Tag Archives: unions

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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Review of “Trade Unions in the Green Economy”

I recently wrote up a short ~2-page review of Trade Unions in the Green Economy: Working for the Environment (2013) for the Environmental Unionist Caucus of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  Check it out here.  Here is the introductory paragraph:

Trade Unions in the Green Economy: Working for the Environment (2013) is a compilation of essays on the intersection of labor organizing and environmentalism, with contributions from workers, union staffers, activists, and researchers from around the world.  The usefulness of each chapter varies; some focus on the policies of various technocratic bodies, while others look at the actual social and political dynamics within pro-ecology unions, and a few advance anti-capitalist analysis.  Overall, it is a very useful introductory survey on the modern state of eco-unionism, and contains useful information for revolutionary unionists and environmental syndicalists.

And here is a concluding paragraph, that has more to do with the general political ideology of what we could call “revolutionary environmental unionism” than the book itself, although I do think that the most compelling ideas in the book support it:

Indeed, if there is one takeaway from Trade Unions in the Green Economy, it is that worker self-organization and power are the central pillar of effective environmental unionism.  Transforming production via environmental reforms on capitalist lines will always result in a combination of 1) the displacement and destruction of working-class communities (and a concurrent shift toward reactionary politics in the absence of left-wing alternatives, as we are currently seeing in the Western world), and 2) the offshoring of dirty production to the Global South, which means that at the global level, we’re not necessarily reducing the net rates of pollution.  Furthermore, we must also recognize the limits of traditional liberal strategies for social change, which revolve around lobbying elites through the alleged power of ideas and rational discourse, and a focus on an abstract space of “public opinion”.  What we need instead is a strategy that brings politics into everyday life, where our neighborhoods and workplaces are sites of struggle for livable wages and healthy environments.

Tech workers are becoming politicized; can they also be radicalized?

The Trump administration is sparking a surprising amount of political and social mobilization among tech workers.  Some are protesting along lines that are concurrent with their bosses, such as the “walk-outs” at Google, which the CEO and other executives also attended; others are protesting companies like Palantir for their complicity in Trump’s ultra-reactionary programs.  Overall, while many tech elites are either ambivalent or even supportive of this new wave of political mobilization, its clear that workers are leading the charge, and not simply tailing the capitalists who pay them.

Right now, much of the unrest (within Silicon Valley or otherwise) seems tailor-made to get appropriated into mainstream liberal-progressive politics and act as an energizer for the Democratic Party, much like how the anti-war movement got co-opted during the Bush administration.  Discourse at protests seems targeted uniquely at Trump, as opposed to the general failures of establishment politicians, let alone capitalism.

But the radical left is in a much better position today than it was in the 2000s — socialist groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are seeing a big spike in new members, as are radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  And the election season saw tech workers breaking toward the left during the Democratic Party’s primary season, supporting Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, and even engaging in protests against Silicon Valley venture capitalists and their participation in Clinton’s elite fundraisers, during which their own class grievances got brought up:

Much of the protesters’ language centered on white-collar work frustrations, as the man with the bullhorn asked: “How many people here have weekends off – hands up? They have us working around the clock so they can get richer. How many of you are expected to be online over the weekend? Or get a call from your boss at 9pm?”

Thus, there seems to be great potential for the radical left to carve out a revolutionary pole among the general mish-mash of anti-Trump unrest among tech workers.  Part of this strategy ought to be double-down on ongoing efforts to connect with radical and revolutionary tech workers, and put a spotlight on radical left perspectives on techno-scientific labor and the nature of technological development in capitalism.

In particular, the radical left and those of us who are tech workers ought to put an emphasis on rank-and-file workplace organizing, and help tech workers fight against both their immediate problems (i.e. long working hours) as well as the lack of control they have over their companies’ politics.  This will be key in getting people to think beyond liberal politics (electoral campaigns and protest theater) and view their workplace (and the means of production in general) as a key site of political engagement, build class consciousness, and bring tech workers into political compositions with other segments of the working class.

Debates among French Marxists in the 1970s on the class position of engineers

The 1970s saw a lot of debate among French leftists of various organizations and schools of thought on the issue of how to interpret and deal with the restructuring of capitalism and the new classes that were being created.  These debates are summarized quite nicely in “Marxism and the New Middle Class: French Critiques” by George Ross, published in 1978 in Theory and Society, Vol. 5, No. 2.  The debates were about the character of the middle class as a whole (generally understood as those performing mental labor and getting a relatively higher salary), and much of this concerned techno-scientific workers.  The debates happened in the context of the post-1968 era, when people were trying to understand what to make of the student protests and the participation of skilled technical workers in the mass strikes.  Here is a list of each “faction” in the debate, as I understood Ross’ paper, and the main points of their class analysis.

