Analysis of class composition, high-tech workers, and education by US student leftists in the 1960s

In 1967, a group of militants within the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) wrote an essay called Toward a Theory of Social Change: The ‘Port Authority’ Statement, which put forward a Marxist analysis of classes in the US, and what radical left strategy ought to look like in light of ongoing changes.  Its method of class analysis was very similar to the framework of class composition that was developed by Marxists in Italy in the same time period, which analyzed the way the restructuring of capitalism (typically driven by technological change) also restructures the nature of the working class.

Like some of the more innovative class analysis happening in Western countries at the time, the Port Authority statement hypothesized about the potential radicalism of a “new working class” being created from technological advancements.  This new sub-class was divided into three more categories: technicians & engineers, skilled industrial workers, and social service workers.  What united these categories was the fact that they were at the heart of contemporary capitalism: technicians, engineers, and skilled industrial workers were at the center of production, the economic core of capitalist society, while social service workers were at the center of a growing welfare state that was necessary for capital as a stabilizing force against militant dissent.  An important unifying trend was that these workers in these categories typically passed through college campuses, where they could potentially undergo a process of radicalization.

The essay also made comments about the relationship between technology and class consciousness.  It was thought that since the “new working class” was relatively educated and skilled and at the center of production, but also lacked any real control over the overall system, they would be more prone to radicalization than other segments of the working class.  This idea was supported by the fact that at the same time, the SDS was observing such radical currents emerging among technicians, engineers, and skilled industrial workers in the United Kingdom, France, and West Germany (the fact that such radical currents weren’t observed in the US were attributed to the weakness of local student leftists).  Indeed, the subsequent decade saw vigorous debates among French Marxists about the class position of engineers, which echoed the SDS faction’s ideas, albeit in a much more developed and contested way.

The observed connection between universities and the “new working class” was also taken up in another essay written shortly after, called The Multiversity: Crucible of the New Working Class.  The essay focused on the alienation felt by students in American universities and how this alienation was linked with how capitalism turned universities into “knowledge factories”, which produced workers with the necessary education and skill to labor in an increasingly technological economy.  More interestingly, the essay put forward the idea that the optimal strategy for student leftists was to reach out to people studying science, engineering, and education (instead of, say, art), and to organize on community college and technical college campuses instead of the elite Ivies.

One proposed tactic to reach these students was to connect the criminal actions of certain corporations, like Dow Chemical’s production of napalm for use in South-East Asia, with the fact that engineers and scientists who work for such companies have no power over choosing the direction and content of their work.  This, of course, tied back to the arguments in Toward a Theory of Social Change, about how the “new working class” was prone to radicalization because of the contradiction between their high level of education and skill, and their lack of real control in their positions as workers subordinated to the hierarchies of state and capital.

And today, it may be time to recover these lines of analysis and figure out how to update and apply them to today.  Software is at the center of contemporary capitalism.  Those segments of the working class who are required to run the sprawling infrastructure of information technologies, data analytics, and artificial intelligence, are not only becoming increasingly politicized, but are becoming outright radical and asserting their class position as workers.  The old observation from the ’60s on the role of universities as “factories” for skilled workers echoes what we are arguably seeing today, where education at all levels has been undergoing a steady and seemingly inexorable recomposition in order to produce workers who are more in-tune with the software-heavy modern economy.  Radical leftists, particularly those of us who ourselves work as programmers and engineers, could have a big impact if we can recover and build off previous efforts to analyze high-tech industries and organize techno-scientific workers.

Chavismo’s oily roots

In a recent essay in London Review of Books, Greg Grandin analyzes the ideological roots of Hugo Chavez and “chavismo”, and how important oil has always been for Venezeulan political economy.  The most interesting plank of his analysis is the way chavismo’s material dependence on oil, and its ideology, is traced back to efforts by Third World nationalists in the ’60s and ’70s to create the conditions for state-lead socio-economic development.  Chavez came of age in this era, when in Venezuela, profits from the oil industry were used to both consolidate a rigid two-party political system, a social-democratic system of welfare and patronage, and an unexpected commitment to anti-imperialist politics.

