Processed World #8

Issue 8: June 1983 from

Submitted by ludd on January 28, 2010

Table of Contents

Submitted by ludd on December 29, 2010

Talking Heads

from our readers

Bad Girl
by shirley garzotto

short items from here and there

Get Hot!
tale of toil by zoe noe

Poetry in Motion
a geography primer by zoe noe

Blue Shield & the Union: A Post-Mortem
article by debra wittley

First Steps
fiction by steve abbott

World Processing: Technology & Instability
article by tom athanasiou, con amigos


Talking Heads


Submitted by ludd on January 28, 2010

Welcome to the 8th issue of Processed World. We hope that this issue will continue to incite your interest and sense of controversy.
PW #7, the "Special Sex Issue", nearly sold out in three months (proving once again that "sex sells"). Regrettably PW #7 is almost unavailable. Due to increasing demand, we printed 4,000 copies of #8, instead of last issue's 3,000.

To you readers sitting on hot stories for fear of losing your anonymity, fear no more! The Blue Shield article was sent to us anonymously. We're always interested in whistle-blowers, dirty laundry, articles, exposes, and stories from the work-a-day world — So send 'em in!

In our letters section JG criticizes PW for its narrow focus on single, white office office workers. While certainly not the first reader to insist that PW encompass a broader view, JG goes further by suggesting that PW actively seek out material on racism and its application in the modern day clerical world. In fact, racism is touched on more in this issue than in the past. Both Debra Wittley's Blue Shield piece, and Steve Abbott's story "First Steps" address racism in the office, illustrating in particular the "communication problem" and how it is exploited by management hierarchy.

In our "DOWNTIME!" section, we have reprinted a copy of a leaflet, "Workers' Representation: New Carrot/Old Stick," which some PWers circulated at a microelectronics conference at UC Santa Cruz, followed by an opposing view from a member of both the PW and Motley collectives.

For those who revel in dynamic satire, Shirley Garzotto's ''Bad Girl'' has increased from one to seven pages in this issue. The bike messenger "underclass" of the Financial District is humorously portrayed in ''Tale of Toil'' and poem by Zoe Noe. Chris Winks' review leads this issue, exploring the role of intellectuals in (or against) power, while Tom Athanasiou's ''World Processing'' concludes it with an analysis of the impact of microelectronic technology, breaking down existing divisions of labor, and changing social stratification. And there are a number of excellent poems in this issue.

We present these articles as a springboard for further debate. We invite controversial comments and responses from our readers, so don't be shy! Our mailing address remains: "Processed World, 41 Sutter St., #1829, San Francisco, CA 94104, USA."


Get Hot!

tale of toil by zoe noe

Submitted by ludd on January 28, 2010

I picked up my last paycheck on Friday. Afterwards I passed by the usual crowd of bike messengers hanging outside Harvey's 5th Street Market, buying beers on credit and shooting the shit at the end of a working day. I turned the corner and entered an alley, where I ran into a young black woman, unkempt and shabbily dressed. She practically grabbed me for a handout, and someone to spill to:

"I was a good biker. I could fly—do 40 tags a day. And then they fired me—they fired me! I went in this afternoon, but they wouldn't hire me back. Nobody will hire me, and here I am in this alley now, reduced to. . .to. .PANHANDLING!'' She screamed the last word, and went on. "I need a job! I'm going back to that motherfucker and say, "I'll kill you motherfucker if you don't hire me back—I'll kill you!''' She raved on with spite, kicking and screaming. It was useless for me to stand there with her longer. There was nothing I could do for her.

I myself could fly on occasion, and make pretty good money at it when I wanted to. Yet when I was working, I felt oppressed by a different kind of poverty—a poverty of spirit, of time trapped. I worked over 40 hours a week, with plenty of unpaid duties. I would get home after dark with no energy left for anything else. It was life on the run, without medical coverage, expendable, unprotected, easy prey to any maniac behind the wheel of a Cadillac or MUNI bus—any driver who doesn't believe in turn signals or decides to open his car door at the wrong moment. I was vulnerable to horizontal showers in rainy season, and ticket- happy cops who hate bike messengers. I endured the hatred of men in 3-piece suits who depend on bike messengers and yet look upon them as something less than human. I challenge any of them to try being a bike messenger for even one day!

I had never seen bike messengers before I had my first job in San Francisco, as a legal file clerk/part-time secretary in the Financial District. I was fascinated and inspired by crazy long- hairs in propellered baseball caps, howling loud and long as they hurtled down hills. I saw a subculture in action as they zipped about the city on their one-speeds. I wanted to be a bike messenger!

I landed a job with Fly By Night Messenger Service in June. There were days it was such fun that it hardly seemed like work, but after half a year and months into the rainy season, I lost most of my enthusiasm. I felt I was wasting my days, chained to a dangerous dead-end job, and I knew I could do a lot more creative things with my time.

