Friday, May 22, 2009

Robots vs. Luddites by Brendan M Cooney

In 1812 sabotage crept through the British countryside. By the cover of darkness gangs of weavers organized under their anonymous leader “General Ludd” broke into factories by night and smashed the new automated looms to pieces. Cloaked armies of “Luddites” appeared at factory gates in the day to demand better wages, better working conditions, and the right to produce higher-quality fabric. The weavers had not always been guerilla fighters. For 300 years they had passed down their craft from generation to generation of skilled artisans, weaving fine silk and stockings in the comfort of their own home. But now there was a machine that could do all that. It was called the power-loom.

But why would a worker break a machine? A machine is supposed to make work easier and make life better. To understand the violence of the Luddite rebellion we need to remember that when a worker uses a machine he/she enters into social relations with people. Work is always a social process entailing some sort of social cooperation. (In a capitalist society we can’t understand this social dimension without understanding the relations of private property which define it.) A machine conceals a social relation. Lift the veil and we see that the machine is an expression of the relationship between capitalist and laborer.

Throughout human history the social relations which we labor under have changed, from the primitive hunter-gatherer, to feudal societies, to modern industrial capitalism. We call these different organizations of social labor the “relations of production.” Different relations of production are characterized by different types ownership, different divisions of labor and different organizations of work.

Throughout human history the relations between people and the tools and machines they use has also evolved. From stone axes and knives to the automated loom to the personal computer the technical “forces of production” have undergone numerous revolutions.

These two aspects of work- the forces and relations of production- form the inner dynamic of human history. We might make some obvious observations about the two: Modern capitalist social relations couldn’t survive if we were constrained to the use of stonge-age tools. Conversely, the internet wouldn’t find much fertile ground for use within the social relations of 16th century European feudalism. We might use these obvious observations to make a more interesting observation: that the forces and relations of production co-evolve over time. This means that changes in one can have a profound effect on the other and that the inability of one to change can constrain the ability of the other to change.

By examining the coevolution of the forces and relations of production we can illuminate much about our history and our future.

So back to our question: why did the mysterious General Ludd and his followers steal through the English countryside under cover of darkness smashing the machines which were intended to make their work easier? To answer this question, let’s take a closer look at the machine in question.

The power loom did something that no loom before had done. It replaced the hands of the weaver with a mechanical hand that moved faster and more efficiently than the the most skilled of weavers. (figures?) The power loom didn’t just happen by accident. It appeared at a distinctive time in history when capitalists were introducing automated machines into production to replace the hand of the worker. Thus behind the machine, lay a social relation: a social relation between capitalists and workers.

By replacing the hand of the worker with the cold steel of a machine the skilled craftsman, the master weaver, was transformed into an unskilled machine-tender, an appendage of the machine. Unskilled workers could be paid lower wages. The pace of work could be dictated by the speed of the machine, not the pace of the human. Thus work could be sped up and intensified. Because less labor went into the product the prices of products fell making it impossible for independent craftsmen to compete with the new machines. In short, the replacement of the human hand with the automated tool meant a huge revolution in the social relations of 19th century Europe as the system of skilled craftwork was transformed into the large scale capitalist industry with its shopfloors of roaring machinery and the unskilled proletariat that tended these machines. The Luddite attack on the powerloom was a last-ditch defense of a dying labor process, a labor process quickly being replaced by modern industrial forces and relations of production.

And the Luddites weren’t the only barrier to the emergence of large-scale capitalist industry. The 19th century was filled with social conflict between capital and labor as workers resisted the impositions of the industrial labor process. The deskilling of work, the disciplining of the labor force and the acclamation of the population to the labor process continued into the 20th century inspiring innovators like Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford to lend their efforts to the problem. These were the major social problems of the times. The need for state regulation of labor conflict was a major factor in the emergence of the modern capitalist state. But of all the political and social attempts to regulate this conflict it may have been the machines themselves that did the most to discipline humans beings to modern capitalism.

But it would be a mistake to say that all of these changes were brought on by machines themselves, as if machine evolution was dragging human history along with it, kicking and screaming. Machines were introduced into production because they gave capitalists power in their conflict with workers. If you can be replaced by a machine you are much less likely to form a union or go on strike. If you are an unskilled machine-tender you can’t bargain for high wages like a skilled craft worker. Before the large-scale Industry of the 1800’s lay a tumultuous 200 year history in which capitalism ate away at the institutions of feudal property, creating the conditions for a modern labor force. The Manufacturing period which preceded the 1800’s still retained some held-over characteristics from the feudal period: There was still a lot of semi-skilled handicraft work, machines were used in a piece-meal fashion, and the size of the workforce was still relatively small.