In 1974, the Venezuelan Congress extended ‘special powers’ to President Pérez, giving him complete discretion to legislate and spend. He nationalised industries, limited foreign influence in banking and commerce, and launched a massive programme of state-controlled industrialisation. Money flowed lavishly and unaccountably to projects that were often wishful, wasteful and venal. ‘Anyone who had the tiniest bit of power began stealing shamelessly,’ Chávez tells Ramonet. Pérez, he says, ‘presided over the greatest wave of corruption in living memory… The rich got even richer and amassed colossal fortunes, while the poor received mere crumbs from the oil money table.’ At the same time, however, Pérez was pledging to put Venezuela’s oil at the ‘service of Latin America, at the service of humanity’, in order to wipe out the ‘last traces of colonialism’ and turn socialism into a ‘planetary reality’. Venezuela’s foreign policy during these boom years called for debt relief, nuclear disarmament, an end to the arms race, access to the sea for landlocked Bolivia, lifting the US embargo on Cuba, and the creation of a Latin American Economic System that would function free of Washington’s interference. Pérez proposed using Opec as an ‘instrument of negotiation for the construction of the New International Economic Order’.

These political efforts were made by possible by the high oil prices of the ’70s and early ’80s.  But the subsequent crash unraveled Perez’s project, leading to intense social unrest and destabilizing events like the Caracazo and Chavez’s coup attempts.  After Chavez was brought into power, the major thrust of his program was apparently to reinvigorate OPEC, get oil prices back up, and fuel the Bolivarian Revolution.

Chávez knew that the best way to gain control over oil revenue was to restore the effectiveness of Opec. In early 2001, his first oil minister, Alí Rodríguez Araque, became Opec’s general secretary, and he managed to achieve a level of unity among oil-exporting nations not seen since the early 1970s. Opec nations not only agreed to a production cut, but agreed to give Rodríguez unprecedented authority to decide targets for future output as he deemed necessary, without having to consult the organisation as a whole. Mexico, not a member of Opec, committed to adhering to Opec quotas too. Oil prices began to rise, helping Chávez take control of PDVSA and beat back efforts to oust him.

Prices rose over the next decade and a half, as did the various social and economic indicators in Venezuela that the chavistas were pouring oil profits into.  And the various international projects that Chavez developed looked quite like those advocated by Perez, even beyond the central role of OPEC: a regional economic bloc autonomous from the US, oil subsidies for poorer nations, etc.  But like the Perez era, the vast wealth of oil also created and consolidated mechanisms for corruption.  It also allowed for the chavista state to avoid dealing with the harsh realities of class conflict: as Grandin notes, the accumulation of wealth by the Venezuelan bourgeoisie continued relatively unhindered throughout the Chavez years, despite the simultaneous explosion in grassroots organizing by the masses.

Now, several years into a new era of low oil prices, the Bolivarian Revolution is falling apart — again, not unlike what happened in the final years of the Perez era.  The rollback of the victories of chavismo, by the inexorable logic of basic material constraints, is apparently the price paid for not freeing the Bolivarian Revolution from its material dependence on oil.

Supply-lines for Salafi-jihadist rebel groups in Syria

In a recent episode of Radio War Nerd, the interviewee Elijah Magnier pointed out that there is a massive and ongoing logistical operation to supply Syrian rebels (most of whom are ultra-conservative sectarian Salafi militias).  In order to emphasize the scale of the operation, he pointed out that during the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, the US had to carry out an emergency re-supply to Israeli military forces after less than two weeks; compare that to the fact that Syria has seen what is more or less a full-blown conventional war effort between standing armies for the last 6 years, with seemingly no limitations on weapons or ammo.  It is relatively clear that Iran and Russia are supplying massive and consistent arms shipments to the Assad regime’s coalition, but what must be an equally massive and consistent military logistics operation on the rebel side is barely discussed at all in the mainstream Western media.

This article published recently in The American Conservative (which, despite its name and supposed political leaning, regularly publishes fantastic critical analysis of US foreign policy) somewhat fills the void, by digging into the details of arms supply operations by the US and its regional allies in the early years of the war, and how these operations were obviously and blatantly boosting up the power of al-Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadist groups.

