red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen

 

 

The Support Economy:
Why Corporations are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism

Shoshanna Zuboff and James Maxmin
New York: Viking ©2002

 

You don't need anyone to tell you that dealing with the world as we've come to know it in the early years of the 21st century is exhausting. What you may be interested in understanding, however, is how we've ended up here and what we can do about it. That's exactly what the authors of The Support Economy offer in their fascinating, encouraging, detailed yet very readable, and ultimately optimistic book.

Grounded in solid historical information (extensively footnoted) about trends in population, economics, class, gender, and work, Zuboff and Maxmin make the case that the "standard enterprise logic" of our corporate workplaces and the current economic system is totally outdated and inappropriate for the kind of people we have become. "People have changed more than the corporations upon which their well-being depends." As their subtitle suggests, the places where most of us work are not compatible with who we are as individuals. And "in the frustration and rage that now separate individuals from organizations lie the keys to a wholly new economic order."

Our hundred-year-old system, known as managerial capitalism and developed in part by Henry Ford for mass production and mass consumption, can no longer provide what we need to fulfill our lives. Not only that, it's looking more and more like these organizations can't even sustain themselves as viable economic entities. While the last fifty years have seen no shortage of experts offering their particular management flavor-of-the-month to fix this crisis, they only address the symptoms. New opportunities for creating wealth are out there, say Zuboff and Maxmin, but business as it now exists is completely blind to the possibilities.

This "standoff between individuals and companies" is what the authors label the "transaction crisis." The disconnects are everywhere. Whether you're getting your car fixed, buying groceries, scheduling a doctor's appointment, changing phone lines, or hoping to land at the airport with all your luggage and gear on the same plane, you know the challenges.

In essence, we're asked to separate ourselves into two different people — and employee and a consumer, each of which has very different needs — all day, every day. But we know the conflicting nature of both roles. As employees, we mouth the corporate line and do our best to reduce services to customers, which cuts costs for the company and (maybe) helps us hold onto our jobs. Then as customers, we're the very people who face those reduction-in-service barriers that make our lives such a hassle. We often disengage emotionally and psychologically from our interactions in order to do our jobs — and we're often angry and frustrated when we try to get service from a business.

Zuboff and Maxmin contend that the wealth created in the mass production/mass consumption economy actually leads to such changes in society's needs. But we don't want more of the same from business. Today, we want to be recognized as individuals, ready to take our lives into our own hands and willing "to pay for the support and advocacy necessary to fulfill that yearning." We need a "new enterprise logic" — the "next leap forward in wealth creation" that depends upon developing a "new capitalism, a distributed capitalism," that recognizes and supports the shift we've made as individuals. We need an economy based on values and individual development, what the authors call a "support economy," one capable of filling the needs of the new individual and one that truly takes advantage of digital technologies to help make it real.

If you're tired of practicing "career taxidermy" (making something dead look as if it's alive) and working under "organizational narcissism" (where producers and organizations consider themselves the center of their unique solar system and dismiss the customer as the "last rock from the sun"), you'll be interested in this very accessible discussion of "the new society of individuals," the "individuation of consumption," and the "federated support networks" that have the potential for offering the "deep support" each of us needs in this new world.

As Zuboff and Maxmin look at the current crisis of confidence in the corporation, the role of women as a force for economic change, and the opportunities for businesses, entrepreneurs, policymakers, leaders, and citizens, they offer a very realistic picture of how to make the trial-and-error, learn-as-we-go, ten-to-thirty year transition to the system of "distributed capitalism" that can create the next round of wealth for us all.

 

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