Technology and Consciousness

The text by RV is a welcome contribution towards the articulation of an answer to the most crucial question facing us: How can revolutionary desire capture the imagination of the working class, of humanity?

For orthodox Marxism, the answer to this question starts with the conflict between the development of the productive forces and the capitalist relations of production, which must lead to a higher stage in the development of human society: communism. This is posed as a law, valid not only in the present but throughout history. Personally, I never understood the essence of this "law", that is to say, what it is that fundamentally connects the decadence of slave, feudal and capitalist societies. But, at the empirical level, it seems that indeed, in each case (even if there is a danger of exaggerating the similarities) the development of the productive forces creates a new revolutionary class which imagines itself seizing power over society, in spite of the fact that the old dominant class organized it as a function of the conservation of its own power. The revolutionary class manages to seize power when it sees its potential power. It is thus, indeed, a question of visibility.

I speak of class, because it is the essential element of the productive forces. One cannot speak of the productive forces without speaking about the working class, or of the working class outside of the productive forces. The question is thus not so much how technology evolves, but how the working class evolves. Both are connected, of course. For orthodox Marxism, technological development clashes with the conditions of valorization, which brings crisis, then economic collapse, which convinces the proletariat to free itself from its chains. Unfortunately, that led many of those orthodox Marxists to focus their critique of capitalism on its so-called incapacity to 'grow' the economy, and to present communism as a superior model of growth (under their management, of course). It is on this design that the "traditional" theories on the decadence of capitalism (from Trotsky and Luxemburg to the ICC and the IBRP) are based. Arriving at the fatal point X, capitalism cannot accumulate any more, therefore, the undeniable need to continue production, causes the revolution. Too easy, much too easy! Even with the party added as a catalyst. And refuted by history. If one recognizes that since the first global self-destruction of capital, a new context is presented for capital and for the proletariat, that we can term "decadence" while awaiting a better term, it is necessary to recognize also that during this time, the capacity of world capitalism to grow the economy did not disappear, and that the temporary interruption of growth does not guarantee the revolution.

It is comprehensible that at the beginning of decadence, this productivist vision was credible, but today it is manifest that it is not a lack of productivity that is responsible for the misery of humanity. Therefore, revolutionary theory cannot be based on the productivist argument. But the rejection of this argument does not imply the rejection of the materialist position on consciousness, nor does it deny that the conditions that the proletariat undergoes determine, not what must occur, but what can occur. It thus should be hoped that these conditions evolve in a way favorable to the development of revolutionary consciousness. Any position, which ignores the conflict between the productive forces and relations of production, is not materialist.

The basic argument remains valid: that this conflict, by making the necessity of the revolution visible, creates the conditions for the generalization of revolutionary consciousness. Even when the decadence of capitalism is no longer seen as a permanent incapacity to accumulate, and its effects on the working class are no longer seen in terms of the kind of misery and want that was typical in the 19th century, the poisoned fruits of this conflict, the destruction which it causes capitalism to inflict (war and ecocide as well as unemployment and wage reductions) are the most potent argument for the revolution (if the working class can see capitalism as the source of the problem).

Raoul insists that the visibility of the need is not enough, that the possibility also must be visible. He is right, but again, that means in the first place that the revolutionary class must be visible to itself. In this respect, it is difficult to see the recent technological development as favorable. It seems to me that the changes that it has brought at the level of the recomposition of the working class, the decentralization of the work place, etc., have a very negative side for the capacity of the class to recognize itself, at least, for the moment. It is this difficulty which weighs heavily on the class struggle and which makes some believe that there is no more working class as a revolutionary subject, that our fate is in the hands of the "multitudes" (Negri). It is not by chance that the techno-determinist Marcuse is again la mode.

But the effect of technology is a lot more complex, and contradictory. I agree with Raoul that information technology can make the possibility of a world based on non-commodified relations more visible. The technological evolution creates some new obstacles for the proletariat, but also new opportunities. One cannot conclude from it that it determines an ineluctable revolution, nor an ineluctable defeat.