The comforting delusion that I was at least making an honest living was amusingly shattered for me one day in November when I was dispatched to a law office in 1 Embarcadero Center for a return trip going to a copy service and back. A matronly secretary handed me a manila envelope marked with strident instructions for the copy service: that this was a third try, to color-xerox it, and could they please get it right this time. She also handed me a five dollar bill. I arrived at the copy service in the basement of a building on California Street and perused through magazines while waiting. I overheard snatches of conversation from the back room—that these were transcripts, so both sides needed to be registered perfectly. That seemed odd, and I asked the woman behind the counter why transcripts would need to be color-xeroxed. She confided to me that they were the lady's daughter's high school transcripts, and a couple of grades needed to be "changed,'' and that color-xerox was the only way to duplicate it to look authentic.

"In other words it's called cheating,'' I said.

"She keeps sending it back to us, bugging us to get it right. We're making money off it, so why should we complain?'' she answered.

I felt like a partner in crime. I got the completed transcripts, had the tag signed, and was off with the return. In the elevator, to satisfy my own curiosity, I opened the unsealed envelope and had myself a look. Sure enough, two tiny "C''s were pasted on the original transcript. The copy looked perfect, as if it had been printed that way. I peeled the C's off, revealing two "F''s underneath. For a moment, I thought of aborting the mission, but realized I couldn't be that moralistic either. I was part of the scam, and had an extra five dollar bill in my pocket. It was such a mild scam, but symptomatic nonetheless, and I was thinking, "I don't even want to know what's inside the rest of the innocuous-looking manila envelopes I deliver!''

Like most delivery services, Fly By Night did not pay its bikers an hourly wage. Pay was based on a strict commission—a percentage of the delivery cost. That meant having to bust your ass to make any kind of livable wage. When you tried your bloody best to go fast and make money, everything and everybody seemed to be doing their best to slow you down. In such situations I occasionally lost my temper (and perhaps supported certain people's assumptions that bike messengers are indeed something other than human.)

For instance, I have the distinction of having been banned from the Pacific Telephone Company building at 666 Folsom Street. PT&T offices are a bike messenger's nightmare. Each "room'' is like a labyrinth: a whole floor of partitions, each bearing a different room number. Room 500-F might be next to room 512-G, but nobody can tell you where any of the other room numbers are. I was in a hurried mood on a busy afternoon, and I had to pick up a super- hot payroll delivery on the 8th floor at 666 Folsom, nonstop. Most phone company buildings make you sign in and out; a cumbersome process if one is in a hurry. I signed in and out at 666, flew, and was back at 666 in 5 minutes with the return, and refused to sign in again. The lobby guard, a short, grouchy man with a pencil-moustache, was furious that I actually just walked right by him, completely disregarding the rules.

"Come back here! You have to sign into the building!''

"I just signed in 5 minutes ago, and I'm not going to sign in again. This is a super-rush that has to get there yesterday!''

"Well if you signed out last time, you have to sign in again!'' I was struck with the absurd logic that if I had not signed out the last time, I would not have to sign in again this time. I ignored him and boarded the elevator, and he immediately gave chase, stopping the elevator before it could move. Another bouncer-type appeared out of nowhere to assist him in removing me from the elevator, where I stood defiant and a few secretaries stood surprised, their routine interrupted. The guard led me back to his station, towards the door, and said, "You're never allowed back in this building again!''

I laughed back at him. "That's fine—I hate this building anyway, and I would never come here if I didn't have to!''

"By your conduct,'' he stormed, "you're showing that you have no respect for the phone company and its employees!"

"You're damn right. I have no respect for the phone company at all!'' How I had always wanted to say that! I thrust the package at him and said, "Since you won't let me upstairs, you'll have to do the delivery yourself. They`re in room 880. Get hot!— They're dying on it!''

On another day, truth serum ran deep when I went into Crank Litho, one of Fly By Night's biggest accounts. Crank got anything it wanted: till 5:15 p.m. to call in overtimes, instead of 5:00, and a handsome price break of $1.25 per delivery instead of the $2.00 we normally charged. They generated enough business so that Fly By Night could turn a tidy profit, but we messengers were the ones getting screwed. We even had to chronicle our own oppression by adding the price of the delivery to the tag, which we never had to do for anyone else. Most of us bikers resented this insult—I remember that one guy, whenever dispatched to Crank, would always emit an obnoxious foghornish "Rog!'' over the radio, instead of the customary "10-4.''

One day I showed up to work wearing a large button I had fashioned, that read "I (heart) Crank Litho's Prices!'' and managed to cause quite an uproar in their office without even saying a word. Later that day when I was back, the president of the company pulled me aside and said, "I would appreciate it if you don't wear that button anymore.'' I smiled, and calmly removed the button.

On the return trip, I encountered the man next in charge (who handled the business end of the account with Fly By Night), and he shit a brick when he saw the delivery cost—$11.25 for an overtime rush—and at first refused to sign the tag. He called up my office and bitched for a few minutes, then hung up and turned to me. "I'll sign it, but I'm going to take it up with your boss in the morning. How do you figure your price for overtime deliveries? Your regular price is $1.25...''

I cut him off, sensing the opportunity. "Our regular price is $2.00. You guys are getting a break at $1.25 which I think is scandalous, but that's from my point of view as a biker.'' He looked surprised, yet surprised me by saying that he could understand it from my point of view. Of course, not another word was ever said about the matter.

