The elephant in the room

A review of The Bleeding Edge by Bob Hughes, New Internationalist, £10.99.

This is a very good book, which stands above many others in the ever-growing genre that looks at the role and impact of the new technologies of robots and artificial intelligence on the future of human social organisation. As Betsy Harmann, Professor of Development Studies at Hampshire College US, says in the book’s blurb: “Rejecting both apocalyptic pessimism and techno-optimism, Hughes provides a compelling map to the future in which information technologies are harnessed for the common good.”

Bob Hughes taught digital media at Oxford Brookes University, but he is also an activist, particularly for the rights of migrants, co-founding a campaigning organisation, No One is Illegal UK in 2003.  Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at Oxford University, writes a foreword in which he argues that “technology is neutral.. how we use technology is up to us.  The machine is not in control, corporations and politicians are… it has not been artificial intelligence that has made our world more unequal.  It has been us.” This is Hughes’ message.

Hughes starts by arguing that technological progress has gone hand in hand with the development of capital.  As a result, computers, electronics, intellectual ideas have been converted into private property for profit, leading to “entrenched inequality”.  Yes, capitalism has been the social system under which massive technological progress has been made, reducing the material inputs and time it takes to deliver goods and services people need.  But this has been at the expense of growing inequality and the rapacious destruction and wasteful use of natural and human resources.

As Dorling says in his foreword, “profit maximisation is the anathema for true innovation.” Echoing Mariana Mazzucato in her book, The Entrepreneurial State, which shows how many key technological developments were not the results of capitalist innovation or ‘animal spirits’ but the product of state funding and public scientific research that were then ‘commodified’ by capitalist corporations like Apple, Microsoft or Google.

But Hughes also gives us excellent examples of the way that capitalism and the drive for profits distorts (and delays) innovation from meeting the needs of people.  Kodachrome, the first mass market film launched in 1935 (p32) did not come from research by capitalist corporations but from two musicians working in their spare time at the kitchen sink.  No corporation spent time and money trying to see if manned flight could be achieved; it was done by two Wright brothers on their own.  It is the same story with xerography (later privatised into Xerox), or disk memory (later IBM).  These advances were achieved by individuals in their own time and often in face of opposition from their employers who preferred research for a quick buck than for innovation.

One of the most famous was Colossus, the world’s first true programmable digital computer, which was developed by engineers in the state-owned British Post Office during WW2.  These pioneers were then consigned back to mundane jobs after the war and computer development was stunted for decades by corporate neglect.  A Brookings Institute study found that 75% of computer development funding had come from the state in 1950 – after which corporations did little to develop this exciting innovation, delaying its impact until well into the 1980s.

Hughes then gives us a chapter on the development of technology in class societies going back to the feudal period, arguing that it was the “takeover of egalitarian societies by unequal ones” that held back technological development.  It is here and really throughout the book, that I have my biggest disagreement.  Inequality or an “unequal world” is the bugbear for Hughes.  But this is an imprecise concept.

Inequality has existed for most of human civilisation, but it is driven by the control and distribution of surplus labour and output by a tiny elite.  The history of human social organisation after the primitive communism of hunter-gatherer societies has been the history of classes, to paraphrase Marx.  Inequality is a thus a product of class society; it is not the cause of it.  Thus it is the capitalist mode of production that has incentive to turn technology toxic, not ‘inequality’ as such.  If you were go through Hughes’ text and replace the words “inequality” or “unequal society” with the word “capitalism”, the picture of causality would be clear.

Making ‘inequality’ the enemy of technical progress smacks of the same ambiguity as found in such books as The Spirit Level, a book that has had wide success. That book argues that there are “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”.  But the real contradiction is not between an unequal society and technical progress, but between technical advances to boost the productivity of labour and the profitability of capital.

Hughes covers excellently the damage that capitalism (sorry, unequal societies) do to life expectancy, height, violence, the environment etc, just as the Spirit Level did.  These are chapters not be missed.  Hughes concludes that “inequality is the elephant in the room” that nobody likes to mention (p111).  Actually many refer to rising inequality now (as Thomas Piketty, the modern economist of inequality, put it in the interview: “I believe in capitalism, private property, the market” — but “how can we tackle inequality?” ).  But few (including Piketty) attach its cause to the capitalist mode of production. That is the real elephant in the room.  By delineating inequality, there is a danger that the elephant will be mistaken for a mouse.

