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Modern Technology and Socialism

In spite of its catastrophes and its social idiocies, industrial capitalism goes on from strength to strength. It establishes itself in new countries, turning more and more of the world's population into members of the working class. It exploits increasing amounts of the Earth's resources for commodity production. It turns out a growing mass and range of products to throw on to the market. It harnesses new discoveries, inventions, techniques and systems to expand and speed up production, distribution, travel, and communication. At the same time, of course, it pollutes and wastes and kills and oppresses on an ever-increasing scale.

Modifying Socialism

So far from casting doubt upon the socialist analysis of historical development, this accelerating and expanding progress provides daily confirmation of the inevitability of social change and the powerful impact of technology upon social structures and individual lives. The driver of a JCB is a different man from the navvy with his pick and shovel, not only in the way he does his job, but also in the way he views society and his place in it.

What is of particular interest to socialists is the way in which developments in capitalism modify ideas of socialism. Marx, and to a lesser extent Engels, was especially cautious about envisaging socialist society; and the wisdom of this is borne out by the fact that, in spite of their careful historical perspective, it is clear to us that even they could not help seeing the post-capitalist world broadly in terms of the conditions of their own times.

This applies just as surely to us today. We need to exercise the same caution when we allow ourselves to speculate upon the changes that the abolition of capitalism will bring about. Nevertheless, I do not believe that it is illegitimate to do this. What we must do, however, is acknowledge the relativity of our views. If each generation of socialists, then, sees the new society in a slightly different way because of changes that have taken place in capitalism, we shall be able to sustain a dynamic, rather than a static, conception of the liberated world for which we are all working.

The Dynamic of Technology

The underlying dynamic of social development is that of technology. While the relations of production, the class structure, within a social system are fairly rigidly maintained by the ruling class, the means of production are in a process of continual development, undermining that social structure.

In capitalism the rate of change has been incomparably greater than anything before in human history. In the hundred years since Marx's death, the technological developments have been, if anything, more far-reaching in their social implications than those of the previous hundred years. In Marx's day there were no motor cars or lorries and no road system which could have supported today's mass of high-speed traffic. There were no aeroplanes or helicopters. There were no farm tractors, combine harvesters, milking machines or tuberculosis-free cattle. There was little domestic gas and virtually no domestic electricity so that there were no household machines such as vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, washing machines, or food mixers. Electronic engineering, with its wide range of applications from radio and television to computers, microwave ovens and automatic control systems, had not yet begun. There was no automation, no laser and fibre optics, no space engineering, no biological engineering, no atomic engineering, no man-made fibres or plastics, no stainless steel or even aluminium. It was a society of horse drawn vehicles, domestic servants, heavy manual work, cast iron and steam power.

Change in Perspective

The sort of socialist society which could have been erected upon such a technological base would, it has been argued, have had a relatively inflexible monolithic structure, with centralised units of mass production, centralised planning, limited consumption and ease of movement, and still a great deal of hard work. The changes that the working class of the world has developed since those days, under the whip of capital, have modified conditions of living and working, and particularly the prospects for future society, in a fundamental way. They have made the production of abundance a real and obvious social possibility. At the same time, of course, they have introduced the possibilities of obliterating all civilisation on Earth or making the planet itself uninhabitable. There is now very little that modern science and technology can not do, given sufficient resources and effort.

Small Dispersed Production

The technological progress that has been made in the last hundred years has, as is always the case, been the result of improvements, not only in devices or machines, but in materials, techniques and systems as well. One of the principal factors which made Victorian textile mills and engineering machine shops so large and noisy was their dependence upon single huge power sources such as steam engines or the early electric motors driving miles of overhead shafting and belting. Steady improvements in design, materials and precision engineering made the production of small electric motors easy and relatively cheap, so that every machine can now have its own—often a number of them—performing different functions.

Similar improvements in steel alloys, welded fabrication design and techniques have made massive cast iron frames for machines obsolete. Indeed, almost every process of production and distribution today uses less energy and a smaller quantity of materials than a comparable process did a hundred years ago, and, apart from the logistics of transporting materials to, and products from, a machine, it can now be sited almost anywhere within reach of a three-phase electricity supply.

Except for large products, such as ships or rolled steel girders, enormous manufacturing plants are no longer technically necessary. Capital may be able to obtain a few remaining economies in management and administration in large industrial agglomerations, although modern communications systems have overtaken most of these, but otherwise the trend is towards smaller and more dispersed factories. Capital resists this process at every step, striving to achieve economies of scale, but technology is pointing the way to a pattern of industry very different from the dark satanic mills of Victorian England.

Machinery and Profitability

One of the things that Marx draws attention to in Vol. III of Capital is that particular inefficiency of the capitalist mode of production which is caused by capitalists' reluctance to install superior machinery. No surplus value is extracted from constant capital itself—this dead labour embodied in means of production. The fixed portion of it, represented by plant and machinery, is imparted to the commodities, little by little, as these items wear out. Even under the pressure of competition, therefore, the capitalist tries to extract the last penny of value out of his fixed capital before replacing it.

