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Technology and Socialist Strategy

With powerful class movements behind it, technology can promise emancipation from work, not more misery.

“Anything but capital.” For mainstream economists, that’s the unspoken rule governing talk of what’s to blame for inequality. From Greg Mankiw’s petulant response to Occupy to Tyler Cowen’s argument that technology has rendered the middle class obsolete, those tasked with explaining economics to Americans are eager to exonerate the rich.

Cowen’s argument in particular develops a theme that has become increasingly prominent in the debate over inequality. Confronted with irrefutable evidence of the rise of the 1%, many economists have taken refuge in the idea of “skills-biased technological change.” They say that technological progress has eliminated demand for the skills of much of the working population, while rewarding those who possess talents that fit the new economy.

In a different period, this would have been a risky position to hold. The idea that technological progress would deliver the goods to all sectors of society has always been a key part of American ideology.

Today, however, with oppositional movements in retreat, only the inevitability of technological progress remains. Where technological development once held the promise of smoothing over the rough edges of American society, it has now been put forward as the explanation for these rough spots, and as a justification for their permanence.

Some, however, are unwilling to give up on technology’s utopian potential. An organization calling itself the Institute of Customer Experience — a subsidiary of Human Factors International, Inc. — submitted a bold plan (on Indiegogo, of course) to tackle the scourge of inequality head on. The plan was an app called Equalize.

In the short video accompanying the pitch, ICE’s CEO, Apala Lahiri Chavan (who goes by “FuturistApala” on Twitter) offers users the opportunity to reduce inequality in six key areas, from gender to hunger to happiness. This can be done through a smartphone app that allows users to accrue points, called “smileys,” by doing various kinds of volunteer work, from donating books to mentoring children.

This kind of gamification promises solutions to inequality that will come faster and more efficiently than governments can deliver them by “channelizing user agency.” Inequality? There’s an app for that!

Technophobia might seem to be the only re­sponse from the Left. For every injustice, we are presented with a purportedly politically neutral tech-based solution, which promises to solve the problems of the dispossessed without ever disturbing the privileges of the powerful. In such a depoliticized climate, it is no surprise that some radicals have come to be suspicious of technology, to see social relations of domination inscribed in the forces of production themselves.

Such an attitude, however justified, does an injustice to the legacy of socialist thinking on technology. From the beginning of the modern workers’ movement, concerns about the place of technological progress in the attempts to confront “the social problem” have been central to socialist theory.

If we examine some of the positions that shaped socialist thinking on technology, we can use them to reconstruct a role for those who refused to let what Brecht called “the new bad things” rest in the hands of gamifiers and disruptors.

Marx and the Sorcerer’s Spell

Technological progress was at the heart of Marx’s thinking about capitalist society and the problems of socialist transformation. Unlike the utopian socialists who preceded him, Marx was adamant that his was a scientific socialism, in keeping with the latest developments in human knowledge.

Such a position actually drastically understated the degree to which thinkers like Robert Owen and Charles Fourier were themselves children of the Enlightenment, committed to the rational self-government of humanity. Yet it was still a powerful rhetorical move to draw a line dividing the scientific from the utopian.

But Marx’s engagement with science and technology was far deeper than mere jockeying for hegemony in the socialist movement. He was the first to specify where capitalism’s incredible technological dynamism came from. While bourgeois economists like Adam Smith saw the division of labor and the development of the market as an inevitable source of technological progress, Marx saw the class fault lines that underlie this process.

Even more importantly, he recognized the technological productivity of capitalism as one of its most central virtues. Without the surplus capitalism created, egalitarianism simply meant the generalization of want. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx was even more rhapsodic in his praise:

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.

Clearly, Marx was no technophobe. Yet closely following this passage comes one of the most famous in all of his writings. Referencing Goethe, he describes capital as “the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”

As S. S. Prawer points out in Karl Marx and World Literature, Marx’s allusion actually contains a significant modification of Goethe’s original. After all, in Goethe it is the sorcerer’s apprentice who loses control, while for Marx it is the sorcerer himself. There will be no responsible adult coming in to clean up capital’s mess. For Marx, the productivity and the anarchy of capitalism were linked at its core.

