Brian Holmes on Tue, 29 May 2001 17:44:11 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Re: Public Electricity Production

Ben Moretti quotes an article on Thomas Playford, the politician
responsible for the industrial development of South Australia in the period
from 1938 to 1965:

"Playford used three public utilities - the Housing Trust, the Electricity
Trust, and the Engineering and Water Supply Department - as the key
development agencies of the State to provide support, at modest cost, for
industrial growth."

Just one sentence describes how a preoccupation with the reproduction of
the labor force (housing) combined with natural-resource extraction and
infrastructure provision to create the perfect formula for Fordist
industrial development.

The formula, at the time, could be politically successful because it
adressed the crying needs of masses of people (immigrants in this case, and
in many other places "immigrants" from the country to the city). It could
be economically successful because it catered in every respect to the
imperatives of capital.

Since the crisis that began around 1965 and culminated in 1973, that
formula has been politically unworkable. As popular demands shifted from
basic reproductive needs to intangibles like more education, culture, free
time, direct democracy in the workplace, ecological measures, and so forth,
the pressure exerted on investment returns made the whole welfare-state
bargain look increasingly unappetizing to capital interests. A period of
relative chaos ensued, with low economic growth in all sectors, as the
political formula broke apart and there were no Thomas Playfords on
anyone's horizons. Finally, the fear of unemployment acted as a necessary
spur to gather a new, neoliberal political majority that could cut away all
the welfare-state spending programs on the strength of the promise
"corporate growth = jobs," plus a good dose of conservative moralism, plus
coded financial incentives legible only to those who were going to benefit
by them.

And benefit they did. Finance-driven turbo capitalism got rolling in the
1980s, jump-started then and periodically ever since by giving away
("selling") the publicly funded infrastructure (like power plants) to
private corporations.

Now after twenty years with minimal attention paid to the reproduction of
the labor force - for the simple reason that the globalized labor force can
be sought anywhere, when they die off or malinger or revolt there's always
more somewhere else - the neoliberal compromise is going into crisis as
large enough numbers of people begin to see that provision of
communications infrastructure and high-end education/research for
transnational corporations, plus lots of police to keep the peace at home,
is not a spending formula in their best interest, even if they do have a
job, or three. The power goes out, the air's polluted, you can't use the
school anymore, the hospital is too expensive and the street is full of
human wreckage.

Unfortunately, or maybe not, the answer to all that is not going to be the
return of the Thomas Playfords, because the demands from the demanding
public that emerged through the experience of welfare-state services - and
particularly education - are so massively at odds with capital imperatives
that never the twain shall meet, or at least never until a really big
conflict emerges and is played out in some great convulsion.

So in the meantime, power for California to feed the information economy,
consumer markets and, incidently, people's basic needs, will be extorted
from Canadian suppliers by NAFTA fiat in the short run, and provided by a
new nuclear power program in the middle-run, and paid for "equitably" by
Californians, that is to say, the poor will pay a proportionally large part
of their income for it, and the rich, a proportionally very small part.
Politically, the only way to justify this will be the intensification of
neoliberal media populism, means: opportunistic politicians and business
leaders, gradually becoming one and the same person, will seize the media
to make showy, simplistic statements that cloud the major issues and drive
home the main point nonetheless, that the media itself, and the
information/financial economy that is effectively powered by the
electricity infrastructure, is the spearhead of the economy as a whole, and
if you want to keep your job and pay for your power, shut up and support

The ambiguous position of we who are interested in the the internet should
be obvious right here. We can use our new communicative power to open up
the issues and expose the different choices that have been made and could
be made, we can push toward the open development of a political conflict
over the course of future techno-economic development - or we can add our
little feedback loops to the perfectioning of neoliberal media populism and
its economic imperatives.

Brian Holmes

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