Midnight Notes text on work, energy and Three Mile Island - from 1980.
The female service worker meets her complement in the computer programmer and technician in the energy crisis. For while the most archaic forms of exploitation are resurrected by the energy price rise, at the opposite pole there is an intensification in the development of the instrumentalities of information and control. Why the rise of the computation industry at the peak of the energy crisis? In order to understand this development we must turn again to the work/ energy crisis of the late 60s and early 70s.
The overflowing of working class energy imposed an energy crisis on a number of counts. First, energy prices, which are basic, have allowed capital to tip the wage/ profit ratio in its direction and increase the average rate of profit. Second, these prices are the vehicle for the re-organization of the organic composition of capital, making the realization of profits insensitive to “immediate” factory worker’s struggles. Third, the price transformation has made it possible to directly extract surplus value from the reproduction work.
But this was still not enough. The mere fact that women were increasingly employed in the low sector of the economy did not guarantee that this would turn into profit, into capital. The mere fact that auto plants are closed does not mean that cars and trucks are no longer produced, they are just made with fewer workers. Finally, the mere fact of investment in the high tech areas does not mean that this investment will pay off, for the high organic composition sector is very sensitive to breakdown, indeed, catastrophic ones. Thus the energy crisis imposes a new premium on information, control and communication (transfer). The enormous decentralization of employment in the service industry has required a new methods of transferring surplus value from one end of the system to the other. The expulsion of the mass factory worker reintroduces the drive toward robotization. Finally, the concentration of productive capital in complex machines requires an intensification of self-policing and conservation of capital.
To better understand the simultaneous rise of the information processing industry with the service industry, we must descend into the vulcanic heart of capital: the work process. Work kills, and that is a problem, for capital needs to be able to reproduce the work process. Production is linear, but it must go around. There must be a mechanism of “eternal return” in the work process that will bring it back into the initial position (so that it can be done again). Work kills but in each death there must be the seeds of its rebirth, a cycle of production and reproduction. As Mengele discovered, you can work a human to death in a few minutes, but you won’t be able to do anything with the scraps except as art-deco lamp-shades and inefficient fertilizer.
Capital then must plan the reproduction of the work process on a continuing basis. As in Carnot’s cycle, though only one stage accomplishes the thrust, the others are essential, to restore the engine to a position where work can be done again.
To do without the reproductive part of the cycle is capitalist suicide. Moreover, as the example of the early post-Columbian silver mines and the Nazi work camps show, there is no “instinct for survival”, only conditions and thresholds. Capital can only approach the thresholds of survival with the utmost caution: suicide always beckons at the margin of survival. The pleasure of suicide that would rob the capitalist of his value becomes attractive to a worker when s/he can do nothing else.
To ensure the reproduction of production, however, it is not enough to reproduce the worker. Capital too must be preserved. Constant capital is an essential part of the production process which must be protected from workers’ corrosive energies. Capital’s drive to self-preservation and self-reproduction appears in the classical personality of the little capitalist: “the capitalist taking good care that the work is done in a proper manner, and that the means of production are used with intelligence, so that there is no unnecessary waste of raw material, and no wear and tear of the implements beyond what is necessarily caused by the work.”1 The micro-capitalist is so concerned about his fixed capital because there is a constant threat of the worker who does the work “unintelligently”, “sloppily” and is, above all, wasteful. For workers can not only kill themselves in times of frustrated struggles, they can always kill capital in its most embodied and vulnerable form: the machine. To control this most basic form of class struggle it is not enough to bring the cycle back to the initial state, it is all-important to bring about this return without “waste”, “wear and tear”, “loss of work”, and “depreciation”. For not only is work “expenditure” of energy that must be “reproduced”, this expenditure must be controlled so that the amount of work required to reproduce the initial state is not excessive. This problem becomes agonizing when the constant capital reaches certain critical points of concentration, if the possibilities of rapid depreciation are not thwarted, investment in constant capital is the source of an enormous disaccumulation. This poses an exact limit on the energy price strategy: if the Low sector work is transformed into High sector captial and it becomes so concentrated and vulnerable that it can be immediately depreciated, the whole strategy collapses. Protecting constant capital is a primary function of the information/computation industry.
