‘Outline on technology and progress’ – a Marxist view* (Written by Albert Langer in October 1979) Part One: Introduction – Marxism, eco-catastrophe and environmental degradation

The major trends among Western “radicals” on issues concerning technology and progress can be summarised as follows:

a) Outright opposition to modern technology and nostalgia for the past, summed up in the slogan “Small is Beautiful”.

b) Acceptance of modern technology if society was socialist, but Luddite hostility towards it in capitalist society, summed up in the slogan “For Whom”.

c) Acceptance of modern technology in present day capitalist society but a rejection of the social relations that have developed together with it and a romantic “nostalgia for an age that has not yet come into being”, where the dignity of craft skills will prevail.

* * * *

The following outline for an article is unfinished, incomplete, out of sequence and lopsided in emphasis. A major section or companion article on Braverman’s “Labor and Monopoly Capital” has not been prepared yet.

1. Objections to the trend of modern technology and economic growth may be summarised under the following headings:

a) Eco-catastrophe

b) Environmental degradation

c) Limits on Growth

d) Third World Dependency

e) Wasteful Consumption

f) Technocratic Priesthood

g) Centralisation

h) Unemployment

i) Commercialisation and rat race

j) Degradation and Deskilling of Labor

2. These themes are all part of the very fabric of “left wing” and “radical” thinking in Western countries. Reference to them, often in a glib and trendy way, has become a trade mark to distinguish “them” (“the establishment”) from “us” (“the radicals”). Rejection of these themes is generally considered heretical and a sign of impending desertion to the other side.

3. Nevertheless, Third World revolutionaries actually engaged in armed struggle against imperialism, the classic founders of scientific socialism and the leadership of socialist countries have never stressed these themes in the same way. This paper will challenge the widespread assumption that emphasis on these themes reflects a more “advanced” conception than other “simplistic” views, and will show that a polemic against opinions that are now most fashionable among the “left” was a central feature of the development of scientific socialism (by which I mean “orthodox” Marxism, or Marxism-Leninism).

4. This paper has nothing new or startling to say but will simply try to raise the banner of a position of whose existence most “radicals” seem quite unaware, without undertaking a comprehensive defence of that position. Since in surveying the literature I couldn’t find a single article advocating the position I hold, and which I understand to have always been the “orthodox” Marxist view on these questions, I felt obliged to write one myself. Any assistance from readers who can point me to relevant material would be most appreciated.

5. The major trends among Western “radicals” on issues concerning technology and progress can be summarised as follows:

a) Outright opposition to modern technology and nostalgia for the past, summed up in the slogan “Small is Beautiful”.

b) Acceptance of modern technology if society was socialist, but Luddite hostility towards it in capitalist society, summed up in the slogan “For Whom”.

c) Acceptance of modern technology in present day capitalist society but a rejection of the social relations that have developed together with it and a romantic “nostalgia for an age that has not yet come into being”, where the dignity of craft skills will prevail.

The dominant view is of course an eclectic mixture of all three, sometimes even combined with views taken from the pro-technology, pro-growth camp.

6. In the camp which rejects the main objections to economic growth and modern technology listed above, and which criticises the reactionary, Luddite and romantic assaults on modern society, the dominant trend is straight forward bourgeois complacency or Liberalism, which explains the unpopularity of pro-technology, pro-growth views among the “left”.

Closely allied to Liberalism, and subordinate to it, is a Social Democratic trend which dresses up much the same analysis of society with a few Marxist phrases about promoting the revolutionisation of society by developing the productive forces. This has more support than Liberalism within the “left” because it is more critical of modern society and therefore closer to the anti-technology, anti-growth camp on issues unrelated to technology and economic growth.

The dominant ideology in such allegedly “socialist” countries as the Soviet Union, post-Mao China, and Albania, reflects a mixture of Liberal and Social Democratic attitudes and therefore adds to the unpopularity of pro-technology, pro-growth views within the “left”.

7. But also in the pro-technology, pro-growth camp, is a quite different position, which I would call the “orthodox” Marxist, Marxist-Leninist, or scientific socialist view. This fundamentally agrees with the Liberal and Social Democratic trends in opposing reaction, Luddism and romanticism (as Lenin agreed with Struve and the “legal Marxists” in fighting Narodnism in Russia). But it fundamentally breaks with these trends in its analysis of the revolutionary implications of modern technology and economic growth. While joining with the anti-technology, anti-growth camp in rejecting modern society, this rejection is positive in contrasting the present with the future and not negative in trying to retard the further development of modern capitalist society.

The views of this trend will be found in various works by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong, many of which are explicit polemics against romanticism etc.

