Technology and class

Subversion examine the role of technology in class struggle as a tool for ratcheting up the exploitation of the working class.

Note: This article and the article on the city in this issue were originally discussion documents for a day conference we held in Salford in June 1995. The conference was held jointly with the 'Liverpool Discussion Group'.

Capitalism is a system of social relations. In its simple form this is represented by a CONTRACT between the worker who only has his or her ability to work and the OWNER of certain means of production. The worker is then placed into the capitalist plan of production, that is the LABOUR PROCESS.

Capitalism is at one and the same time both a CHAOTIC and a PLANNED system. In the chaos of the market place the capitalist attempts to sell his products [for despite the fact that they are made by workers they remain HIS products]. But in order for him to be successful he has to sell his products at a competitive price, or a price that is dictated by the international market. He therefore seeks to obtain this price by paying the lowest possible one for labour and materials, AND by organising the labour process so as to minimise the socially necessary labour time that goes into making products. The workers for their part seek to get the best possible price for their labour [power] and to minimise the effort expended. Here commenceth the CLASS STRUGGLE.

One of the means which capital has used to extract surplus value is through the development of science and technology. Scientific development has ALWAYS been used as a weapon by capital to attack and break up concentrations of working class power. The problem for capital is that what replaces the old class composition can become an even bigger threat. Henry Ford's introduction of the production line process was designed explicitly to break the power of the skilled craft workers, but in the process there was created a NEW and MORE ANTAGONISTIC composition of the working class. This was the MASS WORKER, the worker of the giant production factories. Some of us taking part in the discussion are the remnants of that composition.

Fraud 2000

Today by contrast, with its new project called 'Ford 2000', that company is attempting, once again to be the 'cutting edge' of capitalist development. In addition, as the 'Fordist' model of production developed it also brought about changes in the 'state form'. What emerged was the 'Planner State', with Keynesian economics at its heart. The economies of capital were to be planned rather than left to the vagaries of the market.

The Keynesian project was an attempt to balance the unbalanceable. That is it attempted to to contain the class struggle within defined limits AND to use it as the MOTOR for capitalist development of the economy. Wage rises and the 'social wage', that is the benefits of the welfare state, were to be paid for by increases in productivity, which in turn would provide the mass of goods and the consumers for this new market.

In the period after World War Two the 'Planner State' became the norm in all the major Western economies, and oversaw what has been called a golden age of accumulation or 'growth'. The 60s and 70s also saw however the emergence and growth of a new militant and political class struggle as the proletariat increasingly refused its part of this bargain.

The struggles of the 60s and 70s, which spread out of the factories and into the communities, undoubtedly threw capital into crisis. The demands of the working class forced capital to look for newer and more radical solutions. These were sought in the fields of technology and economic policy. The production systems of the big factories were to be dismantled and a 'monetarist' approach to economic policy AND the state form became the priorities.

Multinational Capital

This project of MULTINATIONAL capital is dispersing the old concentrations of the working class.

Within the workplace the attack is not just technological but also involves changes in the length of the working week / year and in the status of workers. Increased 'casualisation' of work and the creation of 'core' and 'peripheral' work forces has helped to disperse our class. Some workers have become almost invisible. And the INTERNATIONAL division of the labour process, whilst creating for perhaps the first time a truly world wide working class, is making it correspondingly more difficult for workers to organise resistance. This attack is also not confined to the 'industrial' working class, but affects all sections of workers and all spheres of our lives.

Crisis for the working class

These truly revolutionary changes that have been and are taking place have thrown us into a crisis. They pose problems for the organisational forms and institutions developed by the working class and its revolutionary movement. For some they have proved insurmountable, many people have been physically and psychologically damaged by this current stage of capitalist development. Some have even been destroyed by it.

One final point by way of introduction, capital has made a determined effort to change the gender balance of the international working class. It believes [in so far as it consciously thinks about this at all] that women are more docile and therefore more easily controlled. Here I believe it is making a serious error for when the working class fights back [as it most assuredly will] the solidarity of women will be a major weapon in our armoury. I also believe that the necessarily increased involvement of women will lead to the development of new forms of organisation. . . . . . . . . 'Modern industry makes Science a productive force distinct form labour and presses it into the service of capital.' Karl Marx.

Technology is an arm and a product of that Science. Technology therefore IS NOT NEUTRAL, it is a weapon of capital pointed at the working class, and it has enabled capital to disperse production around the globe and thereby create a genuinely international division of labour.The struggles of the 60s and 70s pointed to a horizon of separation, that is a separation of the working class from capital. It was those struggles which produced the technology and the political state form we face today.

It is actually workers struggles that provide the dynamic of capitalist development. Capital does not produce new technologies on a whim, but rather it is driven by its internal antagonism, it reacts to the THE OTHER that exists within itself - us, the working class. We are like the alien in the movie, striving to break out and destroy that which contains us. Capital has a constant need to forestall, disrupt and defeat the collective power of the 'enemy within'. And one of the methods it uses is technological innovation. Capital's tendency to increase the proportion of dead or constant capital as against the living or variable capital involved in the production process arises from the fact that living capital, the worker, is AN INSURGENT ELEMENT with whom management is constantly locked in battle.

