10 KICKASS THINGS HUMANITY DID IN 2014

C21st Left

Even in this era of low expectations, intellectual daring finds a way.

Article by Brendan O’Neill reprinted with permission of Spiked. With thanks.

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It’s all the rage to be down about humanity. Public figures are forever lecturing us about our ‘eco-footprint’ and how our industrial arrogance turned what was an innocent ball of biodiversity spinning through space into a smoggy, nearly dead planet. Campaigners constantly tell us that if ebola doesn’t kill us, then AIDS probably will, or maybe it will be climate change, or perhaps it will be all that junk grub and booze and fags we stupidly consume. If a Martian visited Earth (more on Martians in a minute) and turned on the TV or opened a newspaper, he or she or it could be forgiven for thinking that human beings are little more than destroyers — of both the planet and themselves — who never do anything nice or brilliant.

But we do. Still. Even in this era of low expectations. Even when every cultural signal says, ‘Don’t explore’, ‘Don’t expand’, ‘Don’t go forth and multiply’. Even in the twenty-first century’s sludge of misanthropic thinking, the green shoots of intellectual daring find a way, and peek through. So here are 10 kickass things done by humanity in 2014.

10) We emailed a spanner into space

Yes, you read that right: human beings emailed a spanner into space. It seems like only yesterday — well, 20 years ago — that we were marvelling at the fact that we could send letters, and then photos, from our computers, across continents, in the blink of an eye, without having to wait for airplanes to deliver them. Now, NASA has emailed an actual object. How? Well, the International Space Station has a 3D printer; one of the ISS guys told NASA he needed a new socket wrench, and instead of making him wait months for it to be delivered from Earth, NASA emailed him instructions to put into the 3D printer and, lo, the exact spanner he needed came out. You know what this means? We finally have something very like teleportation, the dream of Star Trek and countless other sci-fi fantasies. The possibilities are endless. There is already talk of, at some future point, putting 3D printers on the moon that will dig into the moon’s crust and use its raw materials to print out the beginnings of human habitats. Would save us having to do the hard graft.

9) We made sperm

Yes, I know, the male section of humankind is always making sperm — but this year we made it without the benefit of sex, or our right hands, in a laboratory. Researchers at Cambridge University converted adult skin tissue into the precursors of sperm, and eggs, and are now exploring whether these precursor cells can become actual sperm and eggs. It’s like a winding back of time, a teasing out of the long-gone, most embryonic conditions of our cells, of ourselves. This research could have two potential impacts, one amazing, one almost unbelievable. The amazing one is that even the infertile might be able to breed children of an exact genetic match, their own children, through the creation of sperm and eggs from their skin cells. The almost unbelievable one is that this could represent the beginnings of mankind assuming mastery over evolution itself, no longer having to heed nature’s diktats about when the animal body may and may not multiply. Some will darkly shout ‘Brave New World!’ — I say so long as it’s all about choice, autonomy and giving people what they want, bring it on.

8) We found loads of new fossil fuels

You know all that talk of peak oil, peak gas, peak this, peak that? Turns out it was nonsense. Such nonsense that this year the oil price fell dramatically, for many varied reasons, but one of which is that there’s more oil than we thought. Some are going so far as to call ours an ‘age of abundance’. As the Financial Times said in November, ‘Ideas about peak oil seem to have been decisively refuted’. There is now thought to be 3.3 trillion barrels of oil and 22,900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. And 1,040 billion tonnes of coal. Which is a lot. Three per cent more coal than we thought we had in 2011, in fact. Because that’s the thing: new fossil fuels are being discovered all the time. It’s no accident that all that peak bollocks was refuted this year: it’s a result, in large part, of the ‘shale revolution’, of what the FT calls ‘advances in the techniques of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing’ — that is, of human endeavour. We might live in what feels like post-Enlightenment times, but we’re still doing that Enlightenment thing of ‘wresting nature’s secrets from her grasp’ (Francis Bacon). Up next: a uranium revolution?

7) We made more ‘ninja particles’

Yes, ‘ninja particles’ are as cool as they sound. As part of the explosion of research into nanomedicine — the implanting of infinitesimal machines or microbes into the body to attack disease — researchers have developed synthetic molecules that mimic our immune systems. It’s hoped these manmade molecules will one day, soon, be sent into the human body to attach themselves to certain microbes and cause those microbes to rupture — ‘as if they’d been hit by an explosive shuriken (ninja star)’, as one report in September gloriously said. These manmade ninjas could prove brilliantly deadly against antibiotic-resistant bugs and in bodies whose immune systems are rejecting newly transplanted organs. What was a Hollywood fantasy in the Eighties — Dennis Quaid being shrunk and sent into a human body in Inner Space — is now becoming a kind-of reality.

6) We found a former lake on Mars

From inner space to outer space, where in 2014 we discovered that a massive crater on Mars used to be a lake. Plucky, roving Curiosity, the wonderfully named, car-sized robot that NASA sent on a 350,000,000-mile journey to Mars in 2011, has been poking around and collecting data for boffins to analyse. And its examination of the sediment build-up in a 96-mile crater suggests this crater once held water, billions of years ago. Which means it could very well have generated life, too, even if just microbial life — Martian microbial life. Right now, as you chill in the holiday season, Curiosity is roaming the red planet, exploring a whole new mysterious world on humankind’s behalf. Next step: actual humans going where so far only a little robot has boldly gone, surely.

5) We made a lame man walk

‘And the lame shall walk’, said Christ in Matthew 11:5, boasting of his miraculous powers. We actually had to wait near-on 2,000 years for a man to make a lame man walk, and it wasn’t a Messiah who did it — it was cell-manipulating researchers. In 2010, a 40-year-old Pole was paralysed after being stabbed in the back. This year, thanks to scientists in London and surgeons in Poland, he can move his legs again and walk with the aid of a frame. The scientists took cells from his nasal cavity, which are among the most self-renewing cells in the human body, and nurtured and nourished them outside of his body before transplanting them into his spinal cord, injecting an invisible-to-the-naked-eye gaggle of cells into his spine 100 times over six months. And then — he moved his legs. It’s early days, but just imagine the possibilities if lifeless parts of the human body could be resurrected with injections.

4) We meddled with crops to make them more nutritious

To the fury of well-off, eco Westerners who never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, mankind has been genetically modifying crops for years. This year we harvested crops genetically modified for nutritional value. Through splicing genes and patching organic data together in whole new ways — yes, yes, through ‘playing God’ — British scientists boosted a crop of camelina with Omega-3. The possibilities of these man-meddled nutrient-rich crops are endless, potentially delivering much-needed vitamins and sustenance to even the poorest of the world. One of the scientists described the research centre at which this work is done, in Hertfordshire, England, as ‘looking like Guantanamo’, all high fences, CCTV and Alsatians — a reminder that here in the West there are still many misanthropes ready and willing to destroy the fruits of mankind’s nature-defying labour.

3) We continued to wage war on poverty

When it was revealed in December that 92million Chinese people still live in poverty, Western media outlets had a field day. They overlooked the fact that, over the past 30 years, 753million Chinese have been lifted out of extreme poverty. Around the world, poverty is still a massive problem, but grinding poverty is in decline. In India, 126million have been lifted out of extreme poverty; in Indonesia, 66million. In 1990, 23.6 per cent of people in the developing world were undernourished; today, 11.8 per cent are — too many, but less. Two hundred years ago, the prototype modern miserabilist Thomas Malthus, hero to many greens, said there wasn’t enough stuff to sustain the people of Earth. There were 980million people on Earth back then. In the past 30 years more than 980million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. Malthusians: getting shit wrong since 1798.

2) We continued to wage war on disease

Disease, nature’s violent whim, is in retreat from man’s deployment of science and technology. In December, the Lancet revealed that the global years lost as a result of killer diseases — from cancer to malaria to HIV — has been in steady and stunning decline since 1990. The list of once deadly diseases now cured by mankind, in the West at least, continues to grow: alongside tetanus, rabies, polio, yellow fever, measles and smallpox — causer of plagues of old — we may soon be able to add AIDS: manmade drugs now largely prevent HIV from becoming AIDS, meaning that this year deaths from AIDS were at their lowest since the peak of 10 years ago.

1) We landed a spacecraft on a comet

Six weeks after it happened, this still boggles the mind. A spacecraft called Rosetta, launched into the vast void 10 years ago, landed on a comet that is only 2.5 miles wide and is travelling at 24,600 miles per hour 300million miles away from Earth. As researchers at the European Space Agency that launched Rosetta said, this is like a fly landing on a speeding bullet. Why did we do this? Well, why not? And also because exploring the comet’s make-up will boost our understanding of our solar system. The comet’s composition reflects the pre-solar system stuff from which our Sun and planets were formed. Basically, we’re going back in time, exploring with machines the original raw materials of our corner of the universe. And yet, what was the big media talking point about Rosetta? That scientist guy’s shirt, which some silly media feminists found offensive: a brutal reminder of the medievalism and miserabilism that lurk in our midst even as we do spectacular things.

All this stuff — the emailing of spanners, the deployment of miniature ‘ninjas’, the robotic exploration of space — has been achieved in an era hostile to risk-taking and suspicious of mankind, in which we’re encouraged to worship at the altar of precaution and be always safe rather than sorry. So just imagine what we might achieve if we stripped way this straitjacket of anti-human thought and truly unleashed the human instinct to explore and to know. That’s what spiked will continue to devote itself to in 2015 — battling against the backward idea that humanity is a destructive force, and reviving the view of humans as controllers of the Earth, defiers of nature, and potential masters of the universe.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Republished from 29th December Spiked with thanks.

Review of the major “radical” trends and their attitudes: Part 4 (final part) of ‘Outline on technology and progress’ – a Marxist view (Written by Albert Langer in October 1979)

“Quite politically conservative people like businessmen or revisionist party bureaucrats can contribute to social progress by developing the productive forces, but only revolutionaries can tackle the central issue of overturning the obsolete social relations”.

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17. Let us now review the major “radical” trends and their attitudes to these issues.

18. The ideology of the “soft technology” trend is well expressed in the journal Resurgence whose Editor Satish Kumar has summarised its aims thus: “The breaking down of our over-large and over-centralised political and economic structure into smaller autonomous units in order that institutions should become responsive to the needs and desires of everybody and that everyone should thus feel involvement with and responsibility for the conduct of affairs.” (“Time Running Out? Best of Resurgence”, Prism Press 1976)

The belief that smaller autonomous units guarantee responsiveness to the needs and desires of everybody is somewhat quaint in view of the history of feudalism. Nevertheless, in one form or another, this whole approach is still extremely popular in “left” circles. It seems that Marxism never did defeat anarchism after all.