Let me return once more to the question of the validity of the concept of the conflict between the productive forces and the relations of production as the motor of the development of revolutionary consciousness. Since the productivist interpretation of this concept was largely accepted in the revolutionary Marxist milieu, the debate focused on whether the revolutionary party is the essential ingredient or an obstacle in this "ineluctable" process. While there were sensible arguments on both sides, given their schematic, productivist, framework, neither made sense. Those who reject both may also be enticed to reject the connection between capitalist crisis and the rise of proletarian revolutionary consciousness. For Aufheben, quoted with approval by Christian, "to consider history in terms of the contradiction between the development of the productive forces and existing social relations, is to take the point of view of capital. If that is true, the Communist Manifesto and many other fundamental texts of the revolutionary movement are capitalist documents. While affirming the opposite, I also think that the Manifesto and other texts need to be criticized for their determinist vision, for the idea that communism is the ineluctable result of economic development, to which the proletariat becomes the heir. Why would that be the case? Because capitalism arrives at a point of irreversible collapse? The theoretical arguments for such a position are faulty and rejected by the historical experience. Because communism would be more intelligent, more human, more pleasant? As if that were the only criteria determining the choices that humanity made throughout its history. What is ineluctable is that capitalism proceeds toward terrible economic crises to which it will react by causing massive destruction (it does it already). As JW writes, it is a pity that the only thing that is not ineluctable, is the revolution. He jokes, but he is right.

The revolution is not ineluctable, because it can be only a human choice. One cannot predict the future of humanity. If human beings are robots up to a certain point, they are also much more. I do not suggest a "free will" given by a god, but a complexity to which the simplistic Marxists "laws" do not render justice. But does the rejection of determinism imply a denial that objective conditions determine consciousness? Does it imply the negation of the position that affirms that the objective conditions for the revolution mature through the (negative) demonstration of its necessity (the collapse of the capitalist economy) and the (positive) demonstration of its possibility (by the presence of necessary material conditions, technology included)? This is what Christian seems to think when he denies that the development of the productivity of labor under capitalism was necessary for communism to become possible. In my opinion, he leaves materialism and falls in a kind of romanticism when he claims that "communism will not recuperate the productive forces of capitalism to liberate them and to develop them. IT WILL RAZE THEM." It is almost a religious vision, with technology in the role of Satan.

Christian is right when he affirms that technology is not neutral. It is deeply impregnated by capitalism, by the law of the value. The capitalist social relations do not exist outside of it, but are inside. Communism cannot simply recuperate it as it is and change its goal, but it will not make tabula rase of technology either. Let us avoid simplistic radicalism. It is easy to see only unfavorable aspects in the development of technology: its destructive application, reification, commodification, the isolation that it imposes on us more and more, in work as well as in our "free time"... this tendency can hardly be seen as facilitating the revolution. For a vision that is only based on that, the observations of Raoul are a welcome antidote. Such contradictory analyses can be made and both can be correct (but too limited and thus incorrect) because the dynamic of the development of technology, and of the productive forces in general, is contradictory too. There is of course nothing ambiguous about the direction in which capitalism leads this development: intensification of exploitation, increase in its totalitarian control, etc. But the inherent contents of this development are more complex. On the one hand, technology is, perhaps from its origin and certainly as of the Middle Ages, the fruit of a vision of reality as subject to control, to manipulation. It develops and is spread with the law of the value, and as a function of the latter. Its evolution, narrowly bound, culminates in the real domination of capital, where everything is manipulated, everything is quantified, everything becomes capital. But this capital valorizes itself with increasing difficulty. That goes for variable capital too, which means the rapid growth of the multitudes of humans becoming valueless objects.. The whole of humanity is transformed into capital and this capital is on a bloody race toward devalorization.

Information technology is an extreme expression of this dynamic. It pushes the tendency to the interiorization of work in the machine, to the integration of "spare time" in the market, to the penetration of the law of the value into all aspects of life. Since this tendency becomes omnipresent, its effect on class consciousness must be powerful too. Nothing can be understood, if this question is avoided.

