Who is the villain?

Paul Seabright

  • The Future of Success by Robert Reich
    Vintage, 289 pp, £8.99, April 2002, ISBN 0 09 942906 3

Of the many fantasies provoked by the spread of the Internet, few are creepier than the vision of a world in which every relationship can be dissolved at the click of a mouse. Yet the click might also seem liberating, empowering even, to the person doing the clicking. Robert Reich’s book is about the consequences, for our work and our lives, of the so-called new economy and – more subtly – the habits of mind and values encouraged by its supporting technologies.

Reich is an economist who has held office in three US Administrations, most recently as Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, and is now running for Governor of Massachusetts. He is a political intellectual in the most fluent American style, who has built himself a useful and largely deserved image as spokesman for a confident but humane vision of American capitalism. Since 11 September, his has also been a voice of moderation and common sense in the American media. He is an internationalist with a keen interest in European affairs – following events in Britain, for example, closely enough to be an adviser to Tony Blair, though not quite closely enough to have had second thoughts about the wisdom of letting this fact be trumpeted in the publicity material for his book. He writes fast-moving, even breathless prose: chapter headings like ‘The Age of the Terrific Deal’, ‘Of Geeks and Shrinks’, ‘Desperately Seeking Stickiness’, two that begin ‘A Cautionary Note on . . .’, all prepare the reader for a thesis comfortably packaged in bite-sized pieces, whose surprises are advertised sufficiently in advance to pose no real terrors. The spin of the book, and its free movement between research and anecdote, are not entirely to my taste, but it presents a good account of the challenges posed by the so-called new economy in the United States. That last geographical qualification is important, for it’s less accurate as a picture of Europe. Reich’s breezy confidence that where America leads the rest of the world will eventually follow may be – fortunately in some respects – misplaced.

‘Technology is speeding and broadening access to terrific deals,’ Reich believes.

Buyers and investors can switch to something better with ever increasing ease. In order to survive in this new era of fierce competition, sellers have to innovate continuously and do so faster than their rivals. The best way is through small entrepreneurial groups linked to trusted brands. At their core are talented geeks and shrinks, in ever greater demand. The enterprise must also continuously cut costs, pushing down wages of routine workers, and flattening all hierarchies into fast-changing contractual networks.

‘Geeks’ and ‘shrinks’ are Reich’s terms for innovators and marketers respectively, cultivators of things and cultivators of people.

The new economy, Reich believes, encourages a division between the talented few and the routine many; it also results in greater insecurity for everyone, leading them to work harder, promote themselves more relentlessly in their professional capacity, neglect their families, and under-invest time and emotional commitment in their communities, which will in any case be increasingly shaped by ‘sorting’ – the tendency of like to associate with like – which reinforces inequality and social stratification.

The market economy, it could be said, renders the citizen lord of the marketplace in his role as consumer, but its browbeaten serf in his role as worker. And since these different roles can hardly be kept in quarantine from one another, the scope even for lordship of the marketplace will shrink: an individual will be able to enjoy only the most fleeting sense of autonomy and power at the moment of the mouse-click, before insecurity at work intrudes on his consciousness and deprives him of any innocence in the enjoyment of his triumph.

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