ILS Seminar: Labour and Technology
October 6th 2017
Stara mestna elektrarna, Ljubljana
Among all the potential candidates for a global-systemic catastrophe, or at the very least a serious break with the current state of affairs, the one that elicits the greatest fascination is the one that is internal to the capitalist dynamic itself: the continuous revolutionizing of the economy as a consequence of the demand for a rationalizing implementation of new technologies. This demand must be followed by a contemporaneous articulation of left political projects, which are vitally dependent on a correct understanding of the current technical composition of labour power as it conditions the methods and aims of struggle alike. Considerable intellectual efforts in this area in the past decades notwithstanding, we may yet again repeat the diagnosis on the demise of the Fordist-Keynesian economic regime – which has, by way of mass concentration of workers, the clarity of their common interests against those of capital, and a high rate of employment, set the conditions for the historical pinnacle of worker’s power – as the start of a long crisis of the left. Beyond the abstract constatation that, varying appearances aside, the antagonism between labour and capital still persists, one should delve into the more concrete questions: in what manner precisely are labour and capital in mutual confrontation today, with all the changes of the past years and decades in effect. The capitalist labour process is in the middle of far-reaching changes, regarded by some commentators as nothing less than the fourth industrial revolution. Digitalization and the accompanying growth of information and communication networking have enabled transnational corporations to coordinate production globally and expand their control over the workforce. Some authors employ the term “digital taylorism”, describing the corporate methods of standardizing labour on a global scale through the use of ICT and the dequalification of once autonomous sections of labour. Thinking beyond, there are the unforeseeable changes brought about by a sudden development in artificial intelligence, rendering unclear the division between human labour and its possible machine substitutions. Here we confront the question that has followed the critique of capitalism since its very inception (since the well-known thesis on the falling rate of profit): Is the process of capitalist technological progress burdened with internal constraints? Is it possible to indefinitely supplant this new wave of reduction in the need for labour with the invention of new needs and new jobs? To be sure, capitalism has until now always succeeded in countering such reservations. However, with regards to the past several years of stabilization after the post-2008 crisis, one is forced to pose the question much more frequently – how much and what kind of employment will capitalism still be able to generate? To be able to clarify such considerations – are we “there yet”, or is it but a more ephemeral appearance, stemming from a local Western-peripheral point of view? – is crucial to the future of the left. It has become apparent that the sole dynamic of capitalism will not be able, in contrast to more optimistic visions (such as that of J.M. Keynes), to bring forth a clear and objective insight into the surplus of labour or a reduction in working hours. Likewise, we must pose the question, where would the scenario of a society of minor employment take us and what possibilities for left politics would it allow. For instance, is a new (Keynesian or Socialist) jumpstart of industry still a viable strategy? Should the left strive towards a techno-utopian liberation from labour or should it, conversely, devote itself to inventing and facilitating an alternative, non-capitalist societal recognition of human labour, one that would perhaps run against technological progress? Or is it precisely this increasingly unassailable complex of automation that offers possibilities for new forms of self-control and self-deliberation? Such dilemmas may seem distant now, but as they quite probably imply radically divergent fighting strategies, it would make sense to draw a conclusion as soon as possible. The seminar Labour and Technology, due October 2017, is one starting point to do so.