Issue 5 - Fall/Winter 1997

Cutting Edge: Technology, Information Capitalism and Social Revolution (page 1 of 3)
By Jim Davis, Tom Hirschl & Michael Stack

The following is the introduction to Cutting Edge: Technology, Information Capitalism and Social Revolution, edited by Jim Davis, Thomas Hirschl and Michael Stack, due from Verso this summer.

How is one to make sense of the world today? Contemporary political and economic events as well as recent technological developments defy conventional analysis. The general breakdown of the post-World War II social order is well underway, visibly evident in the dramatic dissolution of the Eastern European and Soviet socialist economies. The dramatic polarization of wealth and poverty -- not just between the technologized and under-technologized nations, or north and south, but also within the technologized center -- exposes the "capitalism has won" and "history is over" pronouncements as rather premature. The socioeconomic polarization matures as the powers of science and technology leap ahead at breakneck speed.

While the traditional Left has lost much of its appeal, and the world's labor unions are on the defensive, new forces have stepped onto the world stage. Scenes from this drama are as diverse as the Los Angeles rebellion in 1992, the Chiapas uprising beginning in 1994, the regular eruptions in the industrial heart of the U.S., the tent cities and marches of the welfare recipients and the homeless in Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, Oakland and other U.S. cities, the labor strikes in France, Korea, Canada, Germany, Russia, and the new student movement emerging in the U.S. and elsewhere. The world has entered a period of upheaval.

This collection of essays attempts to make sense of trends and developments as the 20th century draws to a close. From the outset, we should note that the authors in this collection do not all share the same assumptions, nor do they come to the same conclusions. Rather, they are part of an important struggle to understand the processes at work in order to reach a clearer and deeper understanding. The pieces share an attempt to confront the contradictions of society today, and put them on a firm material footing. Despite the many gloomy signals as this is written, they betray a spirit of optimism about the future.

Our starting point for this collection is the observation that we are in the midst of a profound technology revolution. For lack of a better phrase, we call this the "electronics revolution." Although that phrase would seem to exclude important new developments in bio-engineering and materials science, those new developments themselves would not have been possible without breakthroughs in electronics, especially in the field of microprocessors. Even though we are about 50 years into this technology revolution (the term cybernetics first appeared in 1947, shortly after the first computers), it is becoming clear that we are still only at the beginning of the process. Research into organic-based processes, for instance, may render "electronics" a temporary way station on the way to agriculture of a profoundly new type where the properties of protein molecules and the self-replicating powers of life are exploited in radical new ways. As the explosion of new developments continue, the phrase "electronics revolution" may come to sound ridiculously limited, but it serves our purpose for now.

Although the electronics revolution is still in its infancy, there are definite indications that it follows the model of historical materialism. Marx and Engels asserted that technological developments (e.g., the steam engine) allowed new boundaries and new parameters for society. Unforeseen technological innovations would establish the conditions for the final destruction of capitalism. In general terms, "...at a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production..." Each chapter in this volume assesses, in some way, the dialectic between technological development and capitalist relations of production.

Many books, essays and articles have been written about recent changes in the means of production. Those writings that have addressed the social implications of the new technologies fall into distinct categories.

The non-critical approaches examine implications of technology for the organization of the workplace. These implications concern workers fortunate enough to have a place in the new economic order, and managers navigating the technological vortex.

Among those writings that are critical of capitalism, one body treats the new technologies as simply more of the same: "information capitalism" (to use Tessa Morris-Suzuki's phrase) is the same old capitalism with the same old exploitation. Other critiques are concerned with the class-partisan qualities of technology. For example, authors may examine how and why certain technologies develop, or consider how new forms of social control are made possible by technological development and deployment. Still another genre debunks the "emperor's new clothes" attitude of the apologists, pointing out the shortcomings of the technologies and their negative social consequences. Still another genre has seen the end of class struggle in the post-Fordist "information society", and retreats into personal politics and endless fragmentation of social struggles.

Our concerns with respect to technology are different. We enthusiastically welcome the promise of technology for ending material scarcity and for creating a foundation for higher forms of human fulfillment. Yet we suspect that the application of electronic technology within the framework of capitalism will not only fail to accomplish these ends, but exacerbate the misery and poverty under which most of the world already lives.

This collection is divided into two parts. Part I looks at theoretical considerations. Part II of the book looks at the social implications of the technology revolution around the world, and some of the responses to it. Because several essays draw extensively on concepts from Marxist political economy, a brief review of some of the major concepts may be in order.

Recognizing the central role of commodities in capitalism, Marx began his masterwork Capital with an examination of the commodity. A commodity is something produced by humans for exchange. It has two aspects to it: 1) a use value, that is, the quality of the thing that satisfies a need or a want; 2) and an exchange value, a quantity of human effort, or labor, which is the basis for exchanging commodities of different use values. Marx qualified exchange value as the socially necessary labor to make commodities, that is, taking into account the average skills, technology and intensity of work. For Marx, exchange value, or more generally value, roughly is human labor -- the activity of transforming the world from "things" into useful things, that is, things that satisfy someone's wants. It is on the basis of this common denominator -- as expressions of human effort irrespective of the specific work being done -- that products, or commodities, of different uses can be exchanged.

In the process of making things that satisfy wants (production), portions of technology, raw materials, buildings, etc. are used up. The value that this used up portion represents temporarily disappears, and reappears in the finished product. This process of destruction and creation is the heart of the production. Since the value of the used up portions is in a sense just transferred to the finished product, it is described as constant capital-- its magnitude has not changed during the process. Human labor, though has the peculiar ability create more value than is used up during production. Because human labor "grows" value during production, Marx described the capital advanced to purchase a worker's ability to work (i.e., wages) as variable capital. Marx argued that human labor is the sole source of value, and value -- human effort -- is the underpinning of the entire economy. Capitalists accumulate 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, and the drive for maximum profits is the overriding goal of the capitalist. Capitalism puts a premium on technological innovation as a competitive strategy for survival in the marketplace. More >>


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