Marx’s critique of capital’s destructiveness in the Manifesto is in line with his conception of scientific socialism. As a good Enlightenment radical, he turned rationalist values back against the system that claimed to exemplify them. Where ideologues from Smith to Bentham claimed that capitalism embodied rationality with its unleashing of human powers to innovate, Marx saw that these claims masked a fundamental irrationality at the heart of the system.

In capitalism, we see crises “that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production.” The system conjures ever-greater levels of productivity out of human labor, while simultaneously placing that productivity ever further beyond human control. Marx, for whom conscious power over one’s destiny was the supreme good, saw in this contradiction the key to capitalism’s undoing.

While he focused on the systemic irrationalities of capital, Marx was also attentive to the class nature of its technological injustices. Under capitalism, the worker is “daily and hourly enslaved by the machine,” to which he becomes a “mere appendage,” expendable and exploited. The class character of technological progress would receive even more attention in the Grundrisse and Capital, where Marx explored in further detail the consequences of mechanization and the class struggles to which it gave rise.

Marx’s legacy on technology is thus a complicated one, constituted by two sets of oppositions. First, because of its technological dynamism, he saw in capital both the damnation and the salvation of humanity. Refusing either to simply accept or reject the character of technological progress under capitalism, Marx instead dissected it, identifying its driving forces and its potential place in the process of social transformation.

Second, Marx attended to both the society-wide forms of irrationality unleashed by capitalism’s productivity, such as economic crises, and class-specific forms of domination, such as the impact of mechanization on workers.

In effect, Marx carved out a novel space in debates about technology that would outlive him by more than a century. The generation of socialists after Marx failed, by and large, to hold this space, instead finding themselves on one or the other side of the contradictions he sought to transcend.

Socialists in the Age of Taylor

The socialists who confronted World War I and its attendant horrors faced a very different world from the one Marx left in 1883. In the intervening decades, science had progressed with frightening alacrity, as evidenced by mustard gas and the machine gun. Moreover, the class character of this change had become increasingly obvious, as Taylorism and scientific management sought to subject the factory’s workers to the same principles as its machines.

The rise of these new kinds of scientific knowledge was the occasion of a good deal of debate within the socialist movement. Positions ranged from outright rejection to the most ecstatic embrace of the new technologies of efficiency. Across this spectrum, however, socialists failed to hold on to Marx’s theoretical and political achievements, falling back into a one-sidedness that left them unable to confront key aspects of their conjuncture.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were the purest example of the rejectionist impulse in World War I–era socialism. Celebrated by the Left for its militancy, the IWW achieved particular infamy as an advocate of sabotage. Big Bill Haywood famously declared at Cooper Union that “I don’t know of anything that can be applied that will bring as much satisfaction to you, as much anger to the boss as a little sabotage in the right place at the right time. Find out what it means. It won’t hurt you and it will cripple the boss.”

For this, Haywood and other left-wingers were driven out of the Socialist Party of America (SPA) and had to organize the Wobblies without the support of a much larger organization. Far from retreating, however, the IWW expanded its advocacy of sabotage, elevating it to a principle that encompassed far more than machine-breaking.

During the remarkably bitter 1912 Patterson strike, which the Wobblies led, only $25 worth of damages to plant property was reported. For the IWW, sabotage meant the conscious withdrawal of efficiency, by whatever means. Sabotage was simply the assertion that workers themselves had the right to govern the pace and level of effort at which they would work.

In the context of Taylorism and scientific management, this was nothing less than a declaration of war against employers, and the Wobblies knew it. Much of their struggle was self-consciously directed against the “efficiency men,” who were actively stripping away what little control workers still had over their workplace. The IWW recognized that the scientific management of labor, which encompassed everything from time and motion studies to the introduction of the assembly line, represented a disaster for the working class, and fought against it accordingly.

