Sunday, July 20, 2014

Towards Post-Industrial Capitalism? (1998)

From the December 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

In 1973 Daniel Bell's seminal work, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, was published. Its impact on the emerging discipline of socio-economic forecasting—or "futurology"—was considerable. But what exactly does a "post-industrial society" mean?
Robert L. Heilbroner in his Business Civilisation in Decline defined its core features as: the growing predominance of the tertiary (services) sector over the primary (agriculture and mining) and secondary (manufacturing) sectors of the economy; increasing emphasis on the role of knowledge-based inputs and education; and, finally, a decrease in the highly polarised class conflict of traditional (industrial) capitalism with the emergence of less hierarchical; organisational structures more suited to the socio-economic environment of the late 20th century.
This concept of a post-industrial society rests on the assumption that social development is essentially driven by technological change. The invention of the first programmable digital computer during the Second World War—to decode military messages—is seen as marking the start of what Alvin Toffler called the Third Industrial Revolution. Based on the application of ever more sophisticated information technologies, this revolution is now seen as gathering pace, precipitating a "general crisis of industrialism" and heralding what is exponents claim is a new kind of society.
It is tempting to draw parallels here with a Marxist scenario of social change. For Marx, it was development of the "productive forces"—roughly speaking, technology—that is the driving force of history. As these productive forces develop, they come into conflict with, and are increasingly held back by, the existing "relations of production"—the system of property relationships that define a particular mode of production. This ushers in a period of social revolution, of growing class struggle, in which the political victory of the ascendant class over the old ruling class establishes a new system of property relations more compatible with the developing productive forces, as exemplified by the transition from feudalism to capitalism.
However, there are significant differences between this and the theoretical model espoused by the exponents of post-industrialism.
Technological determinism
Firstly, the Marxist model gives primacy to the concept of the "mode of production". It is the mode of production which essentially defines the kind of society we live in and by this is meant the combination of relations and forces of production. Technological determinists, on the other hand, tend to focus on the "forces of production" but why did they downplay the importance of property relations?
One reason is the theory of "convergence" which gained currency among social scientists during the Cold War. According to this, industrial development would cause the Russian bloc countries and the advanced western economies to increasingly resemble one another in social structure and outlook. How then could one account for such similarities if—as it was assumed—the "communist camp" and "capitalist camp" represented two different modes of production? This led commentators to infer that the concept of the mode of production had little explanatory value.
By contrast, Marxists pointed out that the world was not divided into two opposing social systems each rooted in distinctive mode of production. There was instead a single world system based on a capitalist mode of production with so-called communist countries representing a variant of this mode of production—namely, capitalism run by the state, or "state capitalism".
Another reason has to do with the oft-stated claim that there has been a decisive shift in power from the capitalist class to a technocratic or managerial elite. Prominent advocates of this view include Burnham (The Managerial Revolution) and J.K. Galbraith (The New Industrial State). Toffler put it this way:
"Left-wingers are so obsessed with the idea of property—ownership—that they are often blinded to the actual facts of the matter. The very concept of property is turning itself inside out. The people who dominate advanced 'capitalist' countries are not necessarily those who 'own the means of production'. Increasingly, the people who dominate do so because they control the means of integration—they are the managers. In the US, which is supposed to be the heart of world capitalism, property has been losing its significance for a generation. Basic decisions about the future of our society in the United States have been, and are being, made by business executives who often have no ownership of capital or of machines, whatever" (Previews and Premises 1984, p. 101).
In a world in which the ten richest individuals own as much wealth between them as the combined national incomes of the 48 poorest countries put together, according to last year's UN Human Development report, such observations seem grotesquely inapt. But even if "basic decisions about the future of our society" are being made by individuals who may not themselves possess enough capital to qualify as capitalists, that is not the issue. What matters is the context in which, and in whose interests, such decisions are made. It is not the motivation of individual capitalists that concerns us but the logic of capital accumulation itself with its manifold consequences for the rest of us.
A second major distinction between Marxism and technological determinism concerns the relationship between technology and society. For Marxism, technological progress is not an autonomous process impacting upon and altering the nature of society from without; rather it both conditions, and is conditioned by, society. As Marshall McLuhan put it rather well, "we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us".
As Kortunov adds in his The Battle of Ideas in the Modern World, that while the "apologists for technological determinism" appear to borrow Marx's idea that the "development of the productive forces is the basis of historical development", they, in fact, "completely distort this idea inasmuch as they separate the productive forces from the relations of production and discuss them apart from their connection with (the) socio-political formation".
