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.

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