Objects of History: A Design for Life and the Production of A New World

The longing for a vanished world can't be assuaged by pretending the dark history of working-class defeat encoded in 'A Design For Life' never happened. It can only answered by the production of a new world.

History as wreckage

What kind of historiography resides in the opening couplet of Manic Street Preachers’ ‘A Design For Life’? “Libraries gave us power/Then work came and made us free”: in this sequence, the gains of autonomous working-class culture, emerging from the crucible of industrialisation, exploitation and political repression in 19th-century Britain, is rendered nugatory by the very thing that produced it; the second line, with its bitter echo of the slogan over the gates at Auschwitz-Birkenau, “Arbeit macht frei”, depicts a world of working-class experience that dissolves itself in its historical unfolding. If work once made the loaded category of “respectability” or even some form of honour possible, “what price now/For a shallow piece of dignity?” The single was their first since the disappearance in February 1995 of lyricist and second guitarist Richey Edwards, who had been responsible for the most venomous rhetoric of the band’s then-short career. ‘The Intense Humming Of Evil’ invoked the infamous phrase to bleed the horror of the Holocaust into a critique of industrial society as a whole: “Churchill no different/Wished the workers bled to a machine”, a line that probably refers to Churchill’s decision as Home Secretary to deploy the Army against striking coal miners in Tonypandy in 1910. ‘Motown Junk’, the single closest to their small-town punk origins, tethered pop culture at the end of the 1980s to survival in the ruins of industrialism: “Motown junk, a lifetime of slavery/Songs of love echo underclass betrayal”. Such equations were one of MSP’s most fruitful tactics in the early phase of their career: hyperbole as a means of breaking out of the bounds to working-class speech in a press newly trained by Thatcherism. ‘A Design For Life’ recomposes those equivalences into something far more ambivalent: a history of alienation, a tragedy in which agency vanishes, as the proletariat becomes the mere object of its own history.

Fast-forward 22 years and the remaining Manics see history in rather more definite terms . In a Guardian interview in May last year to promote their new album, James Dean Bradfield opined of Jeremy Corbyn: “I don’t think he understands what makes the working classes tick outside of London and that is just hardcore industries. We’ve operated at our optimum as people when jobs give us meaning, and in the post-industrial hinterlands, he doesn’t understand that. I remember somebody at a meeting down in south Wales, an old guy, ex-miner, wanted his son to have a proper, real, blue-collar job, and he was saying: ‘What do you expect us to do, Mr Corbyn, make fucking love spoons out of hemp?’ I don’t think Jezza gets it, I don’t think he connects with people on that level, which is part of the reason we’re having political problems in Wales.” Their evasion of actual Labour policy (most notably John McDonnell’s proposals to nationalise Tata Steel and create regional development banks) and the history of neoliberal cronyism that has fatally weakened Labour in Wales is neither here nor there. (Let’s leave aside too the unlikely nature of Bradfield’s anecdote, which ranks with James Bloodworth’s famous Owen Smith tweet in the Didn’t Happen stakes.)

The caricature – of a vanished life determined by “proper, real” jobs appropriate to the class and a Labour Party in servitude to the feminised craft labour of “making fucking love spoons” – is what is richest and most bizarre here. If the Manics, with a lot of time on their hands in which to be thoughtful, remain the most politically reflective and acute band in the UK, out of all proportion to the political content of their recent albums, then this capitulation, reversing all of their earlier positions, deserves some scrutiny. Not least because it’s a sentiment that recurs, in far more fossilised and blatantly reactionary forms, across the ideological landscape that Corbynism finds itself in – from the self-parodies of online Trumpism, which hail an anticipated trade victory over China even as manufacturing capacity continues to shift overseas, to the broadsheet mantras of Leave heartlands: “Mansfield, Catterick, Barnsley, Bolsover”.

