A chat on previous post.

[Following is an extract from WhatsApp chat with a friend and comrade, Pratik, about the previous post. Whatsapp spelling and grammar has been retained.]

Pratik:  So this post doesn’t do justice to marx’s ideas about the relation between technology, production, and power.. that the capitalist develops technology to raise productivity is not a law marx is keen to prove.. rather, marx suggests that the capitalist develops technology insofar as it allows the capitalist to weaken the value of the workmen’s labour (so as to throttle their assertions).. once the capitalist is able to overcome the opposition from the workers, there is no reason for him/her to further this development (which can be risky) and productivity then remains at that level.. marx does account for the possibility that the search for profits does push capitalists often to find technological ways to reduce costs of production, but that is not a perennial quest.. rather, large periods of production are times in which the capitalists is extracting absolute value from the workers, even after changes increasing the relative surplus value..

hence, what you say towards the latter end of the article “The company claims increase in productivity and it might partly be due to the co-bots but many workers attribute it to increased work intensity due to the atmosphere of fear and terror from the idea of job loss.” is something which marx is in agreement with.. when technological innovation takes place under one company, which means that the capitalist can extract more surplus from the worker, he/she is also under the greed of maximising the benefit of such innovation, which is why they set workers to work extra time.. the auto industry is a perfect example of this.. since the early 2000s, the inclusion of robots production combined with the inclusion of cheaper temporary workers drove up the hours and intensity of production compared to earlier times.. and when this period of innovation became general across industries, even then these work conditions tended towards increasing because competition drove companies to extract more out of their workers.. this became the basis for the clash between workers and managements in these industries

a third issue with this post is that it’s still critiquing marx’s analyses of capitalism with individual capitalists.. in marx’s time, that was the dominant mode of ownership.. it collapsed by the time of the first world war and subsequent economic depression.. in the third volume of capital, marx argues that these analyses cannot be taken as such in the context of joint stock capital, which do not face many of the limitations of individual capitalists.. but they were yet a small percentage of the total capital.. marx believed that the working class movement was strong enough to take over the means of production and abolish class society with the demise of the individual capitalists.. unfortunately, that did not happen.. so i guess today when we read marx, we should try to develop an analyses based on the joint-stock, corporate, and state forms of capital accumulation rather than critique marx’s individual capitalists critique

i’d say that even today there can be no denial that capitalism has thrived on technical innovation.. from a time when the mass base of consumers used to buy cloth and get it stitched by a tailor in a shop, society is now living on mass produced ready-mades.. or the disappearance of agrarian labourers as a mass category in most places.. in fact, there was a recent report about technological innovation in which india had moved up by many places over the last many years..
of course, these are not new innovations, but rather introduction of already made innovations in a society which was relatively lagging in the use of the same.. and in that sense, capitalism is stuck.. perhaps robotics is the only new development which holds the only possibility of major changes (displacing workers from production altogether).. if marx is correct that value only comes from the worker, then such changes will be the end of known capitalism..


this article takes up these issues quite well i believe

Sarthak: From my cursory reading of Marx I had a sense that Marx shares the view that I am more or less arguing for, that the most important application of technology in production usually is to decrease workers control over the process – by deskilling, by hyper specialization, by surveillance etc. If I remember correctly he called it the “rate of exploitation” as a factor in technological deployment.

I think you are right about the choice of technological design and deployment within a individual capitalist form of firm and a corporation should be studied separately for better understanding.

The use of the term should be more carefully then. The final product, the technology, alternative designs of same technology are all usually clubbed into one – these have different level of influence from corporate capital.

Capitalism does thrive on new technology, so did many non capitalistic societies – states extracting profits from taxes dependent on various new war making technologies and of bureaucracy – the agenda of technology design was set by these interests. They did not had the fortunate goldilock period of abundance of energy resources and scientific development that enabled modern electronic and computer revolutions. But this period is soon coming to an end. The limited energy and mineral resources have all peaked and the ways capitalism disposed off (or sinked) the by products has put the planet on the verge of complete collapse – the possibility of ever reaching a stage of totally desposing off workers looks very slim the really existing world where for the political economy to exist we need habitable plant.

In any case, I am interested in knowing your view about “value only comes from the worker” bit.

Pratik:   Indeed, if the present scenario as far as resources are concerned isn’t worrying enough, we have an army of do-good scientists and social researchers arguing for shifting to nuclear energy. If coal and steam can mess things so much, one can see how nuclear would give us the scale of energy to speed up mass extinction. I was recently looking at statistics, and found that the average daily consumption of electricity is about 500kwh, while the average household consumption is only about 80kwh.. So most of this consumption is geared towards protecting the ways of social organisation. I think the answer lies there. We need a social organisation not built around such mass production, but around small communities making use of technology on a smaller scale merely for use. It just looks like doom otherwise.

I am in agreement with most of what you have said. I indeed agree from marx’s argument that value only comes from the worker. It is a recognition that value is an abstract relation between people, the only social beings capable of using abstraction. Those who look at this from the nature versus culture angle jump to the conclusion that marx is for culture. This is mistaken. Marx is distinguishing a human relation from relation of pure nature, but knowing well that the human is premised upon nature. This he calls one of the biggest contradiction of capital: it seeks to replace nature completely with a new nature built on human creation. Towards the end of the section on modern machinery in agriculture, he talks about the cataclysmic effects this process has. But to come back to his insistence on humans alone producing value, I think he is trying to argue how there is no way to get outside this process until the value producing agent stops producing value.

Sarthak: The whole energy generation and distribution business and the projected boom – mostly based on low grade coal is only to increase misery for already miserable both in urban and rural regions. I agree with you on where the answer lies – the new social organization. And that too within next 10 years – if we are already not too late, that is.

Hmm… yes, this formulation that the abstraction of value is only created by worker looks quite right. None of the other material could produce the final product when put together for one thing. But I also think Kropotkin’s observation that even the workers value is dependent on whole of society – current and past. In a way all the value generated is social value. But yes, at one instance of it the workers input is most important.

Pratik: “But I also think Kropotkin’s observation that even the workers value is dependent on whole of society – current and past. In a way all the value generated is social value.” No doubt.. this perspective which posits the actually existing worker as the only crucial variable is leninist/populist rhetoric.. labour of the past lives as fixed capital or dead labour in machinery, money, etc. and as variable capital or living labour in the working class.. the abolition of capital doesn’t come by the workers taking charge of the dead capital alone, but by generalising it/abolishing themselves as a class, as per marx.. we need to understand what sense this makes today, if it does make any sense

so far all this development has only led to more salaries for the wealthier class.. there has been some absolute wealth trickling down over the last ten years (in terms of wages), but i think it is important to attack the idea that development alone can uplift the poor..

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