Capitalist Technology and Capitalist Planning

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 10, 2011

According to Negri, whose Veneto-based circle of young PSI dissidents entered Panzieri’s network in time for Quaderni Rossi’s second issue, the project of reading Marx’s Capital within the group ‘was essentially, at the beginning, reading Volume I, and above all the chapters on machinery and large-scale industry’ (Negri 1979a: SO). Panzieri’s most important contribution to the early numbers of the journal would be devoted to the first of these questions. Succinctly reconstructing Marx’s view of capitalist production as a system whose most adequate expression was found in machine-based industry, he challenged the view – then dominant amongst Italian Marxists – that technological progress somehow stood apart from class relations. ‘The capitalist use of machinery is not’, he argued, ‘a mere distortion of, or deviation from, some “objective” development that is in itself rational.’ On the contrary, machinery was determined by capital, which utilised it to further the subordination of living labour; indeed, in the mind of the capitalists, their command and the domination of dead labour in the form of machinery and science were one and the same (Panzieri 1980: 47, 48). It was this failure to recognise the intertwining of technology and class domination, he believed, which had undermined the CGIL’s self-critique of the mid-1950s. ‘The attention that has been correctly paid to the modifications accompanying the present technological and economic phases’, Panzieri noted, was

distorted into a representation of those modifications in a ‘pure’, idealised form, stripped of all concrete connections with the general and determining (power) elements of capitalist organisation ... New characteristic features assumed by capitalist organisation are thus mistaken for stages of development of an ‘objective’ rationality. (Panzieri 1980: 49-50, 51)

It was for Silvio Leonardi, who had played a central role in the CGIL’s rethinking, that Panzieri reserved his sharpest barbs. Time and motion studies, ‘human relations’, even the restructuring and parcellisation of the labour process: all possessed for Leonardi an intrinsic rationality and necessity which their current use by capital could never obliterate. From this viewpoint, Panzieri observed,

It is not even suspected that capitalism might use the new ‘technical bases’ offered by the passage from the preceding stages to that of high mechanisation (and to automation) in order to perpetuate and consolidate the authoritarian structure of factory organisation ... the entire process of industrialisation is represented as being dominated by the ‘technological’ which leads to the liberation of man [sic] from the ‘limitations imposed on him by the environment and by his physical capabilities’. (Panzieri 1980: 52)

Leonardi was unable, in sum, to see that an undifferentiated and ‘objective’ notion of rationality could never be used to judge capitalist production, because ‘it is precisely capitalist “despotism” which takes the form of technological rationality’ (ibid.: 54). Ricardo had accepted the reigning production relations as eternal, and declared that the ‘proper’ study of political economy should be restricted to the sphere of distribution. Like him, Leonardi and other latter-day ‘objectivists’ granted capital a free hand in organising the workplace, focusing their attention instead upon ‘the external sphere of wages and consumption’ (ibid.: 61). Yet without ‘the achievement of a dominance of social forces over the sphere of production’, Panzieri argued, demands for improved working-class consumption and greater free time were meaningless, for it was above all as producers that humans suffered alienation at the hands of capitalism (ibid.: 64). Nor, he added, was the simple monetary growth of wages a useful measure of working-class emancipation and power, since so long as productivity proceeded to grow alongside them, the workers’ expanding wage packets would represent no more than ‘golden’ chains (ibid.: 60).

Leonardi, Panzieri continued, had overlooked one of the most important political aspects of modern, continuous flow production. This was that while in one sense it offered capital ‘new possibilities for the consolidation of its power’, it also strengthened the hand of the ‘collective worker’ (that is, ‘the various “levels” of workers created by the present organisation of the large factory’). In particular, the greater rigidity which modern production methods entailed gave the threat of working-class uncooperativeness ‘enormous disruptive potential’ (Panzieri 1980: 49, 51, 53). In fact, he went on,

the specific element of the process of ‘unitary recomposition’ cannot be grasped if the connection between the ‘technological’ and politico-organisational (power) elements in the capitalist productive process is either missed or else denied. The class level expresses itself not as progress, but as rupture; not as ‘revelation’ of the occult rationality inherent in the modern productive process, but as the construction of a radically new rationality counterposed to the rationality practised by capitalism. (ibid.: 54)

Writing much later, the former workerist Massimo Cacciari (1975: 190-1) would fault Panzieri’s essay on a number of counts. One of the most damning, in his opinion, was its ‘ingenuous’ vision of machinery’s perfect functionality to the organisation of labour, a notion which had led its author to confuse the ‘pure Taylorist’ ideal of domination with the much more difficult task of realising it. Another weakness of Panzieri’s analysis lay in its talk of the capitalist ‘use’ of machinery – a thoroughly inadequate way of denoting the material indivisibility of labour process and valorisation process. Similarly, the essay’s argument that ‘[t]he relationship of revolutionary action to technological”rationality” is to “comprehend” it, but not in order to acknowledge and exalt it, rather in order to subject it to a new use: the socialist use of machines’ (Panzieri 1980: 57) was markedly tamer than its call elsewhere for a ‘radically new rationality’ to supplant that of capital. Nor, finally, did Panzieri spell out how the tendency towards the rupture of the capital relation could be squared with his endorsement of socialism as workers’ self-management of production, a notion which has too often been oblivious to the class nature of technological rationality. But to dwell upon these weaknesses can run the risk of forgetting the truly pioneering nature of Panzieri’s essay. As Sandro Mancini (1977: 77) has emphasised, the piece ‘undoubtedly represents the first demystifying analysis of technological rationality’ produced by an Italian Marxist; with it, an understanding of the class relations immanent to existing forms of large-scale industry had taken an important step forward.

