Class composition, steam power, and automation

The theories of “class composition” is a key framework for radical leftist organizing and strategy.  The framework developed out of the theory and practice of the Autonomist Marxist sector of the Italian communists during the 1960s and 1970s.  In a nutshell, the framework analyzes how the changing structure of capitalism influences changes in the structure of working-class organization and resistance, which in turn drives further changes to the structure of capitalism.  I think Nick Dyer-Witheford, in his recent book Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex (2015), does a good job of summing up some of the core concepts here:

…operaismo thinkers and those who later followed in their footsteps distinguish the technical and political elements of class composition.  ‘Technical composition’ is the organization of the working class by capital; this includes both its ‘conditions in the immediate process of production’–the division of labor, management practices, and, of particular interest here, the use of machinery, and also, in some accounts, the ‘forms of reproduction’, such as community and family structures, through which the class relation is perpetuated.  ‘Political composition’ is the organizational capacity of the working class to fight for its own needs and development: the individual and collective actions of refusal, resistance, and re-appropriation of surplus value.  The political composition of the working class determines its capacity to subvert or go beyond the organization of society around capitalist value: to destroy the vortex from within (29).

And of course, the key addition to this is that there is a dialectical relationship between technical composition and political composition.  Changes in one drives changes in another.

The key source of “change” to the technical composition of class is technological development–the flow of capital into the development of new machines, new algorithms, new energy sources, etc.  Dyer-Witheford continues:

As Raniero Panzieri (1980) argued, the increase in capital’s organic composition is not the outcome of a neutral, purely scientific process of technological progress, but rather a historically prolonged machinic offensive aimed at ‘decomposing’ working-class counter-power.  Thus the resistances of skilled workers to early industrial capital were slowly broken down first by the time and motion studies of Taylorism and then by the mechanized assembly lines of the Fordist factory (29-30).

And its worth noting that the central argument of Andreas Malm’s masterpiece Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (2016) is that steam power–and associated machinery such as the power loom–developed as a response to the powerful and militant labor movements of early 18th-century industrializing Britain, who during the era of water power not only secured themselves high wages, but also pushed for sweeping reforms such as universal male suffrage and limits to the length of the workday.  The deployment of steam power was consciously intended to restructure British capital to deal with high wages and limits to the workday, and decompose the technical basis on which the contemporary British working class was organizing–and workers responded in kind by targeting steam engines for sabotage and destruction during the insurrections that peppered the that time period.

Of course, Ludditism isn’t the only possible response to the capitalist weaponization of technological progress.  Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, wrote a letter to the United Auto Workers in 1949  warning them that powerful corporations were seeking to deploy automation in order to undermine union power, and advocated that the union preempt automation by deploying it on their own terms and for the benefit of workers.  Little came of the correspondence, but Wiener’s arguments still hold true.  Technological progress can and should be appropriated by the working class–because it inexorably will be deployed by capital.  And of course, the study and anticipation of how capitalism and class are decomposed/recomposed by technology is central to this project.

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2 thoughts on “Class composition, steam power, and automation

  1. […] thought needs to be put into analyzing the actual impact of automation on the working class, and class composition.  I’ve been growing more skeptical about whether we’re realistically ever going to see […]


  2. […] to look at the larger systemic tendencies of capitalism, and thus built toward the theory of class composition and the role of working-class struggle in being the driving force of capitalist development and […]


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