We have already seen the game that can wreck the “energy crisis” strategy in the case of the nuclear industry. Consider TMI. To make up for the late start-up of the plant, its managers ordered it to be run at higher than normal capacity (for nuclear plants) from the beginning. Workers were often assigned to overtime and the intensity of “getting rid of the bugs” was beginning to wear. Then at 4:00 AM on an early spring morning a near meltdown. Thus in the process of producing a few million dollars of extra profit in its first few months of operation. Met Edison is suddenly faced with the need of shelling out almost a billion dollars just to get half of TMI operating again, and that with some difficulty. Here we have a situation where the amount of work needed to bring the nuclear plant back to the initial state, pre-4:00 AM March 28, 1979, will be many times the work produced by the plant in the first place. In fact, given the general work environment in central Pennsylvania, including the surrounding class composition, one might say that in no way will the plant be brought back to its initial state. In TMI we see that the energy crisis response to the class struggle is far from stable. Indeed, it introduces a novel form of class confrontation, or rather recalls the ancient “strife between workman and machine”.
The Accident becomes a central category of the political economy of the energy crisis, but what is an accident anyway? Accidents are work situations in which the amount of work that goes into reproducing the initial state (of the work process) becomes extraordinary. Accidents demonstrate the mortality of the work process. But as the Kemeny Commission report, Accident at Three Mile Island noted,
... the major factor that turned this incident into a serious accident was inappropriate operator action, many factors contributed to the action of the operators, such as deficiencies intheir training, lack of clarity in their operating procedures, failure of organizations to learn the proper lessons from previous incidents, and deficiencies in the design of the control room. . . . The control room, through which the operation of the TMI-2 plant is carried out, is lacking in many ways. The control panel is huge, with hundreds of alarms, and thereare some key indicators placed in locations where the operators cannot see them. During the first few minutes of the accident, more than 100 alarms went off, and there was no system of suppressing the unimportant signals so that operators could concentrate on the significant alarms. Information was not presented in a clear and sufficiently understandable form; for example, although the pressure and temperature within the reactor coolant system were shown, there was no direct indication that the combination of pressure and temperature meant that the cooling water was turning into steam.2
Here Kemeny, a co-author of the computer- language BASIC, issues the latest edition of the old capitalist wail: “Workers are stupid, if only we knew how stupid they are, if only we knew!” Machines breakdown, that’s bound to happen, they depreciate after all, but such breakdowns are only “incidents”; what turns an incident into an accident is that the worker cannot or does not control the breakdown to bring the machine back to its initial state with no appreciable cost. The accident need not have happened. What stops accidents is immediately available knowledge, information and foresight and, most important, communication. Consider the following:
A senior engineer of the Babcock and Wilcox Company (suppliers of the nuclear steam system) noted in an earlier accident, bearing strong similarities to the one at Three Mile Island, that operators had mistakenly turned off the emergency cooling system. He pointed out that we were lucky that the circumstances under which this error was committed did not lead to a serious accident and warned that under other circumstances (like those that would later exist at Three Mile Island), a very serious accident could result. He urged, in the strongest terms, that clear instructions be passed on to the operators. This memorandum was written 13 months before the accident at Three Mile Island, but no new instructions resulted from it.3
“If only we had told them, if only we made the new information part of our commands,” goes the lachrymose bitching. But it is just bitching, as Kemeny knows, for though any particular accident, by definition, can be avoided, accidents in general are unavoidable. It is in the fact that not every process is reversible that time itself has a direction.
