Towards a Do-It-Yourself Economy

Submitted by Reddebrek on November 19, 2017

ABOUT TWO MONTHS AGO I CAME TO LONDON with what I thought to be a rather "new" idea — namely the proposal to set up communal work-shops in which people could find the tools and facilities required to make by themselves, in a completely free and spontaneous way, a variety of articles for their personal use. The idea behind this proposition was to explore how far this "do-it-yourself" effort could be pushed, or how far could we go in suggesting the possibility of a major transition in present-day economy from the established principles of mass-production to the more wholesome, although more "idealistic", independent producer-consumer relationship.
I must say that London taught me quite a few surprises and gave me a new outlook: on this whole question. In the first place, I did find out that there was a large number of communal facilities already available in the arts and handicrafts field, throughout the country. The Evening Institutes and similar official organisations have an impressive programme of "leisure-time activities" and I was frankly pleased to see the quantity of tools, instructors and specialised facilities that are at the disposal of everybody wanting to expand his skills — at just nominal fees. Oddly enough, the universal complaint I heard everywhere was not about the lack of facilities, but the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the people to use them. It took me a long time to fully realise this situation and try to understand what causes it, which I will try to discuss in this report.

BOSCO NEDELCOVIC is a Jugoslav-ltalian from Paraguay who has been collaborating with Juan Perez in the search for new forms of industrial organization.

At first glance one is impressed by the amount of do-it-yourself work which is going on in England. A conservative estimate of the British Board of Trade gives an annual figure of £300,000,000 worth of the various do-it-yourself supplies and services that are sold in this country, and the main explanation of this trend is the "raising cost of labour", which obviously makes more and more people perform by themselves such home repairs and fixings which would be too expensive to be done by a hired craftsman. Interesting as the data of the Board of Trade may be, they suggest nevertheless the main handicap and the main limitation to which do-it-yourself activities have been subject so far, not only in England but all over the "affluent society": namely they have grown as a mere by-product of mass-production and not as a creative, independent production force of their own. As a rule, people engage in do-it-yourself activities only in their spare time and then only to make such absolutely inevitable things and repairs that would cost them too much to call in a specialised worker. Only seldom do they really desire and enjoy making something for the sake of doing it — or for the sake of their own independence from the usual patterns of mass-production and mass-distribution.

Now this brings us to the question of social organisation, for it is obvious that people's attitudes and tendencies are largely formed by the economic system they live under. It would be naive to expect everybody to go upstream for the sake of doing it, when the whole course of events suggests that it is so much easier to follow the trend and get a "perfect" article on those easy hire-purchase terms, instead of working many hours to produce some crude replica with our own hands … And we must not be too sentimental in blaming people for having lost their "pride in craftsmanship" or their ability to use their hands (and their brains) at all, when the whole machinery of a mass-production system leads them to do without these abilities. In the end one cannot either blame the cheap entertainments like TV or cinema or modern dancing, which compete in attracting people and keeping them away from the evening institutes and taking what little time is left to them as genuine "leisure" … I mean, all this is part of a total scheme, the scheme of mass-production with all its mass-conditioning from which we cannot possibly escape, unless an equally "total" alternative is offered. And we must keep this well in mind before considering the alternative scheme of communal workshops, or rejecting it too soon as a failure.

From what I have seen visiting the various institutes and community centres in and around London, I would say that the main reason for the poor results reported lies in the lack of a broader vision of the role which the community workshop might be called to perform in that community. I have seen plenty of facilities and often remarkable organisation for training and teaching; but, essentially, I have seen none of the essential conviction to make people realise that they were really and truly being helped to develop a new pattern of living, and not merely to acquire some secondary abilities or just use their "leisure time" in a way which might be considered more creative or profitable. It would be too much, of course, to expect the Evening Institutes or our present community centres to be consciously promoting a new pattern of living; and yet, I feel that this is precisely what is needed if the money and the effort invested in them is to be used in a worthwhile manner at all.