Following Capital, Panzieri had argued that with the growth of a capital’s organic composition, the detailed regulation of production became evermore a necessity. ‘Hence’, he had concluded,

the development of capitalist planning is something closely related to that of the capitalist use of machines. To the development of cooperation, of the social labour process, there corresponds – under capitalist management – the development of the plan as despotism. (Panzieri 1980: 48)

In Panzieri’s last major essay, entitled ‘Surplus value and planning’, the social implications of this line of argument were to be spelt out fully. Panzieri’s starting point was a critical discussion of Lenin’s views on the matter. Like the majority of socialists formed in the Second International, the Bolshevik leader had been of the opinion that economic planning in a capitalist society would violate the most fundamental laws of the latter, beginning with that private appropriation of wealth which constituted its very reason for existence. Limited state planning of a sort could exist – Germany during the First World War was a case in point – as could the ‘planning’ implied by oligopolistic practices, but with both of these activities came elements of instability which signalled the decadence of the monopoly form of capitalism (Lenin 1978a). In rejecting the idea that planning was inimical to the laws of capital, Panzieri was well aware that its proponents could turn for support to no less an authority than the first volume of Capital itself (Marx 1976: 470-80). All this proved, argued Panzieri (1976: 18-21,22), was that Marx had not always been able to separate features peculiar to the phase of capitalism prevalent in his own lifetime from the general tendency of capital’s development. In the modern world of the social factory, such a relationship no longer existed: there, on the contrary, planning had become ‘the fundamental expression of the law of surplus value’, stretching out from the workplace to assert its command over society as a whole.

With Marx (1976: 450), at least, the recognition of planning within the labour process as a necessary form of capital’s ‘despotism’ could still serve as the basis upon which to construct an appreciation of contemporary planned capitalism. But this perception had been lost on Lenin, who,

[s]ince he [did] not see that capitalist planning with its concomitant socialization of labour is a fundamental form of direct production, [could] only understand capitalist technology and capitalist planning as totally external to the social relationship that dominates and moulds them. (Panzieri 1976: 6)

Believing planning to be intrinsically anti-capitalist, and forced moreover to act in a Russia isolated by the failed revolutions of Central Europe, Lenin had been unable to entertain ‘the possibility that capitalist social relations may be present in socialist planning’ which treated science and technique as socially neutral forces (ibid.: 21). As a consequence, ‘the repetition of capitalist forms in the relations of production both at the factory level and at the level of overall social production’ had proceeded apace in the USSR, with the doctrine of socialism in one country as an ‘ideological screen’. Stripped, in this manner, of its critical faculties, Marxism in the Soviet Union had ultimately been reduced to a mere ‘apologetic form of thought’ (ibid.: 22).\

As a critique of state economic planning, ‘Surplus value and planning’ held immediate relevance for the Italian historic left’s political aspirations. The call for planning had been central to left ideology following the Resistance, being particularly dear to Morandi’s heart. Panzieri’s exploration of the power relationships immanent to the capitalist labour process had permitted him to shake off his earlier glib equation between socialist politics and planning. None the less, a commitment to some form of state direction of economic development continued to inform the outlook of the various factions of the PSI leadership after the turn of 1956, and now promised to be their specific contribution to any centre-left government (Spini 1982). Yet, in predicting the functionality of such a policy for the state’s new role as representative of social capital, Panzieri (1976: 11-12) came to see its implementation as almost a naturalistic process stemming from the logic of capital itself. In his view, the class enemy was quite capable of solving all its internal contradictions, as ‘the sole limit to the development of capital is not capital itself, but the resistance of the working class’.

Having correctly chided those who saw capitalist development in Italy as doomed to stagnation, Panzieri thus mistook a tendency within capital for its concrete manifestation, falling into the opposite error of overvaluing the prospects for smooth growth under a planned capitalism (Mancini 1977: 95). Further, by posing the only threat to capital as something allegedly external to it, Panzieri let fall the insights offered by Tronti’s reading of capital as a class relation based on the forced unity of non-identical, and potentially antagonistic, elements. ‘Surplus value and planning’ was to display other weaknesses as well. These ranged from its confusion of the logical development of Capital with the actual historical course taken by the social relation, to its failure to elaborate upon the bonds linking the various forms assumed by capital’s instrumental rationality in factory, society and state (Cacciari 1975: 194; Marramao 1975). None the less, like his essay on machinery, Panzieri’s work on planning clarified Quademi Rossi’s conviction as to the profoundly political nature of apparently neutral, thing-like processes, even as it laid bare the pretences of his former comrades in the PSI (Meriggi 1978a: 115).