The Politics of Repair

The politics of repair are often invisible, hidden by the idea that repair is no more than the mundane practice of putting what is broken or worn-out back in good working order. But against the background of an economy driven by compulsive consumption and heedless waste that enrich the capitalist class, repair is more than a matter of sensible thrift. It is a form of dissent.

Consumerist ideology, fueled by relentless advertising, tells us to seek relief from our pains and insecurities by buying more and more of what we don’t really need. To practice repair is to resist cooperating in this process. It is to oppose the throwaway mentality that drives capitalist societies toward environmental destruction. Repair is, in this way, a small rebellion against an ecologically suicidal form of economy.

Of course repair is not always the enemy of consumption. There are expensive consumer items—motor vehicles, large appliances—that we might not buy if repair were not possible. In these cases, manufacturers and retailers are happy to sell us repair services at a further profit. This presumes, however, that the items in question are designed to be reparable and built to last. The politics of repair include these matters of design and durability.

Things can be made to be reparable, or not. Things can be designed and built to be reparable by users or independent repairers, or not. Things can be designed and built so poorly as to make repair impractical. Things—computers are the paradigm example—can be made to be upgradable and kept in service, or to become obsolete and disposable in a short time. The politics of repair begin to play out long before the things we might wish to repair ever reach our hands.

Supposing that repair is possible and practical, the question arises, Reparable by whom?  Knowledge and skill are hoarded when repair can be effected by only an authorized few, whether for reasons of design and construction, or legality (“your warranty is void if you open this case”).  When competent repair by users or independent repairers is possible, knowledge and skill are distributed, democratized. The chances of populist innovation—inventions and improvements made by everyday tinkerers—are also increased.

Knowing how to repair something requires knowing how it works. Such knowledge can foster self-reliance and feelings of competence; it can be, in a word, empowering. These social goods—a grasp of how the world works and the ability to deal with it effectively—can be distributed equally or unequally, just like wealth. This distribution of technical prowess is in part a result of the politics of repair.

Repair can empower not just individuals but communities. This can be seen in the ad hoc repair workshops popping up in the U.S. and Europe in which people help each other fix bikes, small appliances, smart phones, and other easily portable items. Supporting local, independent repairers builds a similar kind of communal self-reliance. Whereas replacement and disposal reinforce our dependence on capitalist corporations, repair can foster interdependence with our neighbors.

Wendell Berry makes the point that a true materialist would be someone who takes responsibility for the proper care of material objects—land, tools, machinery, buildings. He argues that American industrial culture is not materialist in this sense. It is, rather, disdainful of matter, both natural and humanly made, as evident in the wasteful disregard with which we treat it.

Berry advocates what capitalism undermines: an ethic of care and responsibility. Being mindful of the value of repair and actually practicing it are expressions of this ethic. This can also be called an ethic of stewardship, proceeding from the idea that we have a moral obligation to protect and preserve the planet that gives us life and will give life to future generations. Keeping things in good repair is part of meeting this obligation. Capitalism would have us destroy it all if doing so created new opportunities for short-term profits.

Despite capitalism’s corrosion of an ethic of care and responsibility, virtue still attaches to the idea of repair. The spirit of Puritanism (or perhaps of Benjamin Franklin) lingers strongly enough in American culture to squelch the outright celebration of waste. The association of repair with manly self-reliance also gives it a positive cast. While this makes it easy to offer a principled argument on behalf of repair, it also enables the manipulative use of the rhetoric of repair.

In recent years we have heard state budgets, welfare programs, and government itself described as “broken.” This alleged brokenness was the pretext for Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, to put forward a “budget repair bill” in the spring of 2011, after he and other Republicans took control of state government. Calling for repair appealed to the commonsense frugality of the same people who soon found themselves fixed right out of their collective bargaining rights. What was in fact being repaired, from the standpoint of Walker’s corporate backers, was a government that had malfunctioned by providing too much democracy.

But to wield the rhetoric of repair is not to perform an act of useful and ecologically wise repair. It can be, as the example above suggests, an attempt to exploit the impulse to restore a familiar and seemingly functional state of affairs. The lesson might thus be that all calls for repair must be assessed mindfully. What is it, we should consider, that constitutes repair in any given case? What is to be gained or lost, by whom, if repair is undertaken or forgone? Such questions inevitably touch on the politics of repair, if only at the household level.

Where both the politics of repair and capitalist myopia are most clearly on display is in the realm of public infrastructure. According to a 2013 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, we need to spend $3.6 trillion to put our nation’s aging infrastructure into a state of good repair. If we don’t do this, the ASCE says, it will end up costing each American family over $3000 a year in disposable income. No doubt the costs will rise the longer we wait. So why isn’t this repair work a national priority? Why isn’t it being used as an opportunity to create a massive jobs program?

The answers reveal that the politics of repair are inseparable from politics more generally. Though profit-making depends on a reliable system of roads, schools, utilities, airports, seaports, fire and police departments, water and sewage treatment plants, and so on, repair is being deferred because profits have been boosted by other means: tax cuts and tax incentives for corporations, colossal military spending, trade policies that make it easier to exploit foreign workers, and new laws that weaken domestic labor and keep wages down.

Under these conditions, using infrastructural repair as a way to train and employ millions of Americans is unlikely to happen. To do so would tighten the labor market and drive wages up, thus pushing profits down. And right now, corporate capitalists feel no compelling need to accept a smaller slice of the economic pie for the sake of rebuilding the infrastructure on which we all depend. As long as profits are higher than ever and the masses quiet, let it crumble.

Perhaps this will change when the costs become too high. Perhaps at some point there will be one bridge collapse, one school closure, one levee break too many and popular pressure will force state action. Even so, we should expect a struggle to determine who will pay for the rebuilding. These are, or will be, the next generation’s politics of repair.

To confront the need for repair and to consider the feasibility of repair is to reflect on the practical and symbolic value of things—not just what they can do for us but what they mean to us. Capitalism disparages these values because replacement is more profitable than repair. In this context, to resist the throwaway mentality, to preserve the usable and meaningful, is an act of dissent. Repair won’t by itself create a sustainable world, but it is only through commitment to the ethic and practice of repair that such a world will be possible.

Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University.  He can be reached at MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com.

Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com