Speeding up Fast Capitalism: Cultures, Jobs, Families, Schools, Bodies

Ben Agger, Speeding up Fast Capitalism: Cultures, Jobs, Families, Schools, Bodies (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2004).

Another specter is haunting capitalism – this time, fast acceleration and its uncertain consequences. This is a profound book and also a real adventure. Although its title sounds like something from a sci-fi movie, it is a critical, theoretically informed study of the changes and impacts associated with fast capitalism. Agger does a fine job in bringing a common public concern into the realm of sociological debate. He makes this clear from the start: “This book describes how fast capitalism has gotten even faster, and it traces the implications of all this for culture, work, schooling, childhood, diet and bodies” (3).

The first two chapters (“Faster Capitalism” and “Domination at the Speed of Light”) introduce the reader to the dynamics of fast capitalism and also to a Marxian analysis as developed by the Frankfurt School (e.g., Herbert Marcuse). Agger argues that under modern capitalism, “Faster production must be matched by faster consumption …[which] depends on insatiable needs, on planned obsolence, on striking the fancy of consumers increasingly inured to claims of The Next Big Thing” (17). The author stresses the importance of new media such as the Internet, among whose unintended consequences he mentions the “de-urbanization and perhaps even the ‘de-malling’ of America…” (18).

The third chapter focuses on the transformation of work. Although faster production and service may be convenient for consumers, its effect for workers at places like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s is to intensify “a cycle of poverty, despair, and anxiety” (75). Fast capitalism at the same time expands the sheer volume of work. Perhaps the most eye-opening chapter, however, is the fourth (“Fast Families and Virtual Children”), where Agger, using a feminist critique, brings out the effects of fast capitalism in the home, creating what he might have called Frankenstein Families and Zombie Children. He views women as suffering a disproportionate share of the stress produced by fast capitalism.

In “Fast Food, Fasting Bodies,” he addresses how fast capitalism also enters the food chain, constructing fat and radically thin human bodies. As he points out, “Fast food appeals not only to people on the run…but also to people who seek standardization…in a world that is jumbled and chaotic” (113). Agger also uses feminist criticism to show how women have been influenced to fast excessively in order to achieve some ideal physical figure (121).

In his concluding chapter (“Slowmodernity”), Agger returns to influences from the Frankfurt School and critical theory. He argues: “The forces of capital…have colonized what used to be off limits to the social and political…, subjecting all of life … to scheduling, producing, connecting, messaging, immersing oneself in the quotidian and therefore losing sight of the bigger picture” (132). He closes with a very appealing 10-point agenda, including an admonition to “defy productivism—use time to produce not commodities for market but selves for civil society and for family…” (158).

I think one can add a few lines here. It’s not that most people are lazy and refuse to work; rather the problem is the extreme degree to which capitalism commodifies everything, including the worker. What is needed, I think, is work-alternatives like civil-work programs or citizen-works. Under this scheme (which is advocated by Ulrich Beck), citizens would get paid a basic income (citizens-wage) to cover living expenses in return for performing necessary functions required by civil society. These could include baby-sitting, community lecturing, health service-work and other forms of community service. An example is the European Union’s Erasmus program, which pays tax-free scholarship stipends for university students to acquire another European language, or to transfer to another European school.

Agger’s book performs the important service of carrying a radical critique of capitalism outside the academy. It is an excellent tool for political education.

Reviewed by Michael Buhl

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