William English Walling, a Socialist Party left-winger and advocate for the Wobblies, argued that “in proportion as the scientific methods of increasing efficiency are applied in industry, one of the laborer’s best and most natural weapons is the scientific development of methods of interfering with efficiency.” For the Wobblies, the goal was to throw a wrench in the gears of progress, literally if need be.

The Wobblies’ struggle against Taylorization was, of course, completely justified. Yet in their steadfast rejection of technological change, they undermined elements of that struggle. In this, as in so much else, the IWW was far more concerned with destroying the current order than with constructing a new one.

Their ultra-leftism, manifested in a disinterest in ever signing contracts with employers, kept them utterly unable to conduct a tactical retreat when need be. This is always an important maneuver for workers who are generally outmatched by capital, but particularly crucial in the struggle to withdraw efficiency.

After all, if the workers are too successful in such a withdrawal, their employers will simply be driven out of business by firms who more successfully dominate their workers. In such situations, the ability to negotiate a temporary retreat that preserves class power is crucial, and the Wobblies’ neglect of the pro-technology impulse in the socialist legacy prevented them from doing so. In this, as in the IWW’s efforts more generally, a simple rejection of capital’s demands proved insufficient to overcome them.

In Soviet Russia . . .

The early days of the Soviet Union saw a much more lively debate over the principles of scientific management. Before the revolution, Vladimir Lenin had expressed an ambivalent attitude toward Taylorism. In a 1914 article, “The Taylor System — Man’s Enslavement by the Machine,” he both inveighed against the system’s barbarism and pondered its implications for socialist construction.

Lenin was clear about the class content of Taylorism. In an earlier article on the subject, he had declared that “advances in the spheres of technology and science in capitalist society are but advances in the extortion of sweat.” In “The Taylor System,” he noted that the gains in efficiency scientific management brought with it never went to workers, but brought them only overwork and unemployment.

But what held Lenin’s attention about Taylorism was both the productivity it promised and the waste it generated. He noted with disappointment that “this rational and efficient distribution of labor is confined to each factory,” while the economy as a whole was still ruled by the anarchy of the market.

Lenin looked forward to the day when workers would control the economy, and held firmly that they would “be able to apply these principles of rational distribution of social labor when the latter is freed from its enslavement by capital.” For Lenin, Taylorism was barbaric in its current form, but could easily be redeployed by workers in a socialist society.

After the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks put these ideas to work. In a country brutalized first by imperialist and then by civil wars, the issue of labor productivity was far more urgent than in Lenin’s prewar explorations. In Taylorism, Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks saw a potential solution to the problem of scarcity. They hired efficiency experts from the United States and got to work transforming Soviet labor.

The discussion of Taylorism in the Bolshevik party soon developed into a debate with two main wings. The first, grouped around Alexei Gastev, was enthusiastic about the potential time and motion studies held for Russian workers, and set about organizing laboratories for conducting such studies. A second group, still committed to efficiency in production, but less enamored of the scientific pretensions of Taylorism, would eventually form an organization calling itself Liga Vremya — the Time League. These two groups would spar throughout the Soviet Union’s early years.

Gastev held that techniques of scientific management had much to offer Russian workers. Aside from raising the standard of living, the scientific reorganization of the factory was objectively in the interest of workers. Faced with the choice between a chaotic factory and one organized efficiently, Gastev had no doubt which the workers would prefer. Propaganda and agitation for Soviet Taylorism could be carried out largely through a demonstration effect.

Gastev’s opponents, on the other hand, were far more skeptical about what Taylorism had to offer socialist construction. Instead of remolding the actions of workers along more efficient lines, they emphasized automating undesirable jobs. The Liga Vremya rejected what they saw as Taylorism’s narrow commitment to efficiency. Rather than simply reorganizing the workplace, they wanted the Communist Party to lead a struggle for reorganizing the entire society along more efficient lines.

