Writings 1990-1999


Kenneth Westhues

Catholic New Times, 22 September 1996; on the web by permission, August 2003

This book complements two analyses of contemporary capitalism reviewed earlier this year in CNT. In Globalization and the Decline of Social Reform, Gary Teeple sets forth the basic logic of capitalist development, explaining why the welfare state was constructed during the first two-thirds of this century, and why it is now in process of dismantling. In When Corporations Rule the World, David Korten concentrates on the key players in the global marketplace, showing how transnational corporations undermine democracy, reduce diversity, and leave people with no place.

Heather Menzies describes the same globalized capitalist system as Teeple and Korten do, but in a different aspect. Her focus is on the infrastructure of computerized communication on which the system utterly depends. The information highway, she argues, "isn't simply a new technology, a new media, on the landscape. It is creating a whole new landscape and environment for living." Like Teeple and Korten, Menzies foresees a bleak future unless ways can be found to reassert democratic control.

This book shows ample evidence of the widening gulf between the tiny minority of capitalists and experts who run the system and the majority who "just work here," if indeed they can find jobs. The gap extends even to defining what is real. The book opens on that cold day in January 1995, when 26,000 applicants lined up for jobs at the General Motors plant in Oshawa. Readers of the Globe & Mail were not informed of this news except by a small story inside the Business Section. Front-page coverage that day went instead to the transfer by United Parcel Service of 800 jobs to call-centres in New Brunswick.

Menzies likens our situation to Orwell's 1984, wherein Winston Smith was so completely enthralled by the Ministry of Truth that he could not grasp the reality of the Proles. She finds Huxley's Brave New World an even more apt comparison, given the extent to which coercion has been replaced by manufactured consent as a technique of social control. Is it not unsettling how many authors today have recourse to these classic depictions of tyranny for making sense of our own working lives?

Teeple's roots are in Marxism, Korten's in the international NGO (nongovernmental organization) community, but Menzies's roots are organically Canadian. Though not to the exclusion of data from the U.S. and elsewhere, she is concerned primarily with the degradation and loss of jobs right here. Specific references to CN, Northern Telecom, Bell Canada, de Havilland, and other Canadian firms enliven these pages. The picture Menzies paints of a Toronto teleworker sitting in her bedroom in front of her computer, taking orders for Pizza Pizza, one per minute, from 10 to 2 and 4 to 8 each day, for about $7.00 per hour—the picture hits home.

This book is Canadian also in an intellectual sense. The author is not a Marxist. She is comfortable with the mixed economy and modestly communitarian polity of this country's first century. What concerns her is that the earlier "fairly democratic distribution of power" is being lost to the "operating systems associated with the information highway." These new structures are "shutting down opportunities for work and participation."

The book is rooted in a distinctly Canadian tradition of social science: how technologies of transportation and communication shape all the rest of life. Harold Innis set this tradition in place. Marshall McLuhan carried it on. Ursula Franklin and James Carey represent it today. These are the scholars on whose shoulders Menzies has stood, in writing this powerful appraisal of the impact of computer technology on work.

If I have a complaint about this insightful, right-headed book, it is the lack of a plausible practical program for turning things around. I share Menzies's sympathy for the Luddites of two centuries ago, but they are a poor model of political effectiveness. It is not enough to call for "a new critical discourse on technology" or to propose, as Menzies does at the end of the book, a conference run by coalitions serving a "people's agenda." The process of necessary change can be discoursed to death.

Jane Addams, the American reformer and Nobel laureate, founded a settlement in Chicago called Hull House, as a place where people "might try out some of the things they had been taught and put truth to the ultimate test of the conduct it dictates or inspires." Later this fall, I plan to draw CNT readers' attention to some reports of practical tests inspired by the kind of thinking in Heather Menzies's good book.