• authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, Jun 22, 2002

Why We Call Them The Machine

Several months ago we began experimenting with language here on the MFD web site. We began using alternative terms to describe certain organizations and concepts. Instead of "rank and file" we adopted "Power Source" to describe working people. We distinguished between unions and business unions by calling the latter - biz-union. "Machine" was also a term we used to describe biz unions. An explanation from an earlier weekly review:

"Machine" is a descriptor or a label. We use labels to describe or express how we feel about things. Labels help us and others understand our feelings. They also help us reconceptualize our relationships with organizations and people. We know that The Machine would rather be called the "union" or the "almighty union" because that is how it wants us to think about it and feel in relation to it. But, hey if that's just not how we're feeling about it, why should we?

From time to time, various representatives of the machine - sometimes called machine heads - have taken exception to the term. Some have even written to us asking for an explanation. We were hoping that they would figure it out for themselves but if they can't, they can't. The inspiration for "The machine" comes from a passage in a book called The Third Wave, by Alvin Toffler:

The Reassurance Ritual

Born of the liberating dreams of Second Wave (Industrial age) revolutionaries, representative government was a stunning advance over earlier power systems, a technological triumph more striking in its own way than the steam engine or the airplane.

Representative government made possible orderly succession without hereditary dynasty. It opened feedback channels between top and bottom in society. It provided an arena in which the differences among various groups could be reconciled peacefully.

Tied to majority rule and the idea of one-man/one-vote, it helped the poor and weak to squeeze benefits from the technicians of power (the guys who run things in business, government and even in unions) who ran the integrational engines (the processes that keep everything working for the guys who run things) of society. For these reasons, the spread of representative government was, on the whole, a humanizing breakthrough in history.

Yet from the very beginning it fell far short of its promise. By no stretch of the imagination was it ever controlled by the people, however defined. Nowhere did it actually change the underlying structure of power in industrial nations--the structure of sub-elites, elites and super-elites, the formal machinery of representation became one o the key means of integration by which they maintained themselves in power.

Thus elections, quite apart from who won them, performed a powerful cultural function for the elites. To the degree that everyone had a right to vote, elections fostered the illusion of equality. Voting provided a mass ritual of reassurance, conveying to the people the idea that choices were being made systematically, with machine-like regularity, and hence, by implication, rationally. Elections symbolically assured citizens that hey were t in command --that they could, in theory at least, dis-elect as well as elect leaders. In both capitalist and socialist countries, these ritual reassurances often provided more important than the actual outcomes of many elections.

Integrational elites programmed and political machinery differently in each place, controlling the number of parties or manipulating voting eligibility. Yet the electoral ritual--some might say farce--was employed everywhere. The fact that Soviet and Eastern European elections routinely produced magical majorities of 99 and 100 percent suggested that the need for reassurance remained at least as strong in the centrally planned societies as in the "free world". Elections took the steam out of protests from below.

Furthermore, despite the efforts of democratic reformers and radicals, the integrational elites retained virtually permanent control of the systems of representative government. Many theories have been advanced to explain why. Most however, overlook the mechanical nature of the system.

If we look at Second Wave political systems, with the eyes of an engineer rather than a political scientists', we suddenly are struck by a key fact that generally goes unobserved.

Industrial engineers routinely distinguish between two fundamentally different classes of machine: those that function intermittently, otherwise known as "batch-processing" machines, and those that function uninterruptedly, called "continuous-flow" machines. An example of the first is the commonplace punch press. The worker brings a batch of metal plates and feeds them into the machine, one or a few at a time, to stamp them into desired shapes. When the batch is finished the machine stops until a new batch is brought. An example of the second is the oil refinery, which, once started up, never stops running. Twenty-four hours a day oil flows through its pipes and tubes and chambers.

If we look at the global law factory, with its intermittent voting, we find ourselves face to face with a classical batch processor. The public is allowed to choose between candidates at stipulated times, after which the formal "democracy machine" is switched off again.

Contrast this with the continuous flow of influence from various organized interests, pressure groups, and power peddlers. Swarms of lobbyists from corporations and from government agencies, departments, and ministries testify before committees, serve on blue-ribbon panels, attend the same receptions and banquets, toast each other with cocktails in Washington or vodka in Moscow, carry information and influence back and forth, and thus affect the decision-making process on a round-the-clock basis.

The elites, in short, created a powerful continuous-flow machine to operate alongside and often at cross purposes with) the democratic batch processor. Only when we see these two machines side by side can we begin to understand how state power was really exercised in the global law factory.

So long as they played the representational game, people had at best only intermittent opportunities, through voting, to feed back their approval or disapproval of the government and its action. The technicians of power, by contrast, influenced those actions continuously.

Finally, an even more potent tool for social control was engineered into the very principle of representation. For the mere selection of some people to represent others created new members of the elite.

When workers, for example, first fought for the right to organize unions, they were harassed, prosecuted for conspiracy, followed by company spies, or beaten up by police and good squads. They were outsiders, unrepresented or inadequately represented in the system.