Lean production
In his historical survey of changing production techniques in chapter 7 of his The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin describes how in craft production highly skilled workers using hand tools crafted their products to the design specifications of individual buyers, the essential characteristics of this form of producing being its high degree of flexible but low level of output. With industrial production, based on the moving assembly line, the very opposite is true: high volume production alongside an inflexible technology. The "American method", as Rifkin dubs it, really began in Henry Ford's automobile factories in the early 20th century. The design function was effectively separated from actual production with the worker being reduced to the status of an unskilled appendage to the machine, routinely assembling standardised products for the mass market. The need to maintain continuous production to justify investment in such costly machinery necessitated a hierarchical system of management characterised by a pyramidal command structure through which information flowed up and decisions flowed down.
Then in the early post-war years a new system emerged, called "lean production". Originating in Toyota's factories in Japan, this differed from both craft production and industrial production in its ability to combine the flexibility of the former with the high volume output of the latter. Underpinning this new approach was the increasing application of information technology, such as automated robots, and the "flattening out" of the traditional management structure. Hierarchical decision-making was largely replaced by multi-skilled teams with groups of workers collaborating at every stage, from design to quality control, with each team member contributing to a process of continual improvement ("Kazen") while simultaneously being allowed access to all computerised information generated within the company.
From a socialist perspective, this development is an interesting one, presaging the "polytechnic worker" Marx saw as the mainstay of a socialist system of production. It also confirms our belief in the link between motivational commitment and a more egalitarian approach to decision-making. However, it would be naive to separate such a development from its capitalist context. Its internal repercussions for the enterprises concerned are a sharp contraction in the number of workers employed, significantly longer hours spent working, and increasing levels of stress arising from the pressure to conform to work schedules dictated by the team; externally, it has meant an increasing emphasis on "out-sourcing"—contracting out work to often poorly paid, part-time or temporary workers in the interests of "greater flexibility".
This shift from craft production to industrial production and finally "lean production" today cannot simply be viewed as an autonomous technological development; at every stage it was driven by the need to accumulate greater profits by driving down unit costs. This meant employers searching for more effective ways to exploit their workforce. The current trend is away from the kind of heavy-handed coercion associated with traditional management towards a system of "management by stress" which simultaneously allows firms to better utilise the "knowledge assets" of their workers. Hence the growing emphasis placed on education by governments.
Initially, when the more traditional kind of enterprises began to invest heavily in information technology the results proved rather disappointing. However, as Rifkin points out, by the early 1990s, this picture began to change with many major corporations in America registering sharp increases in productivity. What made that possible was precisely the "re-engineering" of corporate structures, enabling such corporations to make more profitable use of the technology at their disposal.
This process along with its associated "downsizing" of the workforce is now sweeping through every sector of the economy. Unlike in the past, when job displacement in the primary and secondary sectors was largely cushioned by the growth of the service sector, that sector is now itself succumbing to structural unemployment brought on by automation. According to Rifkin, with no new sector on the horizon capable of generating more jobs we face the prospect of steadily growing unemployment, albeit masked by the growth of part-time work.
With ever fewer opportunities for formal employment and with governments increasingly constrained by market pressures to curtail their welfare budgets, how, it might be asked are increasing numbers of workers to obtain a livelihood? The oft-mooted concept of a universal "social income" does not really address this problem since what is being proposed is little more than a glorified form of social welfare which governments could not afford and which moreover would tend to undermine the capitalist work ethic now being reinforced by the system of "lean production".
The dilemmas that this scenario presents have led commentators like Rifkin to talk tentatively of the "Dawn of the Post-Market Era" and the growth of voluntarism as an alternative to paid employment, all of which is music to the ears of socialists. But we would be neglectful if we did not add a word of caution: capitalism is not going to disappear of its own accord. Not that such commentators envisage its complete disappearance, but if that is what we desire then this has of necessity to be the work of a politically conscious socialist majority.
This brings us finally to a third major distinction between Marxism and technological determinism: the notion of human agency. Whereas Marxism sees human beings as the makers of history, technological determinism sees history as the outcome of a technological imperative. Whether or not that imperative will lead to the dramatic decline of the "global labour force" now being prophesied, bringing us to the very threshold of a post-market society, it is for human beings themselves to finally cross that threshold. Insofar as we have that choice, our future has not already been decided.
Robin Cox