There are some useful questions we can ask of this sentiment. What was the “optimum” of the working-class under 20th-century industrialism? Precisely what kind of “meaning” were created by the forms of labour instantiated by that particular historical organisation of production? What was the ‘reality’ of such “proper, real, blue-collar” jobs? What psychic and affective burden does this ‘reality’, structured permanently as the object of hindsight, carry within and beyond the history of class struggle and exploitation it mystifies? Does this structure of feeling provide any historical orientation for class politics beyond Blue Labour’s racialised return to ‘community’? I want to suggest that between them, this strange claim and the dark trajectory that lies behind it – longing, strength, critique and fatalism in one – point to some of the far limits of Corbynism, or indeed any emergent 21st-century socialist movement: the problem of imagining a meaningful lifeworld beyond post-Fordism, beyond both the false depths of commodity culture and the recessive historical imagination it reanimates in the form of fascism. If, as Mark Fisher suggested nearly 10 years ago in Capitalist Realism, the conjuncture demands a leftist movement that does not simply promise to defend and restore social-democratic and trade-unionist bureaucracy but builds “on the desires which neoliberalism has generated but which it has been unable to satisfy”, then understanding the strange nostalgia for the meanings of the industrial twentieth century will be one way to develop strategies for doing so.

“We used to make shit in this country”

Two points to start from. The aside of Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) in a meeting with a crooked lobbyist in season 2 of The Wire is an example of the series’ double view of contemporary capitalism: “You know what the trouble is, Brucie? We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket.” The vision of capitalism laid out in its narrative structure – an impersonal network of actors through which “the game” of drug trafficking, property fraud, and state bribery flows – persists alongside one of moral and national failure. Kleptocracy, parasitism, automation and financialisation are, in Sobotka’s despair, not the mere functioning of the economy, but a perversion of a system that once had tangible outputs, both in terms of commodities themselves and gains for unions. But, despite the quote’s popularity among MAGA Youtube and rose-emoji types alike, Sobotka’s claim contains no implied narrative of redemption: there is no future in which the public works projects for which he spends the entire season striving would fix things for the stevedores or the manufacturers whose goods they unload. His death at the hands of drug baron The Greek (Bill Raymond) admits as much: commerce makes no distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ exchange in its push towards accumulation. ‘Making shit’ is something that belongs firmly to the past, discernible only in retrospect. The present can’t produce anything new – can’t “build shit” – but the future that capital makes will arrive anyway. The shifts and rhythms of capitalist production become the only way of imagining historicity itself, of experiencing oneself as a subject situated in a historically specific world.

It is – note the definite article – “the problem”, the wound that unmakes “this country”, from which all other problems flow. There is a perverted vision of totality here, an incorrect vision of the whole life of society viewable from the place of what Theodor Adorno called “wrong life”. In this sense, the rather obviously ideological dimensions of The Wire‘s worldview can’t be reduced to ideology: it provides, in negative, a map of the hell that deindustrialisation has made, what Joshua Clover calls “the production of nonproduction”.

Hence – the second starting-point – ‘A Design For Life’: the song takes its title from Joy Division’s early EP An Ideal For Living, a phrase that parodied the slogans of International Style modernist design and the Ideal Home Show; towards the start of the video, Le Corbusier’s axiom that “a house is a machine for living in” flashes up for a moment, tying it to his philosophy of total design, which allied architecture to the forms and technology of the vertically-integrated factory. The use by Le Corbusier and his peers in interwar modernist architecture of the forms of industrial infrastructure – mills, silos, warehouses, manufactories – at once imagined and allied itself with the inauguration of a new form of life and a new subject. Houses become machines for living in as that life itself becomes saturated by a particular logic of technology. Hence Walter Benjamin’s comparison, in 1933, between “a bourgeois room of the 1880s”, whose space is defined by the historical traces of its owner’s individuality, and glass-and-steel architecture, whose “cold and sober” surfaces refuse such accumulation of lived time. They reflected and inflected, Benjamin suggests, the destruction of the forms of experience that had persisted within bourgeois societies of the 19th century, and the emergence of a new “barbarism” that clings to nothing; its dream-figure was Mickey Mouse, whose “life is full of miracles – miracles that not only surpass the wonders of technology, but make fun of them… Nature and technology, primitiveness and comfort, have completely merged.”

