Teaching Marx and Technology

I’m always on the lookout for work that might be useful in a sociology of technology course. I was re-reading Nick Dyer-Witheford’s (1999) Cyber-Marx and realized that the ‘Marxisms” chapter [.pdf] provides a pretty useful outline of Marxian interpretations of technology that could provide that backbone for a pretty good lesson plan.

Dyer-Witheford (p. 38) opens with the acknowledgement that:

Marx was, like all of us, a multiple. He wrote variously about technology, making statements that cannot all be reconciled one with another—or, at least, that can be reconciled in very different, sometimes radically opposed, ways.

Marx’s varied positions on technology are revealed in some oft-cited passages (skip these if you have limited reading time):

The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist. – Marx, Poverty of Philosophy

The machine, which is the starting-point of the industrial revolution, supersedes the workman, who handles a single tool, by a mechanism operating with a number of similar tools, and set in motion by a single motive power, whatever the form of that power may be. – Marx, Capital, vol.1

The implements of labour, in the form of machinery, necessitate the substitution of natural forces for human force, and the conscious application of science, instead of rule of thumb. In Manufacture, the organisation of the social labour-process is purely subjective; it is a combination of detail labourers; in its machinery system, modern industry has a productive organism that is purely objective, in which the labourer becomes a mere appendage to an already existing material condition of production. – Marx, Capital, vol.1

The technical basis of that industry is therefore revolutionary… By means of machinery, chemical processes and other methods, [modern industry] is continually causing changes not only in the technical basis of production, but also in the functions of the labourer, and in the social combinations of the labour-process. At the same time, it thereby also revolutionises the division of labour within the society, and incessantly launches masses of capital and of workpeople from one branch of production to another… dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer… it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from [the worker’s] hands his means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his detail-function, to make him superfluous… this antagonism vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital… This is the negative side… modern industry, on the other hand, through its catastrophes imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes… Modern industry, indeed, compels society… to replace the detail-worker of to-day, grappled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers. – Marx, Capital, vol.1

In no way does the machine appear as the individual worker’s means of labour. Its distinguishing characteristic is not in the least, as with the means of labour, to transmit the worker’s activity to the object; this activity, rather, is posited in such a way that it merely transmits the machine’s work, the machine’s action, on to the raw material — supervises it and guards against interruptions. Not as with the instrument, which the worker animates and makes into his organ with his skill and strength, and whose handling therefore depends on his virtuosity. Rather, it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it… The worker’s activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite. The science which compels the inanimate limbs of the machinery, by their construction, to act purposefully, as an automaton, does not exist in the worker’s consciousness, but rather acts upon him through the machine as an alien power, as the power of the machine itself… Labour appears… merely as a conscious organ, scattered among the individual living workers at numerous points of the mechanical system; subsumed under the total process of the machinery itself, as itself only a link of the system, whose unity exists not in the living workers, but rather in the living (active) machinery, which confronts his individual, insignificant doings as a mighty organism. – Marx, Grundrisse

Dyer-Witheford (p. 38) divides Marxian interpretations of technology into three camps:

scientific socialism, which sees techno-science as a central agent in a dialectical drama culminating in the inevitable defeat of capital; neo-Luddism, which focuses on technology as instrument of capitalist domination; and post-Fordist perspectives, which often look to the possibility of a technologically mediated reconciliation between labor and capital.

I’ll briefly summarize these three categories and try to connect them to pop culture examples that might make these ideas more tangible for students.

Scientific Socialism—Scientific socialism is exemplified in Ernest Mandel’s work which argued that socialism is the inevitable outcome of mechanization and automation. He starts with Marx’s premises central premise that only labor creates value and that capitalist’s profit comes from the “surplus value” (i.e., the non-renumerated portion) of their workers’ labor. The implicit assumption here is that “constant capital” (i.e., machines) cannot create value; rather, they are, themselves, just objectified labor. The argument is that, because “variable capital” (i.e., workers) are the only source of surplus value, as they are eliminated due to automation, industries will lose their source of profit and their capitalist organization will, necessarily, collapse.