Hughes graphically outlines in a series of chapters that, if technology was controlled by public organisation and in common (or as he prefers, following Kropotkin, the thoughtful anarchist, in ‘mutual association’), then huge strides in innovation could be made.  He provides a host of examples for solving global warming, reversing environmental destruction, reducing wasteful production and protecting natural resources, including flora and fauna.

Planning for need is not only necessary; Hughes shows that it now clearly viable with modern computer techniques like big data, artificial intelligence and quantum computers (see chapter 12 for an excellent account of the so-called ‘calculation debate’ of the 1980s that was supposed to show that planning was impossible because of the millions of decisions involved and therefore socialism was infeasible).  Indeed, Hughes reveals that during its brief rule, the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile, actually developed Cybersyn, a project that showed the possibility for harnessing digital computing to plan for social need.

In his final chapter, Utopia or Bust, Hughes discusses the key contradiction for the technology of the future. “Automation under capitalism (here the true elephant is mentioned) is less to relieve drudgery than to relieve manufacturers of some of their wage bills and reduce their reliance on skilled workers” (p310).  Automation under capitalism stunts individual ideas and innovation.  And it is also wasteful e.g. building roads rather than public transport and communications (“when you look at the hours a car can save you and the hours spent paying for it.. a worker has to dedicate each year about two months of work”) (p320).  Airplanes can be more ecologically friendly and more comfortable and useful if they just went slower (p322).  Labour saving devices to reduce toil in the home (washing machines) actually have increased the time spent on child care (nearly 30 hours a week for a woman, the same as in 1900! – p324).  Communal developments would save time and toil for housework – and so mainly for women.  Yet, as Hughes says, the “capitalist world seems specifically designed to eliminate communal activity” (p326).

At the end of the book, Hughes asks “dare we demand equality?” and he calls for the ‘banning of inequality’.  But is this the way to pose the issue?  Technology is indeed the handmaiden of the social order controlling it.  Inequality is the result of that social order.  What is needed is the removal of that social order and its replacement by what used to be called socialism (not ‘post-capitalism’ or ‘equality’).  Then technology can flourish for all and inequality itself will fade.  The demand we must dare for is the common ownership and control of technology, not ending the unequal distribution of its fruits.

11 thoughts on “The elephant in the room

  1. Well said, Mike!

    All these perceptive people trapped in the illusion that history doesn’t exist – that bourgeois society, the capitalist mode of production, is the only conceivable way in which production and exchange can be organized…

    Let’s hope your reminder that there is a monstrous beast in the room will allow us to get rid of it before we are completely engulfed in its shit…

  2. Hughes’ comment you are quoting, Michael–that “the capitalist world seems specifically designed to eliminate communal activity,” is absolutely central to this discussion. Thank you!

  3. Apart from errors in the summary phrases about Kodachrome (first successful mass market color film) and computing (DEC and other firms developd minicomputers rapidly starting twenty years before 1980), the missing element here is the historic change in the impact of technology. The working class was able to capture much improvement in their lives, improvement made possible when new technologies were applied industrially. For the last 43 years and with no end in sight, though, technological development has proceeded but real median earnings of U.S. workers have stagnated and declined. The relative mass prosperity under industrial capitalism is gone forever.

  4. Dear Michael,

    This comment is regarding the last paragraph of this post, which echoes conclusions of many previous posts.

    The most fundamental question is not “what is needed”, but “how to achieve it” in modern world conditions even if only as a ‘practical possibility’. Even though the diagnosis is more or less clear, no feasible and sustainable treatment option has been discovered so far. All socially significant attempts of “socialism implementation” (USSR, China, etc.), which are sometimes called “state capitalism”, have failed miserably. And endless discussions of Marx’s heritage, such as Critique of the Gotha Program, haven’t seemed to be very productive. Practically, they are not more useful than reading “The Dispossessed”. We have to admit that, based on the current level of human development, all the scarce references to the “society of the future” in the works of the founders of Marxism are hypothetical at best.

    Coops, worker owned enterprises, and other forms of collective ownership often proposed as an alternative to capitalist enterprises, apparently, are unable to principally change the nature of capitalist mode of production (individualistic, competitive, profit driven economic activity), but simply “improve” capitalism similar to various social-democratic ways of profit redistribution.

