Thoughts on Marxism & Technology Part I There is a joke about Marxist economists that goes something along the lines of “Marxists have predicted five of the last four recessions”. I was reminded of this joke recently as I debated with a comrade about capitalism and progress, specifically around technological advances in modern capitalism. I suppose that for Marxists, as radical critics of the present system that we will tend towards always pointing out the weaknesses and contradictions of the system; the way in which it develops technology – the means of production – in a distorted way that leads to economic, environmental and humanitarian crises. These critiques are important tools for puncturing the arrogance and pretensions of the present system and pointing to a better, less destructive way, to organize society.
And, yet, there is a danger that we look like Luddites or moaners, scoffing at everything and seeing no good in anything, perhaps not to each other – we expect “ruthless criticism of everything that exists” - but certainly to most working class people. I remember this well in the 1990s as the internet was expanding rapidly and changing the way that we communicate, access information, etc. Of course, it wasn’t only us who were grappling with this. I was in university at the time and there were debates about how to treat internet-based research for papers – was it an academically valid resource; how ought it to be footnoted in papers, etc? But our own reaction to the internet, and now web 2.0, looks quaint to say the least. We have had two reactions, which typify in general the reaction of contemporary Marxists to technology. These are 1) deny its significance (“only middle class people use the internet”, “it hasn’t changed anything about how we organize or communicate”) and 2) emphasize its destructive aspects (British Marxist Alex Callinicos recently referred to the “dark side” of the internet, leading to much chuckling).
The real problem, of course, lies not with the failure of capitalism to innovate and transform the lives of people, not only in the developing world (to which I’ll return) but also those in the developed world. Of course this transformation includes a serious destructive element – the rise of smartphones has led to proxy wars and trade maneuvers towards securing and manipulating rare earth metals that are key elements in smartphone manufacture, for instance. In terms of the economy, the irresistible pressure of Moore’s Law, which describes the tendency for the number of transistors on chips to double every 18 months or so, has not only given us the aforementioned smartphones, it has also led to the deskilling of a whole number of fields, technologically-driven unemployment, etc. Not to mention the destructiveness of mining practices, etc.
But there is also a progressive side to this development. It is a good thing that we can access information instantaneously. I am someone who works from home for a company in another province. In the course of a given day I receive material in pdf format via e-mail. I input my expenses into an online bookkeeping website that calculates and itemizes all of my expenses and income for me (for free). I pay my bills online and send money electronically, which saves me hours of standing in line at the bank. I purchase or sell second hand products from another country and have them shipped to my home. I pay another freelancer to design a poster or do research for which I’m ill-equipped. This list doesn’t even touch on social media. As I write this I’m involved in a crowd-funding campaign for a movie that I co-directed that has raised several thousand dollars. A lot of that money has come from people I haven’t personally seen for a decade or more but with whom I maintain a semblance of contact through Facebook. I’m not that old but when I was in public school there weren’t even personal computers and our introduction to computing was filling in punch cards using binary language to perform simple math problems. We sent off the cards to be processed and they returned a week later. To say that advances in computers have transformed our culture – even if it hasn’t eliminated capitalism, is stating the obvious.
On a society-wide scale the transformation of China is nothing short of breath-taking. A generation ago the vast majority of Chinese lived in the countryside without phones and TVs and were illiterate. China is now an urban nation with 100 times more cities above 1 million people than the US, with income in the top 50% of the planet, and with literacy around 95%. As a result of innovation the Chinese company that manufactures Apple’s iPhones and the Kindle, with a workforce of about 500,000 in China alone, is moving towards adding up to 3 million robots to its manufacturing process. The Broad Group, originally a manufacturer of air conditioning units, will break ground next month on what will be the world’s tallest building using factory fabrication techniques. The 838 metre building will be erected in about six months – compared to six years for the current record holder, the Burj Khalifa. Of course there are problems – China is a dictatorship; the major cities of China are rife with corruption, pollution and smog, gridlock, etc. These are not insignificant but to deny that capitalism has transformed China is to deny reality.
The same exploration of technological advancements could be applied to multiple fields. In many ways, in my opinion, we are in the midst of a new industrial revolution that brings together a conjuncture of materials science, computing power, biology, robotics, space technology, in a way that is transforming our society. This combines with the effects of post-colonialism in significant areas of the world – belated and problematic as that is. The penetration of China into Africa, where the previous relationships were almost purely about capital outflows, is transforming that continent as well. Just as the industrial revolution didn’t eliminate exploitation, neither do present advances, but it is nonetheless transforming our world.
Is there a crisis gripping capitalism internationally? No doubt about it. Greece has been in meltdown for half a decade. Spain is not much better with close to 50% unemployment for youth. Japan has had a decade of deflation. The list goes on. But without revolutions to resolve these crises it is certain that capitalism will itself solve them – through destructive and inhumane means, to be sure. But if capitalism could survive the Great Depression (with a world war that cost tens of million of lives) it can survive the present stagnation. There are whole swathes of the world from Africa to Latin America to Asia that are still in the early stages of development and can provide an outlet for the system. War and imperialism provide another mechanism.