Proposals to this end included replacing imprecise language like “perhaps” or “anyhow” with “a precise calculation” or “a well thought-out plan” and taking steps to limit the length of speeches at meetings. Liga Vremya sought to spread a passion for efficiency throughout the Russian working class by means of agitation and propaganda. They saw Gastev’s laboratory as the redoubt of “chronometric barbarism.”

Ultimately, Taylorism was not implemented in revolutionary Russia in any systematic way, though this was less the result of organized opposition than the chaos and privation of post-revolutionary society. Later, in the USSR under Stalin, Soviet state officials went to great lengths to increase labor productivity. Notably, however, these efforts relied less on Taylorist redesign and more on moral exhortation. The Stakhanovite movement, which sought to convince workers to follow the example of a coal miner who had set new production records, is representative of this tendency.

Nonetheless, the debate over Taylorism in the early Soviet state testifies to the dominance of efficiency concerns in Soviet discussions of scientific management. The desperation and fragility of Soviet society no doubt contributed to this concern, but as Lenin’s prewar writings show, a fascination with the potentialities of Taylorism ran deep in Bolshevik thought.

While attentive to both the systemic irrationalities of capitalism and the necessity of technological progress for a socialist reorganization of society, Soviet writers remained comparatively blind to the class character of Taylorism.

Gramsci’s Fordist Romance

The most enthusiastic socialist support for Taylorism in the World War I era came not from the helm of the new Soviet state, however, but from a prison cell. Antonio Gramsci, writing from a fascist prison, was ebullient over the prospects for social transformation of what he called Fordism.

Concerned, as always, with the relative backwardness of Italy, Gramsci saw Fordism as threatening to the backwards and parasitic layers of Italian society. Fordism represented the most modernizing impulses in capitalist society. Indeed, Gramsci thought Fordism was such an advance that he was not sure it could be completed under capitalism; perhaps only socialism could consummate its development.

Gramsci believed that Fordism necessitated the transformation of the working class to adapt it to the new methods of industrial production. He held that modern industry demanded “a rigorous discipline of the sexual instincts (at the level of the nervous system) and with it a strengthening of the ‘family’ . . . and of the regulation and stability of sexual relations.”

To be clear, Gramsci thought this repression of sexual instincts — what he called elsewhere a struggle “against the element of ‘animality’ in man” — was a good thing. The working class was threatened and repulsed by the “libertinism” of the middle classes, who couldn’t remold themselves to the requirements of industrial society.

Prohibition in the United States was one aspect of the creation of the new industrial man, and Gramsci held, rather implausibly, that the American working class supported Prohibition but that it was undermined by middle-class bootleggers.

This is not to say that Gramsci was uncritical of Fordism. But his criticism derived almost entirely from the system’s implementation in a class society. In capitalism, the remaking of industrial man necessitated by modern techniques of production could only ever half-succeed, as it would always be imposed on workers coercively from the outside. Gramsci argued that Fordism could only be completed when the working class took power, and adapted itself by conscious choice to Fordism’s requirements.

In Gramsci’s mind, concerns with efficiency came to dominate conceptions of social change. Instead of technology making socialism possible, socialist transformation became a mere means to unfetter the forces of production. Of course, there was always an element of this in Marx. But in Gramsci’s paeans to industrial man and sexual discipline, it ascends to the center of the socialist promise.

Gramsci and other socialists throughout the early twentieth century showed themselves unable to maintain Marx’s nuance in the face of capital’s technological dynamism. We should not judge them too harshly for this. From the challenges of socialist construction to a fascist prison cell, these revolutionaries were confronted with the social contradictions of science and technology far more sharply than Marx ever was. But we need to acknowledge where they fell short to do better next time.