Although many adherents of this trend are very nice, gentle people who would probably find themselves on the right side of the barricades if it came to that (even if only as stretcher bearers), the ideological content of this trend is undiluted reaction against modern society.

The best known exponent of this trend is E.F. (“Small is Beautiful”) Schumacher, whose social views are not radically different from B.A. Santamaria’s and are based on the same papal encyclicals (ibid p103). But Resurgence points out Schumacher should be paired with Professor Leopold Kohr in a “Kohrmacher”, like the “Chesterbelloc” of the last generation’ (an interesting comparison with another pair of religious medievalists)(ibid p1).

To show just how openly reactionary this trend can be, without the admiring disciples even noticing, we need not consider the promotion of Zionist kibbutzes as a model for the new society (p108). Let us just take an article by Professor Kohr on “The Economics of Progress” (p18).

Kohr starts with a conversation between two college professors discussing how to wash their shirts, and also “plumbing, floor polishing and cooking, glorying in the fact that progress had so simplified matters that all these things could now be done by themselves”.

But one of them sighs and declares:

…fifty years ago we would have had maids. Instead of having to wash, plumb, and cook like unspecialised pioneers, we might have been better engineers and economists. Moreover, our shirts would have looked pressed, and our meals have tasted better. And instead of discussing housework at a party of scholars, we might have discussed our subjects.

According to Kohr:

“The experience of the two professors is shared by an increasing number of people. On one hand, we witness the gigantic pace of progress and continuously rising output figures. But on the other hand, we have the strange feeling that, instead of getting ahead in life, we have to give up every year something we could afford when, according to living standard experts, we must have had less”.

To support this conclusion, Kohr notes that:

“When I was a student in the early 30’s, I drove a racy sports car”. (During the Great Depression). Now as a University Professor he rides a bus.

“And the income classes above me have fared still worse… Mr Dupont had to abandon his palatial residence.. Now it is a museum…Where are the people who have become richer as a result of Mr Dupont having become poorer? On the contrary, most seem to be carried along the same road: downhill… Those who previously drank wine with their meals now drank water, and those who had maids now have none.”

“As to maids, it is frequently said that their disappearance is precisely a sign not of decline but of rising standards. For maids of former days are now housewives or businesswomen. Quite. But why should maids have aspired to these higher levels except in the hope of having maids themselves?…

“And workers seem to have fared only outwardly better. True, they have record incomes and record quantities of goods to spend them on. But if all is taken into account, can they really be said to be better off than workers of earlier times? They can write and read. But what is their main literature? They can send their children to college. But what has college education become under the levelling impact of intellectual mass production made necessary by the unprecedented numbers of those now able to afford it?…With so many other workers going to school, higher education, already intellectually sterile, seems without added material benefit, having become the competitive minimum requirement for almost any job.”

(Exactly the same point is made by Braverman, but dressed up as “Marxism”)

“As a result, what has actually risen under the impact of the enormously increased production of our time is not so much the standard of living as the level of subsistence. We swim in more water, but we are still in it up to our necks, In addition, along with the rising water level, many who previously enjoyed the luxury of the dry shore, are now up to their necks in water too”.

(Braverman makes a similar point to this too).

“…the problem is…no longer how to foster growth, but how to stop it..”

The above is not a distortion of Professor Kohr’s views, but an accurate picture of the introduction to an article that goes on with the usual theme of the need for smaller, more decentralised communities.

It is perfectly clear what section of society this “aristocratic socialism” speaks for – that part of the financial aristocracy being ruined as the proletarianisation of society proceeds (just as the old feudal socialism spoke for the declining feudal aristocracy).

To his credit, Professor Kohr does not attempt to conceal this in the slightest. But why are his views, or those of “Kohrmacher” nevertheless perfectly respectable in “left” circles?

Since a critique of Braverman’s romanticism necessarily includes a critique of this even more reactionary opposition to modern society, I will leave the matter there.

19. A second major trend, which may be called “Luddite” has closer connections with genuinely working class and socialist movements, and is in part a theoretical reflection of the ideas naturally arising in the course of trade union struggles to safeguard the rights of workers affected by automation.

This trend is not opposed to modern technology in itself, and emphasises the benefits that could flow from it in a socialist society. But it has a negative attitude towards the introduction of new technology within capitalist society, seeing this as a means of doing workers out of jobs and strengthening capitalist control.

The question “For Whom?” is repeated continuously and with enormous self-satisfaction as though it throws some penetrating light on the issues at stake, although in fact it obscures the question “What are the social implications?”. Since the answer to “For Whom?” in capitalist society is naturally “For them” (the capitalists), it is rare to find people who ask this question actually in favour of any new technology being introduced now.

20. Typical of this genre is a pamphlet called “Computers vs Journalists who wins?” (40 cents from Box 175, P.O. 367 Collins St Melbourne 3000)

Under the subhead “Problems, Problems, Problems…” we read:

“Sub editors are particularly affected, as the new technology not only means removal of some existing skills, but makes it more difficult to perform many traditional ones. ‘Casting off’, or determining the length of a story, can be done automatically by computer, making redundant a skill acquired over a long period by subs…The skill in writing a headline, which “fits” will be greatly de-valued because the computer can reject those which “bounce” before they are set in type.

Some subs will welcome the job of casting off, or headline counts being made easier, but by transferring the skills involved from men and women to a computer the human component involved in the highly-skilled task of good sub-editing is weakened”.

The appeal here is unmistakably conservative. One can imagine similar warnings about moveable type being addressed to monks in defence of their highly skilled craft copying manuscripts (which was indeed completely destroyed by the new technology).

It has not even occurred to the writer that it might be an advance for a machine to do routine counting operations while the human sub-editor concentrates on the content of the material sub edited. Obviously one should fight for people whose skills have been made obsolete by new technology to be re-trained, re-employed and not to suffer in the slightest. But this preference for human labour when something can be done as well by machine is really quite different, and quite reactionary. It means using people like machines.

The conservatism involved is made quite explicit when the pamphlet quotes approvingly from an agreement between the Swedish Unions of Journalists and Graphic Workers, recommending similar agreements between Australian unions:

“GF and SJF agree that the introduction of the new technology shall not affect the traditional basic principles of a division of labour among the categories of employees concerned. Thus, mechanical production tasks fall to the lot of graphic workers, while journalistic tasks are the domain of the staff members. Special importance must be attached to the workload of the staff, which must not be increased in such a manner that creative journalistic work is made to suffer. Nor may the tasks of graphic workers be made to include functions embracing journalistic work of a creative or decision-making nature”.

This desire to preserve “the traditional principles of a division of labour” against a new technology that tends to break down those divisions can only be called reactionary. Why shouldn’t journalists set their own copy? Why shouldn’t printers’ jobs include work of a creative or decision making nature?

The other side of this coin is attempts to prove that a new technology is deepening the division of labour and therefore should be opposed, when in fact like most new technology the actual effect is to break down that division.

Word processing is a classic example. No serious person could argue that a typewriter with editing and correcting features is in itself worse for humanity than one without these features (although some people have tried). Yet from all the “left” literature on the subject, one would think that the main social impact of word processing under capitalism would be to reduce the status of typist/secretaries to the level of the typing pool, and reinforce the division between “executive” and “clerical” Labor.

Naturally some reactionaries will try to take advantage of any change in work methods to make things worse for the workers by introducing typing pools and what have you. Although it is easier to maintain word counts and so forth with a word processor, there is nothing inherent in the technology that would make it easier for bosses to impose typing pools and other worse conditions on the workers, and in fact they have not been successful in doing so.

While word processors are still new and expensive, there is some tendency to try and achieve maximum utilisation of the machine and so attempt tighter control over the Labor using it (especially since such intensification of labour is feasible in the present economic climate of increasing unemployment). But the inherent trend of the technology is in the opposite direction (as will become clear, when word processing keyboards and VDUs become cheaper than electric typewriters and replace them on a one for one basis – with a separate printer shared between several typists).

The actual impact of word processing has been and will be to reduce the total requirement for typing Labor, especially by eliminating the repetitive typing of similar documents with minor variations (“personalized” form letters with different addresses, revised drafts etc). These are precisely the applications where typing pools have been common, and they are being eliminated, so typing pools must be declining.

The jobs previously done by “secretaries” are now being done by smaller numbers of “administrative assistants” on the one hand, and word processors on the other. This elimination of the Executive’s personal secretary/body slave is a clear-cut upgrading in job status (except for the Executive’s some of whom are complaining) and a break down in the division of Labor. As has already happened with printers and journalists, the next logical step is for all “word originators”, whether “Executives” or not, to do their own typing, since no special manual dexterity is required with the new machines and the difference in wage levels does not “justify” specialisation. These trends will be accelerated, with similar impacts on the Labor presently required for fileing and other clerical work, as communication between word processors on different desks, and direct access to mass data storage is developed. Even for purely “typist” Labor in typing pools, the use of a machine with editing and correcting facilities is a clear upgrade in job function.

People who are afraid to confront bosses with the simple demand that there be no intensification of Labor under cover of the new technology will rationalise this fear by pretending that the new technology, rather than the bosses, are the source of the pressure for Labor intensification. But most workers know how to fight such pressures and have been successful in doing so (although the degree of Success or failure always ultimately depends on the state of the Labor market and the ease of transferring between jobs, hence on the overall economic climate, rather than on the militancy of struggle in individual workplaces).

This awareness that one’s fate is bound up with that of all other workers develops in the proletariat and helps develop its consciousness as a class for itself. It seems to be sadly lacking in many “left” writers about the “Labor process” who picture the class struggle as unfolding in particular workplaces rather than on a national scale, and seem to be under the illusion that workers are tied to their particular employers for life.

21. Leaving aside the overall struggle for a new society, even within capitalism, the natural reaction of socialist toward new Labor saving technology should be to demand its speedy introduction and a share of the benefits. Thus the earlier replacement of handicrafts by machine industry prompted agitation for a shorter working day in the factories, and so should the latest stage in automation promote agitation for a shorter working day.

Instead we have the modern Luddites repeating the mistake of the earlier Luddites who tried to prevent the new machinery replacing handicraft Labor in the.first place. An attempt as futile as it is reactionary.

22. This term “Luddite” is not used here simply as a form of abuse. It is admitted by representatives of this trend themselves, despite the whole history of scientific socialism since the Industrial Revolution. Here is Chris Harmon of the UK Socialist Workers Party in a pamphlet titled “Is a machine after your job? New Technology and the Struggle for Socialism”. (p21)

“… the Luddites were a group of workers suffering from miserably low wages and facing a destruction of their jobs by new working methods. Their attempts to fight back by destroying machines may not have been successful (although they did succeed in holding down a bigger army than the Duke of Wellington had in the same years to fight his war against the French in Spain).

