1970s >> 1978 >> no-889-september-1978

Democracy and the Silicon Chip

Karl Marx once said that the hand mill gives you feudalism and the steam mill gives you capitalism.  Had he lived for another hundred years, he might have added with a wry smile that the computer gives you Socialism.  The ways in which human society can be organised, is organised and ought to be organised depend on the techniques and resources which can be used in its running.  The idea of a society where no one goes hungry and all co-operate to control the conditions of their existence is no more than a pipe dream unless there is the wherewithal to translate idea into reality.

It is the case of the SPGB that the wherewithal is there.  The potential for providing for everyone’s needs has been created by capitalism.  Thanks to the development of machinery and automation, wealth can be produced in quantities which would have been unthinkable in earlier phases of human society.  However, one of our greatest difficulties in getting anyone to accept our view is to convince them on just this point.  For its truth is masked in capitalism.  The potential for plenty is there, but it cannot be made actual.  A profit system can only work with a labour force compelled to sell its energies.  If an abundance of the necessaries of life were freely available, the system would grind to a halt.  (Who would work at the kinds of jobs on offer in our society if they did not have to?)

We do not ask anyone to take our word for it that the problem of producing enough wealth has been solved.  Rather, we refer them whenever possible to the facts unearthed by non-Socialists who are particularly concerned with such issues. (See, for example, in our pamphlet Questions of the Day, the chapter on the myth of overpopulation, and our Canadian companion party’s pamphlet A World of Abundance).  In this way we hope to show that hackneyed prejudices about human greed are irrelevant and that, far from being a pipe-dream, a society based on common ownership is a practical necessity.

But this is only one aspect of our case.  Our aim is not just common ownership; it is democracy.  For us, democracy is not an optional extra or simply a means to an end.  It is part of our end, as anyone can discover by reading our Object on the inside back cover of this journal.  We define Socialism as “. . . common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth . . .”

What do we mean by democracy? Amongst other things, a world in which people are not bossed around by a government or told what to do by their “superiors”.  More positively, a world where everyone takes an equal and responsible part in making decisions which affect society, without the strife which is inevitable in a class-divided society.  That is one reason why we say there will be no socialist society until a majority desire it.  As long as most people are content to be told what to do by elected representatives there will be no democracy in the sense defined.  (Not that an electoral system is completely worthless.  More of that later).

At first sight, this suggestion of literally everyone taking part in social decisions may seem as unrealistic as the earlier one of common ownership.  Surely, it might be said, these matters have to be left to the experts, and surely modern populations are far too large for active participation by everyone?

Objections like these are meat and drink to political theorists and political philosophers.  They think the point so obvious that they state them far more often than actually arguing for them.  Yet they are not obvious.  In view of the demonstrated failure of legions of experts and government advisers to solve any of the major problems of civilisation, the less said about expertise the better.  On the other hand, numbers may seem a genuine problem.  How can millions of people all have a say in running society?

The answer, once again is that this would be a mere “good idea” unless the means were available to make it a reality.  And the means are available.  Here, too, it is a matter of pointing to existing resources and developments within capitalism.  It would be futile for us to offer a blueprint, of course.  The exact form the future democratic society takes will depend on the historical circumstances prevailing when it is established.  But there are aspects of the technology already available which show how large numbers of people could be drawn into the decision process.

Communication is the lifeblood of capitalism.  This is reflected in the facts that by 1975 over 95 per cent of households in Britain had TV sets, 53 per cent had telephones, and world traffic in telecommunications has continued to grow at a rate of 12-15 per cent per year (much higher than the rest of world trade).  If no vested interests were involved, and if there were a desire for it, imagine how much useful information could be disseminated and how far the ordinary citizen could participate in decisions, just by replacing one old American film every week with an information-and-decision programme.  People listen to proposals for some project (say, the building of a new playground or power station), discuss the issues by phone-in, and then ring in to some central point with their vote for or against.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Developments are now taking place which will put phones and TVs in the museum along with the stone-age axe.  The device which will be responsible is the microelectronic silicon circuit.  It is about one centimetre square and is made, incredibly, of grains of sand.  In effect, this “silicon chip” is a tiny computer, enormously efficient and dirt-cheap to produce, which has been responsible for bringing together computer and telecommunications technology in one all-embracing “information technology”.

