Their Technology — and Ours

Against the Current, No. 15, July/August 1988

Nancy Holmstrom

LET’S DEFINE “TECHNOLOGY” as the practical know-how involved in production, embodied in skills, organization and machinery. A lot of thinking about technology-both on the left and the right-makes the same mistake: giving too much weight to technology itself rather than to the social system in which the technology exists, in particular, the social relations of the system.

This is most striking in two extreme and opposite views of technology: utopian and dystopian.(1) While these views are so global that few would subscribe to them in toto, I will argue that many of the same assumptions can be found in writings about particular technologies, especially in discussions of alienation. First I will present the utopian and dystopian views and then I will briefly explain my interpretation of Marx’s view of technology. In the body of the article I will elaborate and defend this view by contrasting it with a liberal technological account of alienation, concentrating on the example of numerical control technology.

I will then consider “left” criticisms of what I have presented as the Marxist view of technology, focusing on Lenin’s writings and policies regarding industrial development in the Soviet Union. I will conclude with some utopian speculations about the role of technology in a genuinely socialist society. In a postscript I cite some other areas of concern to the left where the role of technology has been overemphasized.

Utopian and Dystopian Views

The utopians are not so popular today but were influential as recently as the1960s. Buckminster Fuller, Arthur Clarke, B.F. Skinner, J.M. Keynes and Herman Kahn are technological utopians. Although there are variations in their views, they all believe the following: Scarcity is the root of all social evils-poverty, war, crime, disease, etc. Technology can end scarcity, hence technology can end all social evils.

While they might grant that up to now technology has created scarcity along with wealth, they assumed that the coming technological revolution would be different They envisaged a “post-industrial technical revolution” (computers, etc.) that would make it possible to eliminate other problems through long-term social planning with maximum efficiency and rationality. During the Kennedy administration, government spokesmen talked of political problems becoming technical problems.

Today the utopian view seems laughable — especially to those on the left. Ecological disaster and nuclear war seem the more likely outcome of today’s technology.

The other extreme view of technology — the dystopian-has been more in favor since the ’60s. Dystopians agree with utopians that technology will continue to grow, maybe even eliminating scarcity, but they believe that growth is bringing more harm than good, and they blame the needs and impact of modem technology for most of our social problems.

Classical dystopians, like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, emphasize the bad political repercussions of modern technology — the decline in freedom, individualism, and equality due to the unparalleled powers of control and repression that technology gives dictators.

Countercultural dystopians such as Herbert Marcuse, Roszak, Slater, Reich, Ellul emphasize the undesirable psychological and cultural consequences. While technology increases material wealth and domination over nature, it has created more and more alienation — from our bodies, our work, other people and nature. They see technology as something human beings have created but which has a life of its own; we serve it instead of directing it.

The Marxist View

The Marxist view is counterposed to both the utopian and the dystopian views, although it agrees with each on some points. With the utopians, Marxists would say that technology is necessary for social progress, but with the dystopians, they would say that it is bringing as much or more evil as good. The cause, however, is not the technology itself but the social system in which the technology exists.

Marxists reject the technological determinism of both utopians and dystopians, and argue that technological determinism is an ideology with dangerous political consequences in that it breeds passivity, resignation and cynicism among workers.

Marxists argue that utopians and dystopians mystify and fetishize technology; that is, they ascribe to technology powers that it does not and could not have. For example, they talk about the “imperatives of technology” and how “technology grows,” but technology cannot, by itself, issue commands or grow. These ideas obscure the role of human choices about technology and the social contexts in which those choices are made. Technology has grown during certain periods and not others. In hunting and gathering societies there was no growth in technology for centuries; in feudalism there was growth at certain points and none for the rest; and in capitalism there has been continuous revolutionary growth in technology (albeit of some kinds and not others).

