‘The instrument of labour strikes down the labourer.’ Marx on machinery is worth reading

A response to Ned Ludd by GABRIEL LEVY

Ned Ludd’s article on socialism and ecology raises important questions. What would a “real fusion” of socialism and ecology look like? How should socialist

A can factory, 1909. Source: resourcesforhistoryteachers.wikispaces.com

A can factory, 1909. Source: resourcesforhistoryteachers.wikispaces.com

movements look at industrialism? Is “technocracy” a concept that helps us get to grips with this?

The left “needs to abandon its mythology of the ‘liberation of the productive forces’”, Ned argues. “Instead of that narrative of progress, we need to realise that industrialism is a 200-year-old bubble that is beginning to burst.”

Much of the organised left accepts uncritically assumptions about the benefits of industrial progress, and Ned’s warnings about this are justified, to my mind. The view of technology as something that marches forward outside of its social context, and will ultimately serve progressive causes in changing that social context, needs to be challenged.

The best place I can think of to start a serious critique of the “mythology of the ‘liberation of the productive forces’”, as Ned proposes, is with Karl Marx. After all, in the 19th century, Marx’s critique of the classical political economists was the most thoroughgoing and most influential on the workers’ movement. His discussion of the role of machinery in shaping the modern working class the most comprehensive. The mythology to which Ned refers appeared in the 20th century, based on a reading – or was it a misreading, or a mangling? – of Marx’s ideas. I think it’s important to sort through this.

Marx saw the tension between productive forces (by which he meant natural resources, the instruments of labour used by humans to work them, and human labour itself), and the social relations of production, as a driver of revolution. This idea is right there in the Communist Manifesto. As capitalism enters into crisis,

The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property.

The bourgeoisie tries to overcome such crises “by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces” and by “conquest of new markets, and the more thorough exploitation of the old ones”. But its fate is sealed. “Not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons – the modern working class – the proletarians”.

As far as Marx was concerned, the key outcome of this tension between the development of productive forces and capitalist social relations was the formation of the working class. Here is how Maxine Berg, in the book that Ned mentions, summed up work on this by Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels:

Moving beyond the analysis of the social effects of the machine on individual groups of workers, he [Engels] saw that technology in the context of capitalism affected all labourers at some time or another. The correct concept was therefore not labour, nor even the worker, but the working class. New technology arose out of the extreme competitiveness of the capitalist order. The result was a bitter but justified anti-machinery feeling in the working class.[1]

A few pages further on, Berg writes about how Marx, borrowing concepts from “his major antagonist, English political economy”, predicted the automation that arrived in the 20th century. He envisaged an “automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as conscious linkages”. This automaton would intensify the division of labour and devalue labour power.

In Engels’s pamphlet Socialism Utopian and Scientific, which sought to popularise the ideas he and Marx were working on, the clash between the productive forces and capitalist social relations is pictured much more schematically: “The contradiction between socialised production and capitalistic appropriation manifested itself as the antagonism of proletariat and bourgeoisie. […] The productive forces are in rebellion against the mode of production which they have outgrown.” This, Engels believed, was an underlying driver of revolutionary change.

In various strands of twentieth-century socialism, this schema was repeated like a religious mantra. It became a justification for productivism both in the Soviet Union and in the labour movement in the western capitalist countries: industry,

“Chinese Laborers at Work”: Harper’s Weekly, Vol. 11, 1867

science and technology are on our side, comrades! (I wrote about this here.) In response, some socialists offered a critique of Marx’s ideas; one of the most interesting, to my mind, was by Andre Gorz, the French socialist writer, who in 1982 argued in his essay Farewell to the Working Class:

■ Things have not developed as Marx expected. The development of productive forces has not created the material basis for socialism (the unsustainability of capitalist social relations); nor has it created the social preconditions (a working class that could take power). In reality, the development of productive forces has been “functional exclusively to the logic and needs of capital”; their development is not a material precondition of socialism but an obstacle to it; they are “so profoundly tainted by their origins” that they can not be the basis of socialist rationality.

■ The development of machinery, and then of automation, had not brought into being a working class that constituted a collective force for change, as Marx had thought. The stratum of skilled workers that dominate the labour movement will focus on “the appropriation of work, of the work tools and of power over production”, but the real task for socialists is the abolition of work. To socialised work that deepens divisions of labour must be counterposed “the right to autonomous production”, which “presupposes the right of access to tools and their conviviality”. (Gorz took the idea of conviviality from Ivan Illich.)

■ There was no empirical evidence to support Marx’s assertion that the working class had and has a “historical mission” as the gravedigger of capitalism; this had just become a quasi-religious mantra.

Gorz admitted that he did not know what form conscious action to change society would take.[2] To drive home his point against the labour movement’s productivism, he wrote about a “non-class of non-workers”, by which he meant “a stratum that experiences its work as an externally imposed obligation in which ‘you waste your life to earn a living’.”

