From Cruze to Cruise: False Consciousness and Dialectical Conflict in the GM Paradigm Shift

Werner Lange | Social Economics | Theory | December 6th, 2018

On Monday, November 26, General Motors publicly announced its decision to shut down all production at five major plants in 2019, including the sprawling Lordstown Assembly Plant in Ohio's Mahoning Valley, home of the Cruze model, and shift major investment to mass production of all-electric autonomous vehicles through its Cruise subsidiary, headquartered in California's Silicon Valley. This grand paradigm shift from traditional cars to autonomous ones marks a major change in GM operations, ones which will leave abandoned communities economically devastated and thousands of terminated workers financially paralyzed, while simultaneously paving a path toward zero-emission cars. Yet the resultant communal and private havoc imposed upon victimized communities will likely not lead, as it should, to a workers' revolt and political uprising; at least not in northeast Ohio. That disappointing but realistic projection is based upon the potency of widespread false consciousness among the masses, the seductive temptation of subscribing to false hopes, and the emergence of a new dialectical conflict uniting labor and management in an existential struggle against climate change.

November 26 marked the second Black Monday brutally imposed upon the Mahoning Valley located in the heart of de-industrialized America. The first one occurred in September 1977 when steel corporations precipitously closed several major plants in Youngstown, a catastrophic economic blow from which this once vibrant, but now largely impoverished, city has never substantially recovered. A similar fate of an accelerated decline now awaits Lordstown and surrounding communities like Newton Falls, my hometown for the past 30 years. During that time, despite sporadic sparks to the contrary, this part of America's broad Rust Belt has gotten collectively more rusted, but nevertheless reliably remained a Democratic stronghold - until 2016. The mass frustration of hard-pressed communities and working families stuck seemingly forever in economic stagnancy spilled over into a passionate desire for qualitative change during the last presidential election. Only one major-party candidate appeared in substance and style to offer qualitative change, whereas the other candidate, unlike her progressive opponent in the primary, painfully projected business as usual. After voting overwhelming by 23 points for Barack Obama in 2012, voters in Trumbull County, home to the Lordstown plant, gave a 6-point victory margin to Donald Trump in 2016. Revealingly, the only other Republican presidential candidate who won Trumbull County since 1960 was Richard Nixon in 1972. Masters of deceit have been able to occasionally tap into pervasive false consciousness within this largely working-class community, but never with the ferocity of the most recent presidential election. This, of course, comes as no surprise to progressive social thinkers familiar with the roots and consequences of false consciousness among labor and working-class communities.

The ability to successfully colonize the mind of the oppressed with the carefully construed values and deceitfully manipulated images of the oppressor characterizes all tyrannies to some extent. The cultural substrate for this common success of mass deception is based upon the objective reality that the ruling ideas of any stable society are the ideas of the rulers. Those who dominate a society economically also do so ideologically. It is their agents of socialization which substantively shape the mindset of the new generations, and it is their institutions which seek to sustain that self-defeating mindset throughout adulthood. Rebels are demonized, deviants dismissed, conformists applauded, and out-groups scapegoated. Fascists, in particular, are adept at creating and manipulating false consciousness and suppressing class consciousness. The very name of Hitler's fascist party, NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers Party), for example, would have a bitterly frustrated and justifiably angry German citizen think the party promotes socialism and embraces the interests of the working class. Instead it routinely executed socialists (along with communists and many others), turned masses of workers into industrial slaves, and channeled mass frustration into displaced aggression against the vulnerable and marginalized Other. This repressive pattern is largely repeated in Trump's America with his regime's unbridled attacks upon immigrants and journalists, constant invocation of big lies, demonization of liberals, and conversion of the Republican Party, in substance, into what Noam Chomsky recently called "the most dangerous organization in human history." None of this would have been possible if class consciousness (instead of false consciousness) guided the behavior of America's working-class masses. In fact, the antithesis of the Trump regime would now be in power if the working class-in-itself would transform into a working class-for-itself, a work still in progress.

