Thursday, 23 July 2015

Marx and Machines - Part 1 of 7

Marx has a dichotomous attitude to machines. It can be seen in his attitude to Luddism.

“They direct their attacks not against the bourgeois conditions of production, but against the instruments of production themselves; they destroy imported wares that compete with their labour, they smash to pieces machinery, they set factories ablaze, they seek to restore by force the vanished status of the workman of the Middle Ages.”

(The Communist Manifesto)

He makes the same point in Capital Volume I,

“It took both time and experience before the workpeople learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used.” 

(Chapter 15, p 404) 

Central to Marx's theory of historical materialism is the idea that it is the productive forces which determine productive relations, and those productive relations that determine social relations.

“Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”

(The Poverty of Philosophy, Chapter 2) 

But, this dichotomy exists throughout Marx's approach to machines. Machines dehumanise workers, and yet provide the basis to become truly human; machines cause unemployment, but promote employment; machines lead to lower wages, but higher living standards; machines increase relative surplus value, but destroy profits; machines increase wealth but reduce value. In fact, this last point is essential to understanding Marx's theory of overproduction of capital.

The idea that machines are both dehumanising, and yet create the potential, for the first-time, to become truly human, is the subject of Paul Mason's new book. In it, he proposes the idea that we are already entering an era that he describes as “post-capitalism”. Its an unfortunate label, because it is the one chosen by Ralf Dahrendorf and others at the LSE, under Hayek, to describe the convergence of systems in Eastern Europe, and under monopoly capitalism, whereby the market and profit motive was being replaced by planning, and where the role of the capitalist was being replaced by a new class, or bureaucratic-collectivist caste of professional managers, technocrats and administrators.

As with most such theories, it mistook a range of superficial appearances and similarities for genuine identities, and thereby failed to analyse the underlying realities, and fundamental differences.

Paul Mason's basic thesis is rather different. Instead of a theory based on the idea that technological change had created this new bureaucratic class, which extends its function across industry and state, and thereby dominates society, it is the opposite. It is that technology has brought about a new extension of democracy, and atomisation of control. In place of the old heavy industries, we have a proliferation of new, nimble, small technologically based industries, even down to the level of the individual who can now produce high value commodities, in the form of intellectual property, directly from a computer in their bedroom.

Moreover, the atomisation and dispersion of intellectual property breaks apart old power structures. The most visible expression of that is the Internet and social media. Both the left, still operating with outdated notions based upon the industrial working-class, and the need to socialise production and exchange, via the medium of the state, and capital itself, has failed to recognise this change.

So, for example, capital, which could be investing in a range of new technologically driven industries, such as those based on gene sequencing, instead continues to seek out areas of profitable investment based on the exploitation of low paid labour.

“As a result, large parts of the business class have become neo-luddites. Faced with the possibility of creating gene-sequencing labs, they instead start coffee shops, nail bars and contract cleaning firms: the banking system, the planning system and late neoliberal culture reward above all the creator of low-value, long-hours jobs.”

About fifteen years ago, I remember having a discussion with my old friend, John Ellis, along similar lines. If I remember correctly, we were out delivering Labour Party leaflets, at the time, which was a rather non-technological activity to be engaged in whilst holding this discussion. The question I was posing was not whether these changes were creating a post-capitalist society, but rather whether they were creating a return to feudalism on a higher technological basis? I wrote a blog post about it, some time after entitled – Technological Feudalism.

In other words, feudalism was based on small scale, scattered, individually owned means of production. The individual peasant producers produced means of consumption, directly for their own needs, only exchanging a part of that product with other small producers, in order to obtain commodities they could not effectively produce for themselves.

We tend to think of the rents these peasants paid to the landlords, as being in exchange for use of the land, but, as Marx describes in Capital III, this basis of rent only arises with capitalist production, as land itself becomes a commodity, which is bought and sold. In fact, rent under feudalism is purely a form of tribute, paid to landlords. It originates in individual acts of tribute paid to clan leaders, and so on, before becoming ritualised. The basis of the rent is the surplus product of the peasant, over and above what was required for their own reproduction, and so as Marx says, is the form taken by surplus value under feudalism. The rent is paid to the landlord solely on the basis of entitlement to it, due to their social rank.

The central part of my thesis, therefore, as with Paul's concept, was that technology had created a class of producers who were no longer wage workers, but individual commodity producers, of the type of a peasant producer or artisan. They came in a range of forms. Just as the peasant producers ranged from serfs and vassals, to the yeoman farmer, so, some were homeworkers, some involved in actual material production, but a large number of others were employed in tele-marketing, or other services, such as sex chatlines; yet others were high value producers, for example, there has been a proliferation of websites that match up self-employed programmers and web designers, and so on, to those requiring such services.

In addition, besides the vast array of people who now provide free entertainment, information, education and so on, via blogs such as this, there has arisen the potential for performers and artists, of all kinds, to bypass the old enterprises that hired their labour-power, and to simply hawk their wares directly via the Internet, from their own bedroom, garage, or home studio.

One of the reasons this becomes possible is not just that technological developments make it physically achievable, and that the cost of the means of production itself becomes almost de minimus, but that many elements of the producer's consumption have become almost de minimus too. That is also a consequence of technology.

Machines, and other aspects of science and technology has raised productivity to such levels that in many areas of consumption, there is actual abundance. The price of food has fallen so low that the average UK family throws away a third of the food it buys, and obesity is rampant. Milk production globally has risen so much that a litre of milk is now cheaper than a litre of water.

The peasant producer spent most of their time producing solely to meet their own consumption needs, and only traded the surplus over that product. The landlord secured the surplus product over and above what was required for the peasant's reproduction. Today, the landlords, in this scenario are the owners of the cyber space in which this activity takes place.

Part 2 will appear on Saturday

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