    If Michael could point out to some publications, web sites, etc. where some concrete, practical alternatives to capitalism are described or discussed at the level of realization or implementation (the “how” level), it would be highly appreciated.

  5. Nekto: you seem to imply that the revolutions in Russia, China, etc. “failed miserably” because they didn’t succeed in creating “socialism” or, in the event, even in escaping from capitalist domination. But don’t despair! Both revolutions succeeded in achieving what could be achieved, given the historical circumstances that produced those revolutions. Russia and China today have different roles to play historically than if those revolutions hadn’t succeeded. As you know, capitalism is not the end of history. Don’t worry. Cheer up.

    1. Of course, whatever could happen has happened. Nevertheless, all presumably socialist revolutions so far have failed to achieve the goal of transcending the capitalist form of social organization. There are still a few isolated ongoing state level experiments (Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela), which are unlikely to become practical models for the future of humanity. Dialectic materialists neither worry nor despair, but they don’t live in the dream world as well. Unfortunately, as far as human history is concerned and especially given the lessons of 20th century, the only rational conclusion that can be made at the present time is that capitalism, despite all its obvious contradictions, seems to be indeed the end of history with no viable alternative on the horizon. And sober analysis of the capitalist future doesn’t leave much optimism in the rational mind. That’s why discussions of the possible ways of transformation of capitalism into socialism/communism, creative development of Marxism, its practical applications and interactions with other systems of social development are crucial for the present time left discourse.

      1. “…only rational conclusion that can be made at the present time is that capitalism, despite all its obvious contradictions, seems to be indeed the end of history…”

        It’s been a while since Fukuyama himself abandoned this nothing-but-speculation validated ideologem. He then started to blabber something about Islam’s threat to capitalist world, thus revealing his non-scientific partisan apologetism.

        Consumerist society is failing, you don’t need Marx to declare it. He did his job, that form of capitalism he was a contemorary of, died in 1946, giving a road to globalisation which is a clock-ticking cheat, the most frightening chimera Imperialism could ever have spawned.

        The pseudo(?)-social Mondragon Corporation in Spain, Israeli Kibbutzes actually feel pretty well in this system, still exploiting “surplus value”.

        Post-modern world order indeed cannot generate answers to emerging challenges, it does no longer seem to be the most stable form of human organization.

        But The End of history is firstly a metaphysical message. It, The Dullnes of being a human and die Blonde Bestie are synonimous to the non-opportunist left, don’t you agree? In the end, a common wisdom is there’s only two types of economy: the one you want for yourself and the one you want for your enemy to have.

        Whether it’s good or bad, one doesn’t actually need to invent something marvelous, the S will HTF eventually by itself, the later the worse.

  6. There’s a prominent soviet>russian sociologist academician Sergei Kara-Murza, whose works were aimed at justifying why socialistic revolution could actually succeed in Russia (no secret marxists thought of Germany having the most chances of becoming the first socialist state). [What turned out to matter was not the actual mass of proletariat, but concentration of manufacturing in certain densely populated areas, thus revolution had had it’s chance of winning.]

    He adressed the communal tradition of russian peasants that had to share the land in low-yield territories.That in his opinion worked well with the collectivized labour model. Dogma told elimination of exploitative classes is a panacea after which the state can start to dissolute itself giving everything into the people’s hands.

    However, it is evident that even accepting his hypothesis, the problem was vast. Kulak cartels and their political lobby were mostly destroyed (1930-1933) but peasants also suffered immensely and had stopped to care about the productivity once cattle and equipment they were forced to give up started to deteriorate quickly under unresponsible usage and management (homo-soveticus anecdote). Collectivized countryside’s population was migrating for profit reasons and due to famines prompting Stalin to restrict movement from that areas so the cities won’t die starving death because of agricultural production shortages (1931-1932). Strict punitve measures especially towards the party officials’ corruption had to be taken to ensure situation won’t go into tailspin, Followed political instabilty could only be stopped by repressions (1937-1939) that were denounced by Keynes and many other socialism sympathizers in the West.