The level of detail drawn from what appears to be public record is quite striking.  Here is an excerpt on weapons shipments in the summer of 2012, that involved the CIA trafficking weapons from Libyan arms caches:

A declassified October 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency report revealed that the shipment in late August 2012 had included 500 sniper rifles, 100 RPG (rocket propelled grenade launchers) along with 300 RPG rounds and 400 howitzers. Each arms shipment encompassed as many as ten shipping containers, it reported, each of which held about 48,000 pounds of cargo. That suggests a total payload of up to 250 tons of weapons per shipment.

And here is an excerpt detailing part of the massive arms corridor between the Balkans and Syria that was established in early 2013, financed by Saudi Arabia and coordinated by the CIA:

One U.S. official called the new level of arms deliveries to Syrian rebels a “cataract of weaponry.” And a year-long investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project revealed that the Saudis were intent on building up a powerful conventional army in Syria. The “end-use certificate” for weapons purchased from an arms company in Belgrade, Serbia, in May 2013 includes 500 Soviet-designed PG-7VR rocket launchers that can penetrate even heavily-armored tanks, along with two million rounds; 50 Konkurs anti-tank missile launchers and 500 missiles, 50 anti-aircraft guns mounted on armored vehicles, 10,000 fragmentation rounds for OG-7 rocket launchers capable of piercing heavy body armor; four truck-mounted BM-21 GRAD multiple rocket launchers, each of which fires 40 rockets at a time with a range of 12 to 19 miles, along with 20,000 GRAD rockets.

And here is an excerpt on the connect between the war in Syria and US-Saudi arms deals:

By far the most consequential single Saudi arms purchase was not from the Balkans, however, but from the United States. It was the December 2013 U.S. sale of 15,000 TOW anti-tank missiles to the Saudis at a cost of about $1 billion—the result of Obama’s decision earlier that year to reverse his ban on lethal assistance to anti-Assad armed groups. The Saudis had agreed, moreover, that those anti-tank missiles would be doled out to Syrian groups only at U.S. discretion. The TOW missiles began to arrive in Syria in 2014 and soon had a major impact on the military balance.

The entire article is excellent and worth spending time on.  Its perhaps the clearest and most well-sourced article I’ve seen on the exact nature of NATO-GCC supply lines to their local proxies.

Activism and working-class realities in Ferguson

Mainstream liberal-progressive activism suffers from a number of strategic deficits, such as the focus on one-off theatrics run by non-profits and NGOs, and the emphasis on media attention.  These deficits tend to be inherent to liberal politics, insofar as liberalism seeks to reform capitalism, rather than mobilize the working class to overthrow it. Thus liberal political cadres tend to be middle-class activists who have the time, energy, and money to plan and participate in mobilizations aimed primarily at lobbying, raising awareness, etc.  But these strategies typically don’t build power in the communities and populations that they claim to speak and act for.

The limitations of liberalism became especially clear in Ferguson, in the aftermath of the protests and riots in August 2014, as seen in an essay on the struggles of local working-class activists published in Politico a year later. These activists struggled to balance their commitment to fight racist exploitative policing with their day-to-day financial needs.

Ferguson began as a movement led by the people who had lost. Protesters took to the streets not only to rail against racism and police brutality, but also to decry decades of deeper divides: in housing, education, jobs and the court system. But as the months wore on, the media frenzy built up and the money rolled in, Ferguson turned into something else. A struggling suburb without a prominent industry suddenly had one: Ferguson Inc., a national protest movement.

Unsurprisingly for a cause that overnight became an international drama, donation money from both individuals and large non-profit foundations (such as the George Soros’ Open Society Foundations) began hunting for good investments in Ferguson and the surrounding area.  This in turn drove local activists to orient themselves and their strategies around these sources of funding.

As the interviewees for the article state, some of their most important activities as local activists involved taking care of basic day-to-day needs, with mutual aid playing a large role.  People helped each other buy food, pay off phone bills, and find housing.  The initial waves of protests had a traumatic impact on people’s lives, with many facing job losses and evictions.  Many faced downward mobility, grappling with hunger and homelessness even as they continued to valiantly strove to keep the larger movement simmering.