Around that same time I knew my days as a bike messenger were numbered. My attitude was garnering numerous complaints from miffed customers, and I started taking days off to refund my sanity. The taste of life off the treadmill just made me more dissatisfied. The rainy season was becoming endless, and my favorite dispatcher was now out on bike; obviously the result of a power-struggle. The boss had frequently complained that he was being much too close with the bikers, telling us things about the company and about our paychecks that we weren't supposed to know. I had fond memories of late evenings when he was behind the boards, when a few of us would have our own little "proletarian office parties,'' when the office was ours and we spent hours bitching about the bosses, or got crazy and sent me out with bike and radio, and dispatched me out for coffee and donuts. Somebody had to pull the plug soon. My boss got to it before I did, and I was fired.

About a week before I got the jerk to the big desk in the back office and the axe came down, I had taken an unsolicited day off—it was storming and I felt miserable. The next day, a rare sunny one, I arrived early, feeling better and ready to roll. The boss, trying to put the fear of authority into me, said, "I'm not ready to let you roll. I haven't decided what I'm going to do with you! Come back tomorrow.'' (It was too obvious to me what he would have done with me had it been raining as usual.) I figured myself fired, and wasted no time getting out of there. Walking up Kearny Street that same morning, with a spring in my step, enjoying the sun without having to "get hot;'' I felt like somebody had unlocked the door of my jail cell, woke me gently and said, "You're free to go.''

Zoe Noe

Author's note: Some of the names have been changed to protect the guilty. But it's not that I wanted to single anybody out or hide the truth—that they're all Fly By Night.


Poetry in Motion

a geography primer by zoe noe

Submitted by ludd on January 28, 2010

POETRY IN MOTION (a geography primer)

I got off the bike.

    I took a journey up Kearny,

        got weary by Geary,

            drank a beer on Spear,

                smoked a joint on North Point,

                    and lost my way on Clay.

I'm looking handsome on Sansome

    and feeling wholesome on Folsom.

I met a coward on Howard

    who lives in a garrison on Harrison,

        and a sailor on Taylor

            who lives in a gutter on Sutter.

We drank tonics on Masonic,

    met the Hulk on Polk,

        who was straight on Haight

            but turned gay on Bay.

We met a witch on Ritch

    who reads the Tarot on DeHaro —

        and tried to save us on Davis.

I saw a politician on Mission

    who made a speech on Beach

        about a welfare cheat on Treat

            who uses food stamps to buy wine on Pine.

I saw a Giant on Bryant

    who teamed up with a 49er on Steiner,

        and went around beating up Dodgers on Rodgers

            and Raiders on Shrader

                (not to mention Lakers on Baker

                    and A's on Hayes).

You met a whore on Dore

    who tried to rent'cha on Valencia;

        I used to ball her on Waller,

            & we'd fuck some on Bluxome,

                & she would give great moans on Jones,

                    & would always come on Drumm.

I remember you well — you drove a bus on Russ

    until it lost a wheel on Beale,

        & then you used to park it on Market.

“Did I get your package to you quick enough, sir?”
“Thanks, Zoe Noe, you're humble and lovable.”
“Fuck you, sir!”

— by Zoe Noe


Blue Shield and the union: A post-mortem - Debra Wittley

Debra Wittley analyses the strike action at Blue Shield insurance from 1980-81 for Processed World.

Submitted by ludd on January 28, 2010

Blue Shield and the Union: Post-Mortem II

Being a temporary office worker occasionally gives me interesting opportunities to learn about the inner workings of the corporate world. I recently finished a temporary assignment at Blue Shield of California where I had the opportunity to learn some very interesting things indeed.

From December, 1980 to April, 1981, the OPEIU led a strike against Blue Shield. In September, 1982, Blue Shield announced plans to move operations out of San Francisco and, in the process, fire its entire clerical staff and break the union. Based on files I saw, memos I typed and conversations I overheard, I can offer the following confirmation and elaboration of PW's critique of the OPEIU approach.

Overt and Covert Reasons for the Relocation

Blue Shield is in some ways unique among service sector industries. Technically, it is a non-profit organization. That fact, combined with the competitiveness of the health insurance industry, means that Blue Shield has little opportunity to create "working capital" which can be invested in long-range plans or operational improvements. "Doing it as cheap as possible" is the corporate philosophy. This is typical of the non-profit management mentality. No matter how liberal their programs may be, non-profits provide notoriously bad wages and working conditions. So Blue Shield grew, and data processing and clerical functions become increasingly complex, the various clerical departments multiplied without rationalization or planning. The whole realm of "management support" functions is nearly absent at Blue Shield--training, operations standards, work-flow monitoring, etc. The clerical jobs themselves are so complex as to defy belief. Blue Shield seems to have finally recognized this by allowing for more than three months of training for the employees to be hired at the new location. The current clerical staff never received training this extensive and if they had their jobs would have been more tolerable.

