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.

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