Some takeaways on the division of labor, technocracy, and the Cultural Revolution

I recently finished reading Rise of the Red Engineers: The Cultural Revolution and the Origins of China’s New Class (2009), an excellent analysis of how different social classes formed and contested one another during China’s socialist period, and an effective look at the dynamics and evolution of the Cultural Revolution.  The main point of analysis is on the way the two elite groups that remained after the victory of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1949—educated people, and CPC cadres—slowly fused together.

In 1949…very few members of the educated classes belonged to the party, and very few party members had higher education.  Those who had a foot in both camps—the Communist intellectuals—were tiny in absolute numbers and a small minority within each group.  As children of the educated elite gained political credentials and children of the political elite gained academic credentials, the number of people who occupied the intersection of the two groups—the Red experts—grew steadily. (272-3)

This process began almost immediately after 1949, with the advent of a massive expansion of education policies modeled after the Soviet Union that focused on technical and scientific fields.  It was interrupted, however, with attempts by Mao and his allies to fulfill the official goal of building communism and eliminating class hierarchies, as seen through the tumultuous—and often horrific—events of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.  These “class-leveling” campaigns (specifically, the ones during the Cultural Revolution) gave the two elite classes strong reasons to stop fighting teach other (as was the case during the Great Leap Forward) and unite to protect their power against the rebellious masses and lower-level CPC cadres.

The two elites also converged politically as members of both groups came to recognize a mutual interest in preserving social stability and halting class-leveling campaigns.  During the first decades of Communist power, these campaigns were facilitated by a gulf between the new and old elites.  Communist cadres saw the educated elites as representatives of the old order and believed that undermining the privileges they derived from cultural capital was party of the party’s revolutionary mandate, while intellectuals saw Communist cadres as unqualified usurpers and resented the privileges they derived from political capital.  In 1957, members of the two groups lined up on opposite sides of battle lines defined by political and cultural capital.  In 1966, the same kind of inter-elite antagonisms exploded at many elite schools, but simultaneous attacks on both groups ended up forging inter-elite unity…Budding Red experts of all class origins took umbrage at radical slogans denouncing party-affiliated college graduates as “new bourgeoisie intellectuals” and they came together in the moderate camp to defend both political and cultural capital.  (273)

Perhaps the most interesting thing about all this was how clearly serious the more militant communists were about actually abolishing class, and eliminating the divide between “manual” and “mental” labor.  Obviously these efforts not only failed, but backfired; the violence and intensity of the campaign lead to the convergence of two previously hostile elite classes and the creation of a pro-capitalist technocratic ruling class that continues to hold power today.  But it’s still interesting to see a revolutionary movement grapple with the problem of the division of labor, and raise arguments and debates that seem entirely absent from modern radical circles—a problem that will likely need to be rectified if modern communists are serious about revolutionary struggle, and engaging with the increasing stratification of the working-class based on differential skill-sets and knowledge bases.

Another interesting line of analysis in the book was the way it traced the evolution of 20th-century socialist states from being initially committed to Marxist socialism (and its intention to build a classless communist society), to eventually becoming much more defined by the utopian socialism of Saint-Simon, which explicitly theorized the need for an elite technocratic class of planners and bureaucrats who governed society according to the common good, and on techno-scientific principles.  Like the dynamics around the division of labor, modern communists should make sure to study the collapse of Marxist socialism into utopian socialism, and ensure that similar trends don’t emerge in contemporary revolutionary movements.

Monday Interesting Links (On Climate/Environment)

  • Essay on industrial agriculture, ecological alternatives, and class struggle, via Jacobin
  • Article on the deep divides within the AFL-CIO over the issue of DAP and other climate issues

Ongoing resistance to US security forces

Charlotte, North Caroline got super rowdy last night after the police killed Keith Lamont Scott, who allegedly had a gun (in an open-carry state), during a security sweep for another man.  Angry locals took to the streets and clashed with cops, smashed up police cars, blocked the local interstate and looted several trucks.  That latter point is especially interesting, and is an escalation over the standard tactic of simple blockades; its perhaps a good time to check out Viewpoint Magazine’s recent symposium on Joshua Clover’s recent book on riots and the circulatory systems of modern capitalism.

Its worth noting that the riots in Charlotte come a couple of days after an unarmed black man was killed by police after his car broke down in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Tulsa, of course, was the site of the infamous 1921 Tulsa race riot, when the wealthiest black neighborhood in the country was burned and bombed by a racist white mob, with hundreds dead and thousands injured.