Le Corbusier’s conception of design memorialised – made seamless and homogeneous, as a synecdoche of a technical but apolitical utopia – a transformation of global societies then underway for over a century. Marx, through a rather darker optic, anatomised the dependent antagonism that resulted, of the holders of the means of production and a new class dispossessed of everything but their labour. The unity imaged by technocratic designers and political philosophers was not mere ideology. The processes of disenchantment and destruction that disintegrated the pre-industrial forms of European and American societies sculpted a geographical and temporal field defined by and self-conscious of such a condition. Capitalism’s dissipation of the settled and specific was met with the self-organisation of a set of national proletariats, whose forms of work and life circumstances were increasingly levelled and compacted. Proletarian survival in the context of an infernal world of industrial labour created a territory of shared experience, values, judgements and actions.

This was particularly true after the (uneven) development, from the 1910s onwards, of what Antonio Gramsci called “Fordism”. Henry Ford’s emphasis on rationalisation, maximised productive outputs for minimal overhead, integration of productive processes within a single site all formed, as Gramsci saw it, a governing logic that spread through the social fabric and reinforced the form of factory labour itself in turn. Ford saw the relative meshing of the spheres of production and circulation as a boon to accumulation: if every Ford worker could afford, and would buy, a car then the company’s production line could guarantee and dictate the shape of its own markets. Fordism was tautological: its product was the Fordist lifeworld itself, a lived social form with its own specific limits, contours and possibilities.

The extent to which the “new type of man suited to the new type of work and productive process” that Gramsci envisaged came into being remains unsettled and ambiguous. Writing of Italy in the early 1930s he claimed that “[t]his elaboration is still only in its initial phase and therefore (apparently) still idyllic… there has not been, except perhaps sporadically, any flowering of the ‘superstructure’.” Some core European countries, most obviously France and Italy, maintained sizeable and unreconstructed agricultural sectors, partly through uneven regional development and partly through post-war state policy. Central institutions of the British labour movement, particularly the major trade unions and their allied factions in the Labour Party, derived from the pre-Fordist model of sectoral craft unions.1 (By contrast, something like the ‘One Big Union’ of the IWW depended on a thorough Fordist levelling of jobs.) Yet the permanent existence of a particular fabric of working-class life within modernity was a central assumption of post-war social policy, sociology, political science, labour struggle and the emergent discipline of cultural studies.

The ambiguity and variation of that lifeworld has, quite rightly, been an important focus for radical social history and the liberatory forces of anti-racism, feminism, queer politics and forces to the left of Labour. The whole set of contorted psychic investments in “respectability”, and its grim politics on race, gender and sexuality, for example, have for the most part been rightly overturned in left politics in recent decades. However, such a healthy suspicion of grand narratives perhaps risks undermining a sense, within historical analyses of class politics and labour, of the signal existence of such a combined and uneven proletarian lifeworld and its deletion. The crudity of the narrative of rupture common to positive forms of postmodernist theory (Charles Jencks, Robert Venturi, etc) and vulgar Marxism – the existence of a sustained world of industrial working-class life, spurred by collective action and individual practice, ascendant in the post-war period of tense consensus between unions and bosses, destroyed by the forced decline of industry (achieved, in the case of coal mining, with police and covert military force) – may retain a counterintuitive explanatory force in the era of what we can hypothesise as permanent secular decline.

Imitation of life

Hence the ambivalent bitterness of ‘A Design for Life’: the phrase encompasses technocracy’s fancied pleasuredomes, their redemption in the currents of a “real movement which abolishes the present state of things” and the shapelessness of a life defined by structural unemployment and the decay of existing community institutions. Post-Fordism leaves behind not only the ruins of the proletariat’s dream-palaces but of its mortal existence, washed by the tides of unstable rhythms of labour. The anarchy of production redesigns the lifeworld of modernity with what Fisher called a “centreless” logic, exemplifed by the call-centre: “the boredom and frustration punctuated by cheerily piped PR, the repeating of the same dreary details many times to different poorly trained and badly informed operatives”, whose obvious futility “does nothing to unsettle the operating assumption that capitalism is inherently efficient”. What replaces the designs of freedom pictured as immanent to the industrial world is design as the ornamental and illusory coherence of a world that tolerates the shrinking industrial workforce as one surplus population among many.