Material World: Bashing the Bushmen (2014)

The Material World Column from the July 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently warned ‘Preventing people’s access to safe water is a denial of a fundamental human right...deliberate targeting of civilians and depriving them of essential supplies is a clear breach of international humanitarian and human-rights law.’
Botswana uses water as a weapon against the Kalahari bushmen in an attempt to force them from their land. The government smashed their only major water borehole, a terrible act that was only overturned in court years later. It has continued to forbid them access to wild-life water-holes and mining water supplies.
The indigenous Bushmen people (or the San or Baswara, all names having pejorative roots) have been in conflict with the Botswana government for several years. Many live in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve where they have continued to be persecuted to drive them from their land. Banned from hunting, and forced to apply for permits to enter the reserve, they are now being pushed to the brink of extinction. The government policy is clearly to intimidate and frighten the Bushmen into staying in the resettlement camps, and making the lives of those who have gone back to their ancestral land impossible. The government boasts that all San in Botswana get free schooling, free medical help and if they register they receive free food. Despite government promises of a better life outside the Reserve many are now gripped by alcoholism and HIV/AIDS, previously unknown.
‘We are used to feeding ourselves – now dependant on government hand-outs, we are being made lazy and stupid,’ says Sesana. ‘Now we are being treated like dogs. The dog is the only thing that can't bring its own food home. It has to wait for its owner to give it some food.’
Goiotseone Lobelo speaks fondly of life in the reserve, where she would wake up every morning and join the women in the village in collecting berries, nuts and roots to eat. ‘I miss my home and the way we lived. Life was easy, there were lots of fruits, animals and there were no bars and no beer. Now we are lost,’ says Goiotseone. She remembers the day they were forced to leave ‘The police came, destroyed our homes and dumped us in the back of trucks with our belongings and brought us here. They dumped us here like we are nothing.’
In the early 1980s, diamonds were discovered in the reserve. Soon after, government ministers went into the reserve to tell the Bushmen living there that they would have to leave because of the diamond finds. Gem Diamonds has stated publicly that its Gope mine contains a diamond deposit worth an estimated $3.3 billion.
At the same time as preventing the Bushmen from accessing water, the government allows a safari company to operate a tourist camp in the reserve that made no provisions for the rights of the Bushmen on whose ancestral lands the camp sits. While Bushmen  struggle to find enough water to survive on their lands, tourists sip iced cocktails by the swimming pool.
Desmond Tutu has condemned the eviction of the Kalahari Bushmen. ‘The San Bushmen represent a 100,000 year-old culture that we should consider one of the world’s treasures. And while progress is necessary, it cannot be that the only way to achieve progress is to remove the San from their ancestral lands and drive their traditions away. We’ve already seen this with the American Indians, the Aborigines, and it is also happening with the Tibetans. When a culture is destroyed in the name of progress, it is not progress, it is a loss for our world. Hundreds of thousands of years of wisdom, knowledge of nature, medicines, and ways of living together, go with them’ (a plant used by the San was patented and licensed by a pharmaceutical company to produce an appetite suppressant drug for dieting).
In February this year Botswana’s President Khama was a guest at a conservationist conference, alongside Prince Charles and Prince William. Khama has banned all hunting nationwide under the pretext of clamping down on poaching. However, it emerged that trophy hunters who pay up to $8,000 to hunt giraffes and zebras are still being allowed to hunt on private ranches that have been exempted from the ban. Yet Bushmen who hunt with spears, bows and arrows are being arrested, beaten and jailed for subsistence hunting.
Survival International’s director, Stephen Corry, said ‘Banning hunting in order to feed your family, but allowing the wealthy to hunt for trophies, plays to a lobby still rooted in racist beliefs about tribal peoples’ inferiority. The national park movement entailed the enforced eviction, often the complete destruction, of the tribes who lived off the land. Satellite imagery now proves that many tribal peoples are the world’s best conservationists, yet they’re still being destroyed. It’s not ‘conservation’; it’s just an old colonial crime, and it’s time the responsible organizations opposed it. Instead, they hide behind hollow policies, while continuing to support governments guilty of such inhuman behaviour.’

