Archive for the ‘Feminist critique’ Category

Marx vs. the Machine

Sunday, July 15th, 2007

I’m going talk more about Marx’s contribution to the study of technology, as well as his ideas on the relationship b/w sociological and economic analyses of technology. But I’m going to do this with the help of Donald MacKenzie. Just so’s you know…

MacKenzie, in chapter 2 of his book Knowing Machines, details Marx’s account of the way the machine was made stable, highlihgting how social relationships (within which production occurs) impact production technology – indeed are a major factor in the shaping and success or failure of technical systems. This jives with Marx’s insistence that, when analyzing markets, one must remember “capital is not a thing, but a social relation b/w persons which is mediated thru things.”

One of Marx’s big ideas is this: with the advent of large-scale mechanized production, social relations molded technology, not vice versa. The determinist reading of Marx views the forces of production as technology itself. But the forces of production also include labour power, people, skills, knowledge. Indeed, Marx always afforded agency to workers, stressing that what was specific to human work was that it was conscious: people as much as machines make human history.

Marx defines the machine as “a mechanism that, after being set in motion, performs w/its tools the same operations as the worker formerly did w/similar tools.” With the machine began the Industrial Revolution: it undermined the basis on which manufacturing workers had resisted emergent capitalism. Whereas in manufacture, the organization of the social labour process was purely subjective (a combination of specialized workers), the machine system of large-scale industry was a totally objective organization of production, which appears to the worker as a pre-given material condition of production.

The machine contributes to valorization via “relative surplus value”; the reduction in labour time required to produce the equivalent of the worker’s wage generates an increase in surplus value accruing to capitalist. Thus the machine liberates capital to accrue absolute surplus value; by undermining skilled workers, by drawing new sectors into the labour market, by threatening/generating unemployment, the machine “is able to break all resistance” to lengthening the working day. Alienation of the collective and intellectual aspects of work achieves its technical embodiment in the machine. Further, the machine embodies the power of the capitalist: science + natural forces + mass of social labour converge in the system of machinery, which represents the power of the “master”. Thus, capitalist social relations achieve technical embodiment in labour process

For Marx, the “conditions of work” represent the means of production in their social form as capital; the means of production therefore employ the worker instead of the worker employing the means of production. This was the goal under manufacture and handicraft labour BUT its only w/machinery that this inversion acquires technical reality. Not surprisingly, then, the worker regards the machine is a direct threat; it is capital’s material form. Indeed, the connection b/w class struggle and technical innovation was part and parcel of the Industrial Revolution in 19th c. Britain. Skilled labour, especially, stubbornly resisted the discipline of factory work. Marx links worker recalcitrance directly to technical innovation, which was a response to and a weapon against working-class revolt. New machinery did not always increase efficiency or profit but DID reduce the capitalist’s dependence on highly skilled and paid labourers with minds of their own. Marx thus concludes that Luddism was, in fact, a working class critique of machinery.

Marx’s account of the machine is an attempt to theorize the social causes of organizational and technical changes in labour process (how perfect for a “social shaper” like MacKenzie!). For example, technical changes in the steam engine resulted from shifting relations b/w capital and labour as a result of new labour legislation that shortened the working day. While machines were more efficient than human muscle power, there was still the need to squeeze more from the worker during the shortened period

Again, Marx stresses that capital is not a thing (e.g. not a sum of money or commodities) but comprises social relations b/w persons mediated through things. Thus the relation b/w capitalist and worker consists of wages, hours of work; the law and the state; supervision discipline, culture, collective organization, power, conflict and so on. Here MacKenzie points out a weakness in Marx’s understanding of this: the social relations of production (w/in which technology develops) are not just b/w worker and capitalist but also worker and worker. That is, relations b/w men and women workers, older and younger, workers, and likely immigrant and native workers must be accounted for.

He lists three ways the split b/w male and female workers influences technological production: 1. New machinery caters to highly unskilled and low-paid worker, always women (and children), who initially displace the highly skilled male workers (left over from days of manufacture). 2. Some skills, like sewing, were considered women’s work, and learned at home. There was no need, therefore, to automate this process. Such work was entirely unregulated and devastatingly underpaid and because in the home, isolated, with little to no chance for workers to organize. 3. Skilled, all-male unions marshaled their power to keep at least some control over the new technology and defensively keep women out of their organizations.

At this point, MacKenzie asks a Feenbergian question: Does the design of machinery reflect the social relations w/in which it develops? Marx equivocates on this, he says, sometimes treating machines as victims of capital and not in their design inherently capitalist. Nonetheless, a specifically capitalist form of production emerges, including at the technological level. This is a rather orthodox interpretation, then, one that accepts that social relations impact the pace of technical change (e.g. mechanization was spurred by valorization-imposed needs to displace skilled workers and their power to resist) BUT denies that those relations influenced the design of technical artifacts.

If technology is neutral, and the system of social organization corrupt, then progressive social change will occur simply by changing how society is organized. No need to worry about the technological infrastructure, which can, apparently, be coopted, adapted and reconstituted. Substitute a workers’ government for the capitalist’s government, add water and presto! A workers’ utopia.

MacKenzie’s social shaping self concludes by suggesting that understanding how social relations interact with technical design turns on the contingency of design, and the need to identify where and how things could have been different. This leaves only one (albeit burning) question: why one design was chosen over another. Indeed.

So… is this enough Marx for you?