This trajectory is already too familiar. I began, in fact, with fragments from the far end of that history in order to hopefully defamiliarise it. It lies around us in ruins across the landscapes of the imperial core and in the living memory of large fractions of the western working-class. Over 15 years of Labour policy were shaped as much by the degraded nature of deindustrialised constituencies as the imperative of ‘There is no alternative’: Blairism’s uneven and often counterproductive plan of ‘regeneration’ offered to Bilbao-ize former industrial areas alongside Sure Start and random appeals to ‘entrepeneurialism’. That history saturates Blair-era movies like The Full Monty, Brassed Off and Billy Elliott, even when they look back on the Fordist period itself. The experiences of structural unemployment, the negation of a particular kind of labour-power, are explored but evaporate as the characters (inadvertently) reskill themselves. The narratives too undergo a kind of reskilling: in order to move forward from the stasis of their presents they must reconcile the real and communal losses of deindustrialisation with an ideology of individual success, producing what Raymond Williams called “magical solutions” (the wives’ sudden admiration for their stripper husbands in The Full Monty, the community whip-around that allows the protagonist to attend ballet school in Billy Elliott).

The architectural grand projects of Blairism, as explored by Jonathan Meades in On The Brandwagon, aimed to make industrial sites productive again, this time of some numinous form of communal life, via ‘High-Tech’ building. This development shaded into the use of forms derived from the International Style in high-end speculative housing through much of the 2000s (what Owen Hatherley called “Ikea modernism”), enacted through cladding and ornament as much as structural expression. The integrity of the world industrial labour made returns as simulacrum, the image of “a whole way of life” (as Raymond Williams described the vocation of “culture” in modernity) that covers over that life’s inversion and negation. The memorialisation of working-class defeat becomes the interpellation of the working-class as the subject of a new bootstrap entrepreneurialism.

The spectre of deindustrialisation appears at the level of culture. Analyses after the 2016 EU referendum often blamed the Remain campaign’s failure on underestimating the factor of ‘culture’ in areas ‘left behind’ by the restructuring of manufacturing. In these analyses, hatred of immigrants was linked, in a complex but apparently instinctual chain, to resentment at poverty and unemployment, hatred of ‘metropolitan elites’, and the residual force of local community habits in areas overlooked by investment. Alternatively – this time from an anti-work left perspective – longings for “proper, real, blue-collar” jobs are imputed to a lingering work ethic produced and reinforced by a now-disappeared regime of stable industrial work. Unemployment and post-Fordist labour – each a function of the other – fail to rise to the ‘dignity of labour’ that working-class culture supposedly holds up as a calcified ideal, held in place by the trade unions’ defence of the British labour aristocracy. The Labour right, meanwhile, appeals to a ‘culture of work’ supposedly native to British proletarians. Meanwhile Trump, who made his fortune from rentierism, makes promises of jobs that form the other side of the coin to conservative polemics about ‘cultures of welfare dependency’.2 These conclusions form an inverted mirror of the contentions of British cultural studies in the 1970s and 80s: that culture, differentiated from a vulgar-Marxist emphasis on the economic base, is where a good deal of political and social determinations are made. It is possible to draw a historiographical hypothesis from this: ‘culture’ comes into being as an explanatory frame as the concept it covertly names – the lifeworld that industrial modernity totalised for the first time – dies away and assumes a new form, at once as ideology and as refractory lived practice.

Such a dialectic was already clear in Raymond Williams’ use of the term from Culture and Society (1958) onwards. Williams showed, famously, in the course of that text’s historical analyses, how the 19th century saw a transformation in that term’s meanings, through which it came at once to designate an idea of integrated totality – the lifeworld that nostalgists from Pugin and Matthew Arnold to Cobbett and William Morris saw as being split and destroyed by industrialism – and a minority possession, incarnated in FR Leavis’s high-literary canon, pitched against advertising and journalism. For Williams, by contrast, culture is a combined and uneven territory of lived practices, a totality that, like the space it arises from – the interval between agricultural-ecclesiastical Hereford and industrial south Wales, in the opening passage of his ‘Culture is Ordinary’ essay – is disjunctive, unintegrated and mundane in the strict sense.