As a result of this spontaneous, unplanned growth, Blue Shield management literally did not know what was going on within their own bureaucracy. The knowledge of how to process claims and all the other paperwork was in the heads of the workers, undocumented in any other form. A good number of these workers are Asian and Black women and from Blue Shield's point of view, they have a "communication problem," either because English is not their native language or because they speak a different dialect. So the critical storehouse of operational information that Blue Shield workers had was even more inaccessible to management.

Blue Shield finally appreciated this vulnerability at the time of the strike in 1981. Consequently, the motivation behind the relocation has to be seen as not merely to break the union. It is also part of a concerted effort to establish full management control over clerical production and thereby end the dependence of management on worker knowledge. One part of this involves more training, supervision, and standardization of procedures. A second part, of course, involves getting rid of the current workers.

But in this light, the relocation has to be looked at more closely. Gaining control over clerical functions means that the "communication problem" has to be overcome. That is, of course, communication FROM Blue Shield TO workers. Blue Shield needs workers who will receive and conform to management controls, who will follow management's standardized procedures, and not their own. Not only unfamiliar with specialized corporate jargon, the workers may be equally unequally unfamiliar with corporate thinking patterns. That is, the skills of abstract, objective thinking--what is involved in translating years of job experience into standard procedural language--may not come easily to those who have not spent 16 years in the American system of education. A Third World clerical worker may know very well how to do a job, but not have the particular language skills to put it into words or writing.

So addressing the "communication problem" boils down to getting rid of workers who cannot conform to this use of the English language. Which of course means minority workers. Blue Shield wouldn't necessarily have to fire all minority workers if it was willing to pay higher wages to attract non-white workers who've been through the American public education system. But Blue Shield wants to retain its "cheap as possible" philosophy and so has addressed the language problem without paying higher wages.

To do that, Blue Shield had to find a white labor market willing to accept its wages. This is why Lakeport, a resort town on Clear Lake, has been chosen as the site of the relocation. Blue Shield's intent is clear. While there are bigger California cities with a largely white work force (say, Sacramento or Redding), only a small town could provide both white workers AND a depressed level of wages.

Blue Shield's relocation is not only motivated by an anti-union ideology, it is clearly racist as well. I found this conclusion continually reinforced during my time at Blue Shield by managers who made references like "THE Filipinos" and told bald jokes based on mimicking Asian accents.

How the Union Helped Blue Shield Bust the Union

"We learned a lot during the strike" is the comment I heard Blue Shield managers make.

What Blue Shield learned was all the detailed job descriptions that had previously been "in the heads" of the workers. Blue Shield used the four months of the strike to begin developing a management system to end this dependence. Without the strike, Blue Shield would never have been able to fire its workers and move out of San Francisco because until the strike Blue Shield managers had no idea how to run their business.

The OPEIU never seemed to appreciate this source of worker leverage, nor did it understand how the introduction of rationalized management controls would undermine the workers' position. In fact, the union's own bureaucratic approach contributed to the standardization process. Unionization provided both the incentive and the means for Blue Shield to rid itself of its SF workers.

Even after the relocation was announced the union might have been able to obtain concessions by adopting a stand of "non- cooperation" that would have made it more difficult for Blue Shield management to extract all the infomration needed to effectively set up operations in the new location. But, needless to say, it did not do so. Nevertheless, some workers on their own are apparently engaging in uncoordinated forms of non- cooperation--records and data are being intentionally "fouled up." Blue Shield managers blame the union, of course, but that's not only unfair to the union--which has never endorsed such tactics--but unfair to the workers as well, who have undertaken these activities on their own creative initiative, in defiance of both management and union authorities.

The Taboo Issue

Another source of worker leverage was also left unexplored by the OPEIU. The same poor management (by corporate standards) that allows workers at Blue Shield to consolidate operations knowledge, also results in fiscal losses of hundreds of thousands of dollars every year (according to estimates I overheard). In the absence of adequate controls, losses due to errors and fraud are rampant.

For most corporations today, controlling quality, costs and losses is the "profit edge." One would think that Blue Shield's penny-pinching mangers would shudder at these losses. But in fact, their own "cheap as possible" philosophy is the cause of these losses.

The union might have been able to do something with this issue, by taking advantage of the unique position that workers had because of their knowledge of operations. Today, many companies are using the Japanese "quality circle" programs to tap the knowledge of their workers by teaching them a few basic management techniques that they can use to solve on-the-job problems. What if the Blue Shield union took this initiative themselves, retaining worker control of job knowledge by introducing quality circle concepts itself? The concession from management would have to be the distribution of recovered losses in the form of wages and benefits to workers, and possibly, worker representation on Blue Shield's board of directors.

That, of course, raises the debate over worker self-management. Rather than delve into that here, I will just point out the one way the issue of Blue Shield mis-management could have been used by the OPEIU that circumvents the self-management issue.

Normally consumers could care less whether a company is well managed or not when they decide to buy one of its products. But in the case of health insurance, consumers are aware that the cost of their coverage is based on risk tables which are pretty much standard for the insurance industry. PLUS the cost of administrative overhead. This suggests that Blue Shield customers would have just as big a stake in seeing losses controlled as do the underpaid workers of Blue Shield. If the union addressed this issue, it would be aligning itself directly with consumer interests and raise the possibility of a new alliance that increased worker leverage.