There is a deep relation between accidents, information, time and work. Marx described this relation in the following way: the means of production created no new value; at best, their value is transferred and preserved in the product. Machines merely wear out or transfer their energy to the new form produced. The work process therefore has two components: (a) production of “fresh value” (both surplus value and the reproduction of variable capital) and (b) the transfer and preservation of the value of the means of production. As Marx points out, work must do both (a) and (b) at the same time; though for different reasons:
On the one hand, then, it is by virtue of its general character, as being expenditure of human labor-power in the abstract, that spinning adds new value to the values of the cotton and the spindle; and on the other hand, it is by virtue of its special character as being a concrete, useful process, that the same labor of spinning both transfers the values of the means of productions to the product, and preserves them in the product. Hence at one and the same time there is produced a two-fold result.4
There are no machine-machines that create value out of nothing, no perpetuum mobiles; further, the value incorporated in the machines is continually wearing out, being transformed into “a new use value in which the old exchange-value re-appears”.
All the devices of the capitalist magicians end up as corpses, not even the most ingenious thought can add a cubit to capital’s stature:
The technical conditions of the labor-process may be revolutionized to such an extent that where formerly ten men using ten implements of small value worked up a relatively small quantity of raw material, one man may now, with the aid of one expensive machine, work up a hundred times as much raw material. . . Such a revolution, however, alters only the quantitative relation between the constant and the variable capital, or the proportions in which the total capital is split up into its constant and variable constituents; it has not in the least degree affected the essential difference between the two.5
The work process not only must expand and be reproducible, it must conserve old while creating new work. Computerization of a production process creates no new value: however, it makes it possible to make the variable part smaller while guarding against the too rapid exhaustion of constant capital. It is the mechanization of the “little capitalist” mentality. No elements of the production cycle must be wasted, neither the time of the workers nor the time of the machines. Capital must make the cyple smooth, efficient and as close to “reversible” as possible for it determines, in part, the rate of profit:
If the surplus-value is given, the rate of profit can be increased only by reducing the value of the constant capital required for commodity-production. So far as constant capital enters into the production of commodities, it is not its exchange-value, but its use value which matters... the assistance rendered by a machine to, say, three laborers does not depend on its value, but on its use-value as a machine. On one level of technical development a bad machine may be expensive and on another a good machine may be cheap.6
Concurrently, each aspect of work has its peculiar repulsion. As far as the process of preserving and conserving the value of the means of production is concerned, the tactic of refusal is obvious. As constant capital increases with the development of industrialization the gap between the value of the means of production and the part of the value used up during a unit cycle of production widens appreciably (think of the difference between an atomic power plant and a cotton gin). This leaves an enormous amount of capital hostage to the workers who have access to the machines. This intensifies with every new leap in the organic composition of capital, which is why slave labor cannot be incorporated in a highly capital-intensive process. For the gap between variable and constant capital would grow so enormous, i.e., the balance between the value of the slave and the value the slave could destroy would become so precarious, the slightest gesture of revolt would force capital’s retreat. Capital, however, has organized the work process of “free laborers” in such a way that the hostage drama is rarely played out (one remarkable example to the contrary was the Flint “sit-down”, or, better, “live-in” in 1936.)
There is an enormous amount of work involved in ensuring that the value of the means of production is slowly, efficiently and carefully transferred to the product. Not--only must a fulfledged hostage drama be averted daily (for a Gdansk move is always beckoning); the invisible instants of revolt that continually pulsate through the work process wearing out the constant capital beyond “what is warranted” must also be constantly thwarted. Thus Kemeny’s lament beseeches “more care”, “more policing”, “better training”, “better information display systems”, “emergency planning”. In a word, greater “efficiency” in the wearing out of enormously concentrated, volatile, perhaps “critical,” pieces of constant capital.
Eternal vigilance is necessary to attain the circularity of a perfect production process. But a work process is never completely reproducible. There is always some little “blow-out”, some little “fuck up” that makes returning the system to its initial state a work process also. Capital always dreams of a perpetuum mobile, work from energy without loss. But time is asymmetric, the future is not going to be like the past. Through our refusals, our insubordination, all the plans come to nothing, all the machines wear out, breakdown. Capital’s contradiction is that the very agents that create the “fuck up” possess the energies it needs. Only we are in perpetual motion: eternally energetic, crafty, obedient, cowardly, insolent, revolting, but always in a motion that is the only source of work, development, surplus.