In this sense, Williams was acknowledging a situation that, from a very different angle, Guy Debord saw as incipient in the Fordist political regimes of monopoly capitalism and Stalinism: the absolute interpenetration of the economy and the superstructure. Deindustrialisation is therefore not simply a problem of culture, an inverted mirror of what was once, in the optic of vulgar Marxism, a purely economic structure. What is at stake is the disappearance of a – determinate and contingent – thinkable and figurable world, a world whose everyday life had some (limited and ideologically inflected) historical imagination. An expanded notion of culture is thus a useful tool for understanding and evaluating the residual force of Fordism: its values, however purely ideological they are, have a certain organic reality within the overall context of the deep artificiality of a society saturated by the logic of commodity fetishism. Such values are, to the inhabitants of that now lost world, historically thinkable and determinate, even as they would glaze over into the seamless ‘naturalness’ of ideology. They persist, suspended, within what Georg Lukács called the “second nature” of capitalist accumulation. To think and act beyond their limits was the task of critical theory and revolutionary Marxism in the 20th century. But they no longer exist, except as spectres that cannot be made solid. “Libraries gave us power/Then work came and made us free.”

Such a parody of freedom – the ‘flexibility’ promised by zero-hours contracts and lax firing practices, the freedom to tote one’s labour anywhere in a market that rarely offers permanent jobs – is the condition of life in the post-Fordist world. Fisher repeatedly emphasised that the temporality of post-Fordist labour prevents any of the forms of settlement into habit, skill-training, identification or professionalisation that the cultures of Fordist work required and produced. The forms of political practice and historical thinking it produced dissolve, in ways we are all now familiar with. The context of 21st-century class struggle is hardly a lifeworld at all, but, as Debord wrote, “the concrete inversion of life”. What replaces the temporality that made it possible is what Jonathan Crary calls “a time without time, a time extracted from any material or identifiable demarcations, a time without sequence or recurrence.”

This is not to suggest that Fordist labour was uniquely conducive to practical working-class victories and post-Fordist labour is simply not. The classic vehicles of what Théorie Communiste call “programmatism” – the mass socialist or Leninist party, the general trade union – were as conducive to compromise with capital and its political representatives as they were to winning even marginal gains for workers. In any case, proletarians famously “make their own history, but do not make it as they please… but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”. Political strategy can no more return to the determining conditions of a previous conjuncture than water can flow uphill. (Hence the immense strangeness of the half-spurious demand of the Gilets Jaunes for “réindustrialisation de la France”, surely emerging from the same impulse as the movement’s Poujadist call to “empêcher les flux migratoires”.) But it points to a dimension of economic struggle that even many sympathetic analyses of post-Fordist labour, such as those derived from Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s work, obscure: that the worldhood of proletarian life, self-generated in the face of annihilating suffering and drudgery, constitutes a vital part of whatever project of liberation might reside in the unwilled flight of Walter Benjamin’s angel into an obscure future.

Right on for the darkness

In this sense, the structure of feeling that we can call a nostalgia for industrial labour is the deeper continuity between the hegemonic forms of liberal capitalism and Third Way politics of the last decade and the nascent fascisms of Trumpism and Leave.EU. One transforms that structure into an affirmation of lowered expectations –what Fisher called the “capitalist realism” that governs the post-Fordist order – the other into the promise of a transformed future where nothing will actually change. Trump’s inaugural address laid out the nostalgia for Fordist labour in its broadest and most ideological strokes. Caricatures of the experience of “inner city” poverty sit alongside “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation”. The phenomenology of unemployment somehow, in the hands of Trump’s speechwriters, becomes a narrative that “one by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions upon millions of American workers left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.” The upward redistribution of the gains of imperialism, as sites of industrial production move to places without worker protections, becomes the dispersal of a lifeworld, to be restored formally through a legislature “controlled by the people”.

