As summarized in my last post, the main essay series of Endnotes Issue 4, “A History of Separation”, is all about dismantling orthodox Marxist mythology around the importance of the industrial worker as the main protagonist of overthrowing capitalism and establishing socialism.
A key part of this argument, which I didn’t touch on in the summary, is relationship between technology, class, knowledge, and political identity. Back in the earlier stages of industrial production and industrial labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when revolutionary workers’ movements were blossoming, it was very easy for a worker to see themselves as part of a class that was the actual force that built and maintained society. Workers sweated and toiled alongside each other in massive centralized plants, stitching clothes, building cars, refining oil, chopping trees, etc. Workers were key to the production process, and they understood the process just as well as, if not better than, the capitalists who pocketed the profits.
However, as development and industrialization proceeded (under both capitalist and Marxist-Leninist regimes), worker knowledge of the means of production diminished. The industrial use of technology fragmented the labor process, separated the supply chain across entire regions and countries, and made work repetitive and dull, and in general, destroyed the old basis for a common, positive identity around being an industrial worker. From “The Strange Victory of the Workers’ Movement”:
In spite of the development of the productive forces, labour, it was insisted, remained the source of all wealth, its latent power and knowledge reflected precisely in that development. That turned out not to be true: knowledge of the production process was no longer located in the place of the collective worker, but rather (if anywhere), in the place of the collective technician. That was a key point because — while it upended the foundation-stone of the workers’ movement — it also finally confirmed Marx’s perspective in the “fragment on machines” (reproduced more soberly in Capital).
…It was increasingly the case that human labour was no longer the main productive force; science — often applied to the worst ends of industrial “development”— took labour’s place. That profoundly affected workers’ self-understanding, their experience of what they did and their place in the world: workers could no longer see themselves as building the world in the name of modernity or a better, more rational way of living. On the contrary, that world was already built, and it was entirely out of their hands. Modernity presented itself as this imposing thing, which workers’ confronted, not as subject, but rather, as an object to be regulated and controlled.
…Society is no longer just the means of production, a set of factories that can be taken over and self-managed by the workers who run them…The bases of social power are now much more dispersed. They are located not just in the repressive apparatuses of the police, the jails and the armed forces and the so-called “ideological” apparatuses of schools, churches, and television. They include also power stations, water-treatment plants, gas stations, hospitals, sanitation, airports, ports, and so on. Just like the factories themselves, all of this infrastructure relies on a legion of engineers and technicians, who keep the whole things running from minute to minute. These technicians possess no collective workers’ identity, nor were they ever included in the programmes of the workers’ movements.
The comments on the rise of science, and the importance of technical labor, stuck out since of course it connects with what I’ve been musing about regarding the current politicization and radicalization of workers in the tech industry in the US.
To me, what’s key here is the fact that the workers’ movement did not adapt or evolve in step with the evolution of class as it was restructured by capitalism, to acknowledge the growing importance of scientific and engineering labor in the increasingly complicated complex of production, distribution, and circulation. Some groups did this, but had to split from the old vanguard in order to do so. Two examples that I’ve taken a closer look at: 1) the Students for a Democratic Society’s “Port Authority” statement looking at the new class composition of the US, that included skilled technical workers, and 2) debates among French Marxists in various parties over the nature of the new classes in light of the post-1968 period.
The latter is particularly interesting in the context of the comments by Endnotes because it precisely shows how class recomposition provoked crisis and splits in Marxism and the workers’ movement. The French Communist Party (PCF) stuck with the industrial workers as their social base, but bizarrely tried to build a reformist coalition with the new middle classes who they saw as non-revolutionary and more conservative. This was presumably a reaction to the fact that parts of this middle class, particularly the skilled technicians, played a key role in the upheavals of 1968, even as the PCF was playing a backseat counter-revolutionary role (which begs the question why they continued to see these classes as less radical than themselves). Meanwhile, theorists like Serge Mallet of the an Alain Touraine adapted the old logic of the workers’ movement to uphold the skilled technical workforce as the new vanguard of technologically advanced and automated capitalism, as the only fraction of the working class which could grasp the complexity of post-industrial society.
However, at this point in time, it certainly doesn’t seem like any identity around a “collective technician” has emerged, let alone one that is revolutionary and anti-capitalist (yet!). Nonetheless, its very worthwhile to go back and look at these older debates around the class nature of technicians and engineers and scientists, to help us in the present figure out how to go about composing a revolutionary proletarian composition that is dynamic and cohesive across an increasingly fractured landscape.