Meanwhile, the largest prison strike in US history is continuing into its second week.  It seems to have tapered off some since last week, when some 24,000 prisoners across 29 prisons missed work, but unrest appears to be ongoing at some 20 prisons.  Holman Prision, in Alabama, seems to be an epicenter of unrest; one correctional officer was stabbed and killed last week, and according to the Free Alabama Movement, numerous other officers are now themselves dissenting against the administration and expressing support for dissidence.

In other news, around 500 people gathered in Oakland, California this past weekend for a conference held by and for those who have directly experienced the USA’s systems of mass incarceration.

Sunday Interesting Links

  • Lengthy essay on prison labor, mass incarceration, and labor market dynamics
  • Book reviews on the history of Angola, Cuba, and apartheid South Africa
  • Old essay from 2004 on a radical left environmental strategy in southern conservative states, from the IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus
  • Reportage on Indian oligarchs and the arms industry
  • Article on the racial advocacy of New York City’s Health Commissioner, and her old ties with the Black Panther Party

Machine tool automation and economic distortion from the military-industrial complex

Apologists for the bloated military budget of the US will often raise the point about how military spending supports technological development.  Aside from depending on a religious understanding of technological progress as inherently “good”, this argument is flawed given the fact that military spending has sometimes deformed scientific and engineering R&D into more inefficient and ineffective directions.

Take numerical control (N/C) machine tool automation systems developed in the 1950s and deployed throughout the 1960s and 1970s.  N/C development was chosen by the military and their partners in select universities and corporations, and thus ended up crowding out alternative technology pathways. According to David Noble’s Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation (1986) N/C systems were 1) far more expensive and complicated than the competing technology of record-playback (R/P), which was easy to program and use, and 2) expensive compared with the benchmark system because of how the unique needs of the military industries crowded out cheaper, general-purpose N/C systems.  As a result, domestic production of N/C systems lagged for the civilian market (which dominated the metal work industry), and allowed for the domination of foreign machine tool firms.

Fujitsu Fanuc, a leading Japanese machine tool builder, in 1973 alone produced more N/C machines designed for the commercial market than all US machine tool firms combined.  Likewise, in West Germany, machine tool builders concentrated upon the commercial market.  According to Paul Stockmann of Pittler–a central figure in German N/C development–German manufacturers were locked out of US military contracts and the APT Program and found, besides, that “no one was interested here in a highly sophisticated program which required access to a big computer.”  Instead, manufacturers focused upon less expensive and less demanding programming methods, and designed their cheaper machines accordingly.  Not surprisingly, with domestic machine tool builders tied up with military and aerospace industry orders and specifications, foreign manufacturers were able to gain a significant foothold in the US commercial market.  Between 1960 and 1975, US imports of machine tools increased 300 percent.  By 1978, the US had become a net importer of machine tools; Japanese machines accounted for one-third of these imports and West German machines accounted for one-fifth (222).

Here’s something else to ponder: how much did the dominance of Japanese and West German firms in the machine tool industry affect the decline of American manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s, and the subsequent collapse of industrial communities across the Midwest?  Perhaps not much, given that factories should have still had access to the higher production rates of foreign machines, but this still demonstrates how the dominance of military interests in a critical field of technology in fact stifled the development of better, general-purpose systems.

Monday Interesting Links

  • Interview with a UC Berkeley sociologist on Louisiana, Trump, and conservative environmentalism
  • Blog post by an Italian cyber-security worker on when the UAE tried to recruit him for a massive surveillance project
  • Essay on the rise and fall of Theranos and Elilzabeth Holmes

Prison strike imminent!

On Friday, September 9th, prisoners across the US will go on strike against prison slavery and white supremacy, and the general dehumanization that define America’s system of mass incarceration.

This is not only a strike against bad conditions, for the changing of rules around things like parole, and to actually be paid for their labor which makes billions for multi-national corporations, but against white supremacy itself. When the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865, it in theory banned slavery, except in the form of imprisonment. While many former slaves simply became indentured share croppers, over the decades following the civil war corporations and governments continued to look towards prisons as a major source for free and cheap labor.

From a write-up from The Nation on the strike and its background:

Across the US, there are nearly 900,000 inmates who currently work in prisons. In states such as Colorado and Arizona, inmates earn as little as little as a few cents per hour for their work. In Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and Arkansas, incarcerated people are forced to work for free.

The general public has little idea of the scope of prison labor, considering how pervasive it is. Most prisons force inmates to perform the basic facility maintenance—mopping floors, cutting grass, cooking, or washing clothes—that keep prisons running…A number of states and federally run prisons also use inmate labor to manufacture marketable goods and services. Some of this labor is outsourced by private corporations, including Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Victoria’s Secret, Nordstrom’s, and AT&T Wireless, to name a few recognizable brand names.

The strike is being organized by various radical prisoner and prisoner solidarity organizations, such as the Free Alabama Movement and the Industrial Workers of the World’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.