A persistent theme in popular culture, when it comes to issues of technological progress and the future, is that the super-rich will be the main beneficiaries of new technology. Billionaires with artificially augmented lifespans will retreat into their gated communities and anarcho-capitalist enclaves; the rest of us will live lives nasty, brutish and short, subject increasingly to technological unemployment and to price gouging by the corporations that buy up the “privatized” crumbling infrastructure.
In this framing, optimism and hope for technological progress are the preserve of right-wing techno-utopians. It’s elitist to focus on new technology, which will surely be available only to the rich folks who can afford it and use it to enrich themselves, rather than directing our efforts to the more equal distribution of the output of existing technology.
That’s the basic assumption behind cyberpunk fiction, including most of William Gibson’s work and the corporate dystopia in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. It’s the basis of the totalitarian regime in Stephen King’s The Running Man, and the alternate hell world that almost happened in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. In a debate with Ray Kurzweil (of Singularity fame) back in 2012, economist Richard Freeman stated his fear for the outcome of automation: “We don’t want it to be that there’ll [be] 20 or 30 billionaires controlling everything, and the rest of us struggling for the one or two jobs that are out there.”
My friend Katherine Gallagher (@Zhinxy) countered a recent statement of this fear on Twitter by pointing out the strategic folly of being “really defeatist” about new technology — “that’ll show those simple-minded right libertarian techy types!” This was, she argued, a radical and wrong-headed departure from the Left’s traditional attitude towards technology: Visions of a future written by socialists, anarchists, etc. were EVERYWHERE and inspired revolution and change. Now it’s “No! We can’t do that! That’s elitism! People have real needs?” Walking and chewing gum, you know? “Social change is possible, technology isn’t something to fear that will only make the old order worse”
Technological progress and technologies of abundance were central to the imagined communist futures of socialists and anarchists in the 19th century. Take Marx’s higher stage of communism, in which it becomes possible to “do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” In Fields, Factories and Workshops, Kropotkin extrapolated from the invention of electrically powered machinery to an economy of small-scale craft shop manufacturing integrated into village economies, in which the distinctions between head and hand work withered away and people could meet their consumption needs with three or four hours of labor a day. Even the bucolic neo-medieval utopia in William Morris’s News From Nowhere had advanced technology in the background: There were “force barges” transporting goods on the Thames, and there were no more factories because any group of neighbors who wanted to work together could set up wherever they wanted to work and bring in electrical power to run their tools.
There’s a parallel shift from the utopian framing of nineteenth century socialism and anarchism, with their emphasis on personal autonomy and reduced work hours, to the 20th century “progressive” agenda centered on what Guy Standing calls “labourism.” The latter, reflected in the agendas of the New Deal, European Social Democracy and the establishment labor unions, takes both large-scale mass production and the wage system as given, and seeks a society with universal employment at forty hours a week guaranteed for everyone. Far from being revolutionary, as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt argue in Commonwealth, this model of “socialism” actually involves a kind of social and technological stasis. The Social Democratic agenda is basically “to reintegrate the working class within capital.” It would mean, on the one hand, re-creating the mechanisms by which capital can engage, manage, and organize productive forces and, on the other, resurrecting the welfare structures and social mechanisms necessary for capital to guarantee the social reproduction of the working class.
In other words, basically resurrecting and perpetuating the mid-20th century model of mass-production managerial capitalism, but with an added layer of bureaucrats to redistribute some of the rents and make it more tolerable and sustainable.
Fortunately this technological defeatism and downward adjustment of expectations has not infected the entire Left.
The whole “tech as right-wing trojan horse” trope ignores the existence of a left-wing high-tech community centered on open-source ideas — including people like the autonomists Negri and Hardt, and the German Oekonux group, who see commons-based peer production as the kernel of the future post-scarcity communist society. In Commonwealth, Negri and Hardt argue that means of production are radically cheapening, human capital is replacing physical capital as the primary source of value, and the networked organization of production is causing productive relations to center on the social relationships of the producing classes themselves. …the trend toward the hegemony or prevalence of immaterial production in the processes of capitalist valorization…. Images, information, knowledge, affects, codes, and social relationships… are coming to outweigh material commodities or the material aspects of commodities in the capitalist valorization process. This means, of course, not that the production of material goods… is disappearing or even declining in quantity but rather that their value is increasingly dependent on and subordinated to immaterial factors and goods…. What is common to these different forms of labor… is best expressed by their biopolitical character…. Living beings as fixed capital are at the center of this transformation, and the production of forms of life is becoming the basis of added value. This is a process in which putting to work human faculties, competences, and knowledges — those acquired on the job but, more important, those accumulated outside work interacting with automated and computerized productive systems — is directly productive of value. One distinctive feature of the work of head and heart, then, is that paradoxically the object of production is really a subject, defined… by a social relationship or a form of life.