“But the result of their failure was not something good. It was grinding desperate poverty for hundreds of thousands of people, enduring for a whole generation…

“…Our response has to start from the same suspicion of the way the new technology is being used that motivates those who simply say “No”. We are on the same side as the Luddites, not against them .”

The “microprocessor revolution” promises (not “threatens”) to have as big an impact on the labor process as the development of automatic machinery in the earlier industrial revolution. Just as the dexterity of human fingers was for most purposes replaced by machinery, so now some higher functions of control and supervision will also be replaced (although not yet much in the way of actually creative intellectual processes). It is truly amazing that instead of the further development of Marxism, which based itself on a theoretical comprehension of the social consequences of the age of machinery, we should see a revival of earlier and cruder varieties of socialism that have long been discredited in favour of Marxism, by the history of modern society.

Once again, since a critique of Braverman’s romanticism necessarily embraces a critique of modern Luddism, I will leave the matter there. But I should stress that this “theoretical” difference does put me on the opposite side to modern Luddites on strictly practical questions. When they are agitating against the introduction of word processors, I would be agitating for workers to demand their immediate introduction and refuse to operate obsolete typewriters that haven’t got all mod cons.

23. Before turning to Braverman and romanticism, it may be worth pointing out the important differences between the Liberal and Social Democratic defence of modern technology and economic growth on the one hand, and the Marxist view on the other, since so far we have been mainly talking about the similarities.

Both the similarities and differences are made clear in an article on “Technology and the Left” in the CPGB organ Marxism Today of May 1979. Here Ian Benson, a British Labor Party and trade union activist, makes much the same criticisms of “romanticism” and the CPGB’s line (similar to the CPA’s), as would be made by Liberals on the one hand and Marxists on the other.

24. After quoting Lenin’s analysis of the socialisation of Labor, Benson argues:

“From this perspective the simple classification of technology into exploitative and non-exploitative is seen to contribute little either to the raising of the cultural level of mankind or the solution of the political problems of establishing democratic control over the means of production.

The defence of particular skills amounts to an attempt to freeze the existing division of Labor, and defers the satisfaction of material and cultural needs by the rest of the population which would be met by automation. The principled opposition to centralisation on the grounds of the alleged greater democracy of decentralised production, is both contrary to the need for further integration of the world economy as a prerequisite for the breakdown of skill, class and national barriers, and offers nothing to solving the problem of establishing democratic control over the economy as a whole.

A socialist technology policy with these ends must be based on an analysis of the constraints on the development of science as a productive force, “preparing the ground for the dissolution of human alienation”.

This whole approach is so foreign to the romantic outlook that dominates most “left” thinking that people replying cannot even grasp what is being said. Consider this from a reply titled “What Type of Technology do we want” by Dave Elliott in the same issue of Marxism Today:

“…Benson believes that science and technology somehow develop independently from other forces in society. They are “neutral” resources of knowledge and techniques which can be applied either to the benefit of society generally (under socialism) or for the benefit of a few (under capitalism).”

Manifestly Benson does not believe that at all.

He quite clearly treats technology as a positive force which pushes society forward and helps transform it from capitalism to socialism. This is a view common to Social Democrats and Marxists. But it is so unthinkable to romantics that the worst accusation they can fling at the pro-technology camp is that we view technology as merely neutral, which we do not!

I have seen numerous articles loftily criticising the “old fashioned”, “economic determinist” and “simplistic” view that technology is neutral and that a socialist society could simply take over the previous technology and apply it to more humane ends. This “neutral” view is often attributed to Engels, Lenin and Stalin although Marx and Mao are often claimed to have been more sympathetic to the romantic school. But I have hardly seen any material directly confronting the “unthinkable” explicitly pro-technology view which was in fact articulated loud and clear by Marx as well as the rest.

What this “criticism” proves is simply that the critics are quite ignorant of the views of their opponents, let alone being in a position to advance on those views from a more comprehensive understanding.

It is rather like accusing atheists of the Protestant heresy because we will not pray to the virgin Mary, when in fact the problem is even more serious!

26. The differences between the Marxist and Social Democratic approaches to the social implications of modern technology are made clear when Ian Benson proceeds “Towards a Socialist Technology Policy”: “It should call for the removal of all barriers to the full development of science and technology in the interests of society, through a programme of radical institutional, scientific and political reforms.”

Benson then outlines a program of reforms to promote “re-skilling,”Democratic Control”, “Social Ownership”, “Development of Science” and “Socially Useful Production” – all with the aim of “liberation of science”.

What this omits is precisely the Marxist concept that the main “institutional” barrier to the full development of science and technology in the interest of society, is the capitalist mode of production based on commodities and wage labour itself. This has been obsolete since the age of electricity (never mind micro-electronics) and needs to be swept away by revolution (not reform).

Social Democrats share with Marxists the fundamental concept that the development of the productive forces, modern technology and economic growth, is the positive dynamic factor which pushes forward the transformation of social relationships. But they stand this conclusion on its head by calling for reforms to push forward new technology and economic growth (which are dynamic and pushing forward spontaneously anyway), instead of concentrating on the obsolete social relations which are the passive factor that has been left behind and is acting as a brake on further progress. In fact in an era such as this, where the social relations are obsolete, it is precisely by social revolution that the productive forces can be unleashed for further and more rapid development (and in the act of social revolution, the relations of production temporarily assume the role of the most active dynamic factor).

Although the terms “productive forces” and “relations of production” have been turned into an almost meaningless cliche, once grasped, the concept is almost tautologous in its simplicity.

27. Economic growth, and especially technical progress, is essentially cumulative. New developments, even if quite useless, or only capable of being used in a harmful way, always add to the range of possibilities open and never shut off possibilities that were open before. We still spend most of our waking hours “Making a living” and our social relationships are formed in the course of doing so. It is hardly surprising that the continous opening up of new ways of making a living should continuously leave behind and render obsolete the old social relationships founded on the basis of obsolete ways of making a living.

28. The whole point about the productive forces being the active dynamic factor, is that they have an in-built tendency to develop spontaneously, which the relations between people do not.

Whenever an enterprise improves its production technique, or an individual worker improves his or her lot (eg. by obtaining a more responsible position), there is a development of the productive forces. But it is not automatically accompanied by any corresponding change in social relations. Under capitalism such developments are proceeding spontaneously all the time, indeed they are a necessary condition for the expansion of markets and the possibility of re-investing surplus value in the expanded reproduction.

29. The social relations of production can get left behind as the productive forces develop, so that today for example, we still have essentially capitalist relations between people, based on commodity exchange and wage labour, which were appropriate to the petty production of the middle ages but are no longer compatible with large scale machine industry (let alone being compatible with the latest developments).

30. Just as the institutions of slavery and serfdom once held back the further development of the productive forces and had to give way against the slave and surf revolts, so the institution of wage labour is now holding things back and giving rise to revolts. Eg. apart from the obvious contradictions between capitalism and economic growth expressed in business crises, there is the day to day stifling of the enormous creative energies of the workers themselves, which could be unleashed in a system where they had an interest as masters of production, instead of a direct interest in sabotaging it and “conserving” their jobs. Then scientific and technical innovation would not only be unhindered by mass unemployment and crises, but would be the conscious activity of the majority instead of the province of “management control”.

31. It follows from this analysis that the critical task facing society is to smash the obsolete social relations as the only way to liberate the productive forces or “liberate science” as Benson puts it.

32. Quite politically conservative people like businessmen or revisionist party bureaucrats can contribute to social progress by developing the productive forces, but only revolutionaries can tackle the central issue of overturning the obsolete social relations.

33. Therefore in every society in transition from capitalism to communism, whether a capitalist society like Australia or post-Mao China, with the bourgeoisie in power, or a socialist society like Mao’s China, the central political issues are often expressed in terms of whether to focus on developing the productive forces or on transforming the relations of production

34. The representatives of the old capitalist relations, the bourgeoisie, the conservatives, whether they be “businessmen” or “party officials” share much the same rhetoric in calling for “hard work” to “make more cake” and in dismissing the workers struggle to transform social relations as an interference in that process. It is interesting to note how Ian Benson appeals to both the Czechoslovak Communist Party Program of Dubcek’s time, and the “four modernisations” stuff coming out of China today, in support of his views. The only difference between Social Democrats and Liberals in this regard is that Social Democrats place greater stress on making necessary concessions to the workers: “share the cake more equally and don’t waste it”.

35. In opposition to the Malcolm Fraser’s and Hua Kuo-feng’s, the representatives of the new communist relations of production the proletariat, the radicals, raise the question of “all power to the cooks”. This (after a certain amount of cake-mix spoiling due to confusion among the cooks), is the only way to really transform cake production.

36. Unfortunately the Marxist analysis of forces and relations of production can only be grasped by the majority in communist society where the majority of humanity are consciously engaged in changing themselves. If it was the dominant view, even among the “left”, and did not have to continuously fend off assaults from reaction, Luddism, romanticism and Social Democracy, then we would have already have had the revolution.

* * * *

Technocratic priesthood, Centralisation, Unemployment : Part 3 of ‘Outline on technology and progress’ – a Marxist view (Written by Albert Langer in October 1979)

“… in its most absurd form, we even get complaints about the large scale and “centralisation” of the means of production themselves, and not of their ownership. Thus in arguments about nuclear power, we are told to beware of oppression by the controllers of big, centralised power stations. Apparently the theory is that if all power comes from a central source we have less control over our destiny than if we have smaller, local power stations. Taken to an extreme, some people are mad keen on windmills, solar panels, methane generators etc and hope to combine these with vegetable plots, mud brick construction and what have you to create a life style in which one can escape the clutches of capitalism as completely as possible by avoiding all buying and selling and isolating oneself from the market economy. While I have no objection to other people tinkering with such things if they really want to, personally I prefer being able to obtain electric power at the flick of a switch and without tinkering with anything. This does not “alienate” me in the slightest and I am quite sure most people feel exactly the same way”.

* * * *

14. f) Technocratic Priesthood

The very term “priesthood” evokes images of barbaric societies in which the mass of the population were ignorant of natural phenomena and paid homage to a minority elite who were sufficiently literate to be able to pass on knowledge about the seasons, tides and other matters essential to production as well as culture.

To believe that such a priesthood rules society today, requires considerable imagination. It is perfectly obvious that power in our society is held by capitalists and stems from their wealth and not from any monopoly of technical knowledge. In the more backward capitalist countries like the Soviet Union and China, one might confuse the ruling Party bourgeoisie with a priesthood because of superficial resemblances in forms of organisation and alleged service to a “Marxist-Leninist” religion. This may have something to do with the survival of more backward semi-feudal relationships. But there is clearly nothing “technocratic” about it and the interrelationship between wealth and power and the role of managers and bureaucrats is quite similar to more advanced Western capitalist countries.

