Technocratic priesthood, Centralisation, Unemployment : Part 3 of ‘Outline on technology and progress’ – a Marxist view (Written by Albert Langer in October 1979)

“… in its most absurd form, we even get complaints about the large scale and “centralisation” of the means of production themselves, and not of their ownership. Thus in arguments about nuclear power, we are told to beware of oppression by the controllers of big, centralised power stations. Apparently the theory is that if all power comes from a central source we have less control over our destiny than if we have smaller, local power stations. Taken to an extreme, some people are mad keen on windmills, solar panels, methane generators etc and hope to combine these with vegetable plots, mud brick construction and what have you to create a life style in which one can escape the clutches of capitalism as completely as possible by avoiding all buying and selling and isolating oneself from the market economy. While I have no objection to other people tinkering with such things if they really want to, personally I prefer being able to obtain electric power at the flick of a switch and without tinkering with anything. This does not “alienate” me in the slightest and I am quite sure most people feel exactly the same way”.

* * * *

14. f) Technocratic Priesthood

The very term “priesthood” evokes images of barbaric societies in which the mass of the population were ignorant of natural phenomena and paid homage to a minority elite who were sufficiently literate to be able to pass on knowledge about the seasons, tides and other matters essential to production as well as culture.

To believe that such a priesthood rules society today, requires considerable imagination. It is perfectly obvious that power in our society is held by capitalists and stems from their wealth and not from any monopoly of technical knowledge. In the more backward capitalist countries like the Soviet Union and China, one might confuse the ruling Party bourgeoisie with a priesthood because of superficial resemblances in forms of organisation and alleged service to a “Marxist-Leninist” religion. This may have something to do with the survival of more backward semi-feudal relationships. But there is clearly nothing “technocratic” about it and the interrelationship between wealth and power and the role of managers and bureaucrats is quite similar to more advanced Western capitalist countries.

Scientists and engineers are employed by the ruling class and work for wages like the rest of us. They too have no monopoly on technical information, which is widely diffused among the literate population and can be readily acquired in libraries and even newsagents. The mythology about a “technocratic priesthood” is most widespread among liberal arts graduates who have gone through school and university doing only “humanities” courses and have thus been denied the basic technical education which is acquired by most school and University students in our society.

There is no excuse for this one-sidedness however, since any literate person can pick up the fundamentals of modern technology by just browsing through the “How and Why” type of children’s’ encyclopaedias readily available in every newsagent.

Nuclear power is held up most often as an industry where the dangers of a “technocratic priesthood” are greatest. In fact it is the most publicly regulated industry with the least initiative in the hands of technocrats. The whole technology down to blueprints and detailed engineering reports is completely in the public domain and there is no mystery about it whatever.

The average worker today has far more grasp of basic industrial technology, and is given a far more “theoretical” education than in earlier times. If some liberal arts graduates feel left behind and overawed by modern technology, they would do better to learn something about it than to continue writing speculative nonsense about a “technocratic priesthood”.

15. g) Centralisation

Socialists have always welcomed the centralisation of capital as a progressive development paving the way for Communism. In everyday practical terms, most people understand that the big multi-nationals have more “enlightened” management, produce better products and pay better wages than the smaller “sweatshops”, that supermarkets are a better place to do one’s shopping, that family farms are on the way out and so forth.

But many “radicals” actually stake their hopes on retarding monopolisation, propping up the small businessmen, shopkeepers and farmers against the multi-nationals and so on.

Fundamentally the complaints about “centralisation” reflect an awareness that wealth and power in our society is concentrated in the hands of a very tiny elite, but with a conservative reaction to try to turn the clock back, instead of pushing forward to socialism and communism.

