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The Shape of History: Historical Materialism, Electronics and Value

This paper is an overview resource paper I did for a course in historical materialism for the Institute for the Study of the Science of Society - jd

Marxism is, first and foremost, the science of society. Through examination and experimentation, by applying theory through practice and, through practice, refining theory, we can determine the pathways and attractors (to borrow the language of complexity theory) that give shape and direction to social development and change.

Historical materialism

The basis of this "science of society" is historical materialism. Marxism builds on the philosophic principles of materialism — that the universe is "by its very nature material," it exists independent of consciousness. The universe is not the embodiment of a "universal spirit," or the construction of a subjective observer. The universe is objective, knowable, and law-governed. "Matter is not the product of mind, but mind itself is merely the highest product of matter." Historical materialism applies the principles of dialectics (how things change) and materialism to society and history — that is, history is not a collection of accidents, or divine interventions in the affairs of humans, but is a law-governed process, and the science of society is the determination of those laws so that they can be utilized in revolutionary work.

Karl Marx determined that the basis of understanding society lay in understanding how societies organize to meet their material needs. This social organization is in turn determined by the available productive forces — the technology and knowledge and organization — in a given period. Each qualitative advance of technology defines a period, or stage of human history. These periods have distinctive corollary forms of social or productive relations. Marx recognized that the relatively mobile (i.e., they are constantly developing) forces of production race ahead of the relatively static relations of production (the relationship of individuals and groups of people to one another in the process of production), laying the basis for transformation in society:

At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with … the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. (Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy)

This observation — that societies organize around the available technology, and that a qualitative change in the available technology sets the stage for a qualitative change in social relations — can perhaps be seen best by looking at different periods of human history, and noting what tools are available at different periods, and how people have organized themselves around those tools to meet their needs.

In prehistoric times, people lived in tribes, and survived by hunting animals and gathering edible vegetation. The tools were primitive — spears and stones, fire, some tanning of hides, etc. There was no surplus — that is, people were barely able to gather as much as they could consume. There was no "property" to speak of, what little "wealth" there was shared among the group.

Somewhere between 10,000 B.C. and 5,000 B.C., our ancestors discovered major new technologies, in particular, agriculture and animal husbandry. This enabled people to create a surplus, and with it ownership developed, and so did classes — some people owned or controlled the means of production (in this case, primarily land, animals, and agricultural implements), and others were slaves, who owned nothing, and were themselves treated as the property of the rulers of those days. The basic source of power was muscle power, primarily human and animal muscle power. Forms of social organization changed over the centuries somewhat, but agriculture and manual power remained the cornerstones of production.

Beginning in the 1700's, new technologies developed, of which the steam engine was perhaps the most important. The steam engine, and later the electric motor, provided a new motive force for production, and production on a completely new scale became possible. This period of industrial production was characterized by large scale factories, employing thousands of workers under one roof. (The Ford River Rouge factory in Detroit employed some 60,000 workers at its peak.) Along with this revolution in technology, new classes emerged. The new capitalist class championed the new technologies and the new ways of organizing production and of producing wealth and fought against the classes that championed the old agricultural and manual labor system. Emerging simultaneously with the capitalists was another new class, the working class, who owned nothing except their ability to work. Driven from the land, and with no other means of surviving, the workers were forced to sell their ability to work to the capitalists. The capitalists kept the surplus that the workers created, and became extremely rich and solidified their control of society.

A capitalist can only survive by striving to make more profit than his competitors. The capitalist who fails to make the maximum profit is driven out of business by his competitors. One of the main ways that the capitalist maximizes profit is by constantly developing and introducing new technologies to produce more and cut costs. Beginning in the 1930's, scientists and researchers in the laboratories developed electronics, harnessing the power of electrons in new ways. World War II gave this science and its application to real world problems a big boost. The new discoveries were combined with other technologies to invent computers, machines that could be programmed to carry out different kinds of tasks. These machines had the ability to record and playback human activity, in the absence of human beings. With the domestication of animals, and the harnessing of wind, water, and later steam and electric energy, humans were no longer needed as a source of physical power. With the invention of new gearing systems, cams, and other specialized machinery beginning in the 1800's, humans were no longer needed as a manipulator of materials. With electronics, the last outpost of humans in production — that of overseer and monitor — began to be replaced.

With the widespread introduction of computers and other outcomes of the electronics revolution — e.g., biotechnology and digital telecommunications — we are now witnessing the eviction of human beings from production. Yet, although the technology is rapidly developing, and the old industrial system employing thousands of assemblers in giant factories is over, property relations today are still basically the same as they were in the 1930's.

To recap, technology is constantly developing. But the productive relations — the property relations — do not automatically keep up. At different periods in history, there have been revolutions to reconstruct property relations around what the new technologies make possible. This overview is somewhat different from other Marxist interpretations, which break history into the broad periods based on social relations: "primitive communism," slave society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, etc. These are the forms that societies took (as well as others); we instead have looked at the content of the period, the technological foundation that these societies rested on. So slave and feudal society have corresponded to manual labor-based production, and capitalism and socialism are both based on industrial production.