Trumpism inverts the historiography of ‘A Design For Life’: industrial production, as an autonomous process, reproduces the very lifeworld it negated, but deletes the working-class (the “us” of Nicky Wire’s lyric ) who lived it. They now exist only as an abstraction, through the figure of Trump himself. Through the hollowed-out forms of Fordism, he parodies an historical imagination that has otherwise been abolished. As Debord once observed, celebrities form “incarnations of the inaccessible results of social labour”: Trump lives out, through a nostalgia for Fordism, the supposed highest good of society, which that same society constitutively denies – namely, industrial production itself, as the condition of a lifeworld production in turn destroyed. He promises, with his gold toilets and McDonalds diet, a final and apocalyptic union with the world of commodities, which is now the only recognisable form of the knowable values that capital turned on their heads. The fact that the Trumpist dream is only a slight variation on the everyday life of the present – big-box retail parks, vast food deserts, opioid addiction and Fox News, now with a few permanent jobs – should be instructive to socialists. Positive changes to the economy are not, by themselves, enough to create and secure forms of political imagination. Trumpism is a purely formal movement, but too much of leftist discourse since the beginning of the Corbyn moment has, conversely, been possessed purely of content.

What I am not suggesting, as some in the Labour Party have since the 1980s, is that the labour movement should orientate itself strategically towards social hegemony on Gramsci’s model (a program that’s tended to take “culture” in the narrow sense as its vehicle). Nor am I suggesting, as some theorists in the US associated with DSA have, that leftists must offer a ‘materialist’ slate of economic fixes and alliances with the most fossilised trade unions to counter Trump’s fictions of helping the working-class, a notion that relapses into the ‘merely cultural’ struggle they always claim to eschew. Or, that Labour should put their hopes in the offer of “proper, real, blue-collar” jobs, as against what David Graeber has, unhelpfully, called “bullshit jobs”. These suggestions misunderstand the entire relationship between forms of labour and political imagination. Rather, these questions of socialist orientation towards producing an economic and political order different from the present must be integrated in a much larger holistic framework. It is not simply that Corbynites should be prepared to answer the question of what a socialist lifeworld would look like – what forms of community, shared values, experience it would generate, linked to a reformed model of labour. Even the smallest and most timid economic reforms must be seen in the light of a project to create “livelihoods” and shared lifeworlds, far prior to the much deeper and more extensive transformations attendant on a future socialisation of the means of production. Moreover, each posited linkage between new lifeworlds and new experiences of labour must contain the kernel of their own dialectical overcoming; thus leftist programmes of ‘climate jobs’ resulting from investment in renewable energy, as recently touted by Rebecca Long-Bailey, cannot merely establish a new and stable sector of high-tech industry, a new part of the “national cake”, in Williams’s phrase, allocated to the working class, but constitute a site of further struggle around labour, technology, nature and an everyday life enriched in economic and qualitative terms.

Labour can stake out economic positions as radical in quantitative terms as they like – indeed, these are doubtless very useful in the larger policy debate – without suggesting any qualitative social change, without breaking the hold of capitalist realism over the parody of a lifeworld that constitutes the present. The fact that, within the post-Fordist left, the traditions of ecosocialism, feminism and black power have produced more fruitful imaginings of possible collective forms of life suggests a narrowness of scope to the Labour tradition that Corbynism has yet to break out of. Even the intellectual work on the far fringes of Labour that has approached some of these questions – that of Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek for example, who have aligned Corbynist reform with “imagining the future” – has sometimes focused too closely on the individual components of reform (institutions, technology, “platforms”, economic policies, etc) rather than the holistic problem of reform’s aims: namely the production of new forms of liberated life and the reconstructed forms of labour that correspond to them. The longing for a vanished world can’t be assuaged by pretending the dark history of working-class defeat encoded in ‘A Design For Life’ never happened. Nor by programmes that are not programmes, but tables of individual economic and state policy fixes. It can only answered by the production of a new world, from the bottom up.

  1. The reasons for this lie also in the ideologically peculiar nature of British capitalism across its development, highlighted by Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn in their path-breaking series of texts for New Left Review in the 1960s and 70s. In particular working-class self-consciousness was limited by the ratcheting development of British imperialism in the late 19th century, which “created a powerful ‘national’ framework for social contradictions which at normal periods insensibly mitigated them and at moment of crisis transcended them altogether.” 

  2. This is to say nothing of the trend in mainstream design for approximations of ‘industrial’ aesthetics, whether bare wood and metal in bars and restaurants or ‘workwear’ in men’s clothing. 


Dan Barrow (@satinisland)

Dan Barrow is a writer and researcher based in Sheffield. He has written for The Wire, Sight and Sound, Tribune, LA Review of Books and others.