8. Let’s review the various anti-technology, anti-growth themes one by one. The first eight, which tend to attack modern technology and economic growth as things in themselves, will be dealt with rather quickly. The last two, concerning Commercialisation and the Rat Race, and the Degradation and Deskilling of Labor raise more serious issues about capitalist social relations, and will be dealt with more fully when analysing romanticism and commenting on Harry Braverman’s “Labor and Monopoly Capital”.

9. a) Eco-catastrophe

Various scenarios for the catastrophic destruction of humanity if present trends continue have been put forward by the more extremist opponents of modern technology and economic growth. These range from the “population explosion” to the long term effects of heat pollution, carbon dioxide or the break up of the ozone layer. Although in one sense a “lunatic fringe”, these ideas do have some real influence within the “left” and people often fall back on them (without necessarily knowing any of the details) when otherwise stuck for arguments.

Detailed refutation of the various theories is not appropriate here. But it’s worth noting that some people actually want their disaster theories to be true because they want there to be some barrier to the further development of industrialisation. Feelings of “doom” are widespread because the present social system is in fact doomed, but instead of correctly identifying exactly what is doomed, people tend to transfer their feeling to anything convenient. Catastrophe theories are not being put forward by scientists who believe in technical progress and economic growth and are worried because they have come across some phenomena that might threaten this. These theories are put forward by people (whether scientists or not), who already want there to be a barrier and go out looking for it.

They do not understand Marx’s proposition that “the only barrier to capital is capital itself” and they look for some external obstacle to the further development of capitalism, lying outside capitalist society itself.

There is even a kind of “eco-fascism” with ideas and solutions remarkably similar to those of fascists in the 1930s, particularly in regard to population control.

10. b) Environmental degradation.

This theme is also taken up by people who want there to be some external barrier to the further development of capitalism. It is really only relevant to the technology and growth debate insofar as some catastrophe is predicted. Insofar as one is talking about incidental environmental degradation, the classic answer given by Liberals cannot be refuted:

“It is easier to modernise plant and equipment (e.g. to incorporate pollution control mechanisms) and to engineer structural readjustments to the changing pattern of economic activity in a growth context than otherwise. More fundamentally, economic growth implies that the stock of resources (including technology) which the community has at its disposal is continually expanding… Nowadays we have the opportunity that comes with growth to opt for a more pleasing environment. If that opportunity occurs in an expanding economy, opting for it need not involve an absolute reduction in presently enjoyed standards in other respects. In short, ‘growth’ entails a positive contribution to pollution control in a way which a ‘stationary state’ cannot…

…If pollution control standards are set to high that the costs of control clearly exceed the resulting benefits, resources will be wastefully diverted from other purposes – including perhaps other forms of environmental improvement. Moreover, it is already apparent – with the technology of pollution control only beginning to develop – that even modest expenditure can have large effects in reducing pollution.

In summary the damage from environmental pollution in a large and growing economy with effective pollution control standards certainly need be no greater and in practice is likely to be far less than the damage in a small and slower growing economy operating in the same area without effective pollution control measures. The quality of the environment can be improved much more – and more quickly – by measures to counter pollution than by steps to contain economic growth. It is doubtful in any case whether action of the latter kind will be deliberately attempted, and if it were, and the improvement in living standards were slowed down as a result, the resistance to applying resources to control pollution would be so much the greater.” (Treasury Economic Paper No 2 “Economic Growth: Is it worth having?” June 1973, AGPS Canberra, p19 and p21)

Even leaving aside the difference between capitalist and socialist attitudes to the environment, it is clear that industrialisation has markedly improved the environment compared with pre-industrial societies. Not only was the life of the “noble savage” something “nasty, brutish and short” but even in feudal times the environment can be summarised in this jingle:

In days of old, when knights were bold,

and lavatories weren’t invented;

People laid their loads, beside the roads,

and went away contented.

Even the aristocrats, let alone the “solid yeomen” of pre-industrial society literally stank – and not only in the towns where the streets were used as sewers. Forests were denuded and dustbowls and deserts created, before modern agriculture began to reverse this process.

Over the last decade in particular (as a result of pressure from people concerned about the environment) we have seen a clear and definite improvement in environmental protection. The increasing concern with pollution controls today precisely reflects the fact that as industrialisation proceeds, higher standards not only become necessary but also possible and are demanded.

(* ‘A Marxist view’ does not appear in the title of the original 1979 article but I think it is important to state from the outset that that is what it represents – C21styork )

To be continued… next instalment, Part 2 – Limits to growth, Third World Dependency and Consumerism…

One thought on “‘Outline on technology and progress’ – a Marxist view* (Written by Albert Langer in October 1979) Part One: Introduction – Marxism, eco-catastrophe and environmental degradation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s