If false consciousness propelled the rise of the Trump regime and aided the fall of GM Lordstown, then false hope is designed to keep victimized workers and communities passive. The emergent false hope is not identical to the false promises made by Trump in his 2017 visit here, claiming the lost jobs were all coming back and "we're going to fill those factories back up." Everyone, except the hopelessly deluded, now knows that to be an outright lie. More pernicious is the emergent, projected hope for a new fossil-fueled product to be allocated to the soon-to-be-idled GM Lordstown plant sometime in late 2019. "Future products will be allocated to fewer plants next year," stated GM's CEO in officially designating the five targeted GM plants as "unallocated," but leaving the door theoretically open for one of the coming "five vehicle architectures" to resurrect perhaps one of these comatose plants back to full life, thus setting up a bitter competition in 2019 among the impacted communities to win this ephemeral prize. In anticipation of this divisive competition, the regional Chamber of Commerce launched its "Drive It Home" campaign, which, according to its website, is a "coalition of local businesses, community, religious leaders, consumers, and workers, as well as their families, coming together to urge GM to support growing their investment at the Lordstown Complex"… and to "create a positive environment and build good relations with local management." This is in stark contrast to the "labor-management wars of the late 60s and early 70s," as one current local UAW leader castigated the strikes, revolts, and progressive activism at Lordstown two generations ago.

Yet that is precisely the type of protest and activism now needed to avoid community devastation. After all, the dialectical conflict inherent to capitalist management-labor relations has lost none of its validity, despite loss of manifested vitality. Maximizing private profit inevitably translates into minimizing community needs; and expanding labor-created surplus value invariably comes at the expense of labor's necessary value. The objective interests of private capital and labor are not identical in the old industrial setting, regardless of projections to the contrary. To create a community-wide "positive environment" in begging GM for a new allocation is tantamount to suppression of any public criticism of the utter corporate greed driving its "vehicle portfolio optimization," as GM characterizes its termination of several models, including the Cruze. Silence in the face of this economic tyranny is the voice of complicity. On its knees begging for a second chance is not the proper posture of organized labor; but rather, it is firmly standing upright and fearlessly speaking truth to power and forcefully demanding justice. For starters, that demand entails full repayment of the $50-billion loan given GM in corporate welfare a decade ago - an outstanding bill of some $10 billion is still owed taxpayers. Better yet would be implementation of corporate alimony, a mandate requiring corporations to justly compensate communities they abandon after benefitting from decades of enrichment there. Yet, to date, not even a murmur along these lines; just a call from community leaders to be hopeful and quietly wait and pray for a miracle. A recipe for disaster.

However, beyond the viability of the labor-management dialectic, there is another dynamic at work in this transition from traditional cars to electric cars which deserves greater attention and analysis. We live in perilous times of grave existential threats to humanity from the growing challenge and increasingly devastating crisis of man-made climate change. The science on climate change is abundantly clear. Unless radical changes are globally and timely implemented to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep them exceedingly low, the very future of humanity and other life forms is at risk. This grave environmental crisis creates a new dialectic, one which supersedes and transcends the traditional labor-management one. Required in this dangerously new context is a paradigm shift of consciousness from conflicting class consciousness to harmonious covenantal mindsets within both labor and management and beyond, a unified humanity confronting a common existential threat. The thesis/affirmation of humanity and other life forms in covenantal union are contradicted by the antithesis/negation of climate change producers and deniers. Unlike the economic and particular labor-management dialectic, this new one is an existential and universal one. Whereas the former arrives at a synthesis of higher quality of life through class consciousness converting an objective class-in-itself to a subjective active class-for-itself, the current existential conflict encompasses all humanity - all classes, races, ethnicities, religions, and cultures - on one side of this colossal dialectical conflict and climate changers on the other. Conflicting class relations in this new context are superseded by complementary covenantal relations, ones that unite labor and management as well as all humanity facing a common foe in climate change. That objective covenant-in-itself must be transformed into an active covenant-for-itself if the current existential crisis is to be overcome.

In that regard, General Motors is to be applauded for its explicit goal of zero emissions through its all-electric autonomous Cruise operations which are slated to reach commercialization at scale beginning in 2019. By 2023, GM intends to have at least 20 all-electric models on the market globally in paving the way toward a zero-emission future in the automobile industry. In direct contradiction to a zero-emission future, on the other hand, are potent political and economic forces bonded to fossil fuel extraction and consumption, like the Trump regime and mother earth frackers who foolishly promote the existential threat of climate change and thereby constitute the negation of this new dialectic. America's ruling class is clearly split on this question of energy options, and therein lies real hope for needed qualitative change. While the majority still favors and actively fosters fossil-fuel industries, a growing minority within corporate America, as evidenced by GM's embrace of a zero-emission future, has become enlightened to the urgent need for clean energy everywhere. That enlightenment must expand at all levels of our deeply divided society to ensure sheer survival, let alone safety and security. If and when this new global consciousness based on covenantal relations grips the mind of the masses along with the corporate and political power elite, climate change and global warming will not only be reduced; these existential threats will be negated altogether, and a new chapter in human history will open. The alternative is not only unacceptable, it is unthinkable.