The worker and the machine

by Eric Trevett

THE MAIN factors in the economy of class divided and exploitative societies are first the labour power of the slave in slave society, the peasant in feudal society and the worker in capitalist society. The second main feature is the process of production and the instruments and tools that are available and the personnel able to use them.

There is a relationship between these two factors and the type of society in which they develop. Generally speaking the revolutionary development of the means of production is not matched straight away by fundamental changes in society.

In all stages of the development of humanity there is conflict between the oppressed and their rulers arising from their opposed interests. That lasted for thousands of years and included violence and slave revolts — the most well-known one was led by Spartacus. These revolts were brutally suppressed. Similarly in feudal society there were peasant revolts, the most notable of which in Britain was led by Wat Tyler against the poll tax in 1381.

Under the influence of extended trade wool became an important commodity and the feudal landlords and emerging capitalists forced the peasants from the land. Huge tracts of the country were enclosed for sheep pasture and peasants were forced out at sword point to a life of destitution.

Vagrancy was considered a crime for which many were hanged. Others resettled themselves into cottage industries and the small but growing towns. The emergent capitalist class challenged for state power with the civil war against the claimed divine right of kings and against the Catholic Church and its doctrine against usury, which was the main obstacle to the growth of trade and quests for colonisation.

Industrial methods of production, in the early stages of capitalism, caused tremendous suffering. Apart from the undermining of the cottage industries, the cotton industry, for example, employed many children as well as adults and the employers fought a rearguard to defend their right to employ children. These children suffered ill health and sometimes horrendous injuries arising from their working conditions.

In the United States the oppressive laws against black people and discrimination on race lines in the US forces were not discarded until the 1950s.

The main feature of capitalist production methods is the boom and slump cycle where so many commodities are produced that there is not enough purchasing power in the national or international markets to absorb them.

These crises, including the one that happened in the 1930s, arise essentially from the scale of overproduction. Crops were often destroyed by poisoning them so they could not be eaten to keep the price of food commodities high in saturated markets.

The major part in achieving better working conditions and better education and health provision came about through the militant activity of the trade unions. Their role in present and futures struggles is crucial. At present the battle is to defend, maintain and improve the current standard of living from a policy of cuts.

Following the 1984-5 miners’ strike in Britain the engineering industry was decimated. Literally thousands of factories in manufacturing were closed.

Throughout the capitalist period new machines have replaced older ones, increasing the production rates and making production less labour intensive. The new electronic technology has affected a number of industries in the recent past. Capitalism has changed the nature of the printing industry. The typewriter has been made obsolete and instead of umpteen drafts of statements being prepared with amendments, deletions and insertions, today these changes are completed on the computer screen and copies run off as required. This enables Cameron to target staffing levels and make cuts in the public sector.

The development and application of new technology affects both industry and commerce to the detriment of employment prospects for the working class. This now includes people who are in the middle strata, such as managers.

Robots are increasingly employed in manufacturing, especially spot welding in the car industry and it is reported that in Scotland that machines are predicted to take over cleaning work to replace jobs presently done by human cleaners.

We have reached a stage in capitalist development where industry and commerce are going to be even less labour intensive. The ruling class is trying to manipulate the education system to give more priority to those students involved in engineering, mathematics, science and technology. They want to develop a sort of elite without any understanding of the role of the organised working class and isolated from the organisations of the working class movement, especially the trade unions.

Another feature from a capitalist point of view is the advancing computer literacy of the working class, especially the youth. In the past new technology was considered to be the cause of the misery of the working class and sections of the working class opposed the introduction of new industrial machinery as in the Luddite movement, which of course was abortive.

We should welcome the introduction of new technology as it has the potential to raise living standards and to advance scientific and cultural standards as well as fulfilling people’s economic needs. But for that to happen there has to be a fundamental change in the nature of society.

What technology cannot do is to continue to expand the economic system without the boom and slump cycle. Indeed the new technology plus the anarchy of capitalist production, in which competition for markets becomes more bitter, will exacerbate this destructive cycle.

The factories of the future are likely to be much more clinical in appearance and in working conditions. They are unlikely to include large concentrations of workers as was seen in the car industry. Much of the work will be spread out at different sites and done in clinical conditions to reduce the airborne dust particles polluting the parts being assembled. In short the new technology will undermine the building of working class solidarity.

The current growing militancy in the fight against Government cuts is a welcome development. It must expand into a movement brining all workers into the struggle against the cuts through being united, with a policy of “a cut against one is a cut against all”.

The struggle to defend jobs has to be a political struggle as well. This is fundamental if the new technology is to serve the interests of the people rather than the profits of the capitalist class.

And we stress that in the absence of a Marxist-Leninist party having mass influence in the context of a united trade union movement, the revolutionary changes that are necessitated by the new technology will not be realised. This is a problem that the labour movement and its allies must face and resolve.