Notes on Technology and Class Struggle
By Michael Perelman
The class war has not been going very well. The symptoms of setbacks
should be obvious to everybody. The deterioration of the distribution
of income is a convenient indicator of the situation.
Between 1970 and 2003, the Gross Domestic Product adjusted for inflation
almost tripled, from $3.7 trillion to $11.7 trillion (President
of the United States 2005, Table B 12, p. 294). Because the population
also increased by about 35 percent during that same period, the
rate of increase of per capita income was less. Even so, per capita
income still more than doubled, but not for everybody.
Hourly wage earners have continued to fall behind. According to
government statistics, hourly wages, corrected for inflation, peaked
in 1972 at $8.99 measured in 1982 dollars. By 2005, hourly wages
had fallen to $8.17 (President of the United States 2005, Table
B 47, p. 338).
Total income figures give a similar picture. For the bottom 99 percent
of taxpaying units, the average income stood at $36,008 in 1970,
then peaked in 1973 at the same time as hourly wages at $38,206.
This figure bottomed out in 1993 at $33,087. By 2004, average income
for the bottom 99 percent recovered somewhat to $37,295, but still
below where it had been three decades earlier (Piketty and Saez
2004; see also Johnston 2003, pp. 38 39; and Krugman 2002).
This estimate does not mean that everybody in the bottom 99 percent
fell behind, but that the losses among the vast majority of these
people were sufficient to counterbalance the gains of the more fortunate
members of this group. But probably 80 percent of the population
was worse off in 2004 than in 1970.
At the top, matters were quite different. The highest 10 percent
increased their share of total income from about 31.51 percent in
1970 to 42.91 percent in 2004, an increase of 11.40 percentage points.
Even among the richest 10 percent of the population, the unseemly
distribution of income is increasingly skewing toward the richest
of the rich. During the same 1970 to 2004 period, the share of the
top 1 percent rose from 7.80 percent of total income in 1970 to
16.21 percent in 2004, an increase of 8.41 percentage points, meaning
that this group enjoyed almost three quarters of the 11.40 entire
percentage point increase of the top 10 percent.
This skewed pattern of income reproduces itself even higher on the
economic pyramid. The share of the top 0.1 percent increased from
1.94 percent of total income to 6.95 percent. This increase of 5.01
percentage points means that the top 0.1 percent of households captured
almost 44 percent of the total increase of the total increase of
the top 10 percent (Piketty and Saez 2006, Figure 3).
In 1970 the top 10 corporate CEOs earned about 49 times as much
as the average wage earner. By 2000, the ratio had reached the astronomical
level of 2173: 1. The rate of growth of executive pay has also outstripped
the rate of growth of profits. For example, between the periods
1993 1995 and 2001 2003, the ratio of public companies' total compensation
to their top five executives to their total earnings increased from
4.8 percent to 10.3 percent.
In short, the wealthiest stratum of the nation was able to hog the
majority of the $7 trillion growth in the economy between 1970 and
2002. Despite the decline in their average well being, people in
the bottom 90 percent of the population would still take up about
30 percent of the increase in the Gross Domestic Product because
of the population growth of approximately 30 percent. In addition,
the Gross National Product does not exactly equal the income figures
of the Internal Revenue Service, but the figures are close enough
to say that the top 10 percent of the population received the lion's
share of all economic growth between 1970 and 2000. We can safely
say that the United States has witnessed in recent decades what
is probably the largest transfer of wealth and income in the history
of the world far larger than what occurred during either the Russian
or Chinese revolutions.
As an economist, I was trained to understand that production is
a joint product of capital and labor. Each received the fruits of
its own product. The theory has lots of holes in it, but at least
it justified labor getting something from its extra productivity.
We all know who produced this increase in wealth. Those who were
responsible were not running hedge funds are flying around to golf
courses in corporate jets.
Economists are busy revising their theory. Now we are told that
those workers who have fallen behind bear the responsibility for
their own fate. They have failed to acquire the appropriate human
capital, econ speak for education and experience. Never mind the
appalling conditions of schools in impoverished neighborhoods.