But of course, the OPEIU took a typically short-sighted stand in regards to the whole area of quality control and management productivity plans. That is, they simply opposed them outright. This position pretty much eliminates workers from playing a role in this crucial area of their jobs--it falls, by default, into the prerogatives of management. And inevitably management will find ways of preventing losses, and keep the profits for themselves, leaving workers with the yoke of ever increasing supervision and productivity standards over which they have no control


The real nature of corporate "communications"--the jargon, policies, procedures, manuals and training programs--needs to be understood as a means of subverting worker power by instituting a form of language control--which is to say, thought control. When this occurs in the context of culturally diverse office workers, this has to be understood as inherently racist. Management preoccupation with the "language barrier" translates into the "race barrier" and "communication problems" mean "race problems." If racism were not involved, corporations might deal with cultural diversity by hiring more minority managers and supervisors and increasing language capabilities throughout their organizations, "covering all the bases" as it were. But racism is, in fact, a clear motivation behind the enforcement of language and communications standards in the corporate world. Fighting these forms of social control on the job is not just a matter of liberal civil rights ideals. Language control not only discriminates against minority workers, it directly undermines worker power. Unions could fight racism and build worker leverage at the same time by putting the "language" issue on their agenda.

The possibility of alliances between consumers and service sector workers deserves consideration. People consider things like health insurance, checking accounts, insurance, drivers' licenses, and telephones to be necessities. But there's little "freedom of choice" in obtaining these services. They're typically provided by massive, unresponsive bureaucracies. And these same bureaucratic organizations create alienating and exploitative job conditions for clerical workers.

Above all, the case of Blue Shield reveals the need for a new approach to organizing office workers. The strike tool is no longer effective when modern communications make it possible for companies to locate clerical operations anywhere.

A brief postscript from Lucius Cabins, author of past Blue Shield coverage:

There are a few important differences between the analysis the author makes here and the one I made in PW #'s 1 and 2. First of all, I think that offering strategic advice to the unions is hopeless (especially to OPEIU which has been unusually myopic with respect to this case). The author is right when he says "a new kind of worker leverage within the corporate world must be found--and used," but PW has featured a number of articles in different issues which attempted to describe the role of unions in bolstering the status quo and preventing new forms of leverage from being developed. I don't expect unions to be of much help to any office workers interested in seriously undermining the domination we experience daily. What's more, as the Blue Shield case amply demonstrates, most unions cannot even guarantee "the basics" like protecting jobs and improving work conditions.

The author also suggests that self-management through employee representation on the Board of Directors and the establishment of Quality Circles might have improved working life for Blue Shield workers. Although putting an end to the authoritarianism of managers is a real need, the fact remains that the actual work they do is inherently useless (the processing of health insurance data) and no kind of self-management can change the purpose of Blue Shield in society.

Finally, the author dismisses the strike weapon categorically, but there's more than one kind of strike. There is an important distinction between legal strikes, which disempower workers by taking them outside on picket lines and separating them from the production they otherwise control, and the extra-legal possibilities of wildcat and occupational strikes, under the control of the workers themselves.

Nevertheless, this article is an excellent expose of the all-too- typical, racist practices of corporate management. Thanks for sending it in.


World Processing: Technology & Instability

article by tom athanasiou, con amigos

Submitted by ludd on January 28, 2010

Sometime in the 1970s, the public image of the computer was detached from past phobias. No longer the symbol of technocratic dehumanization, it was glorified as the harbinger of a new way of life. The popular futurism of Alvin Toffler (The Third Wave), the never-ending self-congratulations of the industry press, the advent of the "personal computer" and the high-tech fantasies of worried managers combined into a crescendo of hype usually heard only at Christmas or during a good war.

With computers, as with the rest of modern life, the marketing fantasy has more appeal than the real thing. The hope for a better future shrivels in the harsh glare of the present. Here we find computers pressed into the routine service of those who rule making war, keeping tabs on dissidents, strengthening the hand of management against workers, helping the megacorporations to coordinate their global franchises.

The development and application of any new technology is itself a lesson in the exercise of power. The use of computers in the current worldwide restructuring is a better example than most. It reveals the elements in the social order that are able to produce and direct the new technology, and to what ends. In so doing it exposes the real structures and priorities of the dominant social system.


"Everyone always talks about undocumented labor, but nobody ever talks about undocumented capital." —unattributed wisecrack

First off, information technology is being used to strengthen the international "integrated circuit" of power. Like transportation technology, another crucial underpinning of the global marketplace, it provides the possibility of large scale systems of production and control.

Computers have become vital in holding together an ever-more internationalized economic system perhaps best characterized by the emergence of what Business Week called "stateless money:" ... ..."a vast integrated global money and capital system, almost totally outside all governmental regulation, that can send Eurodollars, Euromarks and other stateless currencies hurtling around the world 24 hours a day." This is capital more "liquid" than anything seen before. It is capital that can, and does, flow wherever profits are highest; capital that prefers speculation to productive investment, and is more than willing to abandon the U.S. for the Third World (or vice versa) if new conditions render such a move profitable.