Scientists and engineers are employed by the ruling class and work for wages like the rest of us. They too have no monopoly on technical information, which is widely diffused among the literate population and can be readily acquired in libraries and even newsagents. The mythology about a “technocratic priesthood” is most widespread among liberal arts graduates who have gone through school and university doing only “humanities” courses and have thus been denied the basic technical education which is acquired by most school and University students in our society.

There is no excuse for this one-sidedness however, since any literate person can pick up the fundamentals of modern technology by just browsing through the “How and Why” type of children’s’ encyclopaedias readily available in every newsagent.

Nuclear power is held up most often as an industry where the dangers of a “technocratic priesthood” are greatest. In fact it is the most publicly regulated industry with the least initiative in the hands of technocrats. The whole technology down to blueprints and detailed engineering reports is completely in the public domain and there is no mystery about it whatever.

The average worker today has far more grasp of basic industrial technology, and is given a far more “theoretical” education than in earlier times. If some liberal arts graduates feel left behind and overawed by modern technology, they would do better to learn something about it than to continue writing speculative nonsense about a “technocratic priesthood”.

15. g) Centralisation

Socialists have always welcomed the centralisation of capital as a progressive development paving the way for Communism. In everyday practical terms, most people understand that the big multi-nationals have more “enlightened” management, produce better products and pay better wages than the smaller “sweatshops”, that supermarkets are a better place to do one’s shopping, that family farms are on the way out and so forth.

But many “radicals” actually stake their hopes on retarding monopolisation, propping up the small businessmen, shopkeepers and farmers against the multi-nationals and so on.

Fundamentally the complaints about “centralisation” reflect an awareness that wealth and power in our society is concentrated in the hands of a very tiny elite, but with a conservative reaction to try to turn the clock back, instead of pushing forward to socialism and communism.

But in its most absurd form, we even get complaints about the large scale and “centralisation” of the means of production themselves, and not of their ownership. Thus in arguments about nuclear power, we are told to beware of oppression by the controllers of big, centralised power stations. Apparently the theory is that if all power comes from a central source we have less control over our destiny than if we have smaller, local power stations. Taken to an extreme, some people are mad keen on windmills, solar panels, methane generators etc and hope to combine these with vegetable plots, mud brick construction and what have you to create a life style in which one can escape the clutches of capitalism as completely as possible by avoiding all buying and selling and isolating oneself from the market economy.

While I have no objection to other people tinkering with such things if they really want to, personally I prefer being able to obtain electric power at the flick of a switch and without tinkering with anything. This does not “alienate” me in the slightest and I am quite sure most people feel exactly the same way. We have simply never felt oppressed by power stations (except by the bills which are of course much lower than they would be with less centralisation).

It is difficult to even imagine how centralisation of power stations could be used as an instrument of oppression. Is it suggested that in a crisis the embattled bourgeoisie might take refuge in the power station and threaten to turn it off if we didn’t return to wage slavery? On the contrary, they seem concerned to ensure that “essential services” are not disrupted during major strikes. In any case the electricity grid that links power stations in every industrialised country is about as “decentralised” as one could ask.

It is hard to imagine a more direct reversal of traditional socialist attitudes towards the implications of large scale industry. The point is not to refute this wooly thinking about “centralisation” but to ask what process of mental atrophy could produce such patent nonsense, repeated so often with such authority?

The only answer I can see is that the extinction of Marxism by revisionism during the period of capitalist re-stabilisation has been so complete that most “radicals” have never even heard of Marxist views and have had to re-discover for themselves all the pre-Marxian socialist theories. (This certainly seems to have been the case with the “New Left” that grew up in the middle sixties, even when Marxist phrases were used.)

16. h) Unemployment

It is a well known proposition of Marxism that as capitalism develops with an increasing organic composition of capital, the size of the industrial reserve army increases and this is particularly manifested in mass unemployment during crises.

The obvious conclusion is that capitalism should be abolished so that people are not “employed by” capital but instead “employ” means of production to satisfy their own requirements.

Instead we have extraordinary proposals from “radicals” to freeze technological development, or at least control and retard it, so as to “safeguard jobs”. The whole trend of most “left” analysis of technology and unemployment involves an acceptance of capitalist irrationality as permanent, and a willingness to restrict the growth in productive forces and therefore living standards so as to adapt them to this irrational economic system (without mass unemployment).

Surely the most elementary socialist consciousness would involve welcoming Labor saving technology and demanding its speediest and widest adoption. If the social and economic system can’t cope then that’s its problem! It is very strange to see “socialists” arguing that since capitalism can’t cope with new technology without unemployment, we should keep the capitalism, but do without the technology. Yet that is exactly what is implied when people complain about Labor saving technology. They are even prepared to put up with having to work longer hours to produce fewer goods, just as long as they can keep their precious capitalism!

Ricardian economics long ago accepted that the introduction of new technology can be against the real immediate interests of workers who lose their jobs because of it. But its a long way from there to adopting a program that tries to inhibit new technology. In fact it has always been when technological change is most rapid that the scope for expanded capital accumulation is greatest and new jobs are created soaking up the reserve army and raising wages. Stagnation simply means a larger and larger reserve army.

Actually most remarks about technology are prefaced by a reference to “the current economic climate”. This reflects awareness that technological change and the accompanying destruction and creation of jobs is a permanent factor of capitalism, both when there is “full employment” and when there is mass unemployment.

Obviously the fact that mass unemployment suddenly started to develop throughout the Western world a few years ago cannot be attributed to any equally sudden change in technology and must be attributed to the particular stage in the capitalist business cycle that was reached then. So why do people persist in blaming a process of technological change that has been going on all the time?

It can only be because they don’t want to face up to the implications of capitalism as the source of our problems. Its easier to fight “the machines” than “the bosses”, or at any rate it’s more respectable to do so.

Final installment next time… Reviewing the major “radical” trends and their attitudes…

‘Outline on technology and progress’ – a Marxist view* (Written by Albert Langer in October 1979) Part One: Introduction – Marxism, eco-catastrophe and environmental degradation

The major trends among Western “radicals” on issues concerning technology and progress can be summarised as follows:

a) Outright opposition to modern technology and nostalgia for the past, summed up in the slogan “Small is Beautiful”.

b) Acceptance of modern technology if society was socialist, but Luddite hostility towards it in capitalist society, summed up in the slogan “For Whom”.

c) Acceptance of modern technology in present day capitalist society but a rejection of the social relations that have developed together with it and a romantic “nostalgia for an age that has not yet come into being”, where the dignity of craft skills will prevail.

* * * *

The following outline for an article is unfinished, incomplete, out of sequence and lopsided in emphasis. A major section or companion article on Braverman’s “Labor and Monopoly Capital” has not been prepared yet.

1. Objections to the trend of modern technology and economic growth may be summarised under the following headings:

a) Eco-catastrophe

b) Environmental degradation

c) Limits on Growth

d) Third World Dependency

e) Wasteful Consumption

f) Technocratic Priesthood

g) Centralisation

h) Unemployment

i) Commercialisation and rat race

j) Degradation and Deskilling of Labor

2. These themes are all part of the very fabric of “left wing” and “radical” thinking in Western countries. Reference to them, often in a glib and trendy way, has become a trade mark to distinguish “them” (“the establishment”) from “us” (“the radicals”). Rejection of these themes is generally considered heretical and a sign of impending desertion to the other side.

3. Nevertheless, Third World revolutionaries actually engaged in armed struggle against imperialism, the classic founders of scientific socialism and the leadership of socialist countries have never stressed these themes in the same way. This paper will challenge the widespread assumption that emphasis on these themes reflects a more “advanced” conception than other “simplistic” views, and will show that a polemic against opinions that are now most fashionable among the “left” was a central feature of the development of scientific socialism (by which I mean “orthodox” Marxism, or Marxism-Leninism).

4. This paper has nothing new or startling to say but will simply try to raise the banner of a position of whose existence most “radicals” seem quite unaware, without undertaking a comprehensive defence of that position. Since in surveying the literature I couldn’t find a single article advocating the position I hold, and which I understand to have always been the “orthodox” Marxist view on these questions, I felt obliged to write one myself. Any assistance from readers who can point me to relevant material would be most appreciated.

5. The major trends among Western “radicals” on issues concerning technology and progress can be summarised as follows:

a) Outright opposition to modern technology and nostalgia for the past, summed up in the slogan “Small is Beautiful”.

b) Acceptance of modern technology if society was socialist, but Luddite hostility towards it in capitalist society, summed up in the slogan “For Whom”.

c) Acceptance of modern technology in present day capitalist society but a rejection of the social relations that have developed together with it and a romantic “nostalgia for an age that has not yet come into being”, where the dignity of craft skills will prevail.

The dominant view is of course an eclectic mixture of all three, sometimes even combined with views taken from the pro-technology, pro-growth camp.

6. In the camp which rejects the main objections to economic growth and modern technology listed above, and which criticises the reactionary, Luddite and romantic assaults on modern society, the dominant trend is straight forward bourgeois complacency or Liberalism, which explains the unpopularity of pro-technology, pro-growth views among the “left”.

Closely allied to Liberalism, and subordinate to it, is a Social Democratic trend which dresses up much the same analysis of society with a few Marxist phrases about promoting the revolutionisation of society by developing the productive forces. This has more support than Liberalism within the “left” because it is more critical of modern society and therefore closer to the anti-technology, anti-growth camp on issues unrelated to technology and economic growth.

The dominant ideology in such allegedly “socialist” countries as the Soviet Union, post-Mao China, and Albania, reflects a mixture of Liberal and Social Democratic attitudes and therefore adds to the unpopularity of pro-technology, pro-growth views within the “left”.

7. But also in the pro-technology, pro-growth camp, is a quite different position, which I would call the “orthodox” Marxist, Marxist-Leninist, or scientific socialist view. This fundamentally agrees with the Liberal and Social Democratic trends in opposing reaction, Luddism and romanticism (as Lenin agreed with Struve and the “legal Marxists” in fighting Narodnism in Russia). But it fundamentally breaks with these trends in its analysis of the revolutionary implications of modern technology and economic growth. While joining with the anti-technology, anti-growth camp in rejecting modern society, this rejection is positive in contrasting the present with the future and not negative in trying to retard the further development of modern capitalist society.

The views of this trend will be found in various works by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong, many of which are explicit polemics against romanticism etc.

8. Let’s review the various anti-technology, anti-growth themes one by one. The first eight, which tend to attack modern technology and economic growth as things in themselves, will be dealt with rather quickly. The last two, concerning Commercialisation and the Rat Race, and the Degradation and Deskilling of Labor raise more serious issues about capitalist social relations, and will be dealt with more fully when analysing romanticism and commenting on Harry Braverman’s “Labor and Monopoly Capital”.