Of course, the people sitting on the top of the economic pyramid
do not necessarily have great educational credentials. The level
of education for CEOs and teachers are about the same, although
their incomes are quite dissimilar.
Economists are trained to defend the indefensible aspects of the
market economy. Although practicing class warfare is considered
natural behavior in a market economy, communicating about class
warfare is an unacceptable breach of etiquette. Economists' most
common explanation for the inexcusable deterioration of the distribution
of income is that many workers lack the appropriate skills to be
useful in the new economy. If workers were only more proficient
in working with modern technologies, they would not be in such bad
Let me suggest that in one sense these economists may not be entirely
wrong. We are gathered here because we agree with them about the
importance of workers learning to develop their technological skills,
but with one significant difference. Our objective is not so much
to learn how to use technology to fit in but rather to fight back.
The Complex Terrain of Class Warfare
Initially focusing on the distribution of income reminds us that
class warfare does not merely exist at the point of production.
It involves a whole host of relationships, obviously including the
judicial branch of government, but extending also into social and
Cliff Conner's magnificent A People's History of Science: Miners,
Midwives, and "Low Mechanicks describes the glorious history
of people without any social standing making major contributions
to science and technology, which, more often than not, were later
claimed by upperclass people. One major theme of the book, which
is of fundamental importance here, is the constant social pressure
to deny ordinary people the very right to participate in the development
of science and technology. How impudent for an ordinary person to
think that they have something to contribute to the glorious project
of improving science and technology!
David Noble tells a somewhat similar story but one that is more
deeply entwined in the class struggle in his extraordinary book
Forces of Production. The central thrust of the book is that the
military and the corporate state developed numerically controlled
machine tools to be able to replace the complex skills of machinists.
General Electric, which stood on the front lines of this struggle,
was distressed to learn that rather than simply replacing the skills
of machinists, the introduction of this new technology required
even more skill on the part of the machinists. General Motors strategically
retreated, giving the machinists more power over the production
process, while setting up mechanisms to learn from the machinists
in order to break their monopoly of technological information.
In a rational society, machinists, like any other worker would welcome
new technology that would improve their lives. Marx, for example,
we saw that the natural development of technology, apart from the
imposition of the capitalist imperative, would be to improve working
conditions, making workers functions less like those of the beast
of burden and more like scientists overseeing a process.
The role of modern technology should not be merely to improve conditions
on the shop floor, but to elevate the general quality of life for
everybody everywhere. Obviously, many modern technologies have the
potential to make possible a better life far better than would be
otherwise possible. Whether this technology actually delivers an
improved quality of life is an altogether different question.
Capital applies modern technology in order to be able to reduce
costs, not to improve the quality of life. Cost reductions can offer
benefits to people as consumers as Wal Mart reminds us but the ability
to consume also depends upon income.
Theoretically, business should try to cut every kind of cost. We
know that this cost cutting does not extend to executive salaries.
In fact, cost cutting has an even narrower focus. Economic studies
show that efforts to cut costs are disproportionately directed toward
For example, during the energy shocks of the 1970s, people were
shocked by the degree to which business paid no attention to energy
costs. One of my favorite examples came from the corporate headquarters
of Dow Chemical at Midland, Michigan. The company had electric heating
for its sidewalk to make sure that people would not slip on the
ice. Only during the energy crisis did the company realize that
nobody took the trouble to turn off the sidewalk heater during the
summer. Labor costs, in contrast, merited extensive scrutiny.
Three kinds of production technologies can be used to hold down
labor costs. First, capital can adopt methods to reduce the effort
required for a particular kind of work. Second, capital can find
means of using less skilled labor to perform the job. Finally, capital
can use technologies to drive the same people to work more intensively.
For example, improved monitoring increases the effective working
day by diminishing the opportunity for workers to take a few moments
of relaxation. Such technological improvements may count as an improvement
on corporate balance sheets, but do not necessarily make life any
Only the first type of technology, which develops means of producing
the same outcome with less effort, has the potential to improve
labor's condition and then so, only if the labor that the technology
displaces has better opportunities elsewhere. Otherwise the technologies
serve to disempower workers. Yes, labor, as I mentioned before,
can potentially benefit from cost cutting, although the way the
economy functions today many the potential benefits we passed on
as higher corporate profits.
