Wednesday, January 20, 2016

May the force be with you (1987)

From the February 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Were you one of the thousands who watched "Star Wars" when it was shown, yet again, on TV on New Year's Day? Juvenile it may be, but it is very popular. The plot, about "Good" versus "Evil", is not much different from that in countless films about cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, or secret agents and foreign spies. The extra audience attraction in this case comes from the science fiction hardware.

Technology, especially powerful technology, grips the popular imagination in a way that worries many people who are concerned about the direction in which modern society is developing. Space flight, computer-controlled fighter rockets, laser weapons, nuclear missiles, and most of the other inventions in "Star Wars", are anti-human. And the sequence of events, as in countless computer games, is little more than a series of episodes of destruction and counter-destruction. But it is all done with great brilliance and rhythmical timing, like a ballet, to make it attractive. President Reagan was very shrewd when he gave the new American armaments programme, the Strategic Defence Initiative, the label "Star Wars". He ensured its widespread support amongst American voters. The technology of death and destruction is booming.

On a mundane level, too. technology appears to be threatening us. Thousands of workers in manufacturing and the information industries are losing their jobs to the new electronic systems. Chemical and nuclear wastes are polluting the land, sea and atmosphere. And the surveillance and control powers of the state are increasing rapidly with the use of databank computers, television eyes and bugging devices. The temporary feelings of vicarious power we get from watching science fantasy films are hardly enough to offset our growing sense of powerlessness in real life.

What, if anything, has gone wrong? Throughout the 1960s and 70s there was a stream of magazine articles and television programmes persuading us that the advances in new materials, biological engineering, electronics, nuclear physics, and so on, were going to usher in an era of plenty, comfort and leisure. Many of these optimistic journalists are now silent, because it has not happened like that. Why not? The short answer is that the journalists did not understand (or chose to ignore) the relationship between technology and real life.

Technology in its widest sense embraces all the methods and devices with which human beings make their living from their environment. And it has always been changing, sometimes rapidly, sometimes slowly, throughout human existence. Technology is the basis upon which human societies arise, and at an early stage it became the main factor in conditioning relationships between people in society, because it began to make wealth and power possible. All the early inventions, like sowing seeds, or smelting metals, or writing, were also hedged round with a great deal of religious magic, and this became an integral part of the power structure in the development of human societies. Priests either became wealthy rulers themselves or developed close partnerships with those who had power. The result was that, instead of increasing production and raising the standards of living of everyone, the application of new technology was mostly directed at providing luxury and opulence for the ruling elite. The pyramids of Egypt were faced with marble and capped with gold, while the slaves who built them died of exhaustion in the surrounding sand.

The direction and impact of technological advances cannot be properly considered, therefore, without taking into account the power and wealth relationships in a society. The type of society that dominates the world today does not put up pyramids or enormous stone cathedrals. Instead it puts up enormously expensive sputniks and space shuttles—while millions starve to death, and hundreds of millions live out their lives in grinding poverty. When we examine the power and wealth relationships in present society it becomes clear why the prospects foreseen by the optimists did not materialise, and why we actually feel ourselves threatened by "advances" and "improvements".

The most obvious—and yet the most consistently ignored—reason why technology is not doing what we want it to is that it is not ours. It does not belong to us—the great majority of the population of the world. We design it, and make it, and run it all, but we have no say in what we make or how it is used. Just as we do not own or control the farms and factories and offices and transport in which we work. They are all owned and controlled, either privately or through the state, by a small ruling class in every nation. Our access to the wealth we produce is limited by the wages we can negotiate from them. And our power in deciding what course society shall take is limited to putting a cross on a voting slip, every four years or so, against the name of a politician who will keep things going on much the same as usual.

And yet change is obviously taking place. The lives we lead are very different in many respects from those of our grandparents a hundred years ago. And it is technology that has forced that change, but technology interacting with the social structure. We produce and use more and more sophisticated and destructive weapons, not because technology favours weapons, but because this is a fiercely competitive, nationalistic, warring type of society. "Star Wars" is one of the many pieces of entertainment that romanticise and give approval to violence. What "Star Wars" ignores is the society which manufactures its fighter rockets, its huge space ships, and its planet-sized Death Star, and keeps them all fuelled and fed and manned with highly trained personnel. High technology depends, not only upon high technologists, but upon a whole society at an appropriate level of co-operation, knowledge and skills. Human beings have certainly developed technology, but technology has also developed us.

These changes, in people and in the lives they lead, have been gradual, but the force of technological change also exerts pressure upon the social structure itself. And this cannot change gradually. Ruling classes never willingly give up their wealth and power and privilege, and the basic power structure which evolved out of the capitalist revolution three hundred years ago remains essentially the same. The ruling class has modified its tactics and repeatedly adjusted its public image in order to maintain and increase its grip, not only upon the bulk of society's wealth, but upon society's means of producing wealth in all its forms. It is this, and the rapid growth of capitalist nations all over the world, that are responsible for the escalation of civil violence and international armed readiness. The force of technological development now promises plenty and ease and peace to everyone on earth, but that very promise is a threat to the present social structure. Capitalism, whether state controlled as in Russia, or privatised as in the West, depends upon restricted consumption by the masses to keep them dependent upon wages and salaries. Agriculture and industry can produce an abundance of food and consumer goods of all sorts, but when they start to do so the markets collapse and production is cut back.

Technology appears as a threat, therefore. only within the limits of this restricted, oppressive social structure. "Star Wars" is an extrapolation, far into the future, of capitalism's oppressive and destructive use of technology. George Lucas and his scriptwriters explain it as a conflict between "goodies" and "baddies". But it is fiction. Real human beings are not "goodies" and "baddies", and they have changed the structure of their social relationships many times in the past. The slave empires of the Mediterranean have all gone, and the feudal empires of Europe and the Far East have followed them. Capitalism must follow in its turn. The force for change is the developing power of production. It is this that makes possible a world in which weapons and wars are not only unnecessary but impossible, but it is we, the great majority, who must make that change and realise those possibilities. Those of you who are already working to bring about that change know that the force is with you.
Ron Cook

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