9. a) Eco-catastrophe

Various scenarios for the catastrophic destruction of humanity if present trends continue have been put forward by the more extremist opponents of modern technology and economic growth. These range from the “population explosion” to the long term effects of heat pollution, carbon dioxide or the break up of the ozone layer. Although in one sense a “lunatic fringe”, these ideas do have some real influence within the “left” and people often fall back on them (without necessarily knowing any of the details) when otherwise stuck for arguments.

Detailed refutation of the various theories is not appropriate here. But it’s worth noting that some people actually want their disaster theories to be true because they want there to be some barrier to the further development of industrialisation. Feelings of “doom” are widespread because the present social system is in fact doomed, but instead of correctly identifying exactly what is doomed, people tend to transfer their feeling to anything convenient. Catastrophe theories are not being put forward by scientists who believe in technical progress and economic growth and are worried because they have come across some phenomena that might threaten this. These theories are put forward by people (whether scientists or not), who already want there to be a barrier and go out looking for it.

They do not understand Marx’s proposition that “the only barrier to capital is capital itself” and they look for some external obstacle to the further development of capitalism, lying outside capitalist society itself.

There is even a kind of “eco-fascism” with ideas and solutions remarkably similar to those of fascists in the 1930s, particularly in regard to population control.

10. b) Environmental degradation.

This theme is also taken up by people who want there to be some external barrier to the further development of capitalism. It is really only relevant to the technology and growth debate insofar as some catastrophe is predicted. Insofar as one is talking about incidental environmental degradation, the classic answer given by Liberals cannot be refuted:

“It is easier to modernise plant and equipment (e.g. to incorporate pollution control mechanisms) and to engineer structural readjustments to the changing pattern of economic activity in a growth context than otherwise. More fundamentally, economic growth implies that the stock of resources (including technology) which the community has at its disposal is continually expanding… Nowadays we have the opportunity that comes with growth to opt for a more pleasing environment. If that opportunity occurs in an expanding economy, opting for it need not involve an absolute reduction in presently enjoyed standards in other respects. In short, ‘growth’ entails a positive contribution to pollution control in a way which a ‘stationary state’ cannot…

…If pollution control standards are set to high that the costs of control clearly exceed the resulting benefits, resources will be wastefully diverted from other purposes – including perhaps other forms of environmental improvement. Moreover, it is already apparent – with the technology of pollution control only beginning to develop – that even modest expenditure can have large effects in reducing pollution.

In summary the damage from environmental pollution in a large and growing economy with effective pollution control standards certainly need be no greater and in practice is likely to be far less than the damage in a small and slower growing economy operating in the same area without effective pollution control measures. The quality of the environment can be improved much more – and more quickly – by measures to counter pollution than by steps to contain economic growth. It is doubtful in any case whether action of the latter kind will be deliberately attempted, and if it were, and the improvement in living standards were slowed down as a result, the resistance to applying resources to control pollution would be so much the greater.” (Treasury Economic Paper No 2 “Economic Growth: Is it worth having?” June 1973, AGPS Canberra, p19 and p21)

Even leaving aside the difference between capitalist and socialist attitudes to the environment, it is clear that industrialisation has markedly improved the environment compared with pre-industrial societies. Not only was the life of the “noble savage” something “nasty, brutish and short” but even in feudal times the environment can be summarised in this jingle:

In days of old, when knights were bold,

and lavatories weren’t invented;

People laid their loads, beside the roads,

and went away contented.

Even the aristocrats, let alone the “solid yeomen” of pre-industrial society literally stank – and not only in the towns where the streets were used as sewers. Forests were denuded and dustbowls and deserts created, before modern agriculture began to reverse this process.

Over the last decade in particular (as a result of pressure from people concerned about the environment) we have seen a clear and definite improvement in environmental protection. The increasing concern with pollution controls today precisely reflects the fact that as industrialisation proceeds, higher standards not only become necessary but also possible and are demanded.

(* ‘A Marxist view’ does not appear in the title of the original 1979 article but I think it is important to state from the outset that that is what it represents – C21styork )

To be continued… next instalment, Part 2 – Limits to growth, Third World Dependency and Consumerism…

TECHNOLOGICAL UNEMPLOYMENT (Part 4 of ‘Unemployment and Revolution’, written by Albert Langer in 1981)

4. TECHNOLOGICAL UNEMPLOYMENT

– Is It Technological?

– “Controlling” Technology

One reason unemployment can increase is because of sudden technological changes effecting a substantial sector of the economy. We will look at that first, and then consider the other major reason – “overproduction”. Most new technology tends to be developed “ahead of its time”. It will gradually come into use in the way described above, as economic conditions ripen. But if a new invention is economic to make use of at existing wage and profit rates, then it will not have to wait for more capital accumulation before being introduced. Instead of gradually displacing the old technique as conditions change, there will be a sudden scrapping of old methods in favour of the new ones.

This process may be “controlled” by monopolies with heavy capital investments in obsolete technology. They may obstruct the process and then later “discover” patents they have been sitting on for years, when it suits their investment plans. However this presumably is not the sort of “control” on technology that anybody would admit to advocating.

Generally the “structural adjustment” required by a sudden change in technique will only require a rearrangement of ongoing capital investment between other industries and the one that is changing.

If a new technique actually requires more capital to be invested in the changing industry, and less labour, then there will be a net diversion of investment from other industries. But at the same time, there can still be enough investment in the rest of the economy to absorb the displaced labour. That investment will continue using more labour intensive techniques, since the labour is available for it to do so. Productivity will grow more rapidly in the industry that is changing, and more slowly in other industries.

But if sectors involving a substantial part of the labour force are affected simultaneously, there may be more jobs being destroyed by the new techniques than are capable of being generated by the current amount of new investment.

If jobs are being destroyed faster than the economy as a whole is expanding, there will be increased unemployment until capital accumulation catches up.

The same general principles apply to other “structural adjustments” due to changes in demand. The shift from manufacturing to mining in Australia would be an example and this can also be considered as “technological change”.

There has been no reduction in the volume of manufactured goods in Australia – just higher labour productivity requiring fewer workers to produce them.

One point however, is that the capital previously directly and indirectly employing the workers who have been made redundant, will itself be freed by any changeover.

This capital is immediately available to increase the rate of expansion of the economy and employ additional workers in other sectors. That may not be much compensation for individual workers who have been thrown out of work eitherpermanently or temporarily.- but it does mean there should be no long delay waiting for capital accumulation to catch up. Because of this point, “technological unemployment” should not be a major problem in a modern capitalist economy. “Manpower planning” and “structural adjustment” should ensure that labour is rapidly re-trained, and capital rapidly redeployed, with far less upheaval than in the days of “laissez-faire”.

This has in fact been the experience during the post-war boom which involved very rapid technological change and structural adjustment. An enormous displacement of labour from manufacturing and primary industry to tertiary sectors took place in every advanced capitalist economy, without producing mass unemployment.

By comparison the “resources boom” shift from manufacturing to mining is quite minor. However it is is more noticeable because it is happening at a time when demand for labour is slack and unemployment is high. This does not mean it is a cause of unemployment. Obviously it is not because although unemployment is growing worldwide, the “resources boom” is local to Australia.

However since the resources boom is happening here and now, and there is unemployment here and now, it does provide something for people to waffle on about instead of analysing the capitalist system seriously.

Is it Technological?

The above suggests very strongly that the current high levels of unemployment is not “technological unemployment”. If it was, then one should be able to point to the specific new techniques that are rapidly displacing labour in particular sectors of the economy, and then discuss measures to cope with that.

There is a great deal of speculation about the future impact of microprocessors and so on, but no evidence that they are the cause of the sudden jump in unemployment which occurred simultaneously throughout the western world from the early 1970’s. It is quite clear that whatever changed then was in the “state of the economy” rather than in the field of technology.

Capitalism has not implemented microprocessors and other labour saving devices nearly as fast as would be possible, and it may be that when the barriers are finally broken down, there will be some technological employment, as a result. There will certainly be a devaluing of existing investments, which is what is obstructing things at present.

But so far microprocessors have been introduced at a snail’s pace compared with their potential and their introduction could not possibly be the cause of the rising unemployment we are currently experiencing.

Of course new technology is continuously destroying jobs. That is the whole point of it – finding ways to do things with less human effort. But this has been going on for centuries and cannot be the explanation for recurring sudden increases in unemployment.

Since the end of the second world war, technological change has been extremely rapid. The steady growth in GNP and real wages would not have been possible without it, since increased real output per person necessarily implies labour saving technological change. It seems though that the sudden increase in unemployment in the early 1970’s, has sparked off renewed concern about technological change.

Certainly there was no sudden acceleration of technological change around that time which could be responsible for the heightened interest. What has changed is that the workers made redundant by greater productivity are not being re-employed by new investment.

There has been a slackening in investment rather than an acceleration in productivity and technology. (As a matter of fact the rate of productivity improvement has actually been declining – for reasons explained later. A minimum requirement for “technological” unemployment would be accelerating productivity growth).

Apparently people do not notice how rapidly technology is changing when there is no unemployment, but their attention is attracted by unemployment. It is far easier to waffle on about technology than to face up to the need for an entirely new social system.

If there had been a sudden acceleration of technological change in the early 1970’s, there is no reason to suppose that it would not have simply meant even faster growth rates with very little unemployment, as occurred in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Indeed, since it is new technology that provides a market for expanded reproduction, we could say that technological change has not been rapid enough for new investment to provide jobs.

“Controlling” Technology

It follows of course that we cannot reduce unemployment by measures to restrict or “control” technological change. The unemployment that is causing concern just is not “technological” to start with. As will be shown later, the unemployment we are worried about is “cyclical”, and due to “overproduction”.

But even if there was a situation of “technological unemployment”, the appropriate response would be to insist on using the benefits of improved technology for shorter hours, higher living standards, re-training of workers made redundant, and faster social progress generally.
This would be the logical result of labour saving technology in a socialist society.

Capitalism has been able to partly deliver those results in the past, and if it is no longer able to do so, this is an argument for socialism. It is certainly not an argument for “controlling” human progress to suit the pace allowed by capitalism!

What prevents the use of technological progress for social progress now, is not some acceleration in the rate of technological progress, but rather a jamming up of the economic machinery of the capitalist market economy.

There is no reason to suppose that the machinery could be unjammed by slowing down technological progress. Only extreme reactionaries (eg most of what passes for the “left” in Australia), would want to try. On the contrary, slowing down technological progress would just put another spanner in the works.

It would further restrict the expansion of markets desperately needed to unjam the machinery.
Some people say they support technological progress in general, but do not know what else to do but oppose it when there is an immediate threat to peoples’ livelihoods. The short answer is that people are not on the dole because “a machine has taken their job”. They are on the dole because for some reason capital is not being invested to employ them.