Such a degree of internationalization would not be possible without the development of sophisticated information retrieval and communications systems. As Herb Schiller puts it in Who Knows: Information In The Age Of The Fortune 500:

"The capability of the Trans-National Corporation to utilize productive facilities where the costs are lowest.... to penetrate markets with massive advertising campaigns, to avoid or minimize taxes by shifting production, and to take advantage of fluctuating currencies by transferring funds from one center to another, is almost totally dependent on secure and instantaneous global communication."

The driving force behind all these rapid changes is, as usual, various sorts of competition. What's different today is that this competition takes place in a world where corporations have become co-actors with the largest and most powerful nations. Japanese/American competition drives the development of computer technology and American/Soviet competition the technology of war.

With this integration of markets, the political dramas of the modem world become supra-national in character. Moreover, they take place within the context of a long-term decline in the power of the nation-state relative to business. As a Vice-President of Citibank (with over 3,000 local branches, Citibank has the largest private communications system in the world) recently put it; "what this all adds up to is another profound challenge to the unlimited sovereign power of nation-states brought about by the technical realities of global communications." Or, in more concrete terms, 30-40% of world trade is accounted for by internal transfers within multinationals.

This is not necessarily good news. As the power of the nation-state's economic and social clout weakens, it tends more and more to define its power in military terms. The Falklands fiasco is a good example. And certainly the Soviet/American nuclear standoff is driven in part by militaristic ways of maintaining national identity—ways which are running afoul of the economic and political realities of a tightly interconnected planetary society. Central among these realities is the disaster now overtaking the Third World.


Before the advent of the great recession in the '70s the official literature on Third World development was infused with optimism. The specter of ecological collapse was easily exorcised by a glorious vision—U.S. entry into the information age would go hand-in-hand with the transfer of most manufacturing to the low-labor-cost part of the world. In this bright delirium everyone was to win. While the developed world shifted to an information-based economy, the Third World would become the nexus of heavy industry, and thus continue to have a major stake in the stability of the world system. The industrial "miracle" countries like Brazil and South Korea were supposed to show the way for the rest of the "underdeveloped" nations.

Back then many liberal economists argued that the economic growth of the Third World was crucial to the health of the global system—that it should be regarded not only as a supplier of materials and labor and a consumer of finished goods, but as a producer of surpluses of its own (e.g. the Brandt Report of the late '70s). The managers had an opportunity to act as if they believed in a really international economy, since it was in their interests to do so. They shifted a lot of their "runaway" shops to lands of cheap labor, and so gained a powerful weapon against workers at home. They established high-technology enclaves in Southeast Asia, some few of which (Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc.) seem to have made it permanently into the ranks of the developed nations. They fought against "national liberation" movements that resisted their tender mercies. For a short while, they were able to project the image of a world in which, eventually, there would be room at the top for at least the elites from the peripheral countries.

But the happy harmony between the logic of profit and the ideology of liberal internationalism was shortlived. Protectionism is already the order of the day, and the adjustments are just beginning.

The old international division of labor depended upon developed countries supplying technology while the Third World supplied unskilled labor and raw materials. Already there is a radically declining need for this labor within the international economy, just as there is within the U.S. When there is no longer any great need for it at all, what will happen?

A recent study by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in Sussex, England indicates that we won't have to wait for the perfection of automated production systems, to see the answer to this one. Already micro-computers have undermined the competitive advantage of Third-World-based production. They have significantly increased the flexibility of assembly lines and reduced the amounts of both labor and materials needed in production—and they have improved product quality in the bargain. Soon real automation—robotics—will enter the economic calculus in a far more pervasive way than it has to date. In the Asian sweatshops where the microchips themselves are assembled, robots are arriving by the hundreds. Over 250 companies in Singapore imported Japanese robots in the past year, and Signetics Korea will be halving its 2300-person production force in the next three or four years with robot-based automation. The Malaysian electrical workers union expects a "blowout" caused by automation within five years "when a single production line requires only 50 workers instead of the 500 now" this is the second largest Malaysian industry. (ASIA 2000 — June/July 1982)

The overall tendency, according to IDS and others, is to reduce the incentive for the Transnationals to invest in Third-World-based production—especially now that high unemployment here at home has American unions clamoring for trade barriers against imports. With the introduction of robotics, the economics become even clearer. Labor costs must be very low to keep labor intensive production systems competitive.

Over the last few years the Japanese have shifted many of their semiconductor assembly lines to the cheapest free-trade zones of all those in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. But now it is just as cheap to automate and keep assembly in Japan. Likewise, Motorola and Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp. have both recently moved some production lines back to the U.S. from Southeast Asia. With automated assembly offshore production offers no cost advantage. And, with the Third World becoming ever more unstable, offshore production can seem politically unattractive, even in sectors of the economy where some economic advantage remains. This is demonstrated by Control Data's recent decision to pull out of South Korea, a decision prompted not by shifting economies but by the instability of the local work force. (Last year, 120 young Korean women employees of Control Data held two American executives hostage for 9 hours. The execs had come to resolve a labor dispute.)