The first fruits of the marriage will be available next year when the Viewdata system goes into public service.  This will make available to its select customers 100,000 pages of information, any part of which can be called up on a screen literally at the touch of a button.  Not only that, but the system will be fully “interactive”—which  means that as well as it giving you information, you can give it information, which it will then store.  Even the feeblest imagination should be able to grasp the implication for democracy.  Such technology gives the opportunity for the population to keep themselves better informed and to take a more active role in decisions than at any time since the small city-states of ancient Greece.

But back to reality.  Viewdata is being developed in capitalism, which means it is first and foremost a commercial venture.  It will be used not for the sake of participatory democracy but to store information for its customers—advertising agencies, financial institutions, mail order firms and the like.  Moreover, systems of this kind have already begun to cause headaches in America, producing the telephone equivalent of junk mail and the hard sell.  The micro-computer works its way methodically through a list of victims, automatically ringing them up to relay its recorded message to buy someone’s goods.  You may not want to buy them, but it’s no use putting the receiver down because the computer will automatically continue to ring you back until you have heard it out.

And that is the least of it.  This potential boon to mankind is not just proving to be a nuisance:  it threatens to produce a crisis.  Microelectronic technology is so flexible it will be throwing people out of skilled jobs such as making precision watches and cash registers.  In the UK telephone equipment industry alone the number of jobs is expected to fall by 30 per cent between 1976 and 1979.  How far the capitalist system can cope with these far-reaching consequences is a problem for those who continue to support it.

Not to labour the point, here as elsewhere capitalism is double-edged.  The system has itself called forth instruments which could, in a different framework, be of untold benefit.  But under capitalism their use is perverted and only means further trouble.  Once again, therefore, the implication is clear that we must change the framework.

The development of information technology is double-edged in a further way.  At the turn of the century most political organisations depended largely on outdoor meetings for getting their message across.  With the widespread introduction of radio and TV this ceased to be true for the larger and richer parties.  But the gap which thus opened up has begun to close again.  The SPGB has managed to snatch the odd few minutes of broadcasting, and no doubt if capitalism lasts long enough we shall also, like our companion party in America, come to have our own programmes.  For the technology developed by capitalism for its own needs eventually becomes available for those who wish to replace capitalism.  The computer will make the dissemination of Socialist propaganda an easier and more efficient affair.

That it is something for the future.  For the present all we can do is make the best use of our limited resources in what is at least a relatively open political climate.  In Britain we can publish a journal and make tapes of our meetings without the threat of immediate persecution.  In a one‑party state like Russia we could not.  We do not exaggerate the extent of this freedom: it costs a lot of money to exercise it fully, and we know that such political freedoms as we have now can be withdrawn.  But equally we do not underestimate its importance. (Only a person who had never imagined living under a totalitarian regime would do that).  A climate of tolerance is useful to Socialists.  It is also fragile, and constantly endangered by our opponents of left and right.  Their policies of confrontation and smashing this, that and the other serve only to make it easier to place further curbs on political activity.  We received tangible proof of this recently, when one of our London branches lost the use of its meeting room in a pub as a result of threats between other organisations which use the room.  The SPGB will have no part in such tactics, and the only force we shall continue to use is the force of rational argument.

A number of points have been made in this article to show that out aim of a democratic society is a practical possibility.  There is also another kind of evidence—that of example.  The structure of the SPGB is democratic, foreshadowing the future society we advocate.  We have no leaders or ruling groups.  Though we cannot afford a computer or even to become a customer of Viewdata, our affairs are run according to the decisions of the entire membership through instructed delegates at Annual Conference, and all our officials are elected annually, again by the entire membership.  Any organisation can claim to be in favour of democracy.  We ask to be judged not on what we claim but on what we do.  Having nothing to fear from the presence of non‑members (welcoming them, in fact), we have never held a closed meeting in our entire history.  That is completely in keeping with our conviction that the revolution to establish the Socialist democracy will not be ours; it will be a revolution itself decided upon by a majority of humanity.

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