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Is technology to blame?

On Friday 9 January, after 150 years, the last mail train carried its consignment of envelopes, parcels and sorting staff the length of the country. The following morning, around 500 of those staff were made redundant. All told, the Royal Mail plans to phase out all 49 overnight mail trains, in favour of road freight. Paid propagandists of the Royal Mail appeared on television, looking suitably apologetic, to explain that automatic sorting offices were quicker, more efficient, cheaper; and the rails too unreliable. So out went the workers, some of them unlikely to ever find work again, because a blessed nationalised industry put the bottom line first.

To be sure, the mail has suffered a squeeze in recent years, its labour intensive methods ill-equipped to cope with the hi-tech of instant e-mail communication and mobile phone texting. What has been a communications boon for many of us, was for Royal Mail managers and the workers dependent upon their decisions, a bane. The reason for this is that capitalism, rather than looking at the outcome of events as a whole to judge events, demands that its actors look solely at money value, the bottom line, price and profit. If some behaviour becomes too expensive, it has to fall by the wayside.

Humans are a stupendously successful species precisely because of our technology. Where animals rely on the slow, random mutation of bodily organs for their adaptation to circumstance, humans have adopted artificial organs, tools and technology, which can be changed or discarded by thought to enable us to survive. Our technology increases our numbers, our life-spans, the quality of our lives. Yet for all its blessings, technology is still distrusted by a great many people.

The general reason for this is that most people are not in control of the technology, it is in control of them; as with the fate of the postal workers, changes in technology may well come along and destroy their lives and their dreams. Capitalism means that new technology must always respond to the one-dimensional signal of market price, and act against the interests of those dependent upon old technology.

Different technologies produce different modes of production, conjuring up the necessary skills and roles required to use them. Many people’s jobs, and thus by extension their existence as members of society, are conditional upon the existence of these roles. If the technology changes, their jobs disappear, like the postal workers’, like the weavers’ about whom Marx wrote in Capital. Capitalism constantly revolutionises itself through the re-invention of productive technology, and most people experience this as a wrenching effect outside their own lives.

Some capitalists, and their servants, are aware of some of these problems, and try, through the medium of the state - the executive committee of their class - to overcome the information limitations of responding purely to market forces. The state is called in to act on statistics, information it has garnered, and direct and promote social development so as to avoid the worst excess of anarchy and chaos that would ensue from widespread unemployment or reallocation of labour.

A clear example of this is the announcement of the presence of hydrogen-fuelled buses on London’s streets, on 14 January this year. Using hydrogen derived from natural gas, these buses run on electricity with only water as their sole emission. Introduced on only couple of routes, they are part of a trial in electric hydrogen power transport, being run through the auspices of London and various local governments in the European Union. That is, state agencies have stepped in to help implement a test run that would have been unprofitable for the private sector to engage in.

Hydrogen is a fuel of the future that promises much, specifically as oil supplies will begin to dwindle. It can store energy from renewable resources, provide clean electricity, locating any sources of carbon emissions at centralised sites where they can be managed, etc. As the Chief Executive of Gas and Power, Richard Flury, of BP (the company partnering the project), pointed out in a speech on 1 May 2000, however, “it will take many years - probably decades - to build the infrastructure and capacity to replace the very large base that supplies the worlds energy”.

In other words, price, far from reflecting some general desirability of an outcome, only relates to the degree to which a product corresponds to the general social effort of production. A society geared towards using oil and oil products, will find it relatively more difficult, and thus more expensive, to change over to other sources of energy, especially as many technical difficulties (storage and transmission of hydrogen, for example) are yet to be resolved.

This is in line with the Labour Theory of Value. The economic value of a product is determined by the average socially necessary labour that must be consumed in its production. The more equipment (representing previous labour, or “dead labour”), is used and the more efficiently such equipment is used, the less “living labour” is required, and so a product of a heavily mechanised industry can become very cheap. New-comers to the market will find themselves requiring to make massive outlays in terms of capital and equipment, before they can even know if there is sufficient demand to justify such outlay. The one dimensional market information thus inhibits the use of new technology, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence from observation of consequences.

Hence the need for the state to step in and help, though not in any manner so as to threaten property nor profits. Flury, in his speech, repeatedly pointed to deregulation (i.e. opportunities for his company's profits) as an engine for promoting new technology. The state must work within the framework of existing property relations.

Obviously, this oversight committee may well come into conflict with specific sections of the capitalist class, trying to impose a general interest that will harm or ruin the interest of specific capitalists. After all, the tools of state involve directly appropriating the property of capitalists, usually via taxation, and using them to intervene in the market to distort the signals to produce different social ends. As a consequence, the capitalist class seek to maintain tight control of the machinery of state, lest it turn against them like a Frankensteinian creation.

Hence, another reason for people’s distrust of technology. The state, as one of the forces for introducing this technology, must remain firmly within the control of a tiny elite. That this elite is not responsible to the vast majority alienates people from the debate over technology. That same elite can and will use technology to secure their own position.

A clear example of this distrust is perhaps the fear aroused by genetic modification debates, and the extent to which it was driven by the British government. Perhaps more clearly, so has been the general reaction to US president Bush’s announcement of his aspiration to send a human being to Mars. Many commentators began to speculate whether he was grubby for votes with a spectacular project. Others noted that the Chinese have recently advanced dramatically in their capacity to reach into space, and how Bush’s announcement may be an attempt to go into competition for the military advantage of space flight. After all, if the Chinese government can launch a human into space, the same technology could be used to launch a nuclear missile at Washington.

In a world of strife and competition, where hierarchy, power and property prevail, technology will be seen as a threat in the hands of another. In a society of co-operation and common ownership, technology would be deployed under the democratic control of the whole community, to the betterment of everyone’s lot. We would be able to take account of all the information, not just market indicators, without needing to pussy-foot around the vested interests of a handful of capitalists.

That is not to say, though, that the case for socialism rests on developing technology. Neither a hydrogen economy, nor nanotechnology nor genetic modification are required for socialism. Socialism will take, adapt and use technology as it finds it. What socialism must do, however, is change our relationship with our tools, so that we can take control of our own destinies.

Hydrogen buses-not part of an idealistic "Green" crusade but an attempt to re-energise capitalism"Hydrogen buses-not part of an idealistic "Green" crusade but an attempt to re-energise capitalism"