The new patriotism of making

Craftsmanship, quality, integrity, locality, and the importance of ‘the story’.

When times are tough, the tough get making. So claimed none other than Clint Eastwood in his Superbowl half-time pitch for Chrysler. In a voice so gravelly it sounds like a cracked gearbox that lost its last drop of oil 100 miles back, Eastwood parables the Detroit story — once great, KO’d by globalism and cheap offshore labour, now revived after transfusions of foreign (Italian) money and a new US consumer patriotism fueled by signs of life in Motown’s once mighty corpse.

But ‘made is the USA’ ain’t what it used to be. In July 2011, Italian car maker Fiat gained majority ownership and control of Chrysler, after paying back $7.6 billion in U.S. and Canadian government loans to bail the motor giant out of its GFC bankruptcy, which cost U.S. taxpayers $1.3 billion. The cars continue to be products of a global manufacturing chain. None of its three most popular vehicles, the Chrysler 200, Chrysler 300 and Chrysler Town & Country are built in Detroit. Not even a line of clothing items sold by Chrysler Group that promote Detroit as the heart and soul of the brand is made locally. Despite the obvious irony, Chrysler continues to run the slogan ‘Imported from Detroit’.

Chrysler first tried this marketing approach in June 2010, with its ‘The Things We Make, Make Us’ campaign. The ad speaks to the nation’s manufacturing legacy:

“This has always been a nation of builders – craftsmen. Men and women for whom straight stitches and clean welds were matters of personal pride… As a people we do well when we make good things, and not so well when we don’t. The good news is this can be put right. We just have to do it. So we did.”

The new Jeep Grand Cherokee (a Chrysler stable-mate), it says,

“was imagined, drawn, carved, stamped, hewn and forged here; in America. It is well made and it is designed to work. This was once a country where people made things. Beautiful things. And so it is again.”

This promotion of the value of local manufacturing by the brand managers to create affinity with the American buying public is deliciously reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts movement.  ‘Imagined, drawn, carved, stamped, hewn and forged’ — all words that could have been written to describe the pre-industrial workmanship and intrinsic values of William Morris’ fine hand-printed fabrics or Gustav Stickley’s timeless craftsman furniture.

It has to be acknowledged that furnishings to automobiles is a bit of a leap.  And some industry commentators are unsure whether this brand-building actually sells any more cars. Fast.Co commentator Bruce Nussbaum sees it all as being part of a broader societal change — the defining of the next wave of capitalism that he calls ‘Indie capitalism’.

Indie capitalism is ‘a maker system of economics based on creating new value, not trading old value’. It embraces all the strains of maker culture — food, indie music, DIY, craft, 3-D digital fabrication, bio-hacking, app enabling, CAD modeling, robotics, tinkering. Making is not a rare act performed by a few but a routine happening in which just about everyone participates. ‘Making and using tools defines a meaningful existence, and tools shift from a ritual presence to a practical role in everyday life’. In ‘Indie capitalism’, ‘having great tools and making great things begin to replace consumption as an end in itself’.

Nussbaum argues that local, idiomatic design could be what drives next-generation capitalism. He points to the Glif iPhone camera stand on Kickstarter.com, a simple idea that met a need and enjoyed rapid commercial success. No middle men, no big corporations, no venture capital, no investments. Just the concept-to-market equivalent of ‘three chords and the truth’.  It’s easy to see how all of this sits well with ‘design thinking’ proponents who argue for a maker-styled, socially oriented form of everyday, grounded innovation.

Could the maker-model empower individuals and lead to a new form of capitalism?  There is a sizeable gap between home workshop-bound makers and large-scale, profitable innovation, particularly in industries such as automotive. But what’s important for marketing is perception, not reality.

The idea echoes the anti-industrial, Arts and Crafts philosophies of Ruskin and Morris.  If the history of the Arts and Crafts movement repeats, maker-culture will settle into a highly-valued and practiced but commercially niche backwater of design and manufacture.

But history never repeats exactly.  And what Ruskin and Morris didn’t have at their disposal was the twenty-first century’s knowledge economy and information infrastructure.  If the maker movement continues to be fuelled by social media and all things web, supercharged by a protectionist consumer sentiment, then Ruskin and Morris’ visions for an egalitarian, socially responsible form of consumerism might finally come to pass, in a form and on a scale that would have blown their fine artisan minds.

More will undoubtedly be written about this…  much more.

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