Electronics as a revolutionary technology

A revolutionary new technology forces people to change how society is organized. Agriculture made possible a surplus, and new forms of organization emerged that clashed with the old system organized around hunting and gathering. The development of the revolutionary new technology of steam engines freed up producers from the vicissitudes of wind and water-power and mobilized profoundly more powerful forces of nature. The champions of industrial production, the emerging class of industrial capitalists, could not advance their interests without destroying the old property relations constructed around the manual/agricultural system.

Is electronics a revolutionary technology? That is, are we at the same historical juncture that people were 150 years ago in the revolution from agriculture to electro-mechanical industry?

By looking at recent news stories, we can see that electronics is relatively rapidly extending throughout every aspect of production: in manufacturing, in agriculture, in manual jobs like construction and dock work, in office jobs, in retailing, in service work like janitoring, and even in high tech work like computer programming. In various ways we can see how electronics is reducing the need for human labor or replacing people in their jobs — the robot literally replaces the welder or the janitor; the computer makes the few remaining workers more efficient by reducing waste and reducing needs for other products (and the need for the workers who made those products); science harnesses the powers of nature, like using bacteria to make plastics or insulin, or new materials to transform sunlight into electricity.

What is revolutionary about electronics? By revolutionary, we mean one quality is replaced by another, different quality. A quality is that which makes something distinct, that makes it "what it is." For the bulk of history, production has been based on human labor. Electronics makes production possible without human labor — because the knowledge and skills and efforts of previous generations of workers have been captured and embodied in the new technologies. This quality — laborless production — is what makes electronics a revolutionary technology, that is, technology of a new quality

In 1991, the San Francisco Examiner published an article (ironically, in the employment want ad section) with the headline "Will the age of the robots produce a workless society?" The article was about the work of scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. In the middle of the article, the author wrote: "Experts say the widespread entry of robots into the workplace could raise the living standards unlike any invention during the industrial revolution. But if robots indeed are able to take the place of human labor, critical questions arise."

Critical Questions: Value in the Age of Robots

As noted above, to understand society, we must look at how people are organized to meet their needs. In Marx's time, and up to the present, the dominant economic system is capitalism. Marx spent 25 years studying it, and the result is Capital. Marx begins his study with an examination of the commodity. A commodity is something produced by a person for exchange. It has two aspects to it — a use value, that is, the quality of the thing that satisfies a need or a want; and an exchange value or more generally, value, a quantity of socially necessary labor, which is the basis for exchanging commodities of different use values. Marx argued that human labor is the sole source of value, and value is the underpinning of the entire economy. Capitalists accumulate their wealth by expropriating surplus value (the difference between the value of the worker's labor power, paid out as wages, and the value created by the worker in the course of production). Profit is one form of surplus value.

As noted above, capitalists compete with each other to maximize their profits, of which one of the main ways is by getting the workers to produce more in the same amount of time, by introducing more powerful and productive technology. At any given moment some capitalists are producing using the newest technology, and some are using old technology. When a commodity goes on to the market, it exchanges not at its individual value, that is, based on labor used to produce it, but on the average value of all of the same type of commodities from various producers, its social value. So capitalists who made commodities with the most advanced technology and the least labor will realize extra surplus value, while those using backward technology and more labor will realize less surplus value.

At the same time, workers are evicted from production, because they cannot work as cheaply as robots. Because workers rely on wages to buy the commodities from the capitalists, when they are laid off or forced to work for less, or driven into part-time or temporary work, workers are driven deeper into poverty. With electronics-based production, more and more workers are permanently unemployed. At one end of society a handful of capitalists become fabulously wealthy; at the other end, a growing mass are divorced from any means of securing a livelihood. Society polarizes into absolute wealth and poverty.

As the technology revolution progresses, driving forward an economic revolution as the capitalists reorganize production around the new technologies, a parallel process of value destruction begins. Value is destroyed in many ways. The use value of labor power — the workers ability to work — is destroyed, because the capitalist no longer needs to worker to continue production. At the same time, capitalists begin to have difficulty in circulating their commodities because fewer people have the money to buy them. When commodities are unsold, their value is unrealized and thus disappears. When a new product made with robots appears alongside the same product made with labor, the value in the old products is driven down to the level of the robot-made product — its value is destroyed. As new, labor-less forms of production become more widespread, the social infrastructure that was built to sustain industrial production is also destroyed as social investment is pulled out of the communities of former workers. Neighborhoods deteriorate, education is de-funded, health care is abandoned, and so on.

With the spread of electronics-based production, social organization on the basis of value — the participation of human labor in production — begins to disintegrate. Electronics lays the basis for the destruction of the value system. At the same time, just as in the period when industrial production developed, new social forces begin to emerge to champion the new technologies — to reconstruct society so as to put the new technologies to optimal use. This can only be accomplished by the public ownership of the technology and the other means of producing necessities. At the same time, with the end of the wages system, a new system of distribution is demanded — one based on the circulation of the wealth of society on the basis of need. The public ownership of the means of production, and the distribution of wealth on no other basis than need are the cornerstones of the communist economy, the form which makes optimal use of electronics-based production.

Discussion graphic: Before and after electronics

1995 or so, revised occasionally after that

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