In December 2013 US auto giant General Motors announced it would wind up production in Australia. It signalled the end of domestic production of the iconic “Australian” Holden motor car, and subjected thousands of workers and their families in Adelaide and Melbourne, where their plants and components suppliers were located, to the spectre of unemployment. Along with similar announcements from Mitsubishi, Toyota and Ford, as well as major retrenchments in the steel, clothing and textiles industries since the global financial crisis (GFC) in 2008, the announcement fuelled a growing sense of crisis about the future viability of manufacturing industries in the face of seemingly hegemonic overseas competition from cheap labour-cost countries.
The assumption in Australia – as in other advanced economies such as the United Kingdom and the United States – has been that the decline of manufacturing is inevitable, exemplified in commentaries by “experts” in metropolitan broadsheets who have depicted recent crises as part of an inevitable and permanent transition, a “historic shift in the structure of the global economy as the Industrial Revolution finally reaches the developing countries,” as Ross Gittins (2011), economics editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, put it. According to this argument, de-industrializing western countries such as Australia must now find other things to do to replace manufacturing: dig up resources to supply manufacturers in China or India; become tourist destinations; export services (“know-how”) rather than physical commodities; or focus on the so-called “knowledge” and “creative” industries, where the greatest proportion of the value of a product is said to be in its intellectual or design content, not its material fabrication.
In this chapter we critique this state of affairs, and ask, what are the deleterious effects of falsely distancing manufacturing workers and cities from the creative industries debate? We discuss a range of such effects, from setting up novelty and innovation as superior to creative repair and reuse of physical things; to divorcing design processes from physical production and haptic, bodily skills. Dematerializing conceptions of the creative industries also eschews consideration of deeper questions of the social injustices of low-waged labour, and the environmental imprint of forms of cultural production.