So while modern technology admittedly can potentially increase the
productive capacity of the economy, a good deal of this improvement
just comes from the intensification of work.
New technologies continuously change the terrain of struggle. Although
capital no longer employs anything comparable to the crude Ford
Sociological Department, which openly investigated workers' personal
life, new technologies allow even deeper, yet less obvious intrusions.
People innocently leave vital information about their lives on the
Internet in places such as Myspace. Sophisticated data mining companies,
such as Choicepoint, gather every conceivable kind of data, including
credit card information, voter registration, telephone numbers,
place of residence, and even relationships. At the same time, and
often under the guise of the war on terror, vital information about
corporations, such as safety conditions at the workplace, becomes
Success in navigating this shifting terrain of struggle will depend
upon anticorporate forces becoming more nimble in learning how to
turn new technologies to their advantage faster than the corporate
sector can. While the corporate sector obviously has more resources
at its disposal, its technological pace is relatively lumbering.
In contrast, the anticorporate sector enjoys the support of more
dedicated people without the disadvantages of rigid bureaucratic
structures. The key will be for all anticorporate forces to learn
to cooperate while still taking full advantage of the potential
of individual initiative.
As an academic, I cannot pretend that I have much to offer in the
way of technological knowledge. I probably have even less to offer
in the form of strategic insights, especially compared with those
of you on the front lines. Hopefully, I can contribute some perspectives
based on my analysis of past events, which indicate a continuity
in the struggle between labor and capital.
Pretend for the moment that this new technology actually works by
making improving technology without driving workers harder. As we
all know, a system that obsesses on profit rather than social needs
prevents people from enjoying most of the potential fruits of modern
technology. After all, the artificial creation of scarcity is highly
beneficial to capital. For example, intellectual property rights
are nothing more than using the power of the state to enforce artificial
More generally, we live in a society where capital routinely idles
both factories and people because the profit motive trumps any productive
needs. In addition, many, if not most, of the people who do work
for wages are consigned to performing meaningless activities or
directed to produce goods that do nothing to improve peoples' lives.
Let me take a moment to talk about health care, a subject that might
seem far afield from the subject of technology and labor. But, of
course, affordable health care is of vital concern for labor.
Besides vulnerability to the inequities of health care in the United
States, labor bears a particular burden from the inadequate, market
based healthcare system. In the United States, workers have to look
to their employers for assistance with healthcare. Employers in
other countries with a more public health care system are not expected
to pay for their workers' health care.
Public health care reduces labor costs. The United States has even
been making some noises about treating health care in other nations
as an unfair subsidy, but the place to make adjustments is right
here in this country.
At this point, private health care is seriously threatening the
labor movement. General Motors complains that it bears an average
$1500 medical cost for each of its cars an expense each of its competitors
do not face. Even in the United States, Japanese transplants with
a younger workforce and fewer retirees have substantial advantage
over a company like General Motors. The response of General Motors
is to attack labor.
So here is a vital technology health care. The United States government
already pays as much for health care per capita as nations with
public health care do, yet we still have to pay the cost of an inefficient
and inequitable private health care system. The lesson is that to
make effective use of modern technology, public control is a necessity.
Yet, we are told that the public part of health care is too expensive
and something must be done to rein in costs. Despite the fact that
the United States lacks a government run health care system, the
government still pays for more than half of all medical expenditures.
Per capita government spending on health care in the United States
actually exceeds total health spending (government plus private)
in every other country except Switzerland. In effect then, the people
of the United States pay the cost of a national health care system
without the opportunity to take advantage of its benefits (Woolhandler
and Himmelstein 2001).
Think for a moment about how capitalism deploys high tech labor.
Just count the people presently employed in the financial sector.
