The Cooking the Books Column from the May 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
Last September the French Friends of the Earth published a study of “L’obsolescence programmée”. In his 1960 book The Waste Makers Vance Packard mentioned Brooks Stevens, a well-known industrial designer of the time, as one of those favouring the practice. In the February 1960 issue of The Rotarian Stevens quoted from the Weekly People, the paper of the SLP of America:
“But there is another form of waste that is deliberately planned by the capitalists, and which the outspoken among them openly admit is essential to their prosperity. It is called planned obsolescence, or forced obsolescence. This consists of a deliberate scheme, carried out by means of advertising and product design, to persuade people to become dissatisfied with what they have purchased a year or two ago, and to throw it away before it is worn out.”
He replied that obsolete items such as cars were not in fact thrown away but were bought by people who couldn’t afford to buy a new car. His other argument was that it provided jobs. As he had already claimed in 1958: “Our whole economy is based on planned obsolescence, and everybody who can read without moving his lips should know it by now. We make good products, we induce people to buy them, and then next year we deliberately introduce something that will make these products old fashioned, out of date, obsolete.”
Stevens had a point about cars and to some extent about some other goods such as fridges, washing machines and TV sets, but that some people are so poor as to have to rely for basic appliances on second-hand, shoddy stuff is itself a criticism of capitalism. According to the French study, some new goods are not much better:
“The search for a low price takes place to the detriment of the solidity and quality of appliances. This is flagrant for other current consumer goods such as textiles, but also affects household electrical appliances: some drums in washing machines are not made of metal today but of plastic, which increases their fragility.”
This provides a clue about why capitalism has recourse to “planned obsolescence”. It’s to provide cheap goods for wage and salary workers so as to keep wages down. To argue that “our whole economy is based on planned obsolescence” is wrong. The organised waste that planned obsolescence represents does take place under capitalism and the fact that it does is part of the case against capitalism, but capitalism is not kept going by repeat sales of goods consumed by workers.
In fact capitalism is not kept going by consumer demand at all as this is only a consequence of what does keep it going – the accumulation of capital out of profits extracted from wage-labour and converted into money through sales on a market. Consumer demand represents for the most part what workers and their dependents are able to buy out of their wages and salaries, and goes up and down with the level of employment which in its turn depends on capital accumulation.
There is no technical reason why solid and reliable electric and electronic appliances with easily changeable and compatible parts and able to incorporate innovations could not be produced. Industrial designers would surely love to do this but under capitalism it is the marketing department that calls the shots, as what is being produced are not simply products to be used, but commodities to be sold on a market with a view to profit.