Issue 2 - Spring 1995

The Los Angeles Revolt: Its Lessons for the World (page 1 of 2)
By Alvin and Heidi Toffler
World Monitor

Cy.Rev Appendix: While several years old, we thought this article by the Tofflers from the June 1992 issue of World Monitor helped to illuminate the application of their theories to current events. It places Newt Gingrich's popularization of a right wing approach to the Third Wave in a broader perspective.

The flames that swept America from Los Angeles to Atlanta in the Spring of 1992 hold unnoticed lessons for Europe, with its rising ethnicism, its skinheads and ultra-nationalists, and even for Japan and other currently peaceful societies. The fact that an all-white jury exonerated a gang of white police who sadistically beat up a young black man named Rodney King in California may have provided the trigger, but the explosive charge that powered the Los Angeles riot is not a local, nor even an American phenomenon. It is a global event linked to a basic redistribution of economic and political power. It has its roots not merely in racism, but in the techno social revolution now sweeping across the earth.

American cities were torched in racial rioting in the late 1960s, too. Despite the passage of a generation, the explanations offered for the latest round of arson and looting were virtually the same. From George Bush one heard conventional calls for law and order. From his opponents came a string of clichés about poverty, unemployment, racism, and urban hopelessness.

All these elements were and are unquestionably present, but they form only a small part of a much larger story. For this latest upheaval is more than a protest against police brutality or a symptom of age-old ills. It reflects (1) a dangerous new kind of racism and (2) a new, far more intractable kind of unemployment both with implications that reach beyond the United States.

The new racism and the new unemployment spring from a new system of wealth creation that is spreading swiftly through all the affluent nations, destroying the "mass society" of the industrial past.

The invention of agriculture thousands of years ago launched the First Wave of social transformation in history. The industrial revolution triggered a Second Wave. Today a Third Wave of techno social change is sweeping through all the high-tech countries, hitting the US the hardest, and California even harder.

The industrial revolution created mass societies. In them, mass distribution, mass consumption, mass education, mass political parties, mass communications, mass entertainment, and mass welfare services paralleled mass production. Homogeneity was their ruling principle.

Today's Third Wave of change shatters the industrial mass society. The new governing principle is heterogeneity. Thus today in the US, Japan, and Europe alike, mass production is increasingly being replaced by "de-massified" manufacture based on short runs of heterogeneous and even customized products made in flexible, computer-driven factories. The mass market is simultaneously breaking into "niche" markets defined and organized by computers. Consumption is being de-massified in parallel with production.

The media, too, are de-massifying. In the US, for example, almost 60% of American homes now receive video imagery from an average of almost 30 different channels instead of from only three giant TV net works. And the latest TV sets are designed to provide more than l00 channels.

Prime-time viewer ship for the once dominant networks has been slipping, their mass audience breaking into parts. Even their news gathering competence is now challenged. Thus the fact that the Rodney King beating came to world attention because a private citizen videotaped the event or that private citizens with hand-held video cameras documented the subsequent riots is perfectly symbolic of the decline of the traditional mass media as new media come on stream and diversify the imagery consumed by the public.

Radical Change in Family Structure

The standard industrial family unit of the mass society - into which almost everyone was supposed to fit - was the "nuclear" family, composed of a working father, a stay-at-home mom, and two children under the age of 18. Today only about 5% of American families fit into this Second Wave model, and perhaps even fewer in California.

Today's society gives rise to a wide variety of familial relationships, ranging from single motherhood to serial or successive marriage, and so-called "sandwich" families in which a middle-aged couple takes responsibility for both its children and its parents. In the poorest of American communities, single mothers and out-of-wed lock children are virtually the norm.

The family has not "died." Instead, the once homogeneous family system has de massified along with production, consumption, and the media as the Third Wave economy and society have developed and spread.

The deep de-massification process, which is now hitting many countries, has direct impacts on ethnic or race relations.

During the Second Wave era, the industrial economy needed a standardized, mass labor force. During the early period of industrialization, the US, unlike Europe, suffered from frequent labor shortages as workers migrated westward. The rising industrial elites solved this problem by substituting energy and innovative technology for labor. Politically, they enacted open immigration policies. Thus, polyglot workers flooded into the US from all over the world.

To increase labor efficiency, it was necessary to homogenize or massify the workers. Hence there arose the "melting pot" ideal, which told immigrants to slough off their old culture and to reemerge with new, wholly American identities. But while many different cultures and religions were assimilated, Americans, including the new ones, resisted the integration of non-Caucasian races into the society. African-Americans in particular had to fight every inch for entry into the economy and society on an equal basis with others - and, despite some notable exceptions, have not yet succeeded. For generations they formed the last reserve of the labor force, given jobs only when all other labor pools were exhausted, as was the case during World War II.

One result of all this was continuing conflict between the white majority and the black minority as each competed for employment and the income that flowed from it. More >>


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