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.