Even in a particular work place situation with redundancies, the appropriate demands are for new jobs, not some way to hang on to the old ones that we just do not need doing any more. The result of the latter strategy would be gradually deteriorating conditions for everyone since the redundant employees really have no bargaining power in the long run.

Most jobs are not “lost” through direct retrenchments. Fighting retrenchments, while sometimes necessary, cannot directly involve many unemployed workers, such as school leavers, who have never been made redundant. A lot of the carry on about technology is just reactionary drivel which effectively distracts attention from the real workings of the capitalist market economy.

Even worse is the stuff coming out of the “left” about “deskilling”, destruction of “craftsmanship” and so forth. According to these ideas, people’s jobs are getting more and more menial. If this was really true it would imply that the working class will become so degraded as to become incapable of ever taking power.

The truth is that we are starting to notice how menial our jobs are because we are becoming more intelligent and capable of running things ourselves. Most jobs now require more intelligence than before, and this situation is creating more intelligent workers who are beginning to understand how ridiculous it is to go on doing them for bosses.

The modern proletariat is a class specifically created by modern industry with its requirement for rapid changing of jobs and skills. Continuous technological change has produced a working class more educated, skilled and flexible than ever before in history. Our perspective should be able to look forward to the proletariat taking command of modern industry and not to look backward to some “good old days” when things were much worse and people were much less clever that they are nowadays. Communism will not restore craft labour.

Some people are explicitly opposed to any new technology that saves labour, even if the present staff of an establishment is fully protected and agrees to the change. They put forward the slogan “its not our job to sell”. Meaning that jobs need to be preserved for school leavers and so on.

This slogan is based on the idea that the working class is still involved in some sort of guild system, passing on fixed “jobs” from one generation to the next. The plain fact is that things have not been like that since the middle ages.

There are very few jobs in Australia that are the same as in our parents’ time, and there will be very few that will be the same for our children. Workers improve their position within capitalism by changing their jobs, not by “preserving” them. The proletariat is a revolutionary class, not a conservative one.

If it cannot improve its lot within the existing society then it will overturn that society, not fight to stop it developing. Those who want to fight to “preserve jobs” at the expense of social development should call themselves “reactionaries” because that is the correct dictionary term for their philosophy.

They have no right to call themselves “progressives”, let alone “socialists”. If they had their way with “preserving jobs” we definitely would be still in the middle ages. Reactionaries want to “control” technology because they sense that it is making the existing social relations obsolete. Progressives want to “unleash” technology, and for the very same reason.

(Next instalment: ‘Cyclical’ unemployment)

Unemployment and Revolution (Part 3): What regulates unemployment? (written by Albert Langer in 1981)

Part 3: What regulates unemployment?

– What Do the Unemployed Actually Do?

– How Unemployment Regulates Wages

– Booms and Busts

– Wages and Class Struggle

– Union Solidarity

– Arbitration and Wage Indexation

– Capital Accumulation

– Technological Change

– Job Creation and Destruction

Somehow, the size of the pool of unemployed itself must regulate the rates of job creation and destruction. Otherwise the number of unemployed would fluctuate wildly all the time. We shall find out later how the regulation works normally, and why it is not working now. But we already know that unemployment must be some sort of regulator. The larger the pool of unemployment, the more jobs must get created and the less must get destroyed. Otherwise we cannot account for the usual balance eventually reached between these two quite independent rates.

Moreover, we know the mechanism usually tends to reach a balance with only a relatively small pool of unemployed. Therefore the mechanism must continue increasing the rate of job creation and/or reducing the rate of job destruction, as long as there is a certain amount of unemployment. It does not usually stop working with half the workforce still unemployed, just because unemployment is not still increasing.

Finally, we know that whatever this mechanism is, it does not always work. Right now, a small pool of unemployment is not balancing the rates of job creation and destruction. We await each month’s statistics with bated breath to find out whether unemployment has risen or fallen, and we usually find that it has risen. We know that periodically capitalism goes through major upheavals called economic crises, in which a large part of the labour force does get left unemployed for a long period. Our explanation of the balancing mechanism must account for that too.

Whatever the mechanism may turn out to be, we know that as long as it still is not working normally, no amount of artificial “job creation” can prevent the continuing mismatch between normal job creation and destruction from quickly recreating a large pool of unemployed. The only effective remedy for unemployment must be one that gets this balancing mechanism to work again. On this point we can agree with conservative economists. But what is the mechanism, why is it not working normally, and how can it be made to work again?

According to conservative economists the mechanism is simply that increased unemployment tends to pull down wages until it is profitable for capitalists to employ more workers. They conclude that the remedy is push down wages and increase profitability until the unemployment is absorbed.

That sounds quite plausible. If it is true, communists have no reason to deny it. We never claimed that capitalism could permanently maintain full employment without periodically pushing down wages to boost profits. Our answer would simply be that we do not feel like pushing down wages and boosting profits, thank you very much. We would prefer to abolish wages and profits and establish communism.

But a mystery remains as to why the mechanism should not be working, and why the remedy does not seem to work either! To resolve that mystery we shall first have to examine how unemployment regulates wages, and then how wages regulate employment and unemployment. We shall find that there is indeed a close connection between unemployment and wages, and between wages and job creation. But it is not as simple as the conservatives make out, it mainly works in one direction, and it does not work all the time. Most important, we shall find that we can not increase employment simply by pushing down wages. First let’s look at what the unemployed actually do to see how unemployment can regulate wages.

What Do the Unemployed Actually Do?

Under normal circumstances most of the unemployed are not just a stagnant “pool” but an active part of the “stream” moving from one job to another. They form a part of the stream that is temporarily banked up looking for outlets. They are an active part of the stream because they spend their time looking for jobs, not just rotting.

Unemployment is normally a period between jobs rather than a permanent status. When there was “full employment”, half the unemployed at any given time got jobs within four weeks. By 1978 more than a quarter had been waiting for over six months and another quarter for over three months. In a sense, one can measure how “normal” unemployment is, by its average duration, more than by the total numbers involved. It really is not a big problem if the economy is so dynamic that large numbers of people are changing their jobs each year, and they are spending a couple of weeks unemployed between each job. But it is very different when there are actually less people changing jobs than usual, but they are spending a longer time looking.

When unemployment increases slightly, it usually means that people moving from one job to another, or from school to work and so on, have to spend a longer time looking. But it does not immediately mean that a larger number of people are outside the labour force altogether.

Of course some unemployed workers do end up outside the labour force altogether, and even become permanently unemployable as a result of demoralisation. The larger the pool of unemployment, the larger the section of it that ends up stagnating instead of flowing back into employment, and the more peoples’ lives are ruined in this way.

Increasingly the unemployment we have got is taking on the features of a stagnant pool, rather than a flowing stream. This is compounded by the sharp reduction in normal labour turnover as people are reluctant to leave their old jobs unless they have new ones lined up. This stagnant unemployment is a different thing altogether from the “normal” unemployment that somehow regulates the rates of job creation and destruction. Nevertheless, we must first understand how “normal” unemployment does regulate these rates, before we can understand why the new unemployment does not.

The important thing about normal unemployment is that a larger part of the labour force is spending more time looking for work, and not that a section of the population has ceased to be part of the labour force. Hence the concept that the unemployed form a “reserve army of labour” that plays an active role in capitalist production, just as reserve armies play a vital role, and are not simply “inactive” in military battles. Some soldiers are in battle, and others are available to be deployed where required. Some workers work, and others are available to work where they are required. Both those in active service and those in reserve are necessary for things to go smoothly.

An important difference is that reserve armies of soldiers are deployed where their officers decide they are needed. With conscious military planning, reserves can be kept to a minimum and troops transferred directly from one front to another as required. Unemployed workers have no officers and are expected to find their own jobs. (Although there is now a fair bit of “manpower planning” and so forth).

The economic function of the unemployed is to look for work. Those that do not are no longer “unemployed”, but are “not in the labour force”. Those that do will normally find a job eventually. Their place in the unemployment pool may then be taken by someone else looking for employment. How long it takes, and what proportion miss out entirely, depends on the level of unemployment. But the unemployed individuals economic function does not change, their basic situation does not depend on the level of unemployment.

It is important to realise this when attempting to organise the unemployed. One reason they are very difficult to organise is that even now, most of them are not permanently unemployed – and the ones with enough initiative to get organised are also likely to get jobs quicker than average. On the other hand those that do become permanently unemployed can end up getting demoralised and dropping out of the labour force so they are no longer “unemployed” either, and are pretty hard to get involved in anything.

Let’s face it, unless things are really desperate, an individual unemployed worker can get more immediate benefit out of looking harder for a job than out of agitating against the government. The harder you look, the more chance you have of eventually getting to the front of the queue leading back into employment.

How Unemployment Regulates Wages

By looking for work, the unemployed play a vital role in the labour market. Their number determines the ease with which employers can recruit labour for expansion or replacement. That recruitment is going on all the time, even when there is a net reduction in the total number of jobs. There are always vacancies as well as people unemployed (and isolated examples of unfilled vacancies are always pointed to even though there are many times as many people looking for work as there are jobs available). The proportion of unemployed workers to job vacancies determines the average speed with which vacancies can be filled, just as it determines the average length of unemployment.

If vacancies cannot be filled fast enough any other way, then employers will bid up the price of labour by competing with each other to fill their vacancies. As in any other commodity market, this will continue until the supply of labour increases to fill the vacancies, or until the demand for labour has fallen (more likely, since the size of the labour force is relatively inflexible). The demand for labour will fall when the price has been bid up high enough, because investments that would have required more labour will cease to be profitable at the higher wage rate. So less jobs will be created and more will be destroyed. This includes of course the accelerated shift to less labour intensive production techniques.

We will examine the details shortly, but the important point to note is that unemployment only regulates wages in one direction. In fact unemployment only regulates wages when there hardly is any! As soon as there is enough unemployment to avoid a “wages explosion”, additional amounts will not significantly increase the ease with which employers can fill their vacancies.

There is no reason to believe that increased unemployment will cause employers to bid less for labour, or will cause unions to accept less. It may be that with really massive unemployment, union solidarity will be broken down. It may also be that the same slack demand for labour that has created unemployment will also make it unprofitable for employers to bid as much for labour as before. But these are both entirely separate questions. All we know for sure about unemployment as a regulator is that lack of unemployment will drive wages up and that will in turn force employment down.

This one-sided regulation is quite sufficient to explain the observed fact of a normal balance between job creation and destruction with very little unemployment. As long as markets are expanding and there is a tendency for the demand for labour to increase, that tendency will be checked by the size of the available labour force, but will permit full employment and real wages rising together with productivity.

