Monday, June 22, 2009


Now there’s a word you don’t hear every day. Steampunk is a growing cultural phenomenon with different meanings depending on who you listen to. In a New York Times article the owner of the Steampunk Workshop Jake von Slatt was quoted as saying that, “To me, it’s essentially the intersection of technology and romance.” Bruce Sterling, the author of the definitive Steampunk novel The Difference Engine, agrees that there is a romantic element to it. In the current issue of Steampunk Magazine he estimates that as much as 90% of the participants are primarily interested in dressing up in pseudo-Victorian clothing and reading sci-fi novels such as those by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as well as contemporary authors. But he says that there’s more to Steampunk. According to Sterling the other 10% of the phenomenon is a "counterculture arts and crafts movement in a 21st century guise" in which this minority fraction have a "determination to take the means of production away from big, mind-deadening companies who want to package and sell shrink-wrapped cultural product."

To understand this minority within Steampunk requires that one understands the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century. The goal of the Arts and Crafts Movement was essentially to humanize the means of production. They had seen how the industrial process, especially the division of labor, in the hands of capitalism had turned men and women into machines and presented a threat to the continued existence of the craftsman.

It’s Sterling’s opinion that the proposals of John Ruskin, the founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, specifically his opposition to Industry, were unrealistic. Attempts to use his work or the others in the Movement as a guide for real world production are doomed to failure, according to Sterling.

I would agree that there were some elements that weren’t realistic within the Movement. Certainly the strong opposition by some to the division of labor was misplaced. That being said the Arts and Crafts Movement did have elements that were very good and need to be remembered.

Rather than focus on Ruskin it’s better to look to the leading voice of the Arts and Crafts Movement, William Morris. According to E.P. Thompson in a speech to the William Morris Society in 1959 Morris,

"…had no time for noble savages, and even less for the Fabian nostrum of State bureaucracy. No amount of mechanical manipulation from above could engender the ethic of community; ‘individual men’ (he said) ‘cannot shuffle off the business of life onto the shoulders of an abstraction called the State.’ Contrary to the prevalent opinion, Morris welcomed all machinery which reduced the pain and drudgery of labour; but decentralisation both of production and of administration he believed essential. In True Society, the unit of administration must be small enough for every citizen to feel a personal responsibility."

With this information we can now see that many in the 10% “troublesome” (using Sterling’s words) fraction of the Steampunk phenomenon, being the spirit of the Arts and Crafts Movement, are therefore also in keeping with the spirit of Economic Democracy.

So feel free to dress up in romanticized Victorian garb and don’t stop reading those stories of great airships, analytical engines, and fantasy adventures. Go ahead and dream of a world built on brass, steel and steam. But at the same time don’t forget the artisans and craftsmen who provide the subversive element to Steampunk.

Monday, June 8, 2009

We Got It ... Now What?

Congratulations! You and I are now the proud new owners of one of the great classic American institutions: General Motors. Or as some wags have started calling it: Government Motors. Of course this doesn’t mean we can just stroll into one of the remaining GM dealers and just drive off with some of the inventory without paying for it. But it does raise the question of where to go from here. Or more precisely, “What should the Obama administration do with General Motors?” Unfortunately what the administration should do and what it will do are certainly not going to be one in the same.

Because of the nature of this blog let me focus primarily on what it should do. As part of the bankruptcy restructuring GM should be converted from an investor-owned firm (IOF) into a worker-owned economic enterprise. As a result the current employees of GM would become the new owners who would elect their own board of directors. By doing so the Obama administration would be increasing the success of GM. Cooperatives have been proven in study after study to be more efficient than joint-stock companies. That’s due to several factors but one reason is due to liability. In an IOF the worker has little stake in the production and certainly no say in it. If the company is more profitable or less it’s all the same to his or her weekly pay. But in a cooperative the worker’s take home is solely dependent on the success of the enterprise. When one combines the monetary incentive with the fact that they have a real voice in operation it makes a real difference. Add to that the pride that comes from ownership and one can see why cooperative enterprises are more efficient.

But we know that this won’t happen. The administration has already stated that it plans to dump the government’s ownership as soon as possible. Even the GM executives currently ignore the fact that the American people own their company. The CFO of General Motors recently said, “As a privately held company, it’s likely we’re not going to disclose information except to the shareholders.” We shouldn’t be surprised. This wasn’t a true nationalizing of GM but an attempt to help the economy within the system as it currently exists. While I do think that President Obama very well may end up being one of the greatest presidents in American history, unlike the claims of the far Right, he is certainly not a revolutionary.