This means that we ourselves, cooperating horizontally with one another and using tools within the means of working people to acquire, increasingly are the production process. Capital is becoming increasingly external to production, able to extract rents from it only by relying on legal monopolies like “intellectual property” to enclose the social relationships of workers.
It follows, Negri and Hardt argue, that revolution no longer primarily entails the physical capture of expensive means of production financed and owned by the capitalists. It entails, rather, simply taking the human relationships and tools already in our possession and seceding from the capitalist economy, and setting up a counter-economy of commons-based peer production. Class struggle no longer takes the form of physically storming the factory, but rather of “exodus”: “a process of subtraction from the relationship with capital by means of actualizing the potential autonomy of labor-power.”
The irony is that, at the same time as the horizontal relationships of working people among ourselves become the primary source of value, and capital increasingly depends on “intellectual property” to extract rents from those relationships, the same technological changes are making “intellectual property” itself unenforceable.
It is “intellectual property” and proprietary knowledge that keep new technology expensive and and enables the rich to monopolize its fruits. But this proprietary control of knowledge (corporate-funded university R&D with its results protected by non-disclosure agreements, government-enforced trade secrets and patents, scientific discovery behind journal paywalls, etc.) is fundamentally opposed to the spirit of science. That spirit, as exemplified by the international scientific community of the seventeenth century, centered on shared experimentation and reproducible results. Proprietary “science,” on the other hand, impedes real discovery and progress by erecting toll gates to sharing and building on knowledge.
And it is technology-friendly Leftists, more than anybody else, who oppose proprietary science in favor of do-it-yourself, peer-to-peer science and open source technology.
This is not to say we should be blithe utopians. Social and economic inequality pose real obstacles to achieving our future of universal abundance, and it would be a grave error to minimize them. As Occupy Oakland activist Emily Loftis put it in a Twitter exchange with me back in 2012, the problem with the high-tech approach to counterinstitution-building I advocated was that “people that need these resources and networks the most have no/little access to these forms of tech.”
The unequal diffusion of technical knowledge and skills with regard to race and class is a very real issue, and should be of concern to anyone who cares about social justice. But to me the point is it’s still an improvement that the bottleneck involved in fighting exploitation is shifting from actual ownership of capital to the diffusion of knowledge and technique. So the class war is becoming less about assaulting and capturing the enormous masses of investment capital or the large institutions that control expensive production machinery, and more about equally diffusing knowledge. As material problems go, the second is a much better one to have.
Nevertheless it is a very real problem. Technology cannot remain the province of middle-class white males. There’s no getting around the need for an intersectional approach to promoting the spread of technical knowledge and skill beyond the privileged groups currently possessed of them. But whatever the difficulties, the spread of technological knowledge to technological have-nots, and the construction of a counter-economy centered on technical skill and low-cost production machinery rather than the ownership of expensive machinery, is the only approach with a real future in the long-run.
Classical political economist David Ricardo’s theory of land rent is useful here. According to Ricardo, as land is appropriated and the margin of cultivation expands outward, the increased outlays of capital and labor required to make land usable (and the increased distance produce must be transported to market) increase the unearned rents accruing to the owners of land inside the margin of cultivation.
The implication is that any technology that increases the efficiency of production at the margin, in terms of land-intensiveness or capital-intensiveness (that is, anything that makes more production possible from smaller quantities of land and capital), will reduce the rents on land and capital accruing to incumbent producers with large stockpiles of accumulated land and capital. From this it follows that the profits of rich capitalists depend on things like patent law that criminalize the diffusion of new technologies for cheaper, more efficient production. Technological diffusion is the friend of workers and consumers, and the enemy of capitalists.
And the false egalitarianism of focusing on “more equal distribution of existing technology, rather than developing new technology” is a dead end. It’s the very same monopolies and legal barriers, and the same barriers of social and class privilege, which prevent the equal diffusion of existing technology, that also allow the super-rich to monopolize new technology. So it’s not as if there’s really an either/or choice here. Either we pursue both/and, or we get neither.