Offshore production will certainly continue to some extent. But the bulk of manufacturing will not shift to the Third World. As the production process becomes more strongly rooted in the new high technologies, it is more likely to take place not in the Third World, but in the industrialized regions.


Multinational business may find it inconvenient to continue on the "development" paths laid down during the post-war boom. But this doesn't mean that they can simply be forgotten. The exportled economies thrust upon the periphery during that brief flourish of neo-colonialism were largely financed by U.S. and Western European banks. According to a source quoted in the N.Y. Times, 3/15/83 ("What's the bottom line in Third World debt?"), by 1982 the Third World owed the nine largest U.S. banks a sum equal to more than double their real assets. This $600 billion debt links the fate of the international banking system inextricably to the tottering economies of the periphery. The financial collapse of Mexico, to give only one particularly dramatic example, would certainly take down the Bank of America with it. Well over half of the B of A's assets are tied up in Mexican loans.

The hustle run on the Third World continues, too, in the conditions suffered by the millions whose lives always fell outside the development plan; in the desertification of lands stripped of foliage by desperate peasants, in jam-packed cities, where formerly agrarian people scramble for a toehold in the money economy; in the misery of wars eagerly fostered by the U.S. and Soviet military machines and the international arms merchants.


Not that life will be so wonderful here in fortress America. Employment in the once "guaranteed" sectors like auto will never recover from the shakeout of the last three years. Nor will the service sector expand far or fast enough to absorb the millions displaced by the new "mechanization of work." Secure employment will become the privilege of an elite of technicians and professionals who design, implement and oversee the new systems.

The latest waves of layoffs have already produced immense demoralizations expressed as rising rates of suicide, alcoholism and domestic violence. Despite recent and much-publicized erosion of the "work ethic," most U.S. workers still seem to experience joblessness as a catastrophe. And although the restructuring (disguised as "Reaganomics") has met with sporadic working-class protest, the main response is still passive despair.

The longer-term consequences are harder to foresee. The growing numbers of "marginal" people both here and in the Third World will present major difficulties for capitalism. Much as the pacification of the Third World is an ongoing concern for whole covens of bureaucrats and military men, the pacification of the U.S. will again become a standing line-item on corporate and governmental agendas.

When sociologists say "marginal," they mostly mean: on the margins of the wage system, of work. Work serves two basic purposes. It is, of course, the main means of access to that great "necessity" of life, money. But it's also vital to the systems of "secondary control" which supplement the primary systems of state force (the police, the army) and programmed leisure time. It provides the single most important opportunity for participation in "normal" life, and therefore for the construction of a "normal" identity. More concretely, it fills the empty hours that would otherwise breed unrest and imparts the discipline of hierarchical power a discipline that can never be allowed to lapse.

With more and more people becoming permanently unemployed, or else employed only marginally in ways that do not provide them with "career opportunities," the system loses much of its ability to integrate restless groups. A result is the growth of what one British writer called "the impossible class" in places as culturally and geographically divergent as Brixton, England and Santo-Andrade, Brazil.

Brixton is a mostly Black London neighborhood whose collective counterattack against the police triggered nationwide youth riots in 1981. Santo-Andrade, a vast slum on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, was likewise the flashpoint for massive riots just this April. Both areas teem with the jobless, the penniless and the restless—people who have lost, or have never had, the usual ties to the economic system. Instead they survive by various combinations of part-time work, welfare, street-hustling, squatting, shoplifting, scavenging and robbery.

Here some important differences emerge. While the British rioters of 1981 were quite successfully isolated from the rest of the working-class population, this will be less easily done in Brazil. Santo-Andrade, for instance, was also the detonator for the big auto workers' strike of 1980-81. In general, Third World "marginals'' have much closer social and cultural ties to the regularly employed workers than do their European and U.S. counterparts. This, however, is mostly because Third World workers have never enjoyed even the relative security and comfort afforded the majority in the central countries during the last two decades.

One doesn't have to accept a scenario of simple mass unemployment to foresee analogous problems developing here. Just as likely is what some analysts are calling ''the feminization of work.'' In other words, most jobs reduced to the traditional status of ''women's work,"— underpaid, part-time, insecure. Also, like "women's work,'' many of these jobs may be done at home, with "telecommuting" replacing the office for millions by the end of the century. Workers would be paid piece-work, have little contact with other company employees, and (the managers doubtless hope) be totally unorganized.

While this prospect is predictably touted by industry flacks as a "liberation," it is actually more like a return to the conditions preceeding the industrial revolution. But it is worth remembering that a major reason workers were originally brought together in factories two hundred years ago was to discipline them. Today, it is hoped, the computer will be able to monitor the worker so closely that other forms of oversight can be dispensed with.

The essence of marginalization is not the lack of wage-work per se, but the lack of the identification with it that comes with sharing its rewards. Along with this lack of identification comes an inner abandonment of the "work ethic" and attendant success fantasies—executive suite, house in the suburbs, whatever.

