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The Left Must Embrace the Radical Potential of Technology – Or Face Political Defeat

Of all the 19th century thinkers who best understood the transformations around them, Karl Marx stands out. While one of capitalism’s foremost critics, it would be wrong to say he didn’t discern its potential. Indeed it was his optimism for an alternative – one immanent within capitalism – which he viewed as the basis for an even higher form of society: communism.

Marx states this with timeless elegance in the Communist Manifesto, claiming the bourgeoisie had “been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about”, accomplishing “wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals”. Such transformation was an outgrowth of the system upon which the bourgeoisie found themselves atop: capitalism. What made this system unique, at least according to Marx, was how it could not “exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production”.

As well as viewing the potency of capitalism as a decisive shift in history, Marx also concluded its technologies were creating new kinds of consciousness. This is expressed with supreme clarity in the Poverty of Philosophy: “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.”

In isolation, this quote might lead one to conclude that Marx was a technological determinist. He was not. He did, however, believe technology was part of a broader ensemble of factors – including relations to nature, forms of daily life, the productive process and mental conceptions – which all determine one another over time. For some historians, one of these stands above the others as a prime cause. The historian Lynn White, for example, argued the innovation of the stirrup made possible an elite military class of knights and with it feudalism. But Marx thought otherwise: it is human beings that make history, if not under conditions of their own making. Such a view of history, agency and technology – as mutually constitutive – became a central feature of Marxist thinking over the next 150 years.

According to Vladimir Lenin, a major task of the new Soviet government was to “ensure that the fruits of bourgeois science and technology, the fruits of thousands of years of the development of civilisation, shall be enjoyed not by a handful of people […] but by literally all the working people.” More broadly the Bolsheviks viewed technology as plastic, creating novel forms of resistance. One example of this was how they sought to organise in the burgeoning telegraph offices of Petrograd and Moscow in the months before October 1917. For them the possibility of transforming society necessitated being at the cutting edge of technology. As Lenin famously said in 1920: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” Whether it was their strategy for attaining power, or their ideas about building a new society, the Bolsheviks remained attentive to technological change.

And yet, for some on the radical left, something strange happened during the second half of the 20th century. Technical comprehension of modern production was no longer seen as coterminous with subjecting it to democratic control. The workers movement was no longer something which was technologically contingent, but static. Alongside this was a growth in critiques of consumer capitalism and, later, the rise of the green movement. Speaking to Theodor Adorno in 1956, Max Horkheimer spoke of how “Marx already has the idea that in a false society, technology develops wrongly”, to which Adorno replied, “The goods made available nowadays are a kind of pseudo-consumer goods; exchange value is substituted for use value.”

Except this isn’t quite right – historically or in terms of 20th century innovation. In the Grundrisse, Marx himself said that production under capitalism “quite unintentionally – reduces human labour […] to a minimum”, with this redounding, “to the benefit of emancipated labour, and is the condition of its emancipation.”

Rather than claiming technology developed ‘wrongly’ under capitalism – a statement which Marx might have described as bad dialectics – his position was that despite the distorted manner in which it unfolds in a world defined by profit, its alternative was immanent within in.

As importantly, Adorno and Horkeimer were unaware of the new genre of capitalism growing since WW2. Research for transistors, solar cells, jets and satellite technology was so costly that only nation states, and superpowers at that, could afford to innovate. More than an age heralding consumer capitalism, the 1950s represented a break with the past. Unlike the initial waves of the Industrial Revolution, the lone inventor or small firm was no longer capable of leading the way. While James Watt and Matthew Boulton turned the steam engine into the backbone of the Industrial Revolution, and Henry Bessemer revolutionised the steel industry eighty years later, it would take Bell Labs – backed by the US state and with riches only possible because of a domestic monopoly – to create many of the 20th century’s seminal technologies. While perhaps not obvious to Adorno and Horkheimer, it was this, rather than Cadillacs and Elvis, which was the future.

This tendency, of states socialising risk and privatising the gains of technological innovation, only became stronger over time – despite the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today it is evident with China and its efforts to overtake the US in two key areas: artificial intelligence and synthetic biology. Rather than catering to consumer demand, the former depends on huge state spending for research and data – particularly for the creation of powerful ‘deep learning’ algorithms. China’s sheer scale suggests it will win, its quality of data as unrivalled as its quantity.

If artificial intelligence is the electricity of the new world, data is the oil – and the latter will be crucial to Beijing’s success. Heterodox Marxists, led by Antonio Negri, said that modern capitalism hinged not only on new forms of production, but that this was also attended by the “real subsumption of society” – where the logic of the factory is applied to all of social life. A world where value increasingly derives from mass data sets of faces, speech patterns, movements and consumer habits is precisely that. It is the social factory.

Mainstream thinking, unsurprisingly, seeks to insulate questions of technology from politics – as if the former did not contain within it a plethora of social affordances and choices. This is what Marx called ideology, where intentional and constructed relations between people and things are posed as ‘normal’ and natural.

What’s strange, however, is that such a visionary tradition, from Marx onwards, remains ignored by some on the left. Here a converse logic dominates: the liberal rationale of technology not being political is inverted so politics, social relations and forms of consciousness are not inflected by technology. Nor is an alternative possible or even to be preferred. Such a conclusion has proven alluring to deep greens too – where any effort to say human ingenuity is being constrained by capitalism is to argue for some misguided technological fix.

The present moment is what Antonio Gramsci called an organic crisis. The elite can no longer command consent for the status quo materially or ideologically – and therefore lose hegemony. But besides this, a number of other crises are headed our way: climate systems breakdown and demographic ageing to name just two. Faced with such challenges it wouldn’t just be naive for the left to lack a radical account of technological possibility – it would lay the foundation for political defeat.

The world is going to change. The question is: in whose interests and to what end?

Published 20th June 2019

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