Some of the money sloshing around managed to find its way into the pockets of those who needed it the most.  But a lot of it didn’t.  Another unsurprising trend, given the class character of who tends to be able to best capitalize media attention and solicit funding from non-profits and NGOs.  Some donations funded tourist-esque trips for outsiders to take buses to Ferguson so that they could take selfies in front of burned-down gas stations; other donations funded national NGOs who called one-off protests so that they could write a press release and snap some photos of locals to put into their next round of grant requests; yet others funded panels for middle-class activists to tweet and blog about.

As the protest movement goes national, Ferguson has been reduced to “where it began.” But the economic hardship that both predated and predicated the protests has only been exacerbated. Most activists who entered the movement in poverty remain in poverty. Some who entered with means have lost them, while a tiny fraction has found money and opportunity. For St. Louis’ impoverished youth, it is the same old story, with an audience that diminishes each day.

All of this confirms my own suspicions that all sustainable working-class movements put money in people’s pockets.  In the context of Ferguson, protests sort of did that, but only indirectly, and in a way that forced locals to depend on a fickle and amorphous blob of media attention and Internet chatter — and only a minority of locals, at that.  Politics became co-opted by the interests of the nonprofit-industrial complex.  And what material help this funding did achieve might very well be undermined by the fact that it escalated competition between people who are precisely those who should be working together.

The most sustainable venture in Ferguson that came out of the rebellions seems to be a non-profit called Operation Help Or Hush, which was founded for the explicit purpose of helping protesters and activists deal with day-to-day needs, helping secure people everything from food to housing to jobs.  Hardly a radical venture, but its tactics are an indispensable part of any aspiring proletarian mass movement.

There are lot of lessons in Ferguson.  And a clear one is that mainstream liberal-progressive activism is utterly unsuitable for the actual needs of the working classes.  Contrast the protests-turned-photo-ops with the directly material nature of the Black Panther Party’s self-defense squads of the ’60s.  The former sucks up energy while bringing little concrete benefit to locals, except perhaps a sense of recognition; the latter could directly intervene against the police robbing residents.  We need to bring this kind of materialist strategy to the forefront, and put it at the center of our theories and practices.

Revolutionary internationalism in Greece

This recent story in Al-Jazeera about an Afghan migrant who joins up with anti-capitalist and anti-fascist forces in Greece is a prime example of what revolutionary internationalism can look like today.  Masoud Qahar was formerly a logistical officer for NATO in Afghanistan, a position he held for five years.  The Taliban, unsurprisingly, targeted him and his family, killing his younger sister in 2012.  NATO refused to help him or his family, so he ditched his job and began a journey via land routes to Greece in 2015.

Qahar soon linked up with local anarchist groups who were helping run refugee camps and organize demonstrations.  Now he helps them translate and joins them in anti-fascist protests, and plays a larger role in leveraging his extensive local network in the camps to help connect Greek anarchists and his fellow migrants and refugees.  Along the way, he also seems to have developed an extreme disdain for his former employers, which is no doubt pleasing to his radical friends:

He describes both NATO and the Taliban as “houses of fascism”, before adding proudly: “Now I’m an anti-fascist.”

This connection showcases the Greek anarchist movement’s larger strategy of mutual aid and dual power.  As reported in this favorable New York Times article on the matter, the sprawling complex of service centers run by anarchists across Greece includes 15 squats in Athens that house 3,000 migrants, run cooperatively and collectively, independent from state and capital.

“Refugees and solidarity activists have been protesting together against the far-right and EU policies” [Kelly Lynn Lunde/Al Jazeera]

This is absolutely the right direction for radical leftists in the West to go, insofar as revolutionary internationalism is concerned.  People caught up in the violent churn of global capitalism and imperialism continue to flee their homelands, and are forming new transnational communities.  Qahar’s journey from Afghanistan to Greece is part of a larger trend that seen over 250,000 Afghans making the same journey since early 2015.