I have some big problems with Gorz’s conclusions. Having understood Marx’s schema of the movement towards socialism as “teleological”, he rejects it wholesale, which I think is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Having bared the weaknesses of the bureaucratised official labour movement, he seems non-commital, even pessimistic, about the emancipatory power of social and labour movements defined more broadly. His analysis of the relationship of workers, machines and capital seems focused mainly on western Europe; the immense physical expansion of the working class globally over the last half century – which was well underway when he was writing – did not prompt him to any conclusions about the potential of its social and political activity.

Nevertheless, Gorz’s arguments need thinking about. He thought long and hard about what superceding capitalism, and superceding work, would mean, and the ways in which this would mean remaking the whole relationship between humanity and nature.

In the 21st century, questions definitely worth tackling would be: What relevance, if any, do Marx and Engels’s ideas about the tension between productive forces and capitalist social relations retain? Did Marx and Engels get the relationship between machinery and capitalist domination wrong from the start, or was their analysis superceded by the way that industry and technology developed, under capitalist control and shaped by capitalist property relations? Was Gorz right in the 1980s to question the proposition that this tension between productive forces and social relations of production negated the revolutionary role of the working class? If he was not, how can that role be understood in this day and age? How does 21st century technology shape that development? What place do we see for technology in post-capitalist society and in the superceding of work by purposeful and creative activity?

In other words, let’s critique Marx’s critique.

Ned Ludd’s analysis of “technocracy” could be useful here as a way of understanding the technology-centred ideology that has run through capitalism since its beginnings. He draws a convincing picture of that in his article. Where he loses me, though, is with his argument that technology is actually the source of ruling-class power. “The bourgeois achieves his/her position in technocratic capitalist society by mastery of technology or, more generally, of technique”, he writes. And, “class is fundamentally about mastery of technique/technology, and the main way to rise in class society is the acquisition of scientific/technical knowledge.”

I think this is overstating the case. The sources of bourgeois power are surely not only in technology and technical knowledge; they are also in its ownership and control of property, of the means of production (including industry and technology), and its control over the state and its institutions (including forces of repression), and over the propagation of ideology via the education system, the media, and so on.

Surely “technocracy” is an ideology, reinforced by bourgeois control over technology, and reinforcing that control.

Finally I want to question some of Ned’s assertions – about social movements, ideas that influence them, and middle class radicals that think about those ideas – which I think could obstruct, rather than enhancing, the discussion he wants to have about socialism and ecology.

Here are four points that might help clear obstructions out of the way.

1. Are “middle class radicals” inherently a bad thing? You’d think so, reading Ned’s article. Ned writes that the Luddites’ opponents, the political economists, convinced “mainstream opinion” that “machinery meant progress”, and that the same view was “gradually adopted by middle class radicals seeking to lead the workers’ movement”. The middle class radical Marx was “strongly influenced by the political economists”, and Marx’s analysis of capital a “social relation” was a “middle class abstractification”.

I don’t think this is right. For a start, the Luddites’ main opponents were the capitalists who owned and controlled the textile industries, and the state that defended those capitalists’ interests. The political economists, such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, were intellectuals who sought to describe the economic and social relationships taking shape under capitalism, and did so in a way that provided a justification for, and rationalisation of, that system. The political economists were servants of capital, not its masters.

For another thing, to say Marx was “strongly influenced” by the political economists is like saying The Clash were “strongly influenced” by the Rolling Stones. Just as The Clash tried to upset everything the Stones represented, so

Influenced by the Stones? Not really.

Influenced by the Stones? Not really.

Marx spent his life trying to turn classical political economy upside down, combating its servility to capital.

Marx didn’t come from a seriously rich family, as did e.g. Engels, the trade union pioneer Robert Owen or the anarchists Piotr Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin. But as an intellectual who had to work to support his family, Marx was by many people’s definitions a middle class radical. And the workers’ movement historically has always had reason to worry that sections of the intelligentsia might act as a lightning rod for the ideas of ruling elites into the movement. But it has equally welcomed into its discussions, and into its ranks, countless “renegades from the ruling class”, such as those mentioned above – or, for that matter, David Noble, who Ned quotes approvingly. Ned implies that 19th century middle-class radicals were intrinsically bad for the movement. I don’t agree. What they did, good or bad, mattered more than their social background.

2. Did Karl Marx look down his middle class nose at the working class Luddites? His tone was “patronising”, Ned writes. It clearly wasn’t. The sentence Ned quotes is from a section of Capital entitled “the strife between workmen and machine”. Read a few more sentences (on the marxists.org web site here, if you want). No doubt about whose side Marx is on. No doubt about his descriptions of machines as working people’s enemies: “The instrument of labour, when it takes the form of a machine, immediately becomes a competitor of the workman himself. […] The instrument of labour strikes down the labourer.” Ned contrasts Marx’s view to the “concrete, materialist terms” of the Luddites themselves. But he was writing a historical reflection; the Luddite movement subsided a couple of years before he was born.