Obituary: Tom King (1881-1970)

Tom King at the 1905 SPGB Annual Conference.
Obituary from the February 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is our sad task to record the death in a Manchester hospital late in December, of the last of our founder members, Tom King, aged 89 years. We recognise, of course, that it is not only our loss but that of his family to whom we extend our deep sympathy.

Tom led a full life and like so many pioneer Party members was a respected craftsman, in his case, in the sphere of water and heating engineering. He grew up in Hertfordshire and it was as a member of the Watford branch of the Social Democratic Federation (founded in the year of his birth) that he came into association with that group of men and women that was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the contradiction between the Marxian theories of their economic classes (run in Watford by Jack Fitzgerald) and the political opportunism and reformist programme of the Federation.

In 1904 they were to make a clear break following a conference at Burnley, they made history by setting up the first working-class party in the world to be based upon the clear-cut scientific Socialist principles, the first to recognise that political democracy within capitalism can and must be used for revolutionary ends, the first to be wholly democratic in structure, without leaders or led.

Because of the strong foundations upon which it had been built, the Socialist Party of Great Britain was proof against the myth that Socialism was the outcome of the Russian revolution and from 1917 in our journal, the Socialist Standard, consistently pointed out that it was state capitalism that was being developed under Bolshevik rule.

Through both world wars this firmly knit organisation remained loyal to the idea of international working-class solidarity.

The research historian will not find the name Tom King listed among the initial members although his wife-to-be figured early on as the Watford Branch Secretary under her maiden name of King. It was to confuse the authorities when he was 'on the run' during the first world war that Comrade Wilkins came to be known as Bill France and then, being settled in Manchester, hence called Tom King for the rest of his life.

Sixty-six years after playing a part which will guarantee him at least a modest place in history, the Party he helped found, remains largely unknown to the vast majority of workers in this country and the capitalist system he sought to replace by world Socialism continues in being with the tacit support of those millions of people. Yet progress has been made, however slow, however little in relation to the immensity of the task. We do not stand alone. Our sense of loss on the death of a pioneer is shared by comrades as far afield as Vancouver and Stockholm, Boston and Vienna, Auckland and Jamaica — small in numbers but resolute in their determination to carry forward the often unromantic but none the less revolutionary work of making more Socialists.

William Morris, who had also broken with the SDF, wrote of the Socialist future as he imagined it might be in his book "News from Nowhere". In those happier days to come he supposed that toast would be drunk from time to time to the memory of those who had struggled in the early days to make it all possible. Tom King was one such.
E. S. G.