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Book Review

Turning humans into machines to benefit the rich

J A Progler

THE TERROR OF THE MACHINE: TECHNOLOGY, WORK, GENDER, AND ECOLOGY ON THE US-MEXICO BORDER By Devon G. Pena. University of Texas Press: Austin, Texas, US. pp. 460. 1997. Pbk. US$19.95.

In his autobiography, the American industrialist Henry Ford wrote, ‘Repetitive labor... is a terrifying prospect to a certain kind of mind... but to other minds, perhaps I might say the majority of minds, repetitive operations hold no terrors.’ Pushing the efficiency of movement system of Frederick Winslow Taylor to its ultimate realization, Ford toiled tirelessly to reduce factory and assembly line work to its essential operations. This, in turn, reduced factory workers to automatons, nothing more than extensions of the machine for which they labored.

Ford was not bothered by the prospect of reducing people to machines, since he firmly believed that it did not bother them and that they could do no better. But, paradoxically, and like all the great American industrialists (e.g. Dale Carnegie and Nelson Rockefeller), Ford feared the prospect that these ‘mindless automatons’ might get organized and demand their rights. So along with efficiency of movement came a system of indoctrination and punishment to insure that workers obeyed orders. The industrialized west was built on the systematic oppression of its working people.

In The Terror of the Machine, Devon G Pena demonstrates that Fordism is alive and well at the end of the 20th century in the ‘third world’. Focusing on the maquiladoras, foreign-owned assembly plants located along the US-Mexico border, Pena systematically examines Fordism reconfigured.

Researching for the book for over a decade, and utilizing an interdisciplinary approach, his goal is ‘to bring about a clearer, and more critical, understanding of the problems that occur with the imposition of mass-production industries across the world.’ Such a work is especially timely, coming in the wake of various far-reaching world trade agreements, such as NAFTA, GATT and now MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investment), which are opening up the ‘third world’ to unbridled western-style development and industrialization at the hands of foreign interests. Thus, Pena’s story about Mexico could be retold in places throughout Africa and Asia, including Muslim countries such as Indonesia.

While the managers and executives of the corporations often explain their schemes in terms remarkably similar to the way Ford understood his workers, Pena finds that they, and by extension, Ford and cohorts, were dead wrong. Looking at what some historians and sociologists have called ‘oppositional workplace cultures’ or ‘informal shop-floor networks of resistance,’ Pena finds that ‘what matters is that workers have alternative understandings of the underlying politics of production, and they have long struggled to organize the workplace in a manner consistent with their views.’

Citing cases where strikes and more subtle forms of resistance have brought about much needed reforms in labor laws, Pena finds it useful to look closely at how Mexican workers understand their own situation and struggles. He finds that, ‘Listening to workers’ stories of lived experience in assembly-line factories, a startling contrast to Ford’s fearless yet passive automaton emerges,’ and that this contrast is especially acute in Mexico.

While he has clearly done his share of rigorous background research, reviewing carefully the voluminous literature on development, industrialization, and the free trade zones in Mexico, what makes this book especially enlightening is Pena’s reliance on the wisdom of working people. Most know they are being exploited, are not passive about it, and are struggling one way or another against the machine.

One woman, working in an RCA factory making television sets for North Americans, notes that, ‘it’s crazy to work so fast all year round to make so many useless things. But I guess as long as the americanos want cheap TVs then there will always be maquilas. But you know at the same time we are exhausting Mexico’s resources, especially its workers. We are wasting human lives. I say: this is too high a price to pay for a job, food, and shelter.’ Americans have little idea that their consumer lifestyle is subsidized by the blood and sweat of workers such as those Pena finds laboring in the Mexican maquila machine.

Resistance to the machine comes in various forms. Often, signs of organized labor are severely dealt with by management. People who speak about unions fear for their jobs, and often for their lives. In the world of NAFTA and GATT, things like labor laws and unions are seen as ‘trade barriers’ and, therefore, not conducive to ‘economic development.’ While there are signs of organization, this is not the only form or resistance Pena finds.

Echoing the tactics of the Luddites in Britain’s period of

industrialization, many maquila workers will resort to subtle forms of sabotage. As one factory worker put it, ‘Sometimes I’ll break the chassis for the circuit board or I’ll take the fuses off the visual... That is what counts because that is what you can get away with, little bits of sabotage... just enough to slow the work down.’