Connecting with these communities is how internationalism can be advanced from being superficial statements of solidarity that have no impact on anything, to being a genuine material force that engages in actual, tangible organizing across borders.  And it is particularly interesting to consider how these forms of radical transnationalism can intervene in the trend where anti-imperialist politics is coopted in the Greater Middle East region by far-right religious fundamentalists.  Qahar has clearly broken from the NATO vs. Taliban dualism that afflicts mainstream media discourse about politics in Afghanistan, but in a way that has lead toward radical leftist politics as the alternative, rather than political apathy as is usually the case.  If Western radicals and new diaspora communities from the Greater Middle East continue to network and merge, there is real potential for solidarity politics to evolve into outright transnational revolutionary struggle against all “houses of fascism”, be they Western or local.

Bonus: Video from just a couple of days ago of working-class youth violently clashing with police in Nuremberg, Germany, who are attempting to detain and deport their Afghan classmate.  (Article)

Data and AI, the core of contemporary capitalism

Last week’s Economist had an excellent report on the data economy and its growing importance to contemporary capitalism.  Data is now the most valuable commodity in the world, ahead of oil, and the five most valuable firms in the world are all technology companies: Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft.

It is generally understood that all the free online websites we use aren’t actually “free”, but rather are paid for via data collection on our activities on these sites, which are used for targeted advertisement.  Less understood is the fact that increasingly, the real value is not in data and advertising, but in using the data to improve artificial intelligence programs that are much more valuable and create much more complex services, like language translation and self-driving vehicle algorithms.  Hence, why Tesla is valued so high, despite selling so few cars relative to companies like Ford: the real value is in their massive pool of data that they collect from Tesla drivers, and their increasingly proficient self-driving vehicle AI.

Data-collection and AI has spread across the entire economy, beyond just what we think of as “tech”. Transportation is the obvious sector that is fusing with data/AI, but less obvious sectors include the health care industry, and traditional sectors in manufacturing and industrial processing.

GE, for instance, has developed an “operating system for the industrial internet”, called Predix, to help customers control their machinery. Predix is also a data-collection system: it pools data from devices it is connected to, mixes these with other data, and then trains algorithms that can help improve the operations of a power plant, when to maintain a jet engine before it breaks down and the like.

Of course, creating a system for data acquisition and monitoring is hardly new for plants, its not like you can run a modern plant without some kind of control system; what is actually new here is the application of AI to analyze plant data and suggest improvements that plant operators might not realize could be done.

The finance-data intersection is also important to grasp.  A primary point of discussion in the Economist report was around data markets — specifically, the lack of one.  Despite data being so valuable, there exists no real market for companies to trade data-sets and data-streams; instead, they simply buy up the whole company so that they can silo off data for themselves.  There doesn’t appear to be much enthusiasm from tech companies to create such a market; on the other hand, one would imagine that Wall St. is watering at the mouth at the prospect of financializing data, in the same way that manufactured commodities were in the ’80s and ’90s.  Wall St. already makes use of financial data and AI, to the point where engineers and programmers seem more important than traditional traders, but to bring the data itself into the realm of trading and financial speculation is whole other story.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there is the issue of the amount of control that we average schmucks have over our data.  The report discusses many ideas around how to give us back control, such as tools and regulations that allow us to view and control all the data that is out there about ourselves, and even get compensation for its use.  Amusingly, the report’s final section is titled “Data workers of the world, unite!” and discusses arguments for a “digital labor movement” by those of us (which is basically all of us) whose data is being fed into increasingly powerful AIs, and monopolized by massive and unaccountable corporations.  References are made to Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future?, and the way immense amounts of value is being spun out of day-to-day activities– mostly online, but increasingly offline as well.

This idea is a callback to the Marxist analysis of machines and labor, where technology is said to be “dead labor” insofar as it is a mechanized interpretation of what living labor (the human worker) does.  The power loom took the labor of weavers and interpreted it through a machine, locking in the knowledge and skills of the workers into a system controlled by capitalists.  Machine-tool automation did the same for machinists and metal-workers.  Today, we can imagine this trend reaching toward its logical conclusion, where capital soaks up human knowledge and skill in general and uses it to build AI that could perhaps for people entirely — and beyond.

