In “Management-by-Stress,” Mike Parker frames his critique of our article, “Collateral Damage” as a debate over the oppressive character of the flexible production systems imported to the US by Toyota and other imports. Unfortunately for those who enjoy heated debates, we are not going to challenge Parker’s major point — that flexible production is horribly exploitative of workers. Instead, we want to harness the impressive evidence of oppression he presents to buttress a key component of our analysis: that the exploitative essence of flexible production is also the key to successful worker resistance.
Parker’s assertion — that we see flexible production as inherently humane — points to a weakness in our text that we seek to correct here. In our original article, we were too concerned with demonstrating — in the first instance — that flexible production was good for capitalists because it facilitated improvements in product quality while simultaneously extracting constantly increased productivity from the workers. Then — in the second instance — we were too concerned with demonstrating that flexible production was eventually a weapon available to workers that provided them with the structural leverage needed to force management to grant substantial wage increases and meaningful improvements in working conditions. Our view of flexible production is thus dialectic: it is a production system that simultaneously maximizes worker exploitation while gifting workers with the power needed to ameliorate that exploitation. That is, it contains within it the seeds of its own limitation. The dialectics of this argument run the risk of sounding like cheerleading for flexible production; and our lack of precision led to Parker misunderstanding our argument as asserting that flexible production virtually eliminates class conflict. Parker’s critique is thus particularly constructive, since it highlights our failure to successfully present a key aspect of our argument, and gives us the opportunity to clarify it.