3. Was Marx’s description of capital as a “social relation” a “middle class abstraction”?[3] Why “middle class”? The implication is that it’s therefore dodgy: for that, see (1) above. As far as I understand, Marx’s point was that capital was a relationship between living people – the exploiters and the exploited – as against the political economists’ way of looking at it, as a system of “objective” laws.

4. Is middle class power always based on “the mastery of abstract or theoretical knowledge”, as Ned writes? I think this is a really bad way of looking at the middle class, and at knowledge. In society generally, the middle class doesn’t have that much power, does it? And doesn’t the power that it does have originate from various economic and social factors, in particular its ability to serve ruling class interests? If we’re talking about a more specific subject, the position of middle class radicals vis-à-vis the workers’ movement, I’d argue that priveliging certain types of knowledge is only one of a range of authoritarian, vanguardist and hierarchical instruments that some people – including middle class people – use to bolster claims to “leadership”, or to get, or to try to get, excessive influence in workers’ movements. But the way Ned puts it sounds as though abstract or theoretical knowledge is always bad. I hope he doesn’t mean that. I think knowledge as anti-power, or counter-power – our knowledge, as opposed to the privileged knowledge that supports ruling elites – involves forms of abstract and theoretical thought. (This is an important discussion of its own. I would point to chapter 3 of Paolo Freire’s classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed, where he counterposes the “critical and liberating dialogue” to top-down forms of oppressive education, and writes about the need for this dialogue to “decode” what he calls “generative themes”, i.e. to use abstraction to deepen understanding.) 18 June 2015

Ned’s article is here, and some other comments here

Marx, “The strife between workman and machine”, from Capital vol. 1, on the Marxists Internet Archive

[1] Maxine Berg, The machinery question and the making of political economy, 1815-1848 (Cambridge University Press, 1980), page 326, and page 340 on Marx.

[2] In the second-to-last paragraph of “Nine these for a future left”, in Farewell to the Working Class.

[3] Ned called it a “middle class abstractification”. I take it that we are talking about the same thing. When I say “abstraction”, I mean a concept that has been developed by understanding and identifying some essential characteristics of concrete phenomena.

One Response to ‘The instrument of labour strikes down the labourer.’ Marx on machinery is worth reading

  1. anandi61 says:

    Today the only genuine and truthful counter-power identity, in other words the only one relevant to humanity and its survival, is an identity that is shaped by a life lived in dependence on and embedded in agro-ecology. To put it in the negative,a lifestyle and culture that does not actively participate in the regeneration of species/ecology/plants/habitats and forms of human community that facilitate such work, is a life that, whether intentionally or not, contributes to the overall loss of Earth as Home. Those with meaningful counter-power are thus agriculturists/forest-people/off-grid villagers etc, who manage to articulate their world view whilst at the same time living out its purpose in an interactive, interdependent, co-creating way with nature. In any case this has always been the kind of spiritual/ideological/power that has been most convincing. A person making important points that others listen to has to live the life she is talking about. Our counter-power is only counter-power if we live by example. We therefore also have to struggle to create environments where it is possible to live this life. It involves fighting for land, destroying the rule of law in democracy, etc etc. A post-industrial capitalist identity, as an example of something opposite to a counter-power identity, is easy to inhabit for example because beliefs and ideology and identity match with the environment its inhabitants finds themselves in. They inhabit their bodies, their jobs and their identities because their post-industrial capitalist environment is what it is. Our counter-power thus also has to fight to defend or establish the environment that actively fosters our values. So to put it positively, each of us must find a way of actively participating in the regeneration of mutual caring forms of group life whose purpose is the maintenance of species/ecology/plants/habitats, thus contributing to the overall conservation of Earth as Home. A counter-power identity only is counter-power if it is humble and deeply trusting of nature, because the only real counter-power to capitalism is nature. Since the last papal encyclical we are not all catholics now, but we are all human beings, living in Earth our Home. I feel it is right that we should count the Pope to the counter-power movement now. Marx is part of our movement in so far as he was not only a scientist analysing facts outside of himself, but also a deeply religious Jew who believed in communism, which he understood as being a village type of life in harmony with nature. It is better to be poor and live for the moment and make music than have jobs or consume things in a manner that destroys Earth our Home. Marx and the Pope both preach that. We should not be part of the capitalist rat race whether as worker, parent or child. It is wrong not to oppose the forces that make us and the Earth our Home ill. What is going on in the biosphere is not sad, why should it be, Earth will do her own thing: she is self-healing. And so are we. It is this reality of man-as-part-of-nature that is now having a profound influence on the identity of post-capitalist democracies. These people are not farmers, but in terms of prescriptions, at least the rest of the world would also like them to feel alright whilst the ship goes down. The message is not a very complicated, nor is it really a counter-power message at all: just believe in Nature, plant your own food, plant trees, live modestly using renewable materials and stop being dependent on money. Be happy! and listen to the music of the spheres!

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