The New Left and the Machines

The New Left of the sixties and seventies, while it never led struggles of the magnitude that Lenin and Gramsci did, did a better job holding true to Marx’s complicated analysis of the dynamics of technology in capitalism. There are two lines of analysis in particular that are of use to radicals thinking about technology today: Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital and British socialist Chris Harman’s agitational efforts around computerization.

Braverman was an American Trotskyist who, after a long stint as a metalworker, ended up as the managing director of Monthly Review Press, book-publishing arm of the venerable socialist magazine. While there, he wrote Labor and Monopoly Capital, which drew on both his own experience in the workplace and an extensive study of management theory from Frederick Winslow Taylor to Peter F. Drucker.

Braverman concluded that Taylorism was the heart of the modern practice of managing labor. But what he meant by Taylorism was quite different from what most people associated it with. In popular culture as well as on the Left, what stuck out most about Taylorism was its obsession with best practices and efficiency. The stopwatch symbolized this version of Taylorism: a practice of reshaping the labor process to be more efficient.

Braverman argued that this perspective missed the class content of Taylorism, which was itself essential to understanding the endeavor as a whole. Taylorism, he contended, was no abstract practice of improving the efficiency of labor, but rather the practice of managing wage labor in a capitalist society.

Surveying Taylor’s extensive work, Braverman concluded that Taylorism could be reduced to three essential principles.

First: dissociation of the labor process from the skills of workers. This meant redesigning the labor process so that it was not dependent on the talents workers brought with them. Much industrial production in the late nineteenth century depended on skilled workers, whose knowledge of the production process often far exceeded their employers’; Taylor saw that this gave laborers a tremendous advantage over their employer in the struggle over the pace of work.

Not only could capitalists not legislate techniques they were ignorant of, but they were also in no position to judge when workers told them the process simply couldn’t be driven any faster. Work had to be redesigned so that employers did not depend on their employees for knowledge of the production process.

The situation had to be reversed. Braverman called this second principle the separation of conception from execution. Previously, workers had designed much of the labor process themselves, deciding when and how fast to undertake various tasks.

Taylor argued that this also weakened employers relative to their workers. The labor process could never be rationalized as long as workers were in control of designing it. Workers would never design a process done by eight workers to be done by seven instead. This sort of change is, of course, what management is always seeking. To achieve it, planning had to be separated from execution within the firm.

This separation enabled the final principle of scientific management — management’s use of its monopoly of knowledge and control over production to redesign every aspect of the labor process. Once management had dissociated production from skills and separated conception and execution, it would be in a position to test each moment of the production process, push it to its breaking point, and see where workers could be driven even harder.

The deskilling of work this process inevitably produced was a major boon to employers in the larger class struggle, as it greatly facilitated the use of scabs. It was far easier to find scabs capable of pushing buttons on an assembly line than to find workers with the high skills of the late nineteenth century.

With these three principles, Braverman restored Marx’s emphasis on the class implications of technology in capitalist society. Scientific management was no neutral technique for improving efficiency, but a scheme for controlling labor in its struggle with capital. The failure to appreciate this point is clear in Lenin and Gramsci’s discussions of Taylorism and Fordism, and leads quite directly to the one-sided conclusions they reached about the applicability of Taylorist techniques in post-capitalist society.

Braverman has often been unfairly accused of neglecting worker agency in his account. This misses his point, which assumes that workers will resist capital’s impositions on them and investigates how capital tries to overcome this resistance. Nonetheless, it is true that he left more agitational concerns out of the book.

These concerns were developed almost simultaneously with the publication of Labor and Monopoly Capital, on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1979, the British working class was clearly facing the beginning of a period of defeat. The wave of struggle that had crested in 1974, bringing down a Conservative government, had receded quickly, and Margaret Thatcher was about to begin her class offensive.

Unsurprisingly, as employers looked at the years of struggle they had just lived through, they turned to mechanization and computerization. One way to deal with volatility in the wage bill was to shift investment from workers to machines. This coincided with the development of computer technology capable of being profitably utilized in an office setting. As such, much of the debate centered around the displacement of various office workers in the UK, who at the time were mostly union members.