This leaves open the question of whether other factors can also push unemployment and wages up or down and whether unemployment can coexist with high and low wages. That is as it should be, since we know that something other than the normal mechanism must account for the abnormal situation of high unemployment.

By way of contrast, the usual explanation that low wages will increase demand for labour, and high unemployment will push wages back down, explains too much. This would imply that any unemployment will correct itself, when it manifestly does not.

The usual explanation also implies that we should never expect to find increasing demand for labour alongside increasing relative wages. Yet that is exactly what has been happening with increased female labour force participation alongside equal pay.

Finally, the mechanism we have described gives no reason to believe that lowering real wages will automatically produce an increased demand for labour. All it says is that excess demand for labour (more than is available), will cause wages to go up. It does not follow that reduced wages would cause demand for labour to go up. That is also as it should be. Despite all predictions from the conservative camp, unemployment has continued rising while real wages have continued falling.

Since our unemployment regulator only explains one side of wages and unemployment, we need to look elsewhere to find what causes the abnormal movements in a crisis.

First, let us look at what happens before a crisis, namely a boom.

Booms and Busts

In a boom, real wages can even increase faster than productivity, so that the share of wages compared to profits will rise and the rate of exploitation will fall. This actually happened in the 1974 “wages explosion”. That was certainly a “boom” even though there was considerable unemployment at the time. Conversely, when demand is slack, unions have little bargaining power and the share of wages, or even the absolute level of real wages, will fall. That is happening right now.

When the economy is booming there is a general tendency for firms to increase their demand for labour power, raw materials and other inputs, in order to meet the demand for their output. This drains the pool of unemployed, reduces warehouse stocks, increases plant capacity utilisation and drives up wages and other prices. The increased demand for inputs and increased consumer spending can itself feed the boom to a certain extent, by further increasing demand.

But when the price of labour and other inputs is rising faster than the price of firms outputs, profit margins are reduced. There is then a general tendency for firms to cut back their investment and expansion, or even undertake contraction. This reduces the demand for labour and other inputs, and eventually recreates a pool of unemployed as well as stockpiles of other commodities and excess production capacities. Prices and wages are then forced back down (relatively).

These movements occur in individual sectors, but also in the economy as a whole. One firm’s inputs are another firm’s outputs and changes in demand act across the board. The balance between production, consumption and investment depends on movements in wages, prices and the rate of profit. This “balance” is always dynamic since it is precisely the imbalances that bring into play the factors for restoring a balance. Hence there is an unending succession of booms and busts in the economy as a whole and in particular sectors of it.

A problem with the above description of booms and busts is that it seems to describe a self-regulating mechanism that would automatically correct for unemployment or labour shortages by moving wage rates, or the capital intensity of investment, in the appropriate direction. So one would expect things to never get all that far out of balance. Indeed capitalism does work like that, a lot of the time, and normal “fluctuations” in the economy can be adapted to quite smoothly. But there must be more to it than that, when we have a “crisis”. Before going into that, we will look at wages, and then look at the normal balancing mechanism in more detail.

Wages and Class Struggle

Conservative economists assume that left to itself, capitalism always works smoothly, and when it does not, they therefore argue that there must be some institutional factor which is preventing prices from clearing market – for example, unions preventing wages from adjusting to the level of unemployment. Hence the calls for “wage restraint” and polemics against the unions.

To some extent this is hypocritical. Conservative economists are generally well aware that the level of wages is determined by the demand for labour, and not vice versa. They could not really believe that wages are greatly influenced by the effect of polemics against unions. They know that the only effective way to bring down wages is through reduced demand for labour, and that means increased unemployment. So it is quite illusory to talk of unemployment and “wage restraint” as alternatives. They go together.

Even though union leaderships might be very willing to go along with “wage restraint”, the employers themselves will bid up the price of labour power if there is not enough unemployment to hold it down. The propaganda for bringing down wages is really propaganda for accepting mass unemployment.

References here and elsewhere to “unemployment” holding down wages are not meant to imply that competition from the unemployed is the restraining factor. While union solidarity remains effective, there is little such competition. It would be more accurate to say “slack demand for labour” holds down wages. But generally (although not always), slack demand for labour is closely associated with unemployment. So the shorthand reference to”unemployment” is near enough.

Illusions about what determines wages are often spread from the labour movement, and especially its left wing, who sometimes picture the level of wages and conditions as primarily determined by the outcome of sharp class struggles on the shop floor.

This is certainly true to a greater extent than for other commodities. Because of the social elements in wages determination, worker militancy can effect wages more than farmer militancy can effect the price of wheat or supermarket rapaciousness can effect the price of groceries. A militant union can secure more for its members than a weak one and a militant workforce can enjoy a higher standard of living than a more servile one in a country with a comparable level of economic development.

There is an element of real bargaining, and extra-economic factors can also influence the outcome – for example fascist governments that suppress unions, or the threat of revolution. Even so, on a world scale it is clear that the level of wages corresponds very directly to the level of economic development in various countries.

Union Solidarity

The main variable in wage determination is the degree of unionisation and solidarity among the workers. If they are solid, they can get the full value of their labour power – its monopoly price. If they are not solid, they can be forced to accept anything below that – right down to minimum physical subsistence level. Unionisation has been and remains enormously important in raising workers above physical subsistence level and securing the value of their labour power. Smashing unions is still a goal for employers to force workers wages below their value and extract surplus profits.

But once unionisation is well established, unions cannot secure any more than the value of labour power. Like any other monopoly, they cannot charge what they feel like, but only “what the traffic will bear”. In this case “the traffic” is what employers will bid to secure extra labour.

In particular, the main effect of the “level of class struggle” is in determining the overall level of labour conditions for the whole nation. It has much less effect on wages in any particular industry or workplace. Even at a national level, class struggle probably has a greater impact on normal working hours and work intensity and on “social conditions” generally, than on actual wage rates.

Since there is free movement of labour between occupations and industries, the level of wages and conditions in any industry is influenced far more by the overall state of the labour market, than by the level of militancy in the particular industry. Workers in low paying industries will look for jobs in high paying ones, producing a labour shortage in the low paid industry which can only be eliminated by offering higher wages.

The bargaining position of a union also depends more on the demand for its members labour than on the dedication of its leadership. We are talking about variations a few percentage points above and below the wage rate determined by “market forces”. Failure to fight could halve wages compared to their “market” rate. But fighting harder could not double them above the market rate, because the market rate is not some arbitrary figure, but the maximum employers can be made to pay before their investment would be diverted elsewhere. Provided a union does fight, it will get more or less the market rate.

There is a parallel with land rent. Landlords can surrender part of their rent, or have it taken from them in taxes. But they cannot compel capitalists to pay a rent that will leave them with less than the average rate of profit on the capital they invest in the land. The capitalists just would not invest in that land.

Real wages have doubled in Australia since World War II, yet it is not a fundamentally different kind of society. They doubled because of economic development, not because of a sudden upsurge in militancy. Indeed the value of labour power has probably not changed very much. The increase in real wages has resulted directly from the relative cheapening of consumer goods, due to increased productivity.

Arbitration and Wage Indexation

The Australian Arbitration system provides elaborate rituals according to which wage rates are supposed to be determined by impartial judges on the basis of principles of equity. Token 24 hour strikes are an important part of those rituals and feed the illusion that wages are determined by some combination of industrial strength and skill in advocacy.

But arbitration is simply an attempt to measure the bargaining strength of the two sides, without them having to actually waste energy to prove that strength by fighting it out each time there may have been some change. The factors investigated in Arbitration Commission hearings, include the “state of the economy”, “productivity”, “capacity to pay”, “cost of living” and especially “work value” and “relativities”. These are precisely the factors that effect the market determined wage rates. The token strikes are a part of that measurement process rather than a form of real class struggle.

The Commission is trying to determine what the market wage rates objectively are. It does not “set” them. When the Commission guesses wrong, it is soon proved wrong by industrial trouble and/or over award payments and/or sectoral labour shortages or unemployment. Adjustments in the “awards” are then required.

The farce of “wage indexation” is a good illustration. When the Commission really did try to “set” wages according to uniform “guidelines”, it failed miserably. Unions and employers, and finally even the government urged it to allow wages to reflect market forces.

There is no reason to believe that the overall level of wages has been kept either artificially high or artificially low by the Arbitration Commission. The Commission itself is well aware that its centrality in the wage fixing process depends critically on how well it estimates actual labour market conditions. It has as much power to “set” wages as the Prices Justification Tribunal had to “set” (or even “justify”) prices, and less power than the Reserve Bank and the Treasury have to “set” interest rates. These institutions can help smooth things out in their respective markets, and they can stuff things up. But they cannot change the overall direction of market movements.

“Rigidities” have allegedly been introduced into the Australian wage structure by the Commission’s fixed “relativities” between occupations and skills. But this has not prevented wages moving in response to changing demands for labour, nor has it prevented labour moving in response to changing demand. It has simply ensured that the wage movements are slowed down and take the form of over award payments rather than awards. Less flexible “relativities” have encouraged more “manpower planning” to cope with shortages and surpluses of particular occupations, instead of the clumsier process of a change in relative wages having to indirectly attract labour from one occupation to another. Likewise, any “rigidity” in overall wage levels could only produce a time-lag in the effect of underlying market movements.

Leaving aside the hypocrisy, conservative economists do believe that bringing down real wages is an essential part of any program for economic recovery. They have masses of quite genuine statistics to prove that wages have increased more than productivity, the share of wages in Gross National Product has increased and so on. They rightly conclude that there is a “real wage overhang” keeping the economy out of balance, even though the purchasing power of wages may be declining.

Therefore, they see unemployment as necessary to bring down real wages, although they prefer not to emphasise that aspect, but just talk about “wage restraint”. But if more unemployment will bring down wages, why hasn’t it? Why is any “program” for economic recovery necessary at all?

The weak point in conservative arguments is that they do not explain what has changed. It is not good enough to just point out that there is a “real wage overhang” since the “wages explosion”. Why is there, and why have “market forces” not corrected it? Before answering that, we need to look at the normal adjustment mechanism in some detail.

Capital Accumulation

Capitalist production is always a process of production for the purpose of accumulating more capital. One part of profits is spent unproductively by capitalists, maintaining themselves and their retainers “in the manner to which they have become accustomed”. That can be fantastically expensive if you look at the lifestyles of Jackie Onassis and the like. But is a very small proportion of total profits, because there are very few really wealthy capitalists.

The more important part of profits is accumulated as new capital. This does not mean it goes into their pockets, or is hoarded into a pile of gold. It is invested in expanding the wealth and power of the individual capitalist, and incidentally developing the productive forces of humanity.