But in its most absurd form, we even get complaints about the large scale and “centralisation” of the means of production themselves, and not of their ownership. Thus in arguments about nuclear power, we are told to beware of oppression by the controllers of big, centralised power stations. Apparently the theory is that if all power comes from a central source we have less control over our destiny than if we have smaller, local power stations. Taken to an extreme, some people are mad keen on windmills, solar panels, methane generators etc and hope to combine these with vegetable plots, mud brick construction and what have you to create a life style in which one can escape the clutches of capitalism as completely as possible by avoiding all buying and selling and isolating oneself from the market economy.

While I have no objection to other people tinkering with such things if they really want to, personally I prefer being able to obtain electric power at the flick of a switch and without tinkering with anything. This does not “alienate” me in the slightest and I am quite sure most people feel exactly the same way. We have simply never felt oppressed by power stations (except by the bills which are of course much lower than they would be with less centralisation).

It is difficult to even imagine how centralisation of power stations could be used as an instrument of oppression. Is it suggested that in a crisis the embattled bourgeoisie might take refuge in the power station and threaten to turn it off if we didn’t return to wage slavery? On the contrary, they seem concerned to ensure that “essential services” are not disrupted during major strikes. In any case the electricity grid that links power stations in every industrialised country is about as “decentralised” as one could ask.

It is hard to imagine a more direct reversal of traditional socialist attitudes towards the implications of large scale industry. The point is not to refute this wooly thinking about “centralisation” but to ask what process of mental atrophy could produce such patent nonsense, repeated so often with such authority?

The only answer I can see is that the extinction of Marxism by revisionism during the period of capitalist re-stabilisation has been so complete that most “radicals” have never even heard of Marxist views and have had to re-discover for themselves all the pre-Marxian socialist theories. (This certainly seems to have been the case with the “New Left” that grew up in the middle sixties, even when Marxist phrases were used.)

16. h) Unemployment

It is a well known proposition of Marxism that as capitalism develops with an increasing organic composition of capital, the size of the industrial reserve army increases and this is particularly manifested in mass unemployment during crises.

The obvious conclusion is that capitalism should be abolished so that people are not “employed by” capital but instead “employ” means of production to satisfy their own requirements.

Instead we have extraordinary proposals from “radicals” to freeze technological development, or at least control and retard it, so as to “safeguard jobs”. The whole trend of most “left” analysis of technology and unemployment involves an acceptance of capitalist irrationality as permanent, and a willingness to restrict the growth in productive forces and therefore living standards so as to adapt them to this irrational economic system (without mass unemployment).

Surely the most elementary socialist consciousness would involve welcoming Labor saving technology and demanding its speediest and widest adoption. If the social and economic system can’t cope then that’s its problem! It is very strange to see “socialists” arguing that since capitalism can’t cope with new technology without unemployment, we should keep the capitalism, but do without the technology. Yet that is exactly what is implied when people complain about Labor saving technology. They are even prepared to put up with having to work longer hours to produce fewer goods, just as long as they can keep their precious capitalism!

Ricardian economics long ago accepted that the introduction of new technology can be against the real immediate interests of workers who lose their jobs because of it. But its a long way from there to adopting a program that tries to inhibit new technology. In fact it has always been when technological change is most rapid that the scope for expanded capital accumulation is greatest and new jobs are created soaking up the reserve army and raising wages. Stagnation simply means a larger and larger reserve army.

Actually most remarks about technology are prefaced by a reference to “the current economic climate”. This reflects awareness that technological change and the accompanying destruction and creation of jobs is a permanent factor of capitalism, both when there is “full employment” and when there is mass unemployment.

Obviously the fact that mass unemployment suddenly started to develop throughout the Western world a few years ago cannot be attributed to any equally sudden change in technology and must be attributed to the particular stage in the capitalist business cycle that was reached then. So why do people persist in blaming a process of technological change that has been going on all the time?

It can only be because they don’t want to face up to the implications of capitalism as the source of our problems. Its easier to fight “the machines” than “the bosses”, or at any rate it’s more respectable to do so.

Final installment next time… Reviewing the major “radical” trends and their attitudes…

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