This was the context in which the late British socialist Chris Harman wrote a pamphlet entitled Is a Machine After Your Job? Harman was a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, which then had a working-class base as a result of its work in the shop stewards’ movement.

For socialists in the US today, radical groups are almost by definition isolated from the working class, but in 1970s Britain, the agendas of socialist groups were actually put into action by cadres and supporters in workplaces across the country. Harman’s pamphlet was an effort to provide a strategic orientation for working-class militants adjusting to a period of retreat.

For our purposes, the most important aspect of the pamphlet is “What to Fight For.” For Harman, the key issue was preserving worker control inside the workplace. As he put it: “What we are challenging is not technology but the control over technology by managements committed to profit-making.”

The strategy he outlined was more nuanced than that of the IWW. Instead of resisting each and every effort to introduce further mechanization into the workplace, he encouraged workers to attach a series of conditions to management’s efforts at rationalization, each aimed at preserving working-class power. They included demands like:

  • no use of technology for assessing the speed or accuracy of individual workers
  • the involvement in discussion of all workers to be affected by technological change, directly or indirectly
  • no victimization of workers unable to adjust to new technology
  • no speed-ups through natural attrition
  • written guarantees from management guaranteeing no introduction of new technology without prior agreement from the union membership

All of these charted a strategy for labor that was accepting of technological change in the workplace, but firmly committed to channeling that change in directions that would not be corrosive to working-class power on the shop floor.

Harman particularly wanted to differentiate his proposed strategy from that being advanced by the union leadership, which simply asked for guarantees against layoffs. This strategy, however, allowed for a more gradual dissolution of union power.

Any business undergoes a degree of workforce turnover in a given year, and by simply not replacing people who voluntarily left, employers could impose a higher workload on remaining workers without ever having to lay off anyone. Union strategies that only looked to maintain employment and wage levels, without continuing to challenge management power, allowed employers to accomplish their goals through a kind of drift rather than active restructuring.

For Harman, the ideal goal of any union mobilization around technology was not merely an agreement on the issue at hand, but the positioning of workers to be even stronger for the next confrontation. Like Braverman’s analysis, this perspective pointed to a deeper understanding of capital’s motives in the introduction of technology than either Lenin or Gramsci evinced.

At the same time, his focus on forging agreements with management that allowed rationalization to proceed contingent on the preservation of working-class power offers much more strategically than a blanket rejection of technological change in the workplace.

Unplugging Capital

For radicals confronting capitalist technology and its ideologues today, Braverman and Harman have a great deal to offer. Rather than seeing domination inscribed in technological forms, as some radicals today are all too wont to do, Braverman and Harman developed their approaches to technology on the basis of the class context in which it is implemented.

Controlled by capitalists, advances in technology are, as Lenin said, advances in the extortion of sweat. But this hardly exhausts the possibilities of technological advance, which as Lenin and Marx saw, can promise emancipation from work, even though today it delivers the opposite.

Their analysis suggests some orientation points for struggles around technology today. Above all, the question of preserving and extending working-class power inside the workplace must be central to these struggles.

Crucially, this suggests that approaches to technology that focus primarily on distributional concerns are not enough. Guarantees of employment or even wages and benefits in the face of technological change are simply not enough; the class power of employers is such that agreements like these can all too easily be compatible with the destruction of working-class power on the shop floor. Capital is often perfectly happy to preserve the benefits of the present generation of workers, while ensuring that the next will never have access to them.

This perspective is particularly important today, as the process of rebuilding working-class power throughout the capitalist world will undoubtedly be a long one. Capitalists will continue to introduce new technologies that make working life even worse, and, for the foreseeable future, the technocratic reign of efficiency experts and status-quo disruptors will persist, with all the pathological ideologies they bring with them.

Marx’s theorization of the multiple faces of technology under capitalism will be crucial for understanding these processes. But really changing the situation will require formulating a strategy to organize workers and fight back.