The Dialectic of Technology

February 14th, 2012  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

I was surprised and pleased to see that Bhaskar had decided to put Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex up on the Jacobin blog, as it’s one of my favorite pieces of Marxist-feminist writing. In spite of its occasional outlandishness, it does two things exceptionally well. The first is to extend Marxist analysis into the realm of sex and gender by simply taking Marx and Engels’ own framework to its logical conclusion, which they themselves were too blinded by the patriarchal assumptions of their time to recognize. The second is to see modern technology as an indispensable element of women’s liberation, going so far as to argue that “Until a certain level of evolution had been reached and technology had achieved its present sophistication, to question fundamental biological conditions was insanity.”

My recent writing has, I think, created an impression in some people’s minds that I’m reflexively pro-technology. I even jokingly refer to myself that way sometimes. It’s true that I will sometimes treat a certain kind of technical change as an unexamined premise, and that I tend to be skeptical of arguments that are centered on the criticism of technology and its effect on labor. But it isn’t so much that I think more technology is always good; I just think that arguments for or against certain technologies often begin by asking the wrong question.

Via Aaron Bady’s indispensable Sunday Reading, I found this post from Richard at the blog “The Existence Machine”, which I hadn’t previously known about. Richard quotes, and objects to, a passage from the journalist Paul Mason asserting—and attributing to Marx—the notion that a classless society “must be based on the most advanced technologies and organisational forms created by capitalism itself.” His objection is that this naturalizes technology and prevents us from being critical of its effects and its sustainability. But that’s not the only way to interpret that formulation, and I think it somewhat misconstrues what the argument is about. The question is not whether technology, or capitalist production methods, are good or bad. Technology mediates social relations, and it is those social relations that should be the object of critique.

It is possible, however, to interpret Mason as saying that “advanced technologies and organizational forms” have an existence independent of class relations. To get into the technical weeds for a moment, this way of thinking reflects a dualism between what Marxists call the “forces of production” and the “relations of production”. The forces of production are the machines, factories, and techniques that make large scale industrial society possible, while the relations of production are the human inequalities between the mass of workers who have nothing to sell but their labor power, and the handful of bosses who control the means of production. Taken to its extreme, the forces-relations dualism implies that we can keep the economy pretty much the way it is now, but just change who’s in charge of it through some combination of worker ownership and government planning. I find this to be inadequate—even if it’s possible, it doesn’t really address some of the worst aspects of life in a capitalist society. And in the past, I’ve critiqued both market socialism and pension fund socialism on this basis.

The forces-relations dualism can also lead to a crude kind of technological determinism, in which technological changes somehow automatically lead to social transformation when they become incompatible with capitalist social relations. That’s how this passage from Marx’s 1859 Preface is sometimes read:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

The most famous modern version of technological-determinist Marxism is probably G.A. Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. But while I think there’s a grain of truth to this reading, pure technological determinism is untenable as social theory, and politically it leads either to quiescence or to something like accelerationism. Indeed, part of my purpose in writing “Four Futures” was to demonstrate how the same technical conditions could be made compatible with very different social relations.

Yet for all that, I find myself sympathetic to Mason’s formulation: socialism “must be based on the most advanced technologies and organisational forms created by capitalism itself”. That’s not because I think it’s possible to build a classless future while keeping the capitalist forces of production exactly as the are. It’s because, on the contrary, I think that altering relations of production inevitably leads to transformations in the technologies of production. So my amended claim would be that the successor to capitalism must begin from the capitalist forces of production, but it will not leave them unchanged. There is a critique to be made of technology, but it’s the one that comes from workers themselves, and it is enacted in the workplace and in the labor market. The answer to the dehumanizing qualities of technology under capitalism is to attack the inequalities of class power that make them possible.

A concrete example of what this means can be found in a recent report on retail work in New York City, which I heard about from Nick Serpe. Nick alerted me to the following passage:

Surveyed workers reported erratic scheduling that could change hourly, especially with the use of computerized or online scheduling systems that can track projected sales and adjust labor costs daily. A JC Penney worker stated, ‘They switch the schedule around a lot and they expect that you look on the computer every half hour to know your schedule. They change my time and if you didn’t print your schedule that week as evidence of the change, they will disregard your complaint.’ The practice of hour-to-hour scheduling adjustments means that workers expect to be nearly always on call.

This is a clear example of technology being used to intensify worker exploitation, in a way that makes it appear to be both a force and a relation of production. And here is where I would distinguish my perspective from technological utopianism, which Mr. Teacup glosses as “good things are technologically determined and bad things are socially determined.” I reject this position because I reject the idea that technology can be separated from society in this way, which is just another version of the forces-relations dualism. I begin from the premise that technologies reflect, embody, and arise in the context of social relations, and can never be socially or politically neutral; the forces and relations of production dialectically determine one another.