What improved machinery must do for the capitalist, if it is to justify its cost, is to increase the productivity of his workers (his rate of extraction of surplus value from them) to give a rate of profit equal to, or above, the average. The greater the outlay on fixed capital, however, the more dependent such profitability is upon the continuing buoyancy of the economy. But, of course, capitalism is incorrigibly cyclical and unpredictable. Expensive machinery lying idle in a slump represents growing losses for capital, to be set against the profits made in better times. In slumps, too, the real price of labour power is driven down—as we have seen in the first half of the 1980s. This makes more labour-intensive processes relatively cheaper and more profitable, offsetting the advantages of capital-intensive methods. Moreover, labour can be dismissed with a week's notice. Machinery can not.

Automation

These considerations have made capital particularly slow to introduce automation, especially when wages are low, because automation is a highly capital-intensive way of using machinery. But this is only the distorted capitalist measure of its cost, in which, to survive, every individual company must extract its measure of surplus value from its workers. In social terms, as a means of using crystallised past labour to supplement and ease the toil of living labour, it is not much more expensive than other ways of using machinery. The potential of automation for post-capitalist, democratic society is enormous. When used in conjunction with computers it is virtually limitless in its possibilities.

The principle behind the wide range of devices and techniques used in automation is not a new one. Whereas tools, instruments and devices like wheels and levers may be said to supplement human limbs, and machines—themselves using tools—can be thought of as amplifying human energy and speed, automation represents an extension, an amplification, of the human nervous system and, with computers, the brain. Automation makes decisions and gives instructions for them to be carried out.

One of the famous examples of early industrial automation was James Watts' steam engine governor. He used two iron balls attached to linkage to control the speed of his steam engines. Rotating with the engine shaft, the balls were spun outwards with centrifugal force. At a pre-set speed their outward movement, through the linkage, began to close the valve which fed steam to the engine and so reduced the power, and consequently the speed, again. The principle involved here is that of using error, and the extent of that error, to correct the error. Whether mechanical, electrical, electronic or optical devices are used, that underlying principle remains the same. The essential components are suitable sensing or measuring devices to monitor the behaviour of a particular aspect of the machine or process, communication links from those devices leading to servo mechanisms which control what is going on.

Computers used in situations like this add another dimension of sophistication. Instead of a number of monitoring devices feeding their quite independent instructions to the overall process—as, for example, in multiple domestic central heating thermostat—the computer receives these various inputs and makes a programmed decision based upon the information from all of them. Modern motor cars have computer fuel and ignition control systems like this.

Information

A point worth noticing about this sort of technological development is that the new element in the employment of machines is information. The information revolution, as it has been loosely called, is not just a matter of improved means of communication and recording systems amongst people. We now control an increasing number of machines purely by information. There is, for example, hardly a heavy lorry left on today's roads in which the driver turns the front wheels for steering through direct gearing from the steering wheel. The size and weight involved is far too exhausting. Instead, his movements of the steering wheel are transmitted as instructions to the servomechanism which does the actual work. Of course, this is not an example of automation. Here, it is the driver who is sensing and making decisions upon the conditions of the road and his vehicle.

Guided missiles, on the other hand, do use automation principles of self-correction. By a process of constant checking they seek out the destination with which they, have been programmed and deliver their warhead to it. Bizarre as it might now seem, a socialist society, with no need for weapons, might well find this expensive method of transport appropriate for delivering some types of urgent supplies.

Remote Control

Operating machines by giving them information opens up other possibilities too. Information can be sent over almost any distance, as the control of the various exploratory space vehicles demonstrates. There are also a number of methods of ensuring that imperfect transmission systems do not allow garbled information to get through. Remote control of machines in dangerous or humanly inaccessible locations is now, therefore, becoming common practice—but only where capital finds it profitable to use it.

Remote control of more mundane machines, however, has a very low priority in capitalism. Except for control rooms in things like power stations or ships, capitalism tends to keep workers as close to their machines as possible so that they, themselves, can be under control. At the moment, the few applications of this facility involve peripheral uses such as telephone instructions to domestic machines at home by a few highly paid workers with not enough free time to get home themselves. The potentialities of remote control for the free society of the future are, in contrast, rich and liberating. A person who had taken on responsibility for a particular production process or service could monitor its progress and make adjustments from wherever he or she happened to be. With good satellite radio links, machines and equipment in isolated stations, performing a variety of environmental control or supply functions, could be supervised from almost any distance.

Memory

Immediate instructions to machines, however, become less and less necessary with the development of memory devices. >From the punched card system of the Jacquard loom at the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present generation of computers capable of recording and storing immensely complicated programmes of instructions, the development of information storage in a form suitable for controlling machines has turned a quantitative difference into a qualitative one. Even the common computer programmes which can play chess against a human opponent have so many thousands of possible moves and countermoves stored in their memories that playing against them can seem like playing against another human being. In the same way, immensely complicated and subtle programmes of instructions for machines—programmes which learn from experience—can be devised to do almost everything that human operators can do.