Basically our present "community centres" and workshops suffer from the same characteristics and handicaps inherent to the social system in which they develop — namely they are all more or less "regimented" and "specialised", although to a lesser extent than one would see in a factory or business premises. And yet, in the case of evening institutes, one still sees that there are separate and definite "courses", programmes and curricula, which must be attended with certain regularity on certain days and hours. No matter how liberal and broad-minded may be the aims of the people involved in programming the courses, the unescapable fact is that the "pupils" are still supposed to attend a school-type activity which is, over and over again, only "accessory" to their main specialised occupation in life. By definition our present leisure-time efforts and facilities are not in competition with, but merely complementary (in a mild and conformist fashion) to the leading and overwhelming idea of mass-production as the only worthwhile mechanism of society.

Then again you have the almost ridiculous discrimination of workshop facilities "for young people" or for "retired people" only. For example, I went with great excitement to Welwyn Garden City where I had heard of a community workshop project which seemed on paper to be exactly what Juan Perez and I had been seeking. This had been set up in 1961 and was backed by the local authorities, the youth service and local industry. It contained a machine shop, a woodworking room, an electrical workshop, a photographic room and a tea-bar, all fully equipped. The organisers emphasised that the workshop,

"is not a club. There is no membership and no subscription. You pay a fee of 2s. each time you go. You go there when you wish, as often as you wish. For this you get use of the workrooms and workbenches, use of the tools and machinery you need and advice from experts if you want it. You do the job yourself and nobody will interfere unless you ask for help."

And yet I left this workshop disappointed. The age restriction to people between 15 and 25 excluded many of those who could have made the most of the facilities, there seemed an unspoken assumption that the users would be devoted to old-style craftsmanship as though this were a good in itself, there seemed little stimulus to genuine experimentation.

Let me make it clear how much I appreciate all that is done to provide greater opportunities for both the very young and the very old people, by the way of workshop facilities where they could develop their creative interests and abilities. What I find so utterly disappointing is that, again in this case, the whole issue of "do-it-yourself" work is degraded and dissolved as a secondary, part-time activity which is largely offered to young people before they reach the age of any "serious" (and hence "specialised") job — or to the old who have retired, due to their age, from any such "serious", "real" economic activity. It seems to me that in both cases the full significance of do-it-yourself activity is systematically neglected, perhaps because it is potentially capable of exploding the whole mass-production system such as we know it today.

Now the whole question really boils down to a matter of "status", which is again a part and an ingredient of the mass-production society. People may do a lot of do-it-yourself work in their spare time, and even be very fond of it; but, you see, they couldn't possibly take it more seriously than a "hobby": something that "adds" to the pleasure of living, eventually, but never really "makes" a living — or keeps the economy running. That is naturally left to the established, "accepted" patterns of mass-production, for which few people conditioned by such accepted views would ever dare to seek an alternative. No serious economist of our days, I am afraid, would venture to suggest anything like a "blueprint of a do-it-yourself economy", as the title of this short article boldly displays it, even if he were convinced that such a thing could work out in practice — without seeing his professional reputation greatly jeopardised, to say the least…. And of course; in the minds of most lay people any similar proposition would immediately be associated with the many Utopian dreams and schemes which have stirred up the imagination of wishful thinkers in the past — but have never really got down to the roots of any practical solution.

And yet I believe that mankind is closer today than it was ever before to the core of a "basic idea" that may finally transform the economy of mass-production into a more decent system from a humanistic point of view. Never before, and never on such a scale as today, have the contrasts and shortcomings of the "affluent conception" been more evident or more disturbing. The inevitable overproduction and waste, the compulsive drive toward excess consumption, the hopeless race between human employment and automation and above all — the tragic uncapacity of a whole system to discern between what is really "necessary" and what isn't, between the actual demands of life and the artificial appetites spurred by a particular type of civilisation: all this has already become a commonplace in much of today's literature as well as sociology. Why then should it seem so difficult, or so "Utopian", to propose a radical change in the whole system — to propose a different economic structure that would aim to assure the "basic" needs of life to everybody, while leaving at the same time plenty of liberty for the individual pursuit of those "extra" wants, as the do-it-yourself philosophy precisely aims to suggest?