The financial sector is becoming a major employer of mathematicians
and physicists who are using their often publicly financed education
to figure out ways to beat the market; that is, to gain profits
at the expense of other investors, even those with mathematicians
and physicists in their employ. Society receives no benefit from
such wasteful activity. But nobody says that we can't afford Wall
This financial system also includes thousands and thousands of working
class people not just those working directly for Wall Street. Workers
must supply Wall Street with offices, computers and telecommunications
services, and paper.
Wall Street, of course, is not the employer of unproductive labor.
Think about marketing, advertising, and a host of occupations that
only serve the business side of life and you have the vast majority
of the workforce. Eliminating such unproductive work would make
the way for more leisure or the production of more goods and services
to improve the quality of life.
Over and above the shameless spread of unproductive activities,
capital devotes substantial resources to develop and produce technologies
that intentionally degrade the usefulness of products in order to
induce people to purchase more expensive, non degraded commodities.
We are seeing a great deal of such activity in the area of modifying
electronics hardware to restrict its capacity, often in the name
of the protection of intellectual property. The creation of such
modifications not only consumes valuable scientific and technological
labor; they often cost more to produce.
Capital chillingly applies modern technology to gain advantages
by holding people down. Today, the imperative of devising new forms
of technology for the class war is more pressing because of the
ramping up of inequality throughout the advanced capitalist world,
but especially in the United States.
New technologies now give capital the ability to closely monitor
workers in ways that no one could have even imagined only a few
years ago. Some of these new technologies are positively Orwellian.
No, they go well beyond Orwellian. For example, new genetic technology
threatens to create frightening possibilities for maintaining control
over workers. Some workers must wear RFID badges so that employers
can more easily monitor their movements. In an even more alarming
development, a few workers have even had implantable chips under
their skin, presumably as a condition of their employment.
Backed up by the full powers of the judicial system, such technology
gives capital an awesome strategic advantage. China has shown how
governments can leverage their powers to restrict people's ability
to use the internet for organizing or even distributing valuable
information. At the same time, the resources that China is devoting
to control access to the Web suggest just how crucial our mastery
of modern technology is.
Outsourcing represents one of the most obvious ways in which capital
is profiting from new technology. In a sense, outsourcing seems
like a radical change in the nature of the economy. For example,
during the heyday of classical political economy, the famous British
economist, David Ricardo, wrote:
Experience, however, shews, that the fancied or real insecurity
of capital, when not under the immediate control of its owner, together
with the natural disinclination which every man has to quit the
country of his birth and connections, and entrust himself, with
all his habits fixed, to a strange government and new laws, check
the emigration of capital. These feelings, which I should be sorry
to see weakened, induce most men of property to be satisfied with
a low rate of profits in their own country, rather than seek a more
advantageous employment for their wealth in foreign nations. [Ricardo
1817, pp. 136 37]
Seen in historical perspective, however, outsourcing does not seem
nearly as novel as it might appear from Ricardo's analysis. Within
a few years of Ricardo's conjecture, as the reach and power of the
British Navy expanded and wealthy Britons withdrew from the hurly
burly world of industry, British capital eagerly sought out financial
investments in far off places, such as the Americas.
Improvements in transportation technology, coupled with the absence
of sufficient opportunities for advancement at home, meant that
millions of people left their native lands to seek their fortunes
in North America. At first, Irish workers supplied the labor for
jobs at wages that native born workers were not inclined to accept.
In the South, the Irish even worked their jobs that took too much
of a toll on the black bodies of the property of slave owners. After
all, the death of a destitute Irish immigrant did not show up on
anybody's account books.
By reducing wages for unskilled labor, the Irish earned the enmity
of much of the working class. Within the Anglo Saxon world, a large,
supposedly scientific literature developed "proving" that
the Irish were closely related to the black race. Eventually, of
course, the Irish assimilated and "became white."