    The point of this rant is to underline, while accepting class struggle theory, that measure aimed at establishing “equality” are:
    1) In many cases are counterproductive and unpopular.
    2) Ultimately result in appearing of the new ruling class that will eventually torpedo the system for personal gains (1991).
    3) Classes never go, dictate of the proletariat through the strong isolated state is a must if one wants to reap benefits of socialism.

    1. Dear jf,

      Nekto lived for 30 years in the former USSR (the capital of Byelorussia), and he is very well aware of both the history and eye witness accounts. His father was from a peasant family, and his grandfather survived 10 years building Belomoro-Baltic canal. Nekto did study Marxism very diligently, and was one of the founders of the Byelorussian People’s Front.
      The short history of the USSR was very “tough and rough”, but so were the histories of most European countries and the U.S. at different times. It’s a fundamental mistake to use some historic events to condemn modern results of social development in those countries, where these events took place and did indeed influence the present time societies. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening in Russia, where all the USSR heritage is being destroyed, and the ideas of collectivism, collaboration, internationalism, and atheism, which were absolutely natural for millions of Soviet people of Nekto’s generation (born in 60s), are being intentionally replaced with the ideas of individualism, competition, nationalism/chauvinism, and reactionary Orthodox Church. Official Russian ideology today (with all its symbols, phraseology, social events, propaganda, etc.) is a revival of the ideology of the Russian Empire before the October Revolution of 1917, which was based on three pillars — God, Tsar, Fatherland.
      To make a long story short, and certainly controversial, the generation of 60s was, possibly, the only generation that had a chance (at least in some parts of the USSR), in spite of multiple internal problems, to build a society, even if imperfect and limited, based on genuinely socialist principles. Unfortunately, the short and turbulent USSR history didn’t provide favorable conditions for the development of collective consciousness dominated by those principles, which, nevertheless, certainly occupied an important place in consciousness of an average Soviet person. It has to be emphasized that, for most Soviet people, Perestroika meant development and improvement of socialism, and in no way its replacement by capitalism, even though some ideas and principles of capitalism, or rather liberalism and social democracy, were quite popular, but misunderstood and idealized. It seems to be a common misconception that socialism, or state capitalism as some call it, in the Soviet Union lost in economic competition to capitalism. It rather lost ideological battle for people’s minds. So, a short historic moment of a single generation to build a relatively sustainable society on socialist principles was missed for various reasons. The Soviet Union crumbled due to various factors, and all its parts adopted, with exception of maybe Belarus, capitalism in different, usually rather authoritarian, corrupt, and regressive forms. “Chinese way” doesn’t seem to be a very promising alternative for the future of humanity as well.

      Now about your reply to Nekto’s comment:
      Paragraphs 3-5 – agree;
      Paragraph 6 (about two types of economy). This is true that all the class societies have been based on that common wisdom, and it was dominant in a few transitory (socialist) societies, but it might be replaced in the course of human social evolution by another wisdom (due to natural transformation of collective consciousness), where only one economy exists for everyone. Non-destructive capitalist forms of social organization are simply not sustainable within closed natural systems, such as planet Earth. But what happens in reality is always due various factors, conditions, circumstances, etc., which is called history.
      Paragraph 7. No one actually invents anything. It’s a single Reality that manifests in various forms moment after moment, after moment… Due to various limitations our sense organs can reflect or represent this Reality in various ways, including conceptual representations by the intellectual faculty of the brain. When (if) collective consciousness evolves to such an extent that it is going to be dominated by the concept of the unity of existence, the Oneness rather than separated individual selves, the socialist/communist society can come into existence. No crisis of modern capitalism along with all its contradictions will miraculously transform it into socialism until and unless the life conditions, including economic relationships, become conducive for such transformation of consciousness. Unfortunately, this crucial factor of social transformation seems to be totally beyond the topics discussed by modern Marxists, which makes all these discussions highly hypothetical if not utopian, but nevertheless not useless. Hopefully, the time will come, but it will likely to require some very dramatic social events, some very special conditions to propel both human consciousness and theoretical thought to another level of human social evolution, another twist of the dialectical spiral of the natural evolution of Reality.

      1. With all due respect, how come a person operating with the marxist-leninist philosophy founded a party with that horrible riding knight from the Wild Hunt as an emblem? Have you repented on what you’ve been part of during the collapse or do I misunderstand something?

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