In my opinion there are two major stumbling blocks which hinder the acceptance of the do-it-yourself principles as a full-time economic philosophy. One of them is the naive belief, perhaps inferred from the association with the word "workshop", that all activity under such a philosophy would or indeed ought to be performed in "small productive units" scattered all over a predominantly rural network of human settlements, as an equally naive and bucolic conception of the "future society" would lead, us to imagine … And it is quite natural for any sensible person to question what would become, under such conditions, of the impressive achievements of modern technology which, however reluctant we may feel to admit it, have so deeply affected the condition of man on earth that it would be unthinkable to do without them. It is this prejudice, the idea of the "small workshop" as the only "genuine" expression of do-it-yourself philosophy, that must be challenged most emphatically. In other words, I believe that the principle of do-it-yourself should by no means be limited to the small, individual, craft activity which it is usually associated with; on the contrary, I do not see why we should not have entire manufacturing plants being converted to suit the needs and demands of do-it-yourself operation-by redesigning and simplifying the articles to be produced in them, as well as by rearranging the whole manufacturing process in such a way as to allow practically any normal person, with a minimum of training, to fit in that process and work for the length of time required to actually "earn" the article being produced in a given factory.

Nothing of this kind has been proposed or attempted in modern times, as far as I know; and yet, technically at least, there is no reason why such a thing should not be feasible, and even more today than it has been in any other period of history. The extension of the do-it-yourself scheme to include not only "communal workshops" but entire industrial factories as well should make it possible to take advantage of all the modern engineering and scientific achievements of our time — and still keep a "flexible" system of production, geared to suit true human needs and not artificial market requirements. It naturally derives from the above proposition that people would still have to work, for a certain number of hours or days, in a certain place in a production line, not very different from what they use nowadays; and it also derives that many technical duties demanding higher skills would still be in the hands of a limited number of "skilled" individuals, who would in all probability acquire these skills out of a more genuine personal inclination than one could expect from just material incentivation. But the fundamental, revolutionary fact of a do-it-yourself economy would nevertheless hold true in all its extension — namely, that even if people would have to keep working on an "assembly line" to earn what they want, they would do so only during limited periods or strictly as long as needed to actually "produce" — in terms of man-hours — the article they desire … and would never be compelled to stay in that work for the rest of their life. What is even more important, a "do-it-yourself factory", and the do-it-yourself economy as a whole, would in no way be obliged to run all the time to keep people "employed": it could be stopped and restarted according to people's needs and nothing else, thereby establishing a genuine producer-consumer relationship as it could never be conceived under the present "constant" system of mass-production.

This brings is to the second "stumbling block" — or straight into the question of how a transition from the present economy into a hypothetic do-it-yourself economy is to be operated. Here again we must beware of a number of very dear but very mistaken ideas and prejudices which are currently associated with any mention of a "change" in our social system. It is, I should say, a widespread belief that no fundamental change could possibly come along in a society without the aid of a "revolution" … whatever be the exact idea you may have of this word. In the case of "community workshops" and the whole question of the do-it-yourself philosophy as opposed to the very structure of an affluent society, I have naturally come across the same objections and suggestions — namely that the gradual building-up of do-it-yourself facilities, and the consequent slowing-down of established mass-production patterns, would eventually bring the whole system to an "explosive point" leading to either a "revolutionary transition" to a new way of life … or to a "counter-revolutionary" repression of do-it-yourself activities, to use the 'established' jargon on such technical matters …

The question is obviously one of crucial importance, but I do not believe that it has been posed in the right terms. Perhaps this is due to the subjective fact that I have grown myself in an affluent society — and therefore do not regard things with the "revolutionary" outlook, in the traditional sense of the word, but would rather suggest the idea of an "accelerated evolution" which is after all becoming a must all over the world. I think, in fact, that the pressures inside the very structure of an affluent society are becoming such a burden to everybody, and that the nonsense of keeping "full-employment", overproduction and overconsumption at full speed is becoming so dramatically evident that no sensible person would, in time, oppose a sensible proposition for a sensible transformation, however radical it may be, in the structure of our society. I know that this may sound like empty idealistic talk to many … but just let me finish the idea please.