So I accept that technology can have negative effects on labor, and the passage quoted above is a good example. But labor also affects technology—that is, the form that technological change takes is shaped by the strength and organization of workers. I usually avoid writing in a way that directly criticizes technology, not because I’m a techno-utopian, but because I’m more interested in approaching the dialectic of worker and machine from the other side. The trouble with writing critiques of technology is that it tends to lead into either outright Luddism, or else Frankfurt School-style cultural pessimism that’s not clearly connected to any collective agent or political project. The most plausible answer to the negative consequences of technology for workers, I believe, is not to denounce the machines but to strengthen labor so that it is able to contest the path of technical development on more favorable terms.

Being subject of the whims of a scheduling computer that can shift your hours around at any moment is, to be sure, not a pleasant situation. And if approached from the standpoint of critiquing technology, it’s tempting to view this as a testament to the hollow nature of “progress”, proof that the development of better machines only allows workers to become more immiserated, precarious, and exploited. But I read this not so much as a story about technology, but a story about the noxious interaction between technology and a weak, underpaid labor force.

Consider that most research shows that workers prefer to work regular, standard hours rather than having rotating or off-hour schedules. Yet most do not make any more money than they would doing the same job in a standard 9 to 5, at least in the United States. This strongly suggests that workers are unable to resist the desire of employers to impose non-standard work schedules, or to demand higher wages in return for taking them. The technology described in the passage above intensifies this dynamic, but is not the primary cause of it. The technology wouldn’t have such baleful effects if not for the weak bargaining position of the workers. What is at issue, to use mainstream economics terms, is whether technological change tends to be labor-saving or labor-complementary.

What would happen if workers were in a better position to resist these kinds of crappy scheduling policies? Suppose, for example, that employers had to pay much higher wages for work outside of standard hours, for irregular schedules, and for last-minute re-schedulings. In the short run, this would increase the income of some workers, which is good. It would also make employers more reluctant to use employees in this manner, unless it made them enough money to pay the higher wages. But in the long run, it would create stronger incentives for employers to simply use fewer workers, perhaps by replacing their labor with machines. This might sound like a dystopian scenario in itself—we win higher wages, and the end result is that we just get replaced with robots! But the alternatives are, in my view, even worse.

There are two primary mechanisms by which capitalist enterprises make themselves more profitable. The first is to exploit their workers harder, by extending their hours or by paying them lower wages. The second is to produce the same amount of stuff with fewer workers, by adopting new production techniques and new technologies. (If you want the long technical explanation, these are what Marx calls the absolute and relative forms of surplus value, and the relevant chapters of Capital are roughly chapters 7 through 12.) Since the two ways of increasing profits are to some degree substitutes, closing off one avenue tends to push the capitalist in the direction of the other.

If the absolute exploitation of labor is not an option—because the workers, for whatever reasons, are capable of demanding high wages—then the incentive to innovate in labor-saving ways will increase. Indeed, some technologies that aren’t economical in an environment of low wages will become so when wages are high. This is the main argument of my post about the connection between low wages and technological stagnation. On the other hand, if labor-saving technological innovation isn’t an option—whether because it’s directly barred or because there’s a great stagnation on—then employers will focus on exploiting their workforce ever more intensely.

The final possibility is that both strategies are closed off: workers are powerful enough to maintain high wages, and labor-saving innovation is either prohibited or impossible. The result will just be a stagnant, low-growth economy. Some might view this as the best case scenario, since it would heighten the contradictions and make calls for an alternative to capitalism more convincing. But the evidence suggests that economic stagnation is not conducive to building a powerful and successful Left—often it’s quite the opposite, as Doug Henwood and Duncan Foley have argued. So until it’s possible to make a radical break with capitalism, even socialists need to make their peace with economic growth—the question is whether that growth happens primarily on the basis of hyper-exploiting labor, or is instead predicated on using it more efficiently.

It’s this way of thinking, perhaps, that leads me to be occasionally sympathetic to the cluster of ideas some of us refer to as left neoliberalism. To me, the core of left-neoliberalism (or globalize-grow-give progressivism) is growth-maximizing deregulation plus redistribution, as an alternative to directly intervening in the labor market to assure broad-based high wages. Where I part company with this school of thought, however, is in my emphasis on the need to strengthen the overall bargaining power of labor. This doesn’t need to be brought about entirely through labor unions of the traditional sort; as Chris Maisano notes, their prognosis remains rather grim, and they have major drawbacks as presently constituted. But it does imply the need for some combination of unions, state regulations, full employment, and basic income. Ultimately, of course, a powerful and confident working class will tend to provoke a crisis for Kaleckian reasons, but that is a development I would very much welcome.

I stress the importance of strengthening labor precisely because I’m not a techno-utopian. Technological change may be almost inevitable—and in any case, I think it’s very desirable—but the form that change takes is very much a question of social relations. As the early Mario Tronti had it, “it is the specific, present, political situation of the working class that both necessitates and directs the given forms of capital’s development.”

I’ve spoken only about the relation between technology and labor. Equally important are the ways that technology intersects with the environment, and with everyday life outside of the workplace. But a fuller consideration of those issues will have to wait for a future post.