What about the environmental crisis? The problem of carbon emissions and climate change is absolutely devastating. Severe weather patterns will become more and more the norm, particularly in regions where this was already the pattern – hurricanes, monsoons, tornadoes and more. This is radicalizing millions of people and making them open to the argument that this system is fundamentally destructive. But we ought to take a lesson from the ozone crisis of the 80s and 90s, which was then considered to be the looming apocalypse. It didn’t materialize and capitalism was able to reduce the use of CFCs to the point that the ozone layer is no longer depleting and the ozone hole has shrunk. Of course carbon-based fuels are much more central to the economy than CFCs but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that capitalism is structurally incapable of overcoming its dependence upon fossil fuels. The growth of renewables and nuclear forms of energy are proceeding at rates sometimes five times the rate of growth of the global economy. They are still a small component of the overall mix of energy sources but capitalism, with the aid of the state, can shift quickly where necessary. Of course these are problematic, particularly nuclear power (though research into deep burn fission may well resolve the problem of nuclear waste). However, in China where energy use is growing most rapidly (in the US carbon emissions have actually declined since the onset of recession in 2008) there is a concerted effort, for national security reasons and because of smog in the cities, to both increase energy efficiency and to move away from dirty coal and to increase renewables in a significant way. Will it be enough? Hard to say but it might be and, while arguing against capitalism’s dependence on fossil fuels we ought to be prepared for the distinct possibility of moving towards significant carbon reduction and even carbon neutrality. The only thing that capitalism absolutely needs is profits, everything else is more or less contingent.
We can take a lesson from Marx when it comes to how we view capitalism. In the Communist Manifesto, written more than 150 years ago, Marx begins by praising the power of capitalism to transform the planet. That power is no less diminished today than it was in Marx’s time. If anything it has increased exponentially. The belief that the dynamic period of capitalist development has passed is a myth. China’s rise – and the imminent rise of Africa and Latin America - ought to be proof enough of this. Of course it is true, more than ever, to say that capitalism is obsolete but that is not the same thing. Capitalism is obsolete because capitalism itself has made other ways of organizing the system both possible and necessary to end the ongoing destruction of our planet and the brutal exploitation of humans. But it is not the same to say that capitalism no longer is dynamic and no longer produces advances that will aid a future society in which profit and imperialism are no longer the driving force for advancement.
The real challenge for Marxism is not the continued existence of capitalist dynamism and development. The real problem is that Marxism as a living, mass movement has been isolated for generations. The impact of Stalinism followed by the decline of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s has led to an ideology of retrenchment. We have lost confidence and that has made us defensive, which has had an impact on Marxism at both the level of organization, leading to bureaucratic and brittle methods, and at the level of theory. Lenin, at the head of a victorious revolution could declare that communism equaled Soviet power (basically a new model of democracy organized through workplaces) plus electricity. Imagine declaring anything similar today viz the internet or biotechnology or robotics. We now fear anything that seems to undermine the millennial dreams of Marxism, such as the continuing power of capitalism to transform millions of lives. The idea that capitalism could still progress suggests falsely that our goals are obsolete, rather than giving us confidence that the advances of capitalism make the possibility of socialism more palpable. We need to return to Marx in engaging critically with the technological advances that are coming fast and furious. We shouldn’t pretend that genomics is irrelevant or the equivalent of phrenology, the 19th century quack science of measuring skull bumps to determine criminality, for instance. Pointing to genetic reductionism – the idea that there is a gay gene or a gene for criminality or even one gene responsible for most diseases – is to shadow box with arguments from ten or fifteen years ago. The arguments and those methods have largely moved on as a result of experience. This is not to say that there aren’t still problems with genomics and the field of genetics more broadly. From GMOs to genetically modified algae that produce diesel, to medical treatments, genomics often seeks to treat problems whose origin lies elsewhere, in socially created problems that arise from capitalism itself. Nonetheless, we should see the revolutionary potential that these advances hold if they are harnessed towards human ends, rather than those of profit. We should celebrate their liberatory potential while resisting their capitalist implementation that serves profit or imperialism at the expense of humans.
This is not simply of academic importance. It effects the work of Marxists in two ways. On the one hand it is important in terms of relating to working class people’s experience and not coming across as a cult that denies that the world is round. When growing numbers of people with cancer have more effective treatments because the genome of their tumours can be analyzed to prescribe the most effective medication we look foolish to say that genomics is irrelevant – as opposed to pointing to the role of environmental and dietary pressures that lead to higher rates of cancer, or the fact that most people lack access to these treatment options. And, on the other hand, denying reality distorts our analysis and perspectives, which shapes how we act and organize to change the world. If we are “predicting five of the last four recessions” it speaks, in a humorous way, to a weakness in our approach: a desire for capitalist catastrophe to prove our theory correct, rather than a desire for popular mobilization to prove our theory correct. The irony is that we don’t need catastrophism to demonstrate the power of Marxism. We don’t need to fear scientific advance and the dynamism of capitalism as a threat to our ideology. The dynamism of capitalism is creating an ever-larger working class whose interest remains the overthrow of their exploiters. The rulers of China are scared more than anything by the rebellion of their population – who resist far more militantly and regularly than the North American working class. And the scientific advances demonstrate that capitalist authoritarianism and private property are hindrances to realizing the full potential of those advances, and that the democratization of science is the only means to avoid the destructive application of those advances.
SEE ALSO PARTS TWO & THREE IN THIS SERIES:
1) Frankenfoods, Toothpaste, & Justin Bieber: Capitalism & Technology II
2) Genes, Robots & The Internet: How Capitalism Revolutionizes The Planet