How do we organise when the whole of society becomes a factory?

Globalisation has made organising the global workplace more important than ever, and it’s been a major focus for unions. More and more of us are working for the same corporations across the world, so having an organising strategy restricted to national boundaries makes no sense.

And unions are doing some good global organising – Fast Food Global, for instance, connects the US fight for a $15 per hour minimum wage to fast food workers’ struggles everywhere, and for two years running has brought out workers in more than 30 countries to demand better conditions.

Unions are getting smarter at international campaigns, and the global union federations in particular are able to use new technology to develop powerful, coordinated campaigns.

postcapitalismBut global workplaces are not the only place we should be organising: our whole society has become a factory for producing value in the neoliberal economy. Paul Mason, in his book Postcapitalism, calls this the Social Factory.

Here’s how it works:

Value is no longer just created by workers in factories. It’s created socially, by advertising, branding, and our behaviour as consumers.

Consumers and brands

In our post-modern, neoliberal world, more and more people have lost connection to traditional signifiers of meaning: faith, political parties, trade unions, a local football team, a sense of community. We build our identities by engaging with brands.

And as capitalism grows by manufacturing more “needs”, we are turning into a service-orientated, consumer driven society. Some of our most important relationships are with brands and corporations.

This symbol is far more valuable than a pair of shoes.

This symbol is far more valuable than a pair of shoes.

The value of Nike shoes is created not just by workers in Asian sweatshops. Nike shoes are made by contractors, but without the Nike swoosh – the brand – they are not particularly valuable. If workers in the sweatshop try to organise, it is easy to switch production to a country with more repression and a more compliant workplace.

Most of the value is added by the brand. And the value of the brand is created socially – by advertising, but also by us. If you wear a Fred Perry shirt, or walk around with a Starbucks cup, you’re doing free advertising for them – adding value to the brand. This is particularly the case if you are famous, cool, or doing something impressive.

This year, I ran the Edinburgh Marathon. I ran to raise money for Medical Aid for Palestinians, but also as a personal challenge. Like all sporting events, it was covered in branding – for energy drinks, sports brands and more. And like any athlete, I build a relationship with these brands throughout my training.

Adding value to New Balance

Adding value to New Balance

Workers in factories in Vietnam make really good running shoes that are ideal for me. At the end of the production process, they sew on a New Balance logo – and it is only because of this that the shoes reached me through global supply chains and socially produced value.

It’s the same for any field of human endeavour, and it is true for both culture and nominal counter culture. Even a punk gig is likely to have a fair representation of brands, and rock and hip hop stopped being rebellious a long time ago.

Of course sometimes the process is subverted, as when upscale brand Burberry was appropriated by working class people. But even this is part of the social factory

The Health Goth aesthetic manages to both celebrate and subvert the brand. It's a classic example of organic, socially produced value.

The Health Goth aesthetic manages to both celebrate and subvert the brand. It’s a classic example of organic, socially produced value.

This is cultural production that creates brands as totems of real value in our society. Movements that start out as counter-cultural reactions to brand images end up renewing the brand. Health Goth, for instance, is an aesthetic that started as a critique of fitness culture. The consequence, though, is that it has made Nike and Adidas cool for a new tribe of young people.

Social media

The other major site of value creation is social media, and of course it ties in very closely to the brand development and consumption discussed above.

Two of the most powerful companies in the world right now are Facebook and Google. They make their money by selling advertising, largely to the brands defining and building our identities. And it’s our use of social media that creates value. Whenever we upload a picture to Instagram, or tweet, or like something on Facebook, we are building the value of the platform by using our social networks – our friends and family.

Facebook and Google are able to sell advertising because they know so much about us. And they know because we tell them, because of what we share. Time spent on social media – even if we’re doing political work – is also time spent working in the social factory.

How do we organise the social factory?

Trade unions have typically organised workers at the point of production – traditionally, the factory. This has been our leverage, our bargaining power: by withdrawing labour through industrial action, we can shut off the bosses’ ability to make a profit. As a famous COSATU poster from the 1980s said, “We are the economy. We can shut it down”.

But the economy is a much stranger place now. We still have workers in factories making things, and we still have unions organising them. We need to keep doing that work, and make those unions stronger – especially in developing countries.

But increasingly, real value is added by all of us in the social factory. This is free work that we are doing, creating value for corporations. How do we even think of organising it?

We need to be a lot more creative about how we see ourselves as a movement, and also think concretely about – for example – tying workers’ struggles in the textile industry to the relationships consumers have with the brands selling their products.

We need to start seeing the social factory as part of the global workplace, and develop organising strategies fast.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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