Or as another admits, ‘When they speed up the line, we agree to unclasp the belt. I’ll do a little at a time, and everyone does their own little part. After an hour or so, the belt comes undone and we take a rest while the engineers fix the damage.’ As with the original Luddites, and contrary to popular perceptions, these are not the rantings of anti-technology madmen and ideologues - they are the actions of ordinary people trying deal with oppression by any means necessary.

In addition to sabotage, Pena found that, echoing the tactics of chattel slaves on American and Caribbean plantations, maquila workers will often feign stupidity and sickness to lessen their work load or get a day off once in a while. In the absence of any organized legal mechanisms to insure fare treatment of workers, people will evolve their own ways of dealing with oppression.

After describing his general research methodology in chapter 1, Pena in subsequent chapters proceeds to look at different aspects of the maquiladora system. This by necessity must begin with a look the

organization of work in the west, a long and complex history which he condenses quite nicely and fairly. In particular, he pays close attention to the relationship between technology and people, and to the tradition of industrial organization know as ‘instrumentalism.’

Focusing on the west in the context of a discussion on ‘third world’ development reminds readers that many of the industrial systems and tactics of resistance found currently in the ‘third world’ were first developed and refined in their European and American birthplaces.

In chapters 3 and 4, Pena contrasts perceptions of work-floor organizational and resistance strategies from the perspectives of management and workers. He finds that among the various strategies of workers, ‘the women workers of Mexico’s maquiladoras also develop a variety of ideological and political perspectives to contest the legitimacy of managerial authority.’ His focus on gender is particularly useful, since many maquila workers, not to mention factory workers throughout the ‘third world’, are women.

The mega-machine of global development is a misogynist beast that exploits in particular young, unmarried women, but, as in other locales, Mexican women are finding ways to name and resist their circumstances. This leads Pena to a discussion of networks of workers, their families, and their communities, in chapter 5, where he talks about formal and informal modes of organization and cooperation.

In chapters 6 and 7, Pena returns to the maquila workplace, this time looking at ‘workers’ creativity in the labor process,’ arguing that ‘maquila workers are new social subjects with oppositional identities.’ These chapters focus on the Center for the Orientation of the Working Woman (COMO), an ‘experiment in worker education and self-management,’ and on the lives of the pependores, Mexican dump workers. He argues that ‘maquila workers, through COMO, linked with the struggles of other so-called marginals to champion the cause of workplace democracy, political self-determination, and community renewal.’

Chapter 8 outlines the changes that occurred in the maquiladora system over the course of the 10 years he spent researching it, including a look at the entrance of Japanese transnational corporations onto the scene, and a comparison between the American and Japanese approaches to labor and industry.

Finally, no study of free trade zones and industrialization would be complete without a consideration of the environmental impacts of development. As one Indian activist put it, what the west is doing under the guise of ‘development’ is in reality ‘mal-development’ for peoples in the ‘third world’. A major symptom of mal-development is resource depletion and industrial pollution, both of which put terrible strains on local ecosystems.

As Pena notes, this is of little real concern to transnational corporations, who simply pack up shop and move once they have got all they can from any particular locale, leaving behind their refuse and waste. The maquiladoras have caused untold damage to Mexican ecosystems, including, ‘threatened and endangered species, the contamination of surface and groundwater supplies, the diverse impacts of expanding infrastructure, the catastrophic threat of cybernetic technologies, occupational health hazards, and environmental health problems.’ He concludes with some prospects for the future of the maquila industries, and in particular the ongoing impact of NAFTA.

The Terror of the Machine is a startling, yet somehow inspiring book, about working and living conditions in the emerging transnational corporate order. It is startling, particularly for folks living in the West, that their comfort and opulence comes at the direct expense of ‘third world’ workers and ecosystems; it is inspiring in the ways the Pena shows people resisting and strategizing oppositional tactics to the new industrial order.

Though focused on Mexico, this work is of interest to Muslims; much of what Pena finds there could be found in several Muslim countries. A necessary aspect of insuring that corporations reign free in planting their systems in the Third World is the continued support and existence of autocratic regimes and the current Western imposed nation-state system.. Thus, the struggle for the dignity and fair treatment of workers and their families is ultimately a struggle for political independence and autonomy.

Muslimedia: February 16-28, 1998

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 24

Jumada' al-Ula' 19, 14381998-02-16

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