What accounts for these differences in technological growth is the difference between hunting and gathering societies, feudalism and capitalism. Each mode of production is defined by a set of relations of production, that is, power relations between people or between people and things that they have by virtue of their role in the production process-the relations, for example, between capitalist and wage worker or between lord and serf. In class societies, these are relations of exploitation. Technology (productive forces, in Marxist terminology) grows when stimulated by the relations of production, that is, when the relations of production make it rational to try to develop technology; otherwise not.(2)

Technology grows under capitalism because that is one of the ways capitalists can increase their rate of sur­ plus value, which is what drives capitalism. (Areas where technology does not grow in capitalist societies can be explained in the same terms.) Feudalism and hunting and gathering societies have no similar impetus to technological growth; hence they have little or no growth.(3)

A certain level of technology (productive forces) is necessary for a given mode of production; that is, the productive forces set the constraints within which some relations of production are possible and others are not. Beyond this limiting role, however, technology does not itself play a primary determining role.

Of course, technology influences in a broad sense the social relations of a society. However, it is the social relations of production which both set the context in which choices are made as to what technology exists and also determine what its impact is, for example, whether or not it is alienating.

This position is controversial, even among Marxists. To clarify it further I will contrast and defend this view against a liberal technological account of alienation in the work process.

A Liberal View of Technology & Alienation

Marxist and non-Marxist concepts of alienation are not exactly the same, but for our purposes we can ignore the differences and say that workers are alienated from their work when they are powerless in their work, find their work meaningless, are self-estranged and socially isolated in their work.

A common, in fact probably the dominant, view is that alienated work is a necessary feature of any industrial society, whether capitalist or socialist. Alienated work is due to the imperatives of industrial technology rather than, as Marx believed, to capitalist property relations. Therefore, if a socialist society is going to be an industrialized society (as Marx, of course, believed it must be), it will include alienation in work.

The only resolution of the problem is a major transformation of technology into automation. In defending the Marxist view against this critique I will concentrate on Robert Blauner’s classic Alienation and Freedom, perhaps the most persuasive defense of the technological account.(4)

Blauner maintains that assembly line technology is inherently alienating. It would be alienating in any mode of production, regardless of the relations of production. On the other hand, automated production is on its way and alienation will not exist in automated production. This emancipatory transformation can as easily occur under capitalism as under socialism and will have the same liberating effects.

Both the existence and the elimination of alienation, then, are rooted in stages of technology. Assembly line technology is so alienating, in Blauner’s view, for many reasons: workers don’t control the speed, the rhythm or the motion of their work; the machinery sets all that. Workers are “fed” materials by the machines rather than the reverse. There is an extreme division of labor, with workers losing their skills to the machines. It requires individualized work and intense supervision.

In automated production, on the other hand, he contends that workers are not tied to particular machines; they spend their time reading dials and repairing machines when they break down. They decide the pace and order of their work; they are moderately skilled, work in teams, and have a sense of the whole that their work fits into. Therefore there is much less or no alienation in automated production.

A Marxist Account: Alienation/Technology(5)

First of all, Marx did not deny the harmful, alienating effects of modern machinery and industrial production. Though assembly line technology came later, his vision of factories was futuristic, and much of his description of factory production applies to factories a century later.

He spoke of the machine as “an automated monster” that “dominates and pumps dry living labor power.” Workers are “appendages of machines.” Advances in technology “transform themselves into means of domination over and exploitation of the producers; they mutilate the laborer into a fragment of a man,” and “destroy every remnant of charm in his work.”(6) Assembly lines just continue this process.

Nevertheless, Marx always distinguished between machinery as such and capitalist uses of machinery. Where machinery plays a role in alienation, it is the capitalist uses of machinery and not machinery as such.

In the chapter “Machinery and Modern Industry,” Marx quotes John Stuart Mill who says: “It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being,” and comments jokingly in a footnote that Mill should have said “of any human being not fed by other people’s labor.”(7) One can add that it has also lightened the toil of all those who have been put out of work by the new technology — but this is not the kind of “liberatory effect of new technology” that liberals supposedly had in mind.

