Progress Perverted: The Technology of Abundance

The technological revolution which has taken place in the last twenty years has great significance for the human race. And yet, because of the way our social and economic system works, most people are not really aware of what has happened.

The basis of all technology, all work, is energy. One pound of uranium will produce as much energy as 3,000,000 lbs of coal; and in breeder reactors an isotope of plutonium is a by-product which is itself a nuclear fuel. The supply is therefore unlimited, and transport to areas of the world without natural fuel supplies is a simple matter since a plane-load could carry a year’s supply of fuel for a moderate-sized country. (The Russian ice-breaker Lenin uses up two ounces of fuel a month). Nuclear reactors will operate for several years without refuelling, making it feasible to set up isolated unattended power units if necessary, even at the bottom of the sea.

In spite of these immense advantages, the installation of nuclear power stations has been slow — and in the wrong places. The richer nations, who can afford to build them, are rich partly because they already have natural deposits of coal, gas and, in some cases, oil, and it is still slightly cheaper to build power stations for these fuels. Add to this the fact that the vested interests in coal, gas and oil add all their weight against nuclear power and it becomes clear why this revolution proceeds at a snail’s pace. Meanwhile, the underdeveloped parts of the world are critically short of fuel while the advanced nations carry on polluting the atmosphere and burning up the world’s irreplaceable wealth of fossil fuels which could be the raw materials of synthetic products for centuries to come. Limitless energy, for taking the hard work out of life for everybody, is possible now, technically — but not within the economics of capitalism. What we have got instead is the most sophisticated range of nuclear weapons that our scientists can devise.

Nuclear fission was not begun in industry. It was a scientists’ laboratory triumph. But one of the most striking trends since the war has been the way in which science and scientists (more and more of them) have been drawn into industry. Research itself has become an organised factory process on mass production lines in a wide range of fields. Although this has meant that certain lines of inquiry have been ignored, it has enormously speeded up the discovery and exploitation of new drugs, chemicals, metals, production processes, and so on. Many of the chemical products are substances not found freely in nature at all — totally new materials created by altering the structure of molecules to achieve specific qualities. Control is now virtually complete. We can synthesise almost anything we can describe. One of the best known fields is that of plastics. We use them in paints, adhesives, clothes, furniture, building materials, bottles, toys, almost everything. Except where we need the electrical properties of metal, everything in a house or a car (including the engine) can be made of one sort of plastic or another. The problem of the availability of raw materials has been solved permanently. The fact that plastics are in danger of becoming a curse rather than a blessing in our capitalist society because they turn up in a spate of shoddy gew-gaws and create a vast disposal problem is no condemnation of the materials, only of the social system. The fact that places like Hong Kong can flood the British market with millions of small plastic objects demonstrates one of the main superiorities of plastics over the materials they have replaced: they are ideally suited for automated mass production. The drudgery of working with wood, stone, fur, hide and a great deal of metal is no longer necessary.

Plastics are only one corner of the huge advance in chemical engineering. We can make anything from detergents to artificial hormones. And this is just the trouble — in capitalism. The mechanism of profit-making knows no morals or aesthetics, and it opposes all interference. So, with no sense of proportion, these quite valuable products are used in the wrong places at the wrong times for the wrong motives and in enormous quantities. The result is that we have an enormous pollution problem, as well as frighteningly large stocks of chemical and biological weapons.

Together, transistors, printed circuits, and magnetic tape have completely altered the scale and scope of electronics. This is only partly apparent in the pocket tape-recorder. The real impact of these developments is to be found in the fields of computers and communications. Compared with valves, transistors and diodes are tiny, cool in working, long-lasting and consume very little current. Similarly, magnetic tape is infinitely more compact and efficient at recording and storing information than film, punched paper, record discs, and so on. And printed circuits, apart from this same ability to be very tiny indeed, can be mass-produced by machine with complete reliability. The equivalent of a complete radio circuit can be put on to a sliver of mica one eighth of an inch square. This phenomenal decrease in size is not particularly valuable for its own sake. Its significance lies in the fact that it allows thousands of such circuits to be put together in a manageable space. The first computers, with valves, were as big as a house and almost as heavy. The latest, far faster, more versatile and more reliable, are as big as a desk. With computers, quantity (of circuits) becomes quality (of ‘brainpower’). Modern computers can be programmed to control and operate complete production systems, transport systems, communication systems.

Linked by communication satellites across the world, they could keep constant check on consumer wants, regulate production to keep pace with them, and dispatch the goods in computerised transport to where they were needed. But not in capitalism. Here and now they are employed in trying to keep pace with the mounting complexities of the money system: wages and deductions, income tax returns, bank statements, mail order accounts, files of bad debtors, and the finger prints of criminals. They have also been employed in working out the prodigious mathematics of flights to the moon and the ballistics of intercontinental missiles. Up to now it is in modern weaponry that computers have risen to their most sophisticated heights.

Fundamentally, automation is no more than an engineering principle. It is when it is used in conjunction with machine tools, mass production techniques, sensing and measuring devices and servo-mechanism that its potentialities are so great. The principle is now called negative feedback (from electronics) and involves using the error in a machine or system to alter whatever is causing the error so that it is corrected. In this way, feeds and speeds of machines can be adjusted, worn cutting tools replaced, faulty pieces rejected, and so on, all automatically. When this is combined with the resources of the computer there is really no job which has to be done by human beings, if we want it otherwise. Simple automation is most suitable for repetitious jobs. The more boredom and drudgery there is in a job, the more suitable it is for immediate automation. And yet the introduction of automated systems has been slow and patchy. This is due to the peculiar economics of capitalism: to be profitable in a highly competitive market, production has to be large in scale; but automated plants of this size are very expensive — and they cannot be sacked like workers. So an assured market for many years ahead is the only justification for a capital outlay of tens or hundreds of millions of pounds. Such assurance is rarely possible in the market anarchy of capitalism.

Automation does not have to be applied to large complexes. Its basic units (relays, solenoids, photo-electric cells, etc.) are small, and it could remove all the danger and drudgery from human work. Capitalism, however, cannot use it to decrease toil and increase freedom. The economics of the profit motive insist that it is used to increase production, decrease unit cost, and increase the mass of profit to compensate for the falling rate. As with computers, the most successful application of automative systems in capitalism is to be found in the development of guided missiles and space shots. The real use of automation awaits the next leap forward in social evolution.

This very brief survey has attempted to show that the power, the materials and the techniques, as well as much of the industry, for producing an abundance of all the things that are needed by the people of the world are now a reality, but that their development is being held back by the economic and social restrictions of our present system of society. The fact is that capitalism is now badly out of date, obsolete. It cannot digest abundance. It cannot work on the basis of plenty for all. Its economy relies upon scarcity, and its social structure relies upon class privilege. These are now in direct conflict with the forces of production. For a while, this vast potential can be throttled, or perverted into the production of weapons of destruction, but not for long. What is already overdue is the scrapping of capitalism and the installation of a society based upon abundance. Only a massive awareness of this necessity by everybody can achieve it. Nothing else in this modern world is big enough to make the change. But the means of communication are ready. Six hundred million people can now watch the same television programme, and the whole complex system is run by workers. As soon as all workers can be made aware of the necessity and the urgency, then it can be done.

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