Once unions established themselves, they gave rise to a new group of integrators--the labor--establishment--whose members, rather than simply representing the workers, mediated between them and the elites in business and government. The George Meanys and Georges Seguys of the world, despite their rhetoric, became themselves key members of the integrational elite. The fake union leaders in the USSR and Eastern Europe never were anything but technicians of power.

In theory, the need to stand for re-election guaranteed that representatives would stay honest and would continue to speak for those they represented. Nowhere, however, did this prevent the absorption of representatives into the architecture of power. Everywhere the gap widened between the representative and the represented.

Representative government--what we have been taught to call democracy--was, in short, an industrial technology for assuring inequality. Representative government was pseudorepresentative.

What we see, then, glancing backward for moment of summary, is a civilization heavily dependent on fossil fuels, factory production, the nuclear family the corporation, mass education and the mass media, all based on a widening cleavage between production and consumption--and all managed by a set of elites whose task it was to integrate the whole.

In this system, representative government was the political equivalent of the factory. Indeed, it was a factory for the manufacture of collective integrational decisions. Like more factories, it was managed from above and like most factories, it is now increasingly obsolete, a victim of the advancing Third Wave. The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler, Bantam, 1980 (pages 75-78)

In his book Toffler describes the "third wave" as the beginning of a new era in human civilization. According to Toffler, the third wave is part of a progression that began with agrarian civilization (first wave) some 10,000 years ago, was overtaken by the industrial era (second wave) some 300 years ago. The progression from second to third wave (a knowledge and information-based civilization) is happening as we speak and there is a lot of conflict as a result of the shift.

The Third Wave catches up with the biz-unions

Corporate managers and union representatives at the Lomans warehouse may want to give the Third Wave a read, especially if they are struggling to understand what is going on with workers at their warehouse in Langley, BC. Nearing the end of a 10 year collective agreement (a rarity even for the UFCW), 250 of them got layoff notices a couple of months ago and they've been behaving in a most unsportsman-like manner ever since.

Unwilling to blame themselves for their employer's woes, or to go quietly to the unemployment line, or to thank their union for the memory, these guys have been asking questions, demanding answers and threatening direct action against their employer and their union. Their union has filed a couple of complaints on their behalf with the BC LRB and has encouraged them to sit tight while the LRB does its important work. One complaint has already gone south and the other has the potential to do likewise. While the workers have not abandoned their union, they are applying a lot of pressure for information, support and inclusion in the decisions that stand to affect them for the rest of their working lives.

From their ranks have come worker leaders who are shattering all the traditional myths about working stiffs. One of them inked a letter to his brothers earlier this week. The letter is an eloquent and articulate analysis on the subject of "downsizing"; what it's really all about and what can be done to counteract it. In the letter, which was featured on MFD Front page, Darryl Gehlen:

Assesses the situation:

Dear Brothers,
It seems that we might be tested. At times like this we are reassured by knowing as much as possible about what we are facing and what our options are. Once we have that information and a chance to digest it we usually feel more committed and confident in choosing a course of action and making it effective.

In talking with many of you, I understand that you are extremely motivated to win this battle. There is anger, frustration, confusion, and many questions. Mostly I sense you are royally pissed off. Ten years of frustration and resentment and doubt are now going to be expressed with a vengeance in this battle. We never wanted this but if that's the road we have to go down then so be it.

But how did we get to this point? How does this all make sense? Once the enemy and its' agenda is defined we feel much better about planning and executing our defense.

Talks about what's really going on:

THIS IS ALL ABOUT SOCIAL ECONOMIC POLICY MAKING BY THOSE NOT ELECTED TO DO SO. It's about the distribution of wealth, or more specifically, the desire not to. It's about who gets to eat the pie and how thick their slices are. The worker is not invited. A slice will be given to the "third party" and you can fight over that but don't even think about anything more. IN THIS CASE THE CUSTOMER HAS BECOME A VOTER AND MUST BE INFORMED OF THAT FACT. You're not just leafleting; you are educating the customer, the voter, the only real master that corporations must listen to. That is why I refer to leafleting the customer as educating the voter.

Social economic policy comes from elected officials through dialogue and consultation so as to promote equity and stability within the country and its communities. This is not happening as evidenced by the huge and growing gap between rich and poor. It's getting difficult to tell the difference between politics and big business. In choosing where money gets spent or not spent, the voter is casting their yes or no vote. Fortunately we get to vote each and every day and if we feel we voted wrong last time we can change our vote. This is "voting" in the "Information Age".

Discusses getting the community involved:

Perhaps the most important questions for the customer (voter) are what will be the consequences for our children, their children, our communities, our culture, if the working people of this province do not participate in taking a stand? Who will be volunteering to coach the kids' soccer team when Mom and Dad are both working several part-time Mcjobs and still barely making it? What will become of the family unit? What will happen to health care and the elderly? What will happen to crime statistics? Divorce rates? Alcoholism? The list goes on. And if working people are working as hard as they can and not making it are they not "new-era slaves", "information age slaves"? Who will be supporting small business when no one has any disposable income? What has free trade and the corporate agenda behind it brought to this country? Aren't these things worth discussing?

