Marxism at Work: New technology - friend or foe?

Submitted by Tubeworker on 16 August, 2006 - 8:58

Whether it is Avantix, smart-card ticketing systems such as Oyster, or Manual Electronic Logging in signal boxes, technology continues to develop and to affect our life at work.

Management often target new technology into ticketing, even while they leave safety and operational systems in the 19th century. So passengers have contactless, stored-value, plastic tickets, while we still secure points with blocks of wood and metal clips!

The companies are more concerned with efficiently extracting money than with improving the safe running of the railway. And the government appears to support their warped sense of priority, still refusing to force the TOCs to introduce Advanced Train Protection because the "cost per life saved" (sick phrase or what?!) is too high.

Improved technology should be able to make our life at work easier, perhaps reducing our working hours or lightening our workload. But the employers usually see it as an excuse to get rid of us, or attack us, instead. For instance, they have used PTI monitors as a pretext to scrap guards; smartcard tickets to cut back on ticket sellers; new rail-testing kit to increase the length of track we have to inspect.

On top of all that, management have a record of incompetence over introducing technology - the disastrous first few years of modern signalling on the Tube's Central Line in the late 1990s being a prime example.

So if new technology comes with attacks on our working conditions, should we oppose it?

Rail workers can hardly be against new technology as such, or we'd be demanding our own abolition in order to save the jobs of horse-drawn carriage drivers!

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx saw the "new technology" of railways as highly progressive. "The real fruit of [class] battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication...

"That union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarians [wage-workers], thanks to railways, achieve in a few years".

And we'd rather work on new rolling stock, in newly-rebuilt stations, with modern kit, than under old conditions. New technologies create new possibilities and make old things faster, more reliable, and often easier.

But in a capitalist, profit-driven society, new technologies are introduced in order to improve profits. What is introduced, and how, is decided by profitability - by how new technologies can help capital in its eternal quest to squeeze more work from us, and to increase management control.

Marx analysed this for the new technology of the 19th century - mostly steam-powered factory production. On the face of it, the new machinery eased labour. But, as Marx pointed out, in fact it had both driven and helped the bosses to increase work rates and working hours.

In older systems of production, the pace of work usually depended on the skilled craft workers. But large-scale mechanised production enabled the employers to standardise jobs and to have the machinery determine the tempo of work. Their huge investment in the machinery pressed bosses to use it to the maximum - to run it fast, and continuously, with round-the-clock shifts of workers - before it became obsolete.

The increased productivity of new technologies meant that the capitalist class could produce commodities with less labour-time. They needed less of the workers’ time to produce the goods to pay the workers’ wages. They could have cut working hours.

But instead, they kept people on the same hours and kept the money from the extra products for themselves. Less of your working day would be spent producing value to pay your wages, and more producing value to make profit for your boss. Capitalist new technology has an inbuilt drive to increase inequality.

It also has an inbuilt drive to produce surges of unemployment. If new technology makes production faster, the bosses sack "surplus" workers.

Further, wrote Marx, "machinery... is the most powerful weapon for repressing strikes, those periodical revolts of the working class against the autocracy of capital". It does that by making labour more easily replaceable.

But while doing all this, new technology builds up both the technical and the human basis for socialism. It helps workers get a variety of skills and be able to adapt. It intensifies the fight between workers and employers. It means that when the working class takes control of society, we will have the resources available to meet human need and to abolish poverty. As Marx said, new technology "provides, along with the elements for the formation of a new society, the forces for exploding the old one".

So? New technology - yes; but we have to fight for control over the terms and conditions under which it is introduced; for shorter hours and easier work conditions rather than job cuts and increased managerial control.

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