Ours to Master

Our challenge is to see in technology both today's instruments of employer control and the preconditions for a post-scarcity society.

Is Google making us stupid? Is Facebook making us lonely? Are robots going to steal our jobs? These, it seems, are the anxieties that afflict many today.

Capitalism is defined by the drive to maximize profits, and one of the surest paths to that goal has always been reducing the cost of wage labor. Hence, the constant push to increase productivity through new production techniques, automation, and now computerization and robotization.

Anxiety about the effects of capitalist technology on labor is as old as industrial capitalism itself. In folklore, one of the most famous representations of this unease is the legend of John Henry, a railroad worker who died trying to keep up with the prowess of the steam-powered hammer.

But now, worries about the obsolescence of the worker have reached a fever pitch. The confluence of wage stagnation, a jobless economic recovery, and rapid improvements in automation and artificial intelligence have stoked the fear of mass unemployment that has always haunted discussions of technology.

Widely circulated studies project that up to 80 percent of current jobs are susceptible to automation in the near future. Some of this is hyperbole, but it is clear that automation is moving out of the factory and into the realm of intellectuals and writers — the very people responsible for producing much of the literature of techno-skepticism. (Hence the timid plea of Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum: “Welcome, Robot Overlords. Please Don’t Fire Us?”)

The socialist movement, and Marxism in particular, has a complicated relationship with the tools of capitalist production. Our challenge is to see in capitalism’s technical development both the present-day instruments of employer control and the preconditions for a future post-scarcity society.

The mainstream discourse tends toward the facile view that technology is a thing that one can be for or against; perhaps something that can be used in an ethical or unethical way. But technology in the labor process, just like capital, is not a thing but a social relation. Technologies are developed and introduced in the context of the battle between capital and labor, and they encode the victories, losses, and compromises of those struggles. When the terms of debate shift from the relations of production to a reified “technology,” it is to the benefit of the bosses.

Take, for example, the 2013 strike of San Francisco’s transportation workers. The San Francisco BART trains serve many of the Silicon Valley elites, who vented their frustration at being inconvenienced by a labor action. In the process, they attempted to frame the strike as an argument about the merits of technology: the workers were supposedly resisting the introduction of time- and labor-saving technologies in the transit system.

The union, however, saw things differently. The workplace rules they were attempting to preserve were largely unrelated to implementing new technologies, and had to do mostly with things like “preventing BART management from making punitive work assignments to employees who have filed workplace complaints.”

The question, then, becomes how to incorporate technology into social thought and political strategy without treating it as external to social relations or falling into the crude techno-utopian versus techno-skeptic dichotomy, all the while recognizing that the technical mediations of labor and capital do have some relatively autonomous existence. Sometimes political struggles turn on the use of certain technologies, but they are never just about those technologies; they are ultimately about the balance of class power. What’s needed might be called “enlightened Luddism,” if that term can indeed be reclaimed.

The Luddites were nineteenth-century English artisans known for smashing labor-saving machinery. Today, their name symbolizes either heroic resistance against repressive machines, or intransigent hatred of all technological progress.

It’s no surprise that the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank funded by the likes of Google and IBM, bestows its Luddite Awards on those it deems insufficiently pro-technology. Yet the recipients are often more interested in advancing egalitarian social policy than in derailing technology; the report on the 2014 awards denounces hotel regulation and dismisses concerns about privacy in health records.

The original Luddites are similarly misunderstood. As Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in a 1952 article, machine breaking was a common tactic of labor resistance during the Industrial Revolution. Rather than directing their anger at technology per se, workers broke machines “as a means of coercing their employers into granting them concessions with regard to wages and other matters.” Such sabotage “was directed not only against machines, but also against raw material, finished goods, and even the private property of employers.”

The modern figure of the Luddite is valuable to capitalists and their ideologues for primarily rhetorical reasons: if workers can be portrayed as hostile to some method or device that has manifestly positive qualities, they can be dismissed as selfish or irrational. Never mind that in many cases, the problem is that useful and potentially emancipatory technologies are trapped within a capitalist integument, optimized to maximize private profit rather than social wealth.