The Irish were only the first of a rich stream of immigrants to
help to keep wages in check. As immigrants began to flow in from
more easterly parts of Europe, the rich mix of nationalities provided
capital with an exceptional opportunity. For example, in 1875, Captain
William Richard Jones, manager of Andrew Carnegie's massive Edgar
Thomson works in Pittsburgh, explained, "We must steer clear
of the West where men are accustomed to infernal high wages. We
must steer clear as far as we can of Englishmen who are great sticklers
for high wages, small production, and strikes. My experience has
shown that Germans and Irish, Swedes and what I denominate Buckwheats
(young American country boys), judiciously mixed, make the most
effective and tractable force you can find" (Bridge 1903, p.
This idea of judicial mixture was hardly an exaggeration. The personnel
manager at Pittsburgh's Central Tube Company analyzed the "racial
adaptability" of 36 different ethnic groups for 24 different
kinds of work under 12 sets of conditions. Lithuanians were good
at trucking barrels or cases, but mediocre at shoveling. They were
suited to outdoor work, but poor performers under hot and dry conditions
and undesirable at night (Montgomery 1987, p. 243).
Eventually, most of the immigrants, just like most Latinos today,
learned to understand and to practice solidarity. As a result, employers
had to continually search out new groups of vulnerable immigrants
who would take time before they too would see themselves as part
of the working class. They were especially keen to find nationalities
whose language would be very different from those of their existing
workers. For example, I understand that the Yemenite population
of Youngstown, Ohio near my home town would have been sufficient
to make Youngstown at one time the second largest town in Yemen.
Immigration, of course, has not subsided. Immigrants still fill
an enormous number of jobs, especially low waged jobs. Immigration,
however, gets tangled in two complications. First, immigrants make
extremely inviting scapegoats for demagogues, who want to blame
something other than capitalism for the problems of capitalism.
Second, the force driving immigration is the lack of opportunity
in the countries of origin.
Because immigration does not respond to the supply and demand conditions
of U.S. labor markets, significant mismatches occur between the
labor needs of employers and the inflows of immigrants. You need
only look at the long lines of day workers waiting for jobs in big
Outsourcing, in contrast, is far easier to target precisely. Business
has the luxury of limiting outsourcing to the extent of its needs.
As a result, low wage countries with masses of surplus labor can
be tapped with ease at the convenience of employers in the advanced
capitalist countries. Moreover, the employers can avoid accusations
of exploitation by using intermediaries to directly take responsibility
for directly employing the workers.
Once capital perfected the outsourcing of low wage jobs, it began
to hire more skilled workers to do advanced technical work. Here
too history shows a certain continuity. Just as outsourcing is now
engaging skilled workers, skilled immigrants came to North America.
In a sense, outsourcing today is quite similar to the insourcing
of immigrants a century ago. Then ships carried people to the workplaces
of a new land, where the immigrants eventually came to learn to
act in consort with their fellow workers; now the Internet carries
information back to the central office, while the communication
with the fellow workers must transit thousands of miles. In either
case outsourcing or insourcing modern technology allowed capital
to enjoy the fruits of its divide and conquer strategy.
Perhaps the main difference between those workers who were squeezed
by Carnegie's ethnic manipulation and the workers threatened by
outsourcing is that the contemporary workers no longer see their
competitors face to face. To overcome the divide and conquer strategy,
contemporary workers need to develop ties of solidarity just as
earlier workers did, perhaps using the same technologies that capital
uses to manage its outsourcing.
One difference complicates the creation of solidarity. Traditionally,
immigrants earned lower salaries than the people around them, making
them more amenable to organizing once they learned about their relative
In contrast, high tech outsourced workers typically enjoy better
working conditions than they would with a domestic employer. The
same is probably true for some of the workers in sweatshops as well.
Because companies from the core capitalist economies can pay their
outsourced workers so much less than their domestic employees they
can afford to pay a premium relative to the wage scale in the target
So long as these workers evaluate their employment relative to other
workers in their own country they will be more difficult to organize.
At the same time, the barriers to communicating with the more skilled
workers are lower than is the case with the unfortunate employees
of the sweatshops. In fact, communicating with them might be easier
than it was with the traditional immigrant workforce in the United
States, where language barriers initially impeded communication.
Among more cosmopolitan workers, language barriers would not present
nearly as much of a problem. Here, the challenge is not so much
mastering new technology, but rather learning to communicate a message
of solidarity using our existing technical skills.