It seems to me that too many people have insisted upon the necessity — or the inevitability — of bringing the present economy to a "collapse", thereby creating the right atmosphere for a "social revolution", but very few indeed have really elaborated upon what would follow afterwards. If we are to look at things dispassionately, it seems to me that an essential preliminary step toward any deep social transformation would be to establish some sort of a "basic guarantee of subsistence" — a basic income or a minimum level of welfare which would provide to every individual, whether "employed" or not, his elementary needs such as food and shelter. Only in this way could any major transformation be carried out — especially like the one suggested, or led to, by the do-it-yourself philosophy which would be leaving an increasing number of workmen and entire industries "redundant", in the traditional sense of the word, as it gathers momentum. I believe that it is no good to promise a better social system or a better way of life in the future — if the present must be left helpless to starve to death in the process; and the opposition of the "employers" to any such scheme would certainly be no greater than that of the "employees" themselves, as long as they depend upon their present jobs for sheer subsistence.

If, on the other hand, such a "guarantee" could be established, one could safely assume that almost any kind of social transformation could easily take place over a certain period of time. If a "basic economy" could be kept going in such a way as to provide for the "basic needs" of every individual — involving, in return, a minimum of "basic work" from everybody — it wouldn't matter if all other activities were gradually or temporarily brought to a standstill, so to speak. Nobody would feel disturbed if a factory had to be shut down after the needs of the community had been reasonably fulfilled — knowing that nobody would be deprived of his "subsistence level", and that the same factory could be brought back in operation as soon as the need arises again.

Of course, all the foregoing may be taken, at the time being, for just another wishful speculation and nothing else. I have thought it necessary, nevertheless, to tackle the question of an eventual transition to a do-it-yourself economy because I think it is not such a wild dream as it may seem today. If a serious effort were made to develop a number of simplified articles — from household appliances to cars or anything else normally manufactured by mass-production techniques — and if one or more "pilot plants" could be established where people could work a given number of hours, as suggested above, to "earn" a given article, I think that the whole scheme would catch the imagination of people without the need of hidden persuaders … And if that happens, I do not see why the proposition should not eventually snowball to encompass the whole economic life of a nation — provided that the many critical aspects of the transition have been taken care of in advance. To my way of seeing, the technical problems of designing and redesigning the goods and the industrial facilities to suit the ideal of a flexible, stop-and-start-again, do-it-yourself production scheme are child's play to modern engineering; it is the underlying philosophy which has to be made clear, convincing and acceptable to everybody.

Acceptable it must become if the world at large is to cope with the mounting problems of automation, population, disarmament, underdevelopment and all else involved. If we accept the fact that both the Capitalist and the Socialist block are essentially pursuing the same goal — affluence — and that after this goal has been reached they both will be in the same jam, their ideological differences being of no use to transform the essence of the production-consumption relationship, then we must logically ask what lies beyond affluence.

Even assuming that disarmament takes place and that the huge material expenditures now wasted in war preparations are diverted to peaceful purposes — particularly to the development of the poorer nations — the prospects of such transition, within the industrialised nations to be affected by disarmament, are upsetting. And finally, even a peaceful economy is an economy of waste and nonsense — under the affluent conception. People can keep on being just slaves of their needs in the middle of unprecedented abundance — as they have been for centuries in the middle of poverty. It is not abundance which can provide the freedom from want, but an intelligent system of production to produce such abundance — or just as much as is reasonable for a happy life. Under the present economic system, we are driven to produce and to create ever more abundance, whether we want it or not; we just have no alternative, and the one thing we understand is that we must keep producing — for our own job and security is at stake in every form of consumption and in every act of "necessary" waste. One may argue about a better distribution, more social justice, a shorter working week and a lot of other improvements in the constant-speed, mass-production affluent society; one may argue whether private initiative or state administration is more or less efficient; one may praise the workers' collectives for their independent administration, or the co-operatives for their rightful share given to every individual. These are all worthy but limited amendments to a basically wrong scheme; the "basically wrong" part of it remains in that the "production" and the "consumption" aspects of an economy — whether it be Capitalist, Socialist, co-operative or else — are still dissociated from each other. Even the purest humanistic or co-operativistic ideals have not been able, so far, to make themselves really independent from the "market", to bring "production" and "consumption" together in a way that would satisfy the genuine needs of every individual without imposing any artificial needs or drives upon him. Only the principle of "do-it-yourself" can fully integrate the two aspects — of course not at the level of the primitive man but of the truly "modern" man, one that has emerged from both the natural limitations of his primitive environment, as well as from the social limitations of his present economic structures.


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