Robots

The microminiaturisation and mass production of computer circuits on tiny silicon chips has made it possible to incorporate millions of small computers into everyday machines, just as we now use millions of small electric motors. Now all the human working functions have been simulated in machines. The skills of craftsmen and the diagnostic knowledge of doctors and other experts can now be fed into computerised machines which then operate like craftsmen and experts. Even speaking and understanding speech is in the rudimentary stages of development.

While most people are hardly aware of it, therefore: they are living in a world containing a rapidly multiplying number of increasingly sophisticated robots. Of course, the robot of early science fiction, walking on legs, using fingers, and even looking like a human being is a rather pointless product. It has all the limitations of the human being and none of its advantages. Real robots are purpose designed and greatly exceed human capabilities for each particular purpose.

One way of looking at this trend is to consider the modern generations of machines as an evolving population of slaves. As far as the technology is concerned, there is now no reason why human beings should do any of the dull, dreary or dirty jobs that are necessary to provide the wealth and services of an advanced, affluent society. Machines can—could if they were under the control of a free democratic society—do all of these tasks for us.

The Social Structure

Even to speak in these terms, however, points up the enormous disparity between what is possible and what capitalism is actually doing with these technological advances. There are already, for example, many millions of small personal computers in the world. But the vast majority of them are dedicated to playing games, mostly of the "shoot-em-up" or "shoot-em-down" variety. Escapism, which has made so many billions of pounds profit for the record industry and the film, television and videotape market, has now moved beyond the passive entertainment phase and is opening up a vast new field of interactive pseudo-experiences.

The other area in which all the sophistications of modern technology are being given almost unrestrained freedom to develop is very closely linked to the computer games market. It is that of fighting wars. Modern weapons and fighting equipment not only enhance human capabilities to an almost unlimited extent with their destructiveness, speed, accuracy, infrared vision, radar and laser location, and so on, but they can also "think" for themselves with the computers they incorporate. Capitalism is therefore distorting and diverting a very large part of technological potential away from the satisfying of human needs.

Paramount amongst those needs, once nourishment and health have been obtained, is that of freedom. But this is precisely what capitalism will not and can not provide, since it is only through restriction, repression and deception that the ruling class is able to continue to exploit the labour of the great majority of the population. As a substitute for freedom, capitalism offers commodities—or at least the chance to earn them—an ever-increasing mass and diversity of gadgets and thrills and sweets.

Socialism Now

The sort of socialist society that has become possible with these developments is already a very different one from that which was feasible in Marx's day. But, also, the urgent necessity of removing capitalism before it removes us has become far more pressing.

The overall effect of the technological. developments of .the last hundred years, and particularly of the last fifty years, has been the increased potential for flexibility and freedom. Although centralised world-wide planning of production and distribution has become more and more possible with the evolution of electronic and satellite communication systems and the information-handling capabilities of computers, it has, at the same time, become less and less necessary or desirable.

There are bound to be democratic decisions taken about certain aspects of production and distribution from time to time, at local, regional, continental and even global level. But, for the great mass of adjustments and controls, ordinary channels of supply arid demand (real demand) will provide the most flexible and responsive basic system for regulating socialist society's production and distribution. The almost infinitely complex network of manufacturers, growers, distributors and suppliers will, however, need well-organised communication and co-operation amongst themselves, as well as ready access to a richness of information about research, designs, methods, output, capacity, local preferences, etc. etc., which is simply impossible in capitalism.

The electronic stock control systems now in use in many major stores and the computer-controlled warehousing gradually being installed by large distributors already permit the constant monitoring of consumption of goods to be carried on, future demand to be predicted within quite fine limits and automatic, and almost instantaneous, re-ordering to be carried out. However, the anarchy of the market, the restricted and biased consumption enforced by the money qualification, and the jealous guarding and suppression of information carried on by nation states and almost every type of capitalist company that exists make it impossible to realise the enormous social benefits that could be derived from this information revolution.

Modern information systems make it feasible for anyone, anywhere in the world, who has access to a telephone-linked computer to find out all the specifications and quantities of goods or services that are available or in demand. Instead, today, thousands of programmer hours a year are being devoted to devising blocks to prevent such information being accessed.

In the post-capitalist world it is this greatly enhanced information network which will replace and supersede the market and the price mechanism. The immense volume of information about the daily facts and figures of all production, distribution and services which is in the possession of the working class—and which is today barely used, except to total output figures and compile balance sheets—will be accorded its true value in socialist society as the data for conscious social control of the means of life by every member of society. "Democratic control" will be far more than a matter of voting when contentious issues arise. It will be the continual exercise of informed individual power in the co-operative processes of sustaining and enhancing social life.

The above article is the text of the Conference Lecture delivered at the Annual Conference of the Socialist Party in March 1989.