All of this should emphasize the importance of organizing within the tech industry.  All of these data and AI-centered processes are not driving themselves.  They are dependent on armies of engineers, programmers, scientists, and all the other workers within the tech industry.  They are also increasingly political, even radical.  Contemporary movements to overthrow capitalism will necessarily have to synthesize the workers who are laboring at its core.

David Watkins vs. Peter Frase vs. Norbert Wiener on workers, jobs, and technology

How should workers respond to the introduction of labor-saving technology into their workplaces, and the inevitable and potentially negative labor restructuring that follows?

In the context of automatic self-checkout stations at grocery stores, David Watkins argues that we should cheer on Luddism; that is, workers should resist technological changes that will erode their jobs and wages.  He directly responds to the increasingly popular argument that automating away work would theoretically be a good thing, by pointing out that under capitalism this potential benefit will only ever be theoretical.  Therefore this kind of utopian imagining is not useful for workers whose jobs are being undermined and displaced by technology today, and whose living standards are falling.  Watkins also pushes back against the idea that some jobs are inherently alienating and dehumanizing, and argues that workers have always found value in all kinds of labor, regardless of how menial or grinding — including, presumably, grocery store clerks.

Peter Frase pushes back against both of these arguments.  He argues that while it is important to think of pragmatic and/or defensive strategies like resisting technological restructuring, it is also important to move past a permanently defensive posture and imagine a future where the benefits of automation can actually be distributed to workers, instead of being monopolized by capital.  He points to the example of dockworkers, who over the past half-century accepted dramatic technological restructuring of ports — but also engaged in militant struggles against management so that their high wages were protected, and even secured a certain level of profit redistribution for displaced workers.  Frase also scoffs at Watkins’ argument about workers finding value in all sorts of work, pointing out that this totally misses a basic point about how coercion functions in capitalism — that is, workers don’t have free choice to engage in work they personally find valuable, since they have to find some sort of work in order to survive.  Thus, the whole idea that we ought to prevent technology from disrupting work and allow people choice in the work they pursue is meaningless when people never had a real choice in the first place.

Between these two, I lean much more toward Frase’s position.  I do agree with Watkins’ point about the need to not let utopian theories override what we need to do today to protect our interests and needs as workers.  But I think Frase’s example of how dockworkers approached the issue of technology and job loss/change is a much more compelling alternative to neo-Luddism.  I’d also argue that if we were to accept Watkins position that technology restructuring needs to be resisted, then we’re going to need a powerful and rejuvenated radical left — and a radical left that is powerful enough to halt technological restructuring is also powerful enough to coopt and deploy technology on workers’ terms.  So why not just go with the latter?

Practically speaking, local conditions will be the ultimate determinant of whether workers and leftists decide to either resist or coopt technology.  In some cases, it’ll be easier to smash up and sabotage robots, surveillance systems, etc.; in other cases, it’ll be feasible to force management to cut into capital’s share of profits and divert it to workers, or even to research, develop, and deploy new tech on workers’ terms.

And it is worth remembering that this debate is not new.  Norbert Wiener, an MIT professor widely viewed as the “father of cybernetics”, raised the resistance vs. cooption dichotomy all the way back in 1949, in a letter he wrote to the president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) on the dangers of automation to organized labor:

What I am proposing is this. First, that you show a sufficient interest in the very pressing menace of the large-scale replacement of labor by machine on the level not of energy, but of judgment, to be willing to formulate a policy towards this problem. In particular, I do not think it would be at all foolish for you to steal a march upon the existing industrial corporations in this matter; and while taking a part in production of such machines to secure the profits in them to an organization dedicated to the benefit of labor. It may be on the other hand, that you think the complete suppression (sic) of these ideas is in order. In either case, I am willing to back you loyally, and without any demand or request for personal returns in what I consider will be a matter of public policy.

At the end of the day, intellectualizing about what machines could do must take a back seat to political practice and concrete movements, and how we view technology must be subordinate to strategies grounded by on-the-ground reality.