Saturday, February 11, 2012

On technology and the classless society

Marx’s argument amounts to this: any project to deliver a classless society, with wealth distributed according to need, must be based on the most advanced technologies and organisational forms created by capitalism itself. It can’t be based on schemes originating in the heads of philanthropic bosses or philosophers. And you can’t return to the past.
This passage, I am told via Nick Srnicek's tumblr (by way of Mark Fisher's Twitter feed), comes from Paul Mason's book, Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (Verso, 2012; they appear to have been pushing this book rather hard). I find the formulation helpful, because it allows me to directly address something that's been nagging at me for a while now, making me feel alienated from most currents of the Left. I have no idea what Mason actually discusses in his book on this point, but it was excerpted as if it stands alone, and it is close enough to other leftist formulations that I feel justified in taking it as it is. Anyway, whenever I read something like this, I want to shout: The classless society of the future cannot "be based on the most advanced technologies and organisational forms created by capitalism itself"!

I see this as a massive problem, yet when I do want to shout, I instead hold back, not wanting to get into an internet battle I don't often have the patience for. Feeling insufficiently read up on this or that theoretical model, or otherwise under-informed, or wary of being accused of nostalgia, of Luddism, of Romanticism, or something like that. That said, here are just a few (very) preliminary points that occur to me:

1. Too often technology is taken for granted, in the sense that advances are taken as the natural order of things. This is fitting, I suppose, in that capitalism itself is experienced as simply the way things are and must be, as the air we breathe, as natural. I don't think that's the problem here, but it's common enough, even among leftists.

2. Just in general, theoretically, it seems to me that a classless society implies a situation in which the state no longer exists, and a situation in which, by definition, class inequalities, along with massively hierarchical institutions, also no longer exist. In which case, precisely how could such a society be based on the most advanced organizational forms created by capitalism? Or, perhaps the problem is, what is meant by "advanced"? Is "advanced" a value judgment? (If so, how is that judgment made, and by whom?) Otherwise, I fail to see how the massively hierarchical corporation, or government agency, or the like, can possibly be the model for, or basis of, a classless society of the future.

3. Politically, not enough attention is paid to the circumstances through which our advanced technology is produced and maintained. Questions need to be asked concerning the source of the energy needed to develop, produce, and maintain today's advanced technology. Who does that work? Would a classless society transfer, by force, the energy needed to fuel such a process? Or, how would a classless society justify the continuation of such transfers? How would it justify the kind of labor needed to make it happen? (Is the internet possible without cheap oil?)

4. Practically speaking, it seems obvious to me that our current ecological situation all but screams out that we need to come to terms with the idea that our advanced technology will not be available forever. While we have them, we should feel no compunction about using the various advanced tools currently at our disposal, but it seems to me we should not expect those tools to always be available.

5. Notice how the question is framed (and almost always seems to be framed): either you believe the classless society should be based on the most advanced technological and organization forms created by capitalism, or you're guilty of utopian dreaming ("schemes originating in the heads of philanthropic bosses or philosophers") or of romanticizing this or that pre-capitalist past. Often it's explicitly framed like this: either you're resolutely modern, or you're a dangerous dreamer who romanticizes the past. I maintain that this binary is unhelpful. The past has a lot to teach us, and we've forgotten much.

Ok, that's enough for now; more to come.

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Blogger Frances Madeson said...

"While we have them, we should feel no compunction about using the various advanced tools currently at our disposal, but it seems to me we should not expect those tools to always be available."

So true. I'm prioritizing building my print library even as I'm working on audio and digital editions of Cooperative Village and my new novel Kissing Booth.

Richard, I'd love to see you write about Edmond Caldwell's new book Its composition, parts to wholes, is a wonder to behold.

February 13, 2012 11:59 AM  
Blogger Ryan Georgioff said...

Just discovered your blog from "fuck indie rock for saying fuck indie rock for saying fuck" or some such title from 2009... I've been stuck here reading your stuff for a while now, and I'm hooked. I'll be back, just wanted to say hello.

February 23, 2012 9:48 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi Ryan - I'm glad you stopped by, and stayed. I appreciate you taking the time to comment. Thanks.

February 24, 2012 8:39 AM  

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