Nails the biz-guys and what's motivating them:

One thing I can tell you for sure: you can trust that the owner will never be on that jet when it takes off with the bum fuel. He simply and logically has doubts about whether the crew can properly do their jobs under those circumstances.

This never had anything to do with you or the principles of a capitalistic, free enterprise business. OFG has very foolishly exposed itself to an argument it cannot win. They have left themselves open to becoming an icon for the corporate agenda and its attack on the middle class. They have exposed themselves to becoming associated with what is lacking in our ability to ensure vibrant communities and our ability to raise healthy families. They have exposed themselves to having this debate with a province full of pissed off working people who are more educated than ever on these issues. Most importantly OFG has exposed itself to having this argument at their own front door, where the wallet, the voters, enters. Or not.

The crisis is not ours, it is theirs.

How is all this happening and why?

Control of information is what enables Toffler's Integrators to do their work. We're making it very difficult for them to do that. We are the de-massified media - the media of the Third Wave or as we like to call ourselves, the inevitable media of the Power Source. We are controlled by no one and open to everyone. We are interactive. Communication on this site flows both ways. We are here to give workers - who have been made invisible by the mainstream media - a voice, so that they can be heard and can communicate with others. Our mission is to inform and to help evolve a community among those who have historically been treated as a commodity.

We do not take the credit for the strong and intelligent stand the warehouse workers have taken. The credit for that belongs to them. We are however, pleased to be a source of information, insight and support. We don't doubt that the machine heads at Local 1518 and the corporation men at Lomans and Overwaitea Food Group are dismayed. With this Internet thing going on, life is never going to be the same.

A new civilization is emerging in our lives and blind men everywhere are trying to suppress it. This new civilization brings with it new family styles; changes ways of working, loving and living; a new economy; new political conflicts, and beyond all this an altered consciousness as well. Pieces of this new civilization exist today. Millions are already attuning their lives to the rhythms of tomorrow. Others, terrified of the future, are engaged in a desperate, futile flight into the past and are trying to restore the dying world that gave them birth. The dawn of this new civilization is the single most explosive fact of our lifetimes.
(The opening paragraph from The Third Wave.)

What will this new era be like for the community of workers? No one knows. Neither Toffler nor any of the other futurists say a lot about the workplace. That's OK because we're not there yet. The best answer is probably that it will be what the community of workers makes it. Now is the time. Taking back our unions and engaging the future is not a retirement project or something we'll get to when we get around to it. If the future of the community of workers is your future, it should be your priority.

What our contributors had to say this week about the future:

Bill Pearson:
I think back to the late 70s, and I found more and more members who thought by virtue of paying their dues, it absolved them of any further responsibilities. I didn't help matters, cause I thought I was a pretty good policeman and could fix everything for them. Wrong. We came to that point where the pendulum swung back towards management and it got ugly. Too many members looked at membership as an insurance policy and not as a way of life. Then the whole me generation exploded, and no one gave two shits about the next guy. Labor leaders gave themselves fat increases and members resented the gouging. It was a relationship made in hell. We've been trying to dig ourselves out, but those darn employers just don't co-operate anymore. Now all of the boomers are getting to retirement and they were are core. The younger members, the ones we've been ignoring so we could take care of the old timers are coming of age. That's one of the reasons its crunch time. We need to make believers of them, and quickly. It's not too late, there's just no time to dick around.

One big union doesn't necessarily mean one big bureaucracy. It's the large locals that control the vote that contribute to corruption. How does a guy who drags down a quarter million a year relate to someone making $12 thousand? How does a guy who regularly stays in $300 a night hotel suites relate to a single mom with three kids living in a $400 per month basement suite? How does a guy riding in a leased $800 a month SUV relate to the part-timer who rides public transit. How does the guy behind the fancy desk relate to a guy standing up to his ankles in blood on the kill floor?

The larger the local union, the more corporatized it becomes. The larger the local, the less the so-called leaders relate to the Power Source. The corporatization of local unions rarely happens in small workplace-based local unions.

remote viewer:
If you look at what the labor movement could or should be, it's easy to stay focused and committed. I never expected it to be easy, I just always thought it was the right thing to do, and the right place to be.

I think this is the answer to the question of how to rebuild the labour movement. We have to ask working people how should it be? If there are not enough of them responding yet, we should develop our own vision of how it should be and put it out there.

One thing that I am certain of is that - whatever the current level of disinterest - if the vision is right, people will connect with it and with each other. That will be the point where we reach the critical mass that will get the rebuilding process started.

The Post with the Most:

Turn left and drive hard 'til you come to Solidarity.

Information, lots of it, will lead them to the kind of organization they need. Freedom to choose is a goal, and it doesn't have boundaries.

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