That’s not to say the arguments of the tech titans aren’t logical on their own terms. From the standpoint of capital, there is little difference between machine sabotage and other kinds of labor action. For the owner of the machines, after all, their value is not in the specific thing they produce, but in how much money they return. A machine is just part of the greatest capitalist production process of all: M-C-M’, the method of turning money into more money by passing it through a process of hiring, producing, and selling.

As soon as a machine is bought, it costs its owner money: loans must be paid back, physical plants begin deteriorating, and new machines constantly threaten to make existing ones competitively unusable. Thus anything that slows down or stops production has the effect of destroying some of the value of the machine as capital, which to the capitalist is its real substance. Whether it is a sit-down strike or a monkey wrench that stops production is immaterial, since in both cases value is destroyed. For owners, all worker resistance is Luddism.

Hostility to new technologies, the suspicious regard of all “innovation” as a capitalist plot, has a logic for labor, albeit a shortsighted one. The Luddites are often invoked as a talisman against all criticism of technology, a warning that it is impossible to resist the inevitable march of progress. This mystifies the politics of progress by draining it of its conflict and political stakes. But if worker resistance amounts to no more than standing athwart technical change shouting “Stop!” it can only preserve a thoroughly capitalist status quo.

Anti-technology leftism casts workers as intransigent conservatives, clinging to existing technologies that — if the crisis of industrial labor in the full-employment days of the 1960s and 1970s is any indication — are not particularly beloved. The industrial manufacturing that some now want to preserve was once considered a monstrous imposition on the prerogatives of craft labor. Moreover, resistance to technology encourages fragmentation, pitting workers against consumers, who appreciate access to the social wealth made possible by capitalist development.

An alternative strategy to resisting today’s technology is to address questions of class power and distribution. Some of the first socialists in the United States to directly confront this dynamic were communist autoworkers in Detroit, grappling with the impact of robotization. Nelson Peery, a radical autoworker in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, saw automation as a process that would render older forms of industrial organization irrelevant and herald a new stage of class struggle.

Of course, most autoworkers ended up with neither high-wage jobs nor a rising share in social wealth, as industry restructuring and de-unionization proceeded alongside the dismantling of the Keynesian welfare state.

So what would it mean to fight for social rights in a framework that moves beyond industrial nostalgia? The case of the West Coast longshoremen’s union provides an illustrative example, both for its possibilities and for its limits.

Confronted with the automation and containerization of ports and the concomitant collapse in demand for labor starting in the 1960s, the port union struck a deal. As New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse recounted: “Management promised all longshoremen a guaranteed level of pay, even if there was not work for everyone.” The actual terms of the deal and the context in which it was struck were far from ideal, but demands like these highlight the need to carve out a little piece of post-scarcity within the wider capitalist world.

Dockworkers, of course, do not generalize well to the broader working class. Because of their strategic position at the choke points of commodity distribution, and their resulting ability to shut down large parts of the economy, they enjoy a strategic leverage that most of us lack. Moreover, they were ultimately unable to protect their bubble and have suffered a series of recent defeats. Winning a share of the fruits of automation for the rest of us requires victory at the level of the state rather than the individual workplace.

This could be done through a universal basic income, a minimum payment guaranteed to all citizens completely independent of work. If pushed by progressive forces, the UBI would be a non-reformist reform that would also quicken automation by making machines more competitive against workers better positioned to reject low wages. It would also facilitate labor organization by acting as a kind of strike fund and cushion against the threat of joblessness.

A universal basic income could defend workers and realize the potential of a highly developed, post-scarcity economy; it could break the false choice between well-paid workers or labor-saving machines, strong unions or technological advancement.

The strength of labor and the development of the forces of production, after all, are dialectically intertwined. Breathless robot hype aside, productivity growth in recent years has in fact been at historic lows, leading some pundits to warn of a “great stagnation.”

One way to explain this is that when workers are cheap and controllable, it is easier for the boss to treat the worker herself as a machine than to find a machine to replace her. Thus, the strengthening of the working class both inside and outside the workplace becomes the force that pushes us toward the utopian ideal of a post-scarcity society and the abolition of wage labor.