TECHNOLOGICAL UNEMPLOYMENT (Part 4 of ‘Unemployment and Revolution’, written by Albert Langer in 1981)

4. TECHNOLOGICAL UNEMPLOYMENT

– Is It Technological?

– “Controlling” Technology

One reason unemployment can increase is because of sudden technological changes effecting a substantial sector of the economy. We will look at that first, and then consider the other major reason – “overproduction”. Most new technology tends to be developed “ahead of its time”. It will gradually come into use in the way described above, as economic conditions ripen. But if a new invention is economic to make use of at existing wage and profit rates, then it will not have to wait for more capital accumulation before being introduced. Instead of gradually displacing the old technique as conditions change, there will be a sudden scrapping of old methods in favour of the new ones.

This process may be “controlled” by monopolies with heavy capital investments in obsolete technology. They may obstruct the process and then later “discover” patents they have been sitting on for years, when it suits their investment plans. However this presumably is not the sort of “control” on technology that anybody would admit to advocating.

Generally the “structural adjustment” required by a sudden change in technique will only require a rearrangement of ongoing capital investment between other industries and the one that is changing.

If a new technique actually requires more capital to be invested in the changing industry, and less labour, then there will be a net diversion of investment from other industries. But at the same time, there can still be enough investment in the rest of the economy to absorb the displaced labour. That investment will continue using more labour intensive techniques, since the labour is available for it to do so. Productivity will grow more rapidly in the industry that is changing, and more slowly in other industries.

But if sectors involving a substantial part of the labour force are affected simultaneously, there may be more jobs being destroyed by the new techniques than are capable of being generated by the current amount of new investment.

If jobs are being destroyed faster than the economy as a whole is expanding, there will be increased unemployment until capital accumulation catches up.

The same general principles apply to other “structural adjustments” due to changes in demand. The shift from manufacturing to mining in Australia would be an example and this can also be considered as “technological change”.

There has been no reduction in the volume of manufactured goods in Australia – just higher labour productivity requiring fewer workers to produce them.

One point however, is that the capital previously directly and indirectly employing the workers who have been made redundant, will itself be freed by any changeover.

This capital is immediately available to increase the rate of expansion of the economy and employ additional workers in other sectors. That may not be much compensation for individual workers who have been thrown out of work eitherpermanently or temporarily.- but it does mean there should be no long delay waiting for capital accumulation to catch up. Because of this point, “technological unemployment” should not be a major problem in a modern capitalist economy. “Manpower planning” and “structural adjustment” should ensure that labour is rapidly re-trained, and capital rapidly redeployed, with far less upheaval than in the days of “laissez-faire”.

This has in fact been the experience during the post-war boom which involved very rapid technological change and structural adjustment. An enormous displacement of labour from manufacturing and primary industry to tertiary sectors took place in every advanced capitalist economy, without producing mass unemployment.

By comparison the “resources boom” shift from manufacturing to mining is quite minor. However it is is more noticeable because it is happening at a time when demand for labour is slack and unemployment is high. This does not mean it is a cause of unemployment. Obviously it is not because although unemployment is growing worldwide, the “resources boom” is local to Australia.

However since the resources boom is happening here and now, and there is unemployment here and now, it does provide something for people to waffle on about instead of analysing the capitalist system seriously.

Is it Technological?

The above suggests very strongly that the current high levels of unemployment is not “technological unemployment”. If it was, then one should be able to point to the specific new techniques that are rapidly displacing labour in particular sectors of the economy, and then discuss measures to cope with that.

There is a great deal of speculation about the future impact of microprocessors and so on, but no evidence that they are the cause of the sudden jump in unemployment which occurred simultaneously throughout the western world from the early 1970’s. It is quite clear that whatever changed then was in the “state of the economy” rather than in the field of technology.

Capitalism has not implemented microprocessors and other labour saving devices nearly as fast as would be possible, and it may be that when the barriers are finally broken down, there will be some technological employment, as a result. There will certainly be a devaluing of existing investments, which is what is obstructing things at present.

But so far microprocessors have been introduced at a snail’s pace compared with their potential and their introduction could not possibly be the cause of the rising unemployment we are currently experiencing.

Of course new technology is continuously destroying jobs. That is the whole point of it – finding ways to do things with less human effort. But this has been going on for centuries and cannot be the explanation for recurring sudden increases in unemployment.

Since the end of the second world war, technological change has been extremely rapid. The steady growth in GNP and real wages would not have been possible without it, since increased real output per person necessarily implies labour saving technological change. It seems though that the sudden increase in unemployment in the early 1970’s, has sparked off renewed concern about technological change.

Certainly there was no sudden acceleration of technological change around that time which could be responsible for the heightened interest. What has changed is that the workers made redundant by greater productivity are not being re-employed by new investment.