A parallel deduction of the need for a tremendous development of an “information” industry during the crisis arises from Thermodynamics, the late 19th century science discussed in the Introduction. The paradox that has troubled capitalist science since the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics is that though energy is conserved, the energy available for work in a system diminishes. Energy comes in ordered grades, thus what is essential is not its quantity per se but its structure. Some types of energy can easily be turned into work while others cannot. The amount of raw energy in the waters of a calm lake might be enormously greater than that of a slight wind blowing above it, but the wind can more easily be turned into work. The measure of the inavailability of energy for work is entropy which, within a closed system, increases to a maximum (the Second Law of Thermodynamics). This Law enshrines capitalist pessimism for it announces that the work creating process degrades energy invested in any and every system, including the human.
If we take a system as made up of millions of micro-particles, the Second Law can be rephrased as the constant tendency for an ordered structure of micro-particles to turn into a disordered chaos. In any system there is a constant “shuffling” of micro-particles due to their eternal random motion eventually leading to a breakdown of any highly ordered structure. Schrodinger7 gave a telling example of such “shuffling” on the human plane. Imagine an unruly mob that assaults a library of computer tapes for the fun of it and, while not taking away or destroying the tapes, simply rips them off from their assigned places to play games with them. At the end of the party the tapes are conserved but their order is totally destroyed. Further, the work of recreating that pre-riot order is as real as the work of making new tapes and can be even greater.
The problem, according to this branch of capitalist science, is that Nature spontaneously loves Chaos; it is a perpetual upsetting of plans, orders and wearing down of accumulated work, just like the lazy, anarchic, drunken, and riotous workers of the past. [If God is not on the side of the working class, certainly Nature is its darling.] Systems that apparently upgrade energy are eventually doomed; systems like the steam engine, or capitalism that transform energy into work (“upgraded” energy) are continually threatened with disaster, with accidents and the catastrophies of entropy invasion.
The Second Law shows a deep connection between time and accidents. Time is one-directional because work processes are not reversible, as there is always a positive amount of work necessary to return the system to its origin. However smoothly the fit is made between piston and cylinder, however carefully the emergency cooling systems are calibrated to switch on beyond a threshold temperature, there is always friction, and stuck valves. Accidents will happen that turn reversibly planned processes, (potentially having an eternal return) into irreversible vectors leading to higher entropic states. They create time as flow to death, for time, as capital knows it, is not just flow but the dissolution of what has been accumulated: the death of dead labor.
The “unruly mob” of molecular agents causing the wearing down of low entropy (highly ordered structures) into high entropy (disorganized fields) continually creeps in to create the conditions of the Grand Accident. Nuclear engineers may be right when they claim that the probability that a reactor core may become critical by itself is infinitesimal; but the probability of a stoned engineer, of a forgotten open valve, a sudden breeze shifting a candle’s flame, are conditions that create the entropy for the Meltdown. That the molecules will win is the secret thought of capital. “Time is on their side . . . Time is them,” whispers through the boardrooms ... but something can be done, something that will allow them to hold on: INFORMATION. If enough information is gathered and communicated rapidly enough then time can be slowed down, perhaps indefinitely. Thus the cruciality of machines that can store and compute information at light speed.
Information about the location of low entropy systems is an essential part of the production process. As the parable of Maxwell’s demon shows, a machine with “intelligence” or “information” can thwart for a time the operation of the Second Law. When Clark Maxwell suggested the parable he intimated the possibility of perpetual-work machines based not upon some complex and ultimately foolish contraption but on the application of thought and categorization. His demon works like a sorting machine in the midst of an eternal shuffle. (See graph #9).
Consider a perfect gas at an equilibrium temperature in compartment A. The particles of that gas are not all moving at the same velocity, though their average velocity remains constant. Some are moving faster than the average, some slower. Consider further an empty compartment B next to the volume of gas A connected by a small gate and a gate-keeper. This gate-keeper is smart: he opens the gate only to the faster than average molecules. Within a short time the empty compartment is filled with molecules whose average velocity is higher than before, while the original compartment is filled with molecules whose average velocity is lower than before.