But as more machines were introduced into the Manufacturing system, that system of production became less and less able to handle the demands of the machine. The powerloom, for instance meant that suddenly a factory could produce a lot more output than before. But this required increased input of raw materials. The sudden increase in demand for raw materials meant that those industries that produced raw materials were also under pressure to automate production. Increased output also meant finding new markets for goods. This required revolutions in transportation and communication: canals, railroads, and eventually automobiles and airplanes…

Automated production eventually meant the linking of all the machines in one workplace together to form one massive mechanical monster. This meant finding a regular, controllable motive power like the steam engine or, later, electricity to power production. Such a motive force became the regulator of the speed of production- the entire factory, its machines and human appendages, fell into rhythm with the rhythm of the steam engine. Once electricity became the prime moving force of production this meant revolutions in the system by which power was transmitted to production: power lines, power grids, etc. By the dawn of the 20th century the entire globe was linked up in interlocking power grids all coordinating the speed of production with a single motive power. Human life changed too, our movements falling into rhythm with the gentle hum of the power grid.

The demand for machines which would all be linked together in one big factory, powered by a uniform motive power, required both a huge increase in machine production and a uniformity of production that the semi-skilled workers of the manufacturing system couldn’t provide. It wasn’t until these workers were replaced by a less-skilled automated production system- the production of machines by machines themselves- that the Industrial Revolution could truly revolutionize European society.

The Luddite movement ended with violent repression and the hanging of its leaders. It seems that the defense of private property was more important to the emerging social order than human life. We see a curious relationship here. The technology that was to make life easier for humans becomes the source of the most violent, anti-human behavior. The social conflict that required the evolution of the machine in the first place is altered by the machine itself. But the conflict between labor and capital isn’t resolved, it’s merely transposed to another level: the social conflict of modern, industrial capitalism. The question then becomes, in this coevolution of the forces and relations of production, of machines and people, is there ever a point in which the technical basis of society can no longer support the class antagonisms of capitalism, in which the tremendous productivity and abundance made possible by technology can no longer function within the distorted social relations of private property?

Why should you care about the coevolution of the forces and relations of production in the 19th century?

Because these are the laws of motion of human history, laws we can see operating right now. We are living in the midst of a similar revolution in productive forces.

If the automated tools of the 19th century replaced the human hand what does a computer replace? The modern computer is the descendent of the Turing Machine. A Turing Machine, put simply, is a machine that can follow changing instructions. Feed in one set of instructions and the machine does one thing. Feed in another set of instructions and the machine does something else. Defined this way, a human being is also a turing machine. Tell Jim to lift pig iron and Jim lifts pig iron. Tell Jim to answer phones and Jim answers phones. With the advent of the Turing Machine it became possible to make a single machine which could do almost anything: a laptop that can check email and edit video, an iphone that can record music and get directions to the airport. One of the things about human beings that had made them so distinct from machines in the 19th century- their ability to follow instructions- had been eliminated.

There is a central contradiction in the replacing of humans with machines. Machines can produce commodities but they can’t create value. So while capitalists replace humans with machines in the search for more short-term profit, in the long run less value is being produced. The prices of commodities fall as less labor goes into them. If the turing machine can follow any set of instructions, the only labor that needs to go into the production process is the creation of these instructions themselves. The production of instructions, or information, then becomes the source of value. [Because the machine can do any task, the information we feed to machines becomes the most important aspect of production.]

Enter the information age- an age where the production and ownership of knowledge is the central thing around which all production revolves. If the speed of life in the industrial age was dictated by the pace of the steam engine or electricity, the speed of life today is dictated by the speed of information transfer. This speed of information transfer has increased rapidly in the last few decades to the point where huge amounts of information can now be sent across the globe with the click of a button. We are only beginning to see the tremendous revolutions in social relations that will be created by this evolution in the forces of production.

The race to improve the speed of information transfer to machines has led to revolutions in all sorts of industries like micro-processing, data storage, personal electronics, and the information infrastructure (cable, wireless, DSL, ethernet, etc.). It’s also causing the destruction of many older industries, industries which derived their profits from their exclusive ownership of the “means of duplication” like the record industry or print media. Recording a phonograph and pressing it used to require a great deal of capital. A record company’s profits relied not just on their ownership of the masters of a record but also on the fact that they had a monopoly over the ability to make more copies of that record. Now a musician can record their own album in their kitchen and distribute it online relatively cheaply. A fan can duplicate that recording a thousand times over with the click of a button. An entire generation of music listeners is now growing up with the expectation that they should be able to listen to any music they want at any time for free. Is this not proof of Marx’s argument that when human labor is removed from a task, the social value of that task falls to zero?

