale and post-corporate organization of production are being undertaken, along with the rise of the “sharing economy” more broadly.  Indeed, for Davis, “this is a context in which social researchers can make a genuine contribution by documenting and facilitating forms of social organization as they are created and spread.”(304)

Where does this leave me with my project? Most obviously, what I’m doing here is Davis’s “documenting and facilitating forms of social organization”, albeit with a rather small segment of a larger industry and area of activity (the bike biz). But that documetary aspect – identifying and describing this group and these activites – would have some value at any point, in a kind of crude anthropological sense. That is, cataloging niches has value no matter how inconsequential those niches might be to the larger population in which they are nested. However, as Davis’s (and others yet to be discussed) work indicates, this shifting of scales in the post-corporate, and in what should be the radically-reduced-carbon, era means, I think, that looking at socio-economic activity at different scales has value beyond the cataloging impulse alone. If the relevant scale of action might be smaller and more localized with respect to production – even if other social needs and functions need to be scaled up at the same time – bike builders of this sort and the particular challenges they face in making a living might have some broader relevance for other forms of economic and productive activity. Again, this is framing the project, not a set of hypotheses nor specific questions that the project is intended to definitively answer. The large-scale shifting of scales, though, means the project should hopefully speak to some audiences and questions beyond simply the world of bike geekery or the “niche market” alone.

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