Capital investment means buying more labour power and raw materials to produce more goods, to be sold for more profits (some of which will allow the capitalist to “become accustomed” to an even more lavish lifestyle, and most of which will be invested to expand further). It is a process of continually expanded reproduction. If there was a fixed supply of labour and a fixed technology, this expanded reproduction would become impossible. The new capital would be trying to recruit workers already employed by the old capital, and it would have no market for its products. Only simple reproduction would be possible, with no net investment.

Even if we allow for increasing supplies of labour, a fixed technology would still only permit expanded reproduction at exactly the rate of labour force growth, with no increase in capital or output per worker.

In fact some “models” of the process of capital accumulation are based on assumptions like that. Naturally, they have not been able to explain very much about real economic growth, which always involves new technology with an increasing social division of labour and more capital and more output per worker.

Real capitalism is always expanding. Hence imperialism. Capital can expand intensively or extensively. It can expand extensively by employing more workers, even with the same technology and the same capital per worker. That is important in the third world where there are still reservoirs of peasants who are not employed as wage workers, and it has been important in pulling women out of the household and into wage labour. It also absorbs population increases.

But capitalism also expands intensively, by investing more capital per worker. This implies new technology and a development of the productive forces, and has made capitalism a far more dynamic and progressive social formation than previous ones which went on reproducing themselves without constantly revolutionising the technique of production.

The increasing organic composition of capital implies a falling rate of profit. Here is not the place for a detailed discussion of that, but it is worth mentioning that the difference in internal rates of profit between more developed and less developed countries is equalised by imperialist capital export and import.

A fuller treatment of capital accumulation should examine it internationally. This is very necessary to combat the narrow nationalist outlook so common in the Australian “left”. Suffice it to say that the unemployment we are suffering in Australia is clearly part of a worldwide problem and will require a worldwide solution. Our industries are not just “foreign owned”. They are part of an integrated world capitalist economy. We should think big.

Technological Change

At any given time, there is always a range of known techniques that can be used for production. This range is also always being extended by the discovery of new techniques, which usually involve the use of new intermediate products and hence an increasing social division of labour. But even without new inventions, there is a range of different ways of doing things, some of which will be economic while others are not.

At lower wage rates and a higher average rate of profit, a given labour intensive technique may be cheaper than a capital intensive technique for doing the same job, even though the capital intensive technique is more productive.

For example, third world countries with little capital invested in roads and so on, are forced to use more labour intensive techniques, even though the more advanced methods used in wealthier countries are already known. It can actually be cheaper to use donkeys for transport until capital is available for investment in building roads and truck plants, producing trucks, training drivers and so on. That capital will not be available until the rate of profit on that kind of investment is higher than on alternatives. As more capital is accumulated, the alternatives with higher rates of profit become saturated, the rate of profit goes down, wages go up, and eventually it becomes cheaper to use a truck. It was always more productive to do so.

One day it may be cheaper to use aircraft for regular inter-city transport. We already know how to, but truck drivers’ wages are not high enough, and the rate of profit is not low enough to justify the massive capital investment required.

Increasing returns to scale often dictate a change in technique when a market has reached a certain size. A road will then be replaced by a railway for example. The railway has greater productivity, but the capital investment required is not economic at low volumes of traffic.

Often increasing returns to scale are associated with a greater social division of labour. Special functions are split away from general purpose establishments and achieve a higher productivity while handling the greater volume. A special repair shop will only become economic with a certain level of repairs. Designs will be produced in-house until their volume permits a specialised design firm to do the job more efficiently.

An increase in the scale of operations as more capital is invested and markets expand, may not be regarded as a change in technique. But there will almost always be changes associated with it, like those mentioned above. In most industries the days are long gone when expansion simply meant that more establishments would be set up using essentially the same techniques.

This increasing social division of labour implies more interconnection between different sections of the economy. Each is producing for all, and all for each. It does not imply greater occupational specialisation. On the contrary it requires greater flexibility in the labour force as they change repeatedly from one job to another.

New capital can be invested in the same old techniques to employ more workers using the same old sort of plant to turn the same old raw materials into more of the same old products. But this is only possible if more workers are available. It always creates jobs, provided there is a market for more of the old product. But it creates no new market and assumes that for some reason the market for the old product has increased.

Otherwise new capital can only be invested in more productive techniques that allow fewer workers (usually using more fixed plant and machinery) to turn more raw materials and intermediate products into more products per worker. This destroys some of the old jobs and creates more or less new ones according to whether the output is increased faster or slower than the labour productivity is increased. That depends on how fast the market expands, which depends partly on how much the new techniques cheapen the product (relatively).

New capital intensive investment is always expanding the market, since it does relatively cheapen the product (or the old technique would continue in use), and since it creates a demand for the additional new plant and intermediate products required by the new technique. If there was no technological progress, capitalism would in fact reach the state of stagnation implied by most economic models, since there would be no expanding market for expanded reproduction.

If output is expanding slower than productivity, the result of capital intensive investment will be less workers employed in that sector of industry. If that is happening overall, the result will be an increasing pool of unemployment since more jobs are being destroyed than created. If output is expanding faster than productivity, then labour intensive investments must be expanding employment.

Job Creation and Destruction

Now we can see how a small pool of unemployment normally maintains a balance between job creation and destruction. As profits are continually being invested to become new capital, old jobs are continually being destroyed and new jobs are continually being created. The balance depends on the relative profitability of capital intensive and labour intensive production techniques in new investment.

As long as wages keep increasing at exactly the right rate to keep on gradually tipping the balance towards capital intensive techniques, investment can continue, with increasing capital per worker, even though the labour force is not growing as fast as capital is being invested (provided there is a market for the products).

Otherwise, if wages fail to grow fast enough, the existing techniques would continue being used by new investments, and this will absorb the pool of unemployed until competition for labour drives up wages and restores a balance.

If wages grow too fast, due to labour shortages, there will be a tendency to switch more rapidly to capital intensive techniques which reduce the demand for labour. Slack demand may then force wages down, but even if it does not, there will be no renewed upward pressure until the labour market has again been tightened by further accumulation.

The point is that in “normal” balance, the demand for labour is directly regulating wages so that demand equals supply. It follows that there can be no such thing as “too many workers” or “too few jobs”. The number of jobs will adapt to the number of available workers as capital accumulates. Likewise, wages will not be “too high” or “too low”. They are determined by the demand for labour. It seems then that “everything is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds”. Mass unemployment is impossible as the textbooks insist.

But this process of adaptation only applies to new capital investments. The existing capital investments can only adapt to labour shortages and surpluses, or changes in wage rates and the rate of profit, within fairly narrow limits. A steel mill cannot employ very much more or less labour according to wages rates. Its design is more or less fixed. Changes can only effect the design of new steel mills, or extensions to plant capacity, and the decision to expand steel production at all.

Lower wages will not encourage existing steel mills to hire more workers. It will only encourage designers of future steel mills to continue using more obsolete, labour intensive techniques. That will only create more jobs when, and if, an increased demand for steel causes more investment in expansion of steel mills.

Thus if there is some disturbance to the normal relationships, unemployment can increase, regardless of wage rates. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of economists, there is no automatic mechanism that would quickly restore a balance. The automatic mechanism can quickly cope with labour shortages, by choking off new labour intensive investment. But it cannot quickly cope with labour surpluses. The unemployment will be absorbed when, and only when, new investment has created new jobs, and that may take some time.

(Next instalment: Technological unemployment)

Breaking the Climate Deadlock with R&D

Thanks to David McMullen for this post…

You do not need to be all that alarmist about the climate impact of increasing CO2 emissions to want to see energy go carbon free or at least greatly reduced. The idea of doubling and then tripling annual CO2 emissions in the second half of this century would make just about anyone a bit queasy.

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It is beginning to sink in that there is not going to be a major transition away from fossil fuels until the alternatives become a lot cheaper and this requires a much greater research and development effort. The alternatives are still too expensive for widespread deployment. There is considerable reluctance to bare the extra costs particularly in the developing countries where CO2 emissions are growing the most such as China and India. Indeed most increased energy production by far in recent years has been from fossil fuel.

The American Energy Innovation Council headed up by various capitalist big shots including Bill Gates is leading the charge, calling for a tripling of US federal funding of energy related research and development (R&D) or more precisely research, development, demonstration and initial deployment (RDD&D). They remind us that private firms usually under-fund this sort of activity. They cannot capture the benefits, there is too much uncertainty and the results are too long term. Furthermore energy is a pure commodity with no room for businesses to develop a differentiated product for which they can charge a premium. It is not like an iPhone. Another outfit called the Breakthrough Institute is telling a similar story.

You do not need to be all that alarmist about the climate impact of increasing CO2 emissions to want to see energy go carbon free or at least greatly reduced. The idea of doubling and then tripling annual CO2 emissions in the second half of this century would make just about anyone a bit queasy. Besides coal is rather unhealthy stuff and oil and gas may well get more expensive as they require increasing extraction effort. So there is hope that the call for increased energy R&D can attract bipartisan support.

A whole range of technologies require a lot of work and it is not just the renewables. Even if your preference is for wind and solar, it would be unwise to rely on them entirely. Solar thermal electricity only works when the sky is cloud free and the sun virtually overhead. PV solar gives far more power in a sunny climate than a cloudy one. And of course there is no solar power at night and some places have very long nights during winter. This is an even bigger problem when you take into account that most electricity demand is in the evening. Wind varies greatly from place to place and moment to moment. Most energy demand will be in large dense cities which are likely to be some distance from the large available land areas required for wind and solar. You would need considerable over-build of capacity and some major advances in energy storage and long distance electricity transmission. For biomass to fill the breach, you would need to ensure it does not compete with food or environmental needs, and is truly carbon neutral after taking into account harvesting and transport.

Two other big options are enhanced geothermal and nuclear power. Enhanced geothermal relies on fracturing hot underground rock. It is a massive resource, however it has failed to get going even in quite favorable regions in Australia after $1 billion in government and private funding. More research and learning by doing is needed.

A range of various next generation nuclear reactors are at the conceptual stage. These would use the spent fuel of current reactors, have passive safety systems, be mass produced cheaply and have low running costs. However, to ensure that we have at least one good option ready for widespread deployment 15 to 20 years from now will require an extensive ramping up of R&D.

Another area for increased R&D is in carbon capture and storage (CCS). A trial facility has already opened in Canada and a few others are under construction, but costs need to come down a lot. It is important to keep in mind here that much of the world’s fleet of coal and gas power plants is still relatively new and many more are in the pipeline. You can imagine governments particularly in poorer countries resisting the closure of such facilities when they still had years of life ahead of them. In these cases retrofitting CCS has to be the solution. There are also a number of industrial processes such as concrete and steel production where it is the only option.

Once alternatives are a lot cheaper than they are at present, a carbon price might be worth reconsidering. It would not have to be at a crippling level to induce a change in technology.

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