But there is not only that. Information technology is also the most developed expression of the inherent tendency of technological development to make production increasingly more social, collective, interdependent, worldwide, and to require a proletariat increasingly trained, educated, literate. Information technology makes the world more connected, increasingly more dependent on the free transmission of information. That makes it impossible for the dominant class to suppress the expression and the communication of ideas, in spite of its totalitarian instincts. It is also the most developed expression of tendencies which result from the fact that under the real domination of capital, the creation of real wealth (use values) and the capitalist creation of wealth (exchange value) are disconnected and follow separate paths: tendencies to valueless production, on the one hand, and to overproduction, on the other. All these characteristics have in common that they exacerbate the conflict between the productive forces and the relations of production, between the working class and the social relation which is capital, its institutions and motives; a conflict which tends to make more visible the possibility of revolution.

Concerning the tendency to valueless production: the more information technology and thus automation develop, the more pronounced this tendency becomes. An increasing number of commodities exist only as information. Independently of the quantity of value that created them in their original form, their reproduction - their transmission- is practically valueless. The value of the original must be recovered by selling the copies with a large surplus profit, but this is only possible if the seller has a monopoly position on the market. Since his commodities are easy to copy, that is difficult to maintain. The exchange is no longer sanctioned automatically, it must be protected by the power of the state. The more important information technology becomes in the economy, the more pronounced this projection of power must become. To a large extent, the foreign policy of the United States, wars included, is aimed at defending a world order in which copyrights, trademarks and patents are respected. Which becomes increasingly more difficult, and cannot prevent the tendency to valueless production from creating increasing opportunities for collectivizing information goods and the other non-commodified relations described by Raoul (and more examples could be given). Even if it is true that free software is advantageous for many capitalists (since they are gifts for them too) and that capitalism is very creative in finding ways to integrate non-commodities into the world of commodities (as the case of Linux shows), that does not refute the argument that this aspect of technological development tends to make more visible the fact that the world does not need the law of the value.

Although the point of production remains the principal battlefield between the old and the new world, there are others. The Internet is also a battlefield, where capitalists continuously try to lock us up in the isolation of the consumer, and (mostly) proletarians continuously try to use the new opportunities to create non-commodified relations. It goes without saying that the proletarians in struggle, in the factories and offices, as well as in the streets, will fully use the means of communication at their disposal (they do it already) and that information technology has greatly increased these means.

I share neither the position of those who see only negative aspects in information technology, nor the position that makes it the condition which finally will open the door to revolution. In this respect, I have some questions about the framework in which Raoul places his observations. In this text, it is rather implicit, but I remember discussions on decadence in which he (and others of the Paris Discussion Circle) insisted pointedly on the famous passage where Marx writes that no mode of production disappears before having developed all the forces of production that it can contain. On this, it should be said that Marx painted with a very large brush here or else that he was mistaken. But if one insists on defending that statement interpreted literally, one again plunges fully into productivist mythology. Would capitalism be out of danger as long as it was capable of modernizing something? But why? And why would it lose this capacity at some point? The analysis of Raoul on the new technology could be useful for an update of this vision : "we were mistaken when we thought that capitalism was condemned to stagnation since 1914, that it had developed all the productive forces that it could contain and that the era of the revolution had thus begun. In fact, it is only today that it develops the productive forces necessary so that the revolution becomes possible." In such an update also fits an over-estimation of China as a new [last?] field of expansion for capitalism (in my opinion, its development should be seen in the first place as part of a global attack on the price and value of variable capital). Is it possible that Raoul, the author of a fundamental text on decadence in the productivist tradition, would not have given up this basic theory, but would have simply changed the starting point of decadence, from the past to the (near, one hopes) future? If that is the case, he should explain it a bit more. As for me, I believe that to understand the effect of technology on proletarian consciousness, it is necessary to reject the productivist mythology.


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