French Communist Party (PCF):  The PCF saw a strict division between the working class and the capitalist class, and lumped any “sub-classes” (i.e. peasants, administrators, shopkeepers) into one or the other main class.  They argued that the new middle classes were part of the working class, and for the need to reach out to them.  But unlike their traditional working class base, they saw the new middle classes as not inherently revolutionary, and so argued for the need to tone down their militancy and put off revolutionary organizing.  This was roundly criticized by other sections of the French left for being reformist and evidence of the party’s decline.  (p. 165-70)

Nico Poulantzas:  This influential Greek-French Marxist-Leninist and comrade of Louis Althusser saw the new middle classes as being petite-bourgeoisie, because they neither owned the means of production, nor directly produced surplus value.  He also saw them as being a primary enforcer of capitalist social relations in the workplace, through their monopolization of knowledge, and tending away from class consciousness due to the way the education system conditions them to be “professional” and career-oriented.  However, Poulantzas also pointed out the divisions within this new middle class: he saw engineers and technicians as being relatively closer to workers, and administrators and accountants and the like being closer to the capitalists.  And despite the role of the education system, the petite-bourgeoisie are still heavily influenced by the level of class struggle in society, and can be brought into a coalition with workers if efforts are made to intervene against pro-capitalist and careerist ideology.  Poulantzas argued that when the petite-bourgeoisie become discontent, their politics tend to range from social-democratic reformism to anarcho-syndicalism.  (p. 171-5)

Baudelot et. al.:  A paper written by Christian Baudelot, Roger Establet, and Jacques Malemort (it was unclear who they’re associated with) argued that capitalist restructuring created both new groups of workers and new groups of petite-bourgeoisie.  They analyzed the wages of various salaried sectors and compared this to the estimated cost of “reproduction” (i.e. the costs of education), and found that some sectors were just barely compensated (accountants, administrative assistants, clerical workers) while others were compensated far beyond the cost of education (engineers and managers).  They also divided the petite-bourgeoisie into three analytical fractions: Fraction I was the old petite-bourgeoisie, the shopkeepers and business-people who were losing from capitalist restructuring and were lurching toward far-right politics; Fraction II was private-sector professionals who identified heavily with their firm’s success, and thus were distant from leftist politics; Fraction III was public-sector professionals who tended to have social-democratic and reformist politics.  Unlike Poulantzas, Baudelot et. al. argued that the politics of the petite-bourgeoisie were generally predictable, instead of being subordinate to the level of class struggle.  (p. 176-80)

Serge Mallet: This dissident militant from the PCF broke somewhat significantly from the dominant Marxist-Leninist currents to argue that the contemporary mode of capitalism was distinct from previous modes.  Mallet periodized capitalism into three phases: first was the mercantilist phase where the vanguard class was skilled craftsmen who were being exploited and displaced, second was the industrial age of mechanized production where the vanguard class was unskilled assembly workers, and the third and newest was the contemporary age of automated mass production where the vanguard class was skilled intellectual workers — engineers, technicians, etc.  Mallet argued that the technical knowledge of the new classes created a contradiction where these workers were fully aware of how to run and control the means of production, but still lacked political and workplace power, and thus would resist and fight capitalist control, and veer toward anarcho-syndicalism and the politics of worker self-management.  (p. 181-3)

Alain Touraine: This apparently famous sociologist seems to have broken the most with Marxism, in that he argued that the accumulation and use of knowledge (rather than the accumulation of capital) was the driving force of a new post-industrial political economy.  Like Mallet, he saw the new intellectual workers as being the key force for socio-political change in this new era, as they demand more real power and resist the capitalist drive for profits and push for self-management; but unlike Mallet, he sees them as a class that can effect change by themselves, rather than being necessarily tied with the old working class.  (p. 183-6)

Of these, the most relevant and interesting arguments to me are those of Poulantzas and Mallet.  Both see techno-scientific workers as being potentially radical forces and allies of the working class in general.  Mallet, in particular, is interesting because unlike many of the other theorists, he was an active militant organizer and seems to have developed his views from real praxis (as opposed to reading things via academia).

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

Sunday Interesting Links

  • Critical analysis on the “Fight For $15” minimum wage campaign and the absence of political organization, from Orchestrated Pulse
  • Argument for “selfish solidarity” over “allyship”
  • Article about recent scholarship on the politics of land reform in Afghanistan

Saturday Interesting Links (On the USA)

  • A recent poll asks Americans about their support for a military coup in the US