The newspaper industry is facing the same problem. Nobody wants to pay for the duplication of print media when they can get it for free online. Of course recording an album or writing a news article still requires labor from musicians and reporters. This is the information part of the commodity. But the crisis in the newspaper and record industry reveals an interesting aspect of information as a commodity: Information can only be bought and sold as a commodity if the seller has a monopoly over the right of duplication. When printing a newspaper required an expensive printing press and a complicated labor process it was a given that a newspaper was a commodity. But now that the duplication of news can happen at the click of a button that monopoly over duplication has disappeared.

For the newspaper industry the only solution so far has been to give news away for free online and rely on advertising for revenue. Meanwhile the recording industry has resorted to extravagant lawsuits against internet “piracy” and increasingly exploitative recording contracts with musicians called “360 deals” which demand a cut of all a bands revenue from merchandise sales to ticket sales.

If the monopoly on duplication is the only thing that makes information a commodity we are left wondering what is the true nature of information when this monopoly disappears. It seems increasingly obvious that information has an inherently social dimension. Where social knowledge leaves off and one person’s private contribution to social knowledge starts seems an increasingly arbitrary distinction defined by a narrow legal definition of intellectual property (a definition based in old-fashioned notions of commodity duplication.)

It’s not just that newspapermen and record industry executives are old-fashioned, or aren’t savvy enough with computers. It’s that the basic parameters of production and profit, the social relations, are changing as the forces of production evolve. As many times as they sue Napster or PirateBay the reality is that Napster and PirateBay represent the inherent nature of the new technology and the emergence of a new type of social relation that suggests a collective ownership of information. From wikipedia, to the blogosphere, to Linux, to the open-source software, new models of production and distribution are being experimented with on a collective level never before seen. But what kind of society is emerging? Clearly there are all sorts of problems with the way knowledge is created on the internet and there is a great deal of room for capitalism to expand into the internet for its own purposes of commodification and control. And outside of the internet there is still a great deal of real production that is done by human labor. What do the emerging models of information transfer of the internet-age have to offer the real-world labor process?

Industrial capitalism emerged from the manufacturing system of the early 1800’s spurred on by revolutions in the forces of production. But in order to come into its own as a new system of social relations it had to revolutionize the existing social relations. Today we can see the new forces of production overthrowing the established economic order. But what sort of society will emerge from this is yet to be seen.

Marx saw that despite of all the misery and exploitation of the Industrial Revolution that there were great socializing processes at work. The working class was being stripped of its antiquated, local superstitions. In being reduced to an unskilled, proletarian appendage to the machine, all workers were equalized, sharing the same social solidarity and common material interests. The labor process was becoming increasingly collective even as it became more degrading. Capital on the other hand was encountering greater and greater crisis and causing more and more people to question whether it could survive for much longer without destroying itself. But the great revolution that Marx had hoped for didn’t happen. It seemed that capitalism was not done learning how to displace crisis and finding new avenues of growth. And it seems revolutionary theory wasn’t ready to live up to the potential Marx saw in a post-capitalist society.

We have a lot of work to do in our time. These tectonic shifts in the forces and relations of production have coincided with global economic crisis and environmental crisis. At such times the future is uncertain. Anything can happen. If the left is to seize the initiative in the 21st century it has much theoretical work to do examining the trajectory of these new forces and relations of production and discerning what sort of possibilities they present for radical breaks from the present order.

Recommended reading:
Das Kapital, Karl Marx, the chapters on manufacturing and large scale industry
Cutting Edge, Technology, Information Capitalism and Social Revolution; ed. Jim Davis. This is a great collection of essays about the information age and value theory.
“Digitalization and the Monadization of Power”, a lecture by Dylan Suzanne: . I am curious to acquaint myself more with Suzanne’s work. This is a good lecture.
Soderberg, Johnathan. “Copyleft vs. Copyright; A Marxist Critique.” First Monday volume 7, number 3 (March 2002) URL: This is an early work of Soderberg’s which eventually turned into his book Hacking Capitalism which I haven’t read yet because it’s way too expensive. If anyone has access to a digital version please let me know.

music by a great Trio from the West Coast called “Beep”. Check them out at

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