This struggle has historical antecedents. In the first quarter of this century the dominant forces within the working class were largely the craftsmen, the highly skilled engineering workers who provided the nucleus of Bolshevism and Council Communism. Faced with the threat of these revolutionary movements and fearful of the spread of their ideas, capital undertook a drastic reshaping of production with the aim of deskilling the labour force and separating it from its political vanguards. There were two main components to the project, Taylorist based organisation of the labour process and Fordist restructuring of the working day and wage. In this capital was successful.

Thatcher, Regan .......... and Ned Ludd

At a later stage those who resisted in the 60s and 70s faced a new state form by the beginning of the 80s - the 'crisis state' as Toni Negri calls it. We know it better as Thatcherism or Reganism, two names which I believe actually mystify and personalise CAPITAL's attack upon the working class. Welfare provision were dismantled in favour of discipline by austerity as capital refused any longer to bear the costs of the reproduction of labour power. Monetary policy assumed a central role in driving down real wages, and the ability of the class to fight back was hampered by legal restraints. We didn't roll over and play dead, we resisted, but WE WERE DEFEATED, and not just in Britain but on a world scale.

At the level of production, multi-national capital started to reorganise itself, to disperse and decentralise the locus of its productive activity. When capital began to realise the possibilities that existed within the new technologies it had called into being, it was unsure at first how the working class would react to these self same possibilities. Would a new form of Luddism arise ? Would the working class see the technology as something designed to defeat them ? It must have seemed likely for IBM for one ran a series of advertisements criticising Luddism and Luddite practices - and this 150 years after the real thing.

As well as the harsh economic policies of monetarism, capital used the 'fifth column' of the 'fourth estate' - the press and the media - to break down resistance to technological change. The propaganda machine went into overdrive. We were told that the end of drudgery was upon us. We were going to spend less time in work and have more time for 'leisure' pursuits. And anyway the growth in the leisure industries would pick up any fallout in terms of unemployment from the manufacturing sector. We would learn new skills as old ones disappeared, life would become one continuous educational journey.

Some even posited the 'end of work' - and how we looked forward to that ! But for four million people at least in this country, they were right ! With paradise on the horizon how could there be any need for archaic notions like socialism or communism ? Surely everybody was going to share the fruits of the technological tree. Because for so many of us in the 60s and 70s the struggle had centred on the 'refusal of work', the scam was bought.

As the media distorted the true nature of the changes that were about to take place our class was faced with another problem - the attitude of the trade unions to technology. Those grey minds in grey suits whose job it is to 'sell' us to capital had a grasp on it straightaway however. As the TUC put it in 1979, 'There is the challenge that the rapid introduction of new processes and work organisation will lead to the loss of many more jobs and to growing social dislocation. Equally however, there is the realisation that new technologies also offer great opportunities, not just for increasing the competitiveness of BRITISH industry but for increasing the quality of working life and for providing new benefits to working people.'

Well, 'quality of life' and 'new benefits' don't come easily to mind when trying to sum up the last sixteen years. This ambiguity is a constant factor in trade discussion of the subject, whether at national or local level. It is located in the totally mistaken belief that technology is neutral. In addition the 'Left' for the most part takes this view as well. But as someone said, 'The tool integrated into the system of machinery becomes a machine tool, a machine which incorporates social relations. The social relations of capitalism. Technology is not neutral because it incorporates in its mode of operation the dexterity and skill of the worker who is henceforth deprived of her skill and subordinated from the point of view of social production to that technology.'

We are today in the period of 'real subsumption', where the urge to generate a surplus results in the wholesale reorganisation of work, with the aim of profiting from economies of scale and cooperation. Science is being systematically applied to industry, and technological innovation become PERPETUAL. The focus is on the relative intensification of productivity rather than the absolute extension of working hours, and consumption is organised by the wholesale cultivation of new 'needs'.The technological weapons we face today, based on the silicon chip, fibre optics and satellite communications, interact with one another to divide us AND the labour process up. Thereby making it easier for capital to control the cycle of accumulation.

The giant factories are coming to the end of their life span as capital 'hives off' more and more work to subcontractors. And they in turn hive some of it off to smaller outfits, including homeworkers, who sometimes utilise the labour of their children. And in saying this I am speaking of this country as well as the so called 'third world'.

Sweatshops are a fact of life throughout the world. It is only by the use of technology that capital can at the same time disperse the division of labour around the globe AND at the same time increase its control over the labour process. The Ford Motor Company is at this moment centralising its control over the whole Ford empire. Alex Trottman, head of international operations and an ex-member of the English working class, has said that they now have the technological means to centralise everything at the company's Dearborn headquarters. They can now build the 'world car' and anticipate savings of between $2 or $3 billion from the Ford 2000 project.