Of course, other articulations of scientific socialism are possibly, but any theory of this type is, by definition, teleological and rather deterministic—two qualities which find diminishing acceptance in intellectual circles these days.

In many ways, Star Trek’s vision of a future society free of materialism our even money exemplifies this vision of scientific rationality putting capitalism to rest. Inhabitants of this world can simply “replicate” whatever they need whenever they need it. Technology has made the material world almost as fluid and copy-able as information.

A lot has changed in the past 300 year. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy… Material needs no longer exist… The challenge… is to improve yourself, enrich yourself… – Captain Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation s. 1, e. 27, “The Neutral Zone.”

The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.- Captain Picard, Star Trek: First Contact

Neo-Luddism—Dyer-Witheford primarily associates neo-Luddism with the Frankfurt school and their successors. Importantly, these commentators make a significant turn away from the priority given to material production in conventional Marxism and focus increasingly on the production and consumption of culture. Theodor Adorno (1966/1990), who is generally acknowledged to be the chief intellectual figure in this movement, presented scientific rationality is an unavoidable historical force to which there is little opportunity for resistance (save, perhaps, in the “natural beauty” invoked by only the most exceptional works of art—and even this effect was fleeting).

Later figures like Dallas Smythe, did much to reinstate the agent and elaborate on new possibilities for resistance, but, ultimately, one is left to infer from the neo-Luddite position that society would probably have been better off if Modernity had never come to fruition. If there is hope, it is now through further technological “progress” but through dismantling the techno-scientific mechanism of domination.

Like scientific socialism, neo-Luddism is characterized by technological determinism and an overriding teleology.

Domination occurs in the production and the consumption of both material commodities and less tangible cultural products.

Fritz Lang 1927 classic Metropolis portrays the miserable repetitiveness of the factory workers’ tasks. Frustration with the capitalist system in which the only choice is between toil and starvation manifests a hatred for means of production themselves. Workers feel like they are slave to the machine which are hazardous and often destroys workers’ bodies over time.

In the clip, a machine overheats killing many workers. The protagonist witnesses the event an hallucinates that the machine is a monstrous figure. This vision alludes to Moloch, an ancient God whose worship require child sacrifice. We can interpret this scene as illustrating the idea that workers are fed body and soul to the machinery of capitalism.

Metropolis is actually more optimistic than the works cited above in that the workers eventually undertake a successful rebellion.

More recently, Office Space (1999) tackles the mundane oppression that characterizes the office environment. In the movie’s most famous scene, the worker’s frustration is projected into some sort of fax machine that they steal in order to have the pleasure of destroying.

Finally, American Beauty (also released in 1999) featured that iconic image of the protaganist (a white collar worker at an advertising agency) imprisoned by his computer screen.

Post-Fordism—Post-Fordism views capitalism as a nimble entity that continually reinvents itself to overcome the internal contradictions that develop within it. In recent history, the labor-intensive production techniques of the Fordist assembly line are being replaced with automation guided by complex information systems. Human labor is less and less directed at material objects and is, instead, directed toward the computerized systems that interface with material objects. With repetitive tasks handled by machines, the need for alienated labor disappears. In this paradigm, creativity and individuation are encouraged and beneficial to the capitalist goal of maximum wealth accumulation.

Dyer-Witheford wrote Cyber-Marx in 1999 (the year before Hardt and Negri’s post-Fordist classic Empire was published). In many ways, he anticipates the explosion of writing in this genre that would take place in the coming decade. In fact, he devotes an entire chapter to the Italian Autonomist movement—a reaction to post-Fordism that has now become the most prominent and most active insurgence of anti-capitalist discourse in the West.

The Truman Show is a good example of how to start thinking about post-Fordism. Though Truman is employed, it’s the banal aspects of his life that have come to prove most productive. In fact, the entirety of his life has been turned into a “spectacle” (i.e., a commodified performance [according to Paulo Virno’s definition]). In many ways, all of our lives have become like Truman’s, though there is no escape hatch and we can see the cameras.

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