There has been a slackening in investment rather than an acceleration in productivity and technology. (As a matter of fact the rate of productivity improvement has actually been declining – for reasons explained later. A minimum requirement for “technological” unemployment would be accelerating productivity growth).

Apparently people do not notice how rapidly technology is changing when there is no unemployment, but their attention is attracted by unemployment. It is far easier to waffle on about technology than to face up to the need for an entirely new social system.

If there had been a sudden acceleration of technological change in the early 1970’s, there is no reason to suppose that it would not have simply meant even faster growth rates with very little unemployment, as occurred in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Indeed, since it is new technology that provides a market for expanded reproduction, we could say that technological change has not been rapid enough for new investment to provide jobs.

“Controlling” Technology

It follows of course that we cannot reduce unemployment by measures to restrict or “control” technological change. The unemployment that is causing concern just is not “technological” to start with. As will be shown later, the unemployment we are worried about is “cyclical”, and due to “overproduction”.

But even if there was a situation of “technological unemployment”, the appropriate response would be to insist on using the benefits of improved technology for shorter hours, higher living standards, re-training of workers made redundant, and faster social progress generally.
This would be the logical result of labour saving technology in a socialist society.

Capitalism has been able to partly deliver those results in the past, and if it is no longer able to do so, this is an argument for socialism. It is certainly not an argument for “controlling” human progress to suit the pace allowed by capitalism!

What prevents the use of technological progress for social progress now, is not some acceleration in the rate of technological progress, but rather a jamming up of the economic machinery of the capitalist market economy.

There is no reason to suppose that the machinery could be unjammed by slowing down technological progress. Only extreme reactionaries (eg most of what passes for the “left” in Australia), would want to try. On the contrary, slowing down technological progress would just put another spanner in the works.

It would further restrict the expansion of markets desperately needed to unjam the machinery.
Some people say they support technological progress in general, but do not know what else to do but oppose it when there is an immediate threat to peoples’ livelihoods. The short answer is that people are not on the dole because “a machine has taken their job”. They are on the dole because for some reason capital is not being invested to employ them.

Even in a particular work place situation with redundancies, the appropriate demands are for new jobs, not some way to hang on to the old ones that we just do not need doing any more. The result of the latter strategy would be gradually deteriorating conditions for everyone since the redundant employees really have no bargaining power in the long run.

Most jobs are not “lost” through direct retrenchments. Fighting retrenchments, while sometimes necessary, cannot directly involve many unemployed workers, such as school leavers, who have never been made redundant. A lot of the carry on about technology is just reactionary drivel which effectively distracts attention from the real workings of the capitalist market economy.

Even worse is the stuff coming out of the “left” about “deskilling”, destruction of “craftsmanship” and so forth. According to these ideas, people’s jobs are getting more and more menial. If this was really true it would imply that the working class will become so degraded as to become incapable of ever taking power.

The truth is that we are starting to notice how menial our jobs are because we are becoming more intelligent and capable of running things ourselves. Most jobs now require more intelligence than before, and this situation is creating more intelligent workers who are beginning to understand how ridiculous it is to go on doing them for bosses.

The modern proletariat is a class specifically created by modern industry with its requirement for rapid changing of jobs and skills. Continuous technological change has produced a working class more educated, skilled and flexible than ever before in history. Our perspective should be able to look forward to the proletariat taking command of modern industry and not to look backward to some “good old days” when things were much worse and people were much less clever that they are nowadays. Communism will not restore craft labour.

Some people are explicitly opposed to any new technology that saves labour, even if the present staff of an establishment is fully protected and agrees to the change. They put forward the slogan “its not our job to sell”. Meaning that jobs need to be preserved for school leavers and so on.

This slogan is based on the idea that the working class is still involved in some sort of guild system, passing on fixed “jobs” from one generation to the next. The plain fact is that things have not been like that since the middle ages.

There are very few jobs in Australia that are the same as in our parents’ time, and there will be very few that will be the same for our children. Workers improve their position within capitalism by changing their jobs, not by “preserving” them. The proletariat is a revolutionary class, not a conservative one.

If it cannot improve its lot within the existing society then it will overturn that society, not fight to stop it developing. Those who want to fight to “preserve jobs” at the expense of social development should call themselves “reactionaries” because that is the correct dictionary term for their philosophy.

They have no right to call themselves “progressives”, let alone “socialists”. If they had their way with “preserving jobs” we definitely would be still in the middle ages. Reactionaries want to “control” technology because they sense that it is making the existing social relations obsolete. Progressives want to “unleash” technology, and for the very same reason.

(Next instalment: ‘Cyclical’ unemployment)

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