Prisoners of Technology

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Side by side, Sibusiso and I prepared samples in the metallurgical laboratory of the Iscor Iron and Steel works in Newcastle, in the old South Africa. We pressed our suspect steel against the abrasive paper skimming plane surfaces into mirrors. It was infinitely tedious work; days and weeks passed mindlessly; coarse and fine grinding, rough and final polishing, the yellow diamond paste dripping and the next batch waiting.

“Are we going to do this forever?” he asked. He was 20, a poet of the Duckponds Township that became Madadeni. I said that after apartheid a more human economy blessed by technology was possible; there would be time for creativity and expression; drudgery perhaps, but without the sting of alienation.

I had come out of the 1972 Black Consciousness student revolt that preceded the epochal Durban dockworkers strike. Sibusiso’s family had been swept into Duckponds as the black spots around the town were cleared. He had finished high school against the odds and was favoured to play for local football heroes, Madadeni United Brothers. In a few months black students would shrug-off their conditioned inferiority and the flames of the uprising would spread from Soweto across the country. For now the small Northern Natal town was booming as the plant expanded. Immigrants, many from Eastern Europe, were settling in custom-built suburbs, augmenting South Africa’s white population.

We did not know it then but a unique phase in world capitalism had ended – a 30 year “Golden Age” from the end of World War 11 to the oil crisis of 1973. It was powered by a technological revolution that transformed everyday life in the West, bringing domestic appliances and electronic goods to workers. Capital intensive production was the backbone. The historian Eric Hobsbawn wrote, “The ideal to which the Golden Age aspired…was production, or even service without humans: automated robots assembling cars, silent voids filled with banks of computers controlling the output of power, trains without drivers. Human beings were essential to such an economy only in one respect: As buyers of goods and services. Here lay its central problem.”

The obvious solution is to give people – even those who do not have jobs – the money to buy the goods and services made available by the leap in productive capacity. It remains unthinkable because conventional economics cons us into believing that money is a scarce resource that only banks can create. This is a central illusion. Governments are empowered to issue the nations’ currency and they can freely create money as a public utility. Banks have captured and franchised this power, enabling them to hold societies and nations to ransom.

For a generation the contradiction inherent in soaring productivity under capitalism – and its peril -passed unnoticed, suppressed by economic modernisation, welfare spending that shored consumer demand and an explosion in world trade. When the crisis could no longer be contained apologists claimed that state “interference” had polluted the market, subverted its ability to perfectly allocate resources and direct production. A purified orthodoxy was announced and brutally imposed; there was no alternative but to deliver national economies into the hands of private corporations; the roll-back of civilised welfare programmes and the wage gains made by workers began in earnest with the crushing and co-option of organised labour. Income inequality rose spectacularly and the image of the one percent controlling a staggering proportion of global wealth is now fixed in the public imagination.

The great financial crisis of 2008, still unresolved, ticks away like a bomb. It has already shattered the lives of millions with worse to come. But there is at least one saving grace. It showed the proclaimed inviolability of the market is a myth. Astronomical amounts of taxpayers’ money poured swiftly into bank bailouts. Savage and mean austerity cuts followed to ensure the same banks collected on loans to nations whose economies they had wrecked. Despite the intensive marketing of its pretensions, capitalism was clearly a scam.

Robert Zaller, professor of history at Drexel University, argues that the way in which economic activity is structured under capitalism is in fact criminal. “What turns a profit gets made and done; what doesn’t turn a profit doesn’t. It thus becomes rational to let people freeze, starve and even (as in the case of our for-profit medical system) die if sufficient profit can’t be made from feeding, clothing, sheltering and healing them. This is what, in fact, occurs when major depressions occur. These are not accidents of the system but the inevitable product of it. In fact, they are the only reliable product of it.”

The crimes of capitalism are overwhelming; war, waste, environmental and ecological disaster, psychological devastation, debt peonage, the corruption of political institutions, law, science, academia and journalism. Banks rig interest rates, launder drug money, miss-sell products and foreclose illegally. They pay fines that amount to nothing, purely for the sake of form. Zaller says, “Even crooks know when they’ve taken enough. That’s how the banksters differ from the gangsters. For the former, there’s no such thing as enough.” In capitalism’s aggressive neo-liberal phase there is an effective amnesty on corporate crime and a hideous criminalisation of almost everything else.

Last year the US Supreme Court refused an appeal by five directors of the Holy Land Foundation, formerly the largest Muslim charity in the country, who had received sentences of up to 65 years for providing material support for terrorism – essentially for feeding the poor and for building schools and hospitals in Palestine. The first trial had ended without a single conviction on any count. They were subsequently found guilty on the basis of the evidence of an “anonymous” expert who could not be challenged. The impact of the Supreme Court decision is that anyone in America can now be found guilty of practically anything. The inquisition, authoritarianism and fear are spreading everywhere.

Alongside all of this, the “jobless recovery” arrived. Allen Nasser, professor of Political Economy and Philosophy at Everglades State College, says for the past forty years there has been an ominous trend. The US labour market is polarising “into high skill, high paying, advanced-education jobs at one extreme and low skill, low paying, and low education jobs at the other. Disappearing are occupations in the middle of the skill and pay distribution.” The result has been persistent and rising long term unemployment.

The jobs that are vanishing have something in common irrespective of whether they are blue collar or office occupations. The work can be done by machines. Mechanics, machine operators, cement masons, dress makers, sales staff, secretaries, bank tellers and travel agents have all been technologically unemployed. Robots are taking over the computer electronics industry and will themselves be replaced by a new generation. In the last three US economic recoveries – 1991, 2001 and 2009 – production rebounded without any decrease in the number of long-term unemployed.

Between 1995 and 2002 the world lost 22 million manufacturing jobs, 15 million in China and 2 million in the US largely due to automation and innovations in production. The developing countries are hastily automating now. In a rational economic system this would hold exciting possibilities for freedom from both want and bondage, for the expansion of public employment that would enrich and support society. Instead we can look forward to an era in which discarded workers scrabble for survival as modern day serfs under a neo-feudal plutocracy, to be disciplined, controlled and culled when necessary or sent out again to colonise Africa.

In an alternative system Nasser says “The obsolescence of labour can be emancipatory, the creation of free time to enable us to do what only the human species can – develop a broad range of capacities and pursue a range of satisfactions available only to humans: to be a sculptor in the morning, a philosopher in the afternoon and a musician in the evening…How odd that we should have these capacities only to live under social arrangements that preclude their realisation…It’s downright unnatural.”

I guess that’s what Sibusiso and I felt in the cauldron of apartheid all those years ago. Capitalism’s greatest crime has been to kill hope and deny the potential of the human spirit, quite shamelessly. But, of course, that is not the end of the story.


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