The stark goals of the 'information revolution' are the control and reduction of the costs of labour. The rundown of the Welfare State has to be seen in relation to their ability to move production around the globe. Multinational capital is no longer prepared to pay the costs of reproduction of labour in the old economies of the West. When they can hire twenty Phillipino workers for the price of one European, why should they ?

The fear and uncertainty that have been produced by the changes in world capitalism are being used to push through strategies and tactics designed to further fragment us. The development of 'core' and 'peripheral' workers is one element; the precarious situation of peripheral workers is the price paid for the relative 'security' of the core workforce. And in the workplace the introduction of quality circles, continuous 'improvement' meetings and team working are designed to get us to police ourselves and talk our mates out of their jobs. Fear permeates into the public sector where the law of value is being applied.

Decline of the unions

In fact capitalism is now everywhere, in every aspect of our lives, it is a totally socialised system. Every aspect of our lives, not just work, is geared to the production and extraction of surplus value.The changes outlined that have and are taking place have had and will continue to have a profound effect on the 'labour movement' and the 'Left'. A 33% reduction in the number of unions in this country between 1981 and 1991 and the slump in membership figures reflects a world wide crisis for the the trade unions. Increasingly capital has no need for the mediating role of the trade unions. With the technology at its disposal it can switch production around the globe if there are strikes or other forms of 'disruption'.

The response in this country has been for the TUC to cuddle up to the CBI. They do this in order to convince management that they still have a useful role to play - in 'adding value'. And only when they can can add value to the product will capital work with them. In other words the only role for the trade unions is to to assist in the continued exploitation of the working class.

We have in addition seen the disintegration of the Stalinist economies of the former 'Eastern bloc' - this means there is now a huge pool of labour available for exploitation by multinational capital. The major barrier to this exploitation apart from political instability is the lack of suitable infrastructure especially in the field of communications. So communications capital, including our 'own' Cable and Wireless, owners of Mercury who have just pulled OUT of providing a public service in this country, are presently working on a system of financial and technological support for the old Eastern bloc and other states with similar 'infrastructure' problems. Billions of potential workers will then be ready to flood the world labour market. Ford's by the way, have opened two component plants in China in the last six months, with two more due to come on stream shortly

The problems posed by these developments for the Western working class are perhaps, akin to the ones faced by the handloom weavers during the Industrial Revolution. These workers saw their wages drop by some 80 odd per cent in a thirty year period. The weavers and their families starved as they were replaced by machine minders.The experience of being on the periphery is a painful and disorientating one for the Western working class. The steady employment that many have taken for granted is disappearing and high levels of unemployment are a becoming a permanent feature. The developments in technology and the access that multinationals have to a world labour force means that these levels are not going to fall. But the people in the dole queues will be constantly changing as they move in and out of jobs that are increasingly casual.

Multinational capital constantly demand lower costs and their suppliers must meet these demands. Casualisation of the labour force is one answer open to them. This is why work contracts tend now to be for less that two years, so that even the meagre state 'protections' against redundancy is of no use. And comapnies like Ford are cutting back on the number of suppliers they use - in the case of the Mondeo this has been reduced by 65%. With the lifespan of new models continually getting shorter, the work 'guaranteed' to the chosen suppliers will be further reduced.

Labouring in Vain

To those who think that the Labour Party will be able to do something about he movement of multinational companies and finance capital I say - GET REAL. The last Labour Government's ability to manoeuvre against the demands of the IMF and World Bank in 1976 was limited, but those difficulties will be as nothing compared to what they will have to face next time round. We have a truly international capital which now has the technology to circumvent any of the restrictions that nation state might want to impose on production or capital flows.

In fact the nation state is fast becoming an anachronism. Multinational capital like the first bourgeoisie, demands a state form that truly represents its interests. Of course the internationalisation of capital also means the internationalisation of the working class.

The nationalistic parties of Social Democracy and the sectionalism of trade unions are blockages and obstacles that the newly reemerging working class must CONFRONT and DESTROY. In the last two hundred years or so, driven by the motor of the class struggle, capital and the working class have continually changed their compositions. Can anything like the same be said for the revolutionary movement ? In the main the answer has to be NO. In fact most of what claims to be revolutionary today is also anachronistic [at best]. It is somewhat ironic that the groups of the 'Left' can only offer our class forms of organisation and institutions that are rooted in the past.

Capital changes, the class changes, but the 'Left' is still living in the first twenty years of this century. The 'Left's forms of organisation - democratic centralism and council communism, were rooted in and products of a particular composition of the working class - that of the skilled craft worker. It should be obvious that that particular composition has long ceased to exist, as SHOULD ITS ORGANISATIONAL FORMS. Both forms were created by white, male, skilled workers and yet they are continually offered as a model for a modern, multi-ethnic and increasingly female dominated, INTERNATIONAL working class. Our class does and will continue to fight back, but it can only do so in ways that reflect its new composition.

Comments

Steven.
Jul 28 2011 09:38

Overall, I think this is a good article. However, I don't think it demonstrates that science or technology in themselves are not neutral, as it only examines how they are used in capitalist society. Which is for the furtherance of capitalism, obviously.