Thus A is cooler than before while B is hotter, and if the two compartments were connected by a heat engine we could create work out of the temperature difference. At the end of the process the demon can create a new division between fast and slow molecules. Thus we have a recipe for a perpetual motion machine: just combine a steam engine with a sorting-intelligent machine! If you could only identify the irresponsible workers, if you could only identify the faulty parts, if you could just pick out the micro-acts of carelessness, then you would have a new cycle that could possibly go on for-ever, recycling, upgrading and reusing the used up energy for work.
This scheme has a hitch however: the demon must be able to know which of the molecules impinging on the gate are faster than the average and which slower. “Time can be turned back, if we know enough,” capital pleads with the grim reaper... but the reaper replies, “You must work to know and work is death.” Information is not free. True it reduces entropy but the process of its accumulation, retrieval and communication is a work process as well that is filled with entropic menaces which eventually triumph. The question is, “How soon?" As Weiner put it:
In the long run, the Maxwell demon is itself subject to a random motion corresponding to the temperature of its environment, and, as Leibniz says of some of his monads, it receives a large number of small impressions, until it falls into a “certain vertigo” and is incapable of clear perceptions. In fact, it ceases to act as a Maxwell demon. Nevertheless, there may be a quite appreciable interval of time before the demon is deconditioned, and this time may be so prolonged that we may speak of the active phase of the demon as metastable. There is no reason to suppose that metastable demons do not exist ... We may well regard living organisms, such as Man himself, in this light. Certainly the enzyme and the living organism are alike meta-stable: the stable state of an enzyme is to be deconditioned, and the stable state of a living organism is to be dead.8
The work process can be saved from degradation by proper information decelerating the inexorable workings of the Second Law, if areas of low entropy can be found. But the search costs. Hence the explosion of the information industry, the emphasis on programming, the dissemination of the microcomputer, and the crucial importance of another cost statistic: the costs of computation. For one of the most important developments in the crisis is the dramatic inversion of the energy price rises relative to the costs of computation.
This opens up the hope that the increase of entropy can be indefinitely held off, and a perfect circularity in the work/energy “interface” approached. Thus while the feminine service worker is to provide the emotional surplus labor necessary for accumulation in the high tech sectors, the computer programmer is to be the eternally vigilant Charon, identifying the stable worker, the stable situation, the stable machine: separating the quick from the dead.
Hence the concern of programming industry ideologists with the uncodable, the deliberately unidentifiable and uncategorizable: the Zen and criminal aspects of the struggle. For it is exactly at this point that very success of the strategy of the energy crisis makes quite crucial the ability to select with a high level of certainty the different gradations of entropy in the labor-power of the working class. Deception, conning, cheating and lying (i.e., all the self-reflexive moves of the slave) become problematic. Consider the polygraph tests given to more and more workers. They attempt to find out who is the low entropic worker via interrogation coupled with the detection of sweat production and blood pressure. But increasingly workers with training in meditational processes are beating the machines and sailing to positions of responsibility in, of all things, programming. Again, and always, the problem capital faces with the new Maxwell’s demons of the crisis is: “Who will select the selectors?”
- 1 A free copy of MIDNITE NOTES for the Marxologist who can spot this quote.
- 2 REPORT OF THE PRESIDENT’S COMMISSION ON THE ACCIDENT AT THREE MILE ISLAND, (John G. Kemeny, Chairman), (Washington, D.C., Oct. 1979), pp. 11-12.
- 3 Ibid, p. 10.
- 4K. Marx, CAPITAL, Vol. 1, p. 200.
- 5Ibid, pp. 210-211.
- 6K. Marx, CAPITAL, Vol. 3, p. 88. (Moscow: PROGRESS Pub., 1966)
- 7 Schrodinger, one of the founders of quantum mechanics in 1944, drew the connection between genetics and information.
- 8N. Weiner, CYBERNETICS, (Cambridge, MIT Press, 1965), pp. 58- 59.