Not that there will be any shortage of candidates for the Technical/Professional elite. Millions are willing to be good if it will keep them in Porsches and chocolate. For millions more religion and alcohol will fulfill their traditional roles. For others though, different means are called for, and the managers hope that microchip-based technologies will help provide these means.


"Dealing with contradictions and conflicts is a tricky business." —David Rockefeller

With the world ever more brutal and unstable, and with the system unable to offer everyone a place, the marginals are becoming the "surplus population" of a Malthusian capitalism. War seems ever more attractive as a means of social control. Let's call this the 1984 scenario. In Orwell's Oceania, the basic problem was that society had become too productive, and military waste production had to be maintained to keep the population amenable to government manipulation. There are, incidentally, 45 countries at war at this moment, and at least one of those wars—the Iran/Iraq conflict—is just the sort of slow-burning, labor-intensive operation that invites interpretation as a deliberate population control measure.

But even in 1984, warfare wasn't enough. It was supplemented by the telescreen, a device that also has its parallels in the modern world. TV and home video are obvious examples, since they provide a surrogate image-based participation in the life of society. And the development of corporate TV, the computerized information utility, the fifty-seven variety cable pacification box, computer-targeted advertisement, teleshopping, 3-D video games and other trinkets too wonderful even to imagine will certainly help.

And, since it is so easy to "talk back to your TV," other, less subtle applications will also be deployed. Developments in computerized surveillance technology are truly mindboggling. Already, devices that can take the place of the prison are being tested. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle (4/26/83) tells of a microchip anklet that notifies the central computer if the prisoner strays more than 200 feet from the phone. Like many developments, this one was anticipated in science fiction usually used by an evil society against the hero.


Nobody, including the top managers, really knows how much of all this will come true, or how fast. Computerization in general is proceeding at a breakneck pace. But the rate of microelectronic investment in the workplace itself, the primary source of all these contradictions, is currently much slower than anyone expected. The market for factory automation products and services in the U.S. this year is about $4 billion, and while some industry analysts envision an explosion of the market to as much as $30 billion by 1990, this is uncertain. There simply isn't much incentive to buy new plants and equipment these days. The Wall Street Journal (10/11/82) commented that while the the automated "factory of the future" may eventually become standard, right now "there are practically no new factories being built."

Even if a real economic recovery arrives, the incentives to automate production in the industrialized regions of the world may not turn out to be so compelling after all. Some Third World countries (Singapore, South Korea, etc.) have "developed" far enough to support automated production, and perhaps to support it more cheaply than the American economy can. Besides, the TransNational corporations (TNC's) are already heavily committed to these areas. And, in many cases, the TNCs' only access to foreign markets otherwise protected by import curbs will be by building the factories where the markets are. Finally, there will be products and processes which resist automation enough to remain competitive even when done labor-intensively—providing that labor is cheap enough.

Automation is the fruit of capital's drive to cut costs and reduce its dependence on workers. This is the result of no unified plan, but rather a byproduct of the competitive need to survive. During the last wave of automation, in the '50s, the economy, and especially the service sector, were rapidly expanding. This time around automation is based on far more flexible devices, and is taking place in the context of increased international competition, choked world markets and decrepit infrastructure.

All these variables make predictions difficult. A few things are clear nonetheless. First, unless the new technologies turn out not to work at all, further mechanization of work is inevitable sooner or later. Second, this means that unemployment and "underemployment" (low-paid, part time, insecure work) will continue to grow. Third, wage-work linked to programmed consumption has been the primary means of social control in the developed countries since 1945. As this means breaks down, cash strapped elites are likely to resort to some brutal alternatives.

In this context, even the most sophisticated strategies for "full-employment," like the idea of converting war-related industries to peaceful use, fall very short indeed. Reasonable though they may seem, they are unachievable without major social upheaval, upheaval that their proponents refuse to welcome.

A better approach is to honestly confront the complexity and depth of the current restructuring and to try to find a politics that can match it. A successful fight for the development and use of technology must focus on the issue of control, and it is not only technology but work itself that is used to control the population. It will have to grapple with the profoundly contradictory implications of the new automation, implications which this article has only gestured at. We can take a lesson here from Alvin Tamer and his ilk, who have shown just how many millions of people, suspecting the scale of the coming changes, are straining to understand the "big picture'.'

One point of leverage in dealing with the reality of economic immiseration may be in taking the hype at its word—turning the promise of liberation from work into a political demand. Workers and marginals in Italy and elsewhere have already pioneered the fight for the separation of work and income—for the "right to live" rather than the "right to work". (It should go without saying that welfare as it currently exists does not qualify as "living".) Others, most recently Northern European youth, have bypassed "income" altogether by simply taking what they need, squatting houses and jumping public transit gates.

These sorts of tactics are, of course, limited. They are cited only in the hope that they might evoke a sense of politics as an assertion of the right to live. With work becoming the focus of life for only a privileged elite, and a meaningless agony for the rest, such an assertion, long overdue, may be a real possibility. The only other choice is a more or less uncritical defense of the society of wage-work and its "ethic".

by Tom Athanasiou, con Amigos