One factor works in our favor. A century ago, however, immigrants
with skills had more opportunity to go into business for themselves.
Many employees saw their working class status as a temporary situation.
Some of these skilled immigrants actually go into business for themselves.
Today, with the scale of business operations so much higher, relatively
few skilled workers abroad have as much of a chance of successfully
following that path.
Just as military needs shape have shaped modern technology, so to
have the needs of the class war. The class content of these technologies
often is not immediately apparent. For example, consider the ubiquitous
cash register. Children even play with toy cash registers. The original
purpose of the cash register, however, was to help store owners
prevent employee theft.
Since the register kept a record of each transaction that the employee
rang up, clerks were more likely to deposit customers' payments.
Warren Buffett's partner, Charles Munger once proposed: "The
cash register did more for human morality than the congregational
church" (Munger 2003).
The registers were not fool proof, however, since employees still
had the option of neglecting to ring up the sale and then pocketing
the money for themselves. To make the clerk more likely to record
the sale, employers turned to ninety nine cent pricing, which became
common soon after the introduction of the cash register. With ninety
nine cent pricing, customers would be less likely to pay the exact
price. Clerks who just reached into their pocket and pulled out
a penny would arouse suspicion. So, the clerk would need to open
the cash register to get a coin, which could only be done by ringing
up the sale (Huston and Kamdar 1996, pp. 137 38).
This tactic allowed merchants, in effect, to enlist to consumers
to guard against theft. So, in contrast to the congregational church,
the direction of the collection plate was reversed. Business would
offer the customer a penny to monitor the potential sins of the
clerk. Since the introduction of the cash register, capital has
developed increasingly sophisticated technology to increase its
power relative to labor.
In warfare, overwhelming technological superiority does not guarantee
victory. Just consider the difficulties that the U.S. military faces
in Iraq today. The United States has at its disposal the most powerful
array of weaponry ever assembled in the history of the world.
Yet, the Iraqi resistance, like the Vietnamese insurgents four decades
earlier, has stymied the military might of the United States. The
lesson from the insurgents is that under equipped people with sufficient
courage and determination can muster creative energies can succeed
against seemingly impossible odds.
Class warfare, of course, is very different from military battles,
but the role of ingenuity, courage, and resolution is still common
to both. Unlike insurgents in military conflict, insurgents in class
conflict can more easily turn the enemy's tools to their own advantage.
Symbolic of such reversals, the Internet began in the Department
of Defense. Within a couple decades, the Internet became the centerpiece
of modern business. During the dot.com boom of the 1990s, the Internet
was supposed to revolutionize business, but revolutionaries in class
conflict can find a powerful tool in the Internet.
For example, the outpouring of demonstrations in response to the
punitive immigration bill that the House of Representatives passed
was one of the most impressive political mobilizations in the history
of this country. Opponents of this legislation harnessed the power
of the Hispanic media. They also took advantage of emerging technologies,
such as Myspace, to organize almost spontaneously. Around the world,
text messages help mobilize protestors.
More generally, modern communications technologies, such as the
Internet and wireless technologies, the same sort of technologies
that capital utilizes to make profits, also provide extraordinary
opportunities for labor. In this sense, modern technologies differ
somewhat from earlier technologies.
For example, the telegraph probably represented one of the greatest
forward leaps in technology. Just compare the relative speeds of
a transcontinental messages transmitted by the telegraph and the
pony express. Yet workers were unlikely to be able to make much
use of the early telegraph. Their only access to the technology
was through transactions with the telegraph company. In fact, the
industry that used the telegraph most intensively was finance, which
used the telegraph to submit orders for the stock exchange.
Of course, the left has much to gain not just by learning to use
new technology, but also by learning to create it. Here I am thinking
about the example of open source software, but I'm sure that many
other opportunities exist.
Open source software not only undermines corporate control of vital
technology, but I also suspect that it provides a laboratory in
which we can learn non hierarchical forms of production that is,
an entirely different model of organization and the corporate form.
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