To Mill’s comment, Marx explains that machines have not shortened anyone’s workday because that was not the aim of capitalists in developing machinery; rather, it was to increase the rate of surplus value. On the other hand, in a society based on human needs, rather than profit, the effect of the same machinery would be very different. Given the effects of new machinery and more efficient organization of production in capitalism, workers often have to struggle against it. This is one of the perversities of capitalist society from the point of view of the working class.

Marx maintained that socialism was impossible before the development of the productive forces that capitalism was driven to accomplish. But can one really say that the same productive forces can be the basis of a socialist society? Certainly the steam engine and much of the technology found in capitalist societies would be part of a socialist society, but aren’t some of the productive forces in capitalism intrinsically capitalist productive forces and hence inappropriate in a socialist society? Specifically, in the case of assembly line technology, can one really argue that it is capitalism that causes alienation rather than the technology itself?

As many Marxists, among them Harry Braverman,(8) have pointed out, assembly-line production decreases workers’ skills and increases management control over workers many-fold. Assembly lines increase production as much as they do in part because of their control over workers and the work process, allowing management to increase the pace of work at any time. Although Braverman generally holds to a view of technology as neutral, he believes for this reason, that the assembly line is different. It is intrinsically alienating and would not exist in a genuinely socialist society.

However, this does not mean that capitalism is not a cause of the alienation of the assembly line. Nor does it mean that socialist societies have to do without advanced technology. In Braverman’s view, the extra production gotten by the assembly line is essentially no different from extra production achieved by putting more overseers over slaves, that is, speed-up. Assemblyline production is, therefore, not a genuine advance in productive capacity; hence not an inevitable feature of an industrialized society. It is in the nature of capitalism, however, to be driven to such technologies.

While I agree with Braverman that in a socialist society assembly-line technology probably would not exist, it is for a somewhat different reason. The increased productivity gotten from assembly lines is only in part due to the greater control they allow management to exercise over workers. The reorganization of labor involved in assembly lines also increases the capacity of workers to produce. Hence assembly line technology is genuinely an advance in productive capacity.

It does not follow, however, that socialist societies must face the choice of alienating assembly lines or a less efficient technology. The point is that there are other equally productive technologies. Assembly-line production in its present form was chosen, and it was chosen over other equally efficient but less alienating technologies. The reason it was chosen was for capitalist, not technical reasons, namely the fact that production in capitalism is production of surplus value, not just use values. Hence in a socialist society, assembly line technology would not exist.

The Case of Numerical Control

In an article called “Social Choice in Machine De­ sign: The Case of Automatically Controlled Machine Tools, and a Challenge for Labor,” labor historian David Noble makes the same point in compelling detail about a newer technology.

Attacking technological determinism as “an enervating view of history as an automatic, inevitable process,” he calls it “a view promoted by the powerful to obscure and legitimize their own handiwork and their relations with the less powerful, … a view that fosters passivity and cynicism, a general sense of helplessness in the face of ‘technology’ and ‘change.'”(9)

Noble demonstrates that it was the social relations of production (both horizontal relations between firms and between firms and the state, and vertical relations between capital and workers), that determined the choice to develop and use numerical control. Moreover, they determined the way it was used.

The machine-tool industry was a bastion of skilled labor and shop-floor resistance that capitalists in the industry had long sought to break. Taylorism, time-and-motion studies, failed to break the control that workers were able to exercise over their work simply because they alone had the skill needed to do the work.

After World War II and a major series of strikes, General Electric launched an automation project with the aim of transferring the skills of the workers to management. Two different technologies were developed: record playback and numerical control.

Numerical control initially was a system that instructed the machine, usually on a punched tape. In theory, this made it possible for management to write the machining instructions on the tape and all the operator had to do was to load the part, the tool and the tape. Why is it that few people have ever heard of record playback, whereas numerical control is a fact of life? There are two reasons: While record playback was perfectly suited to small shops, numerical control was extremely expens1v both to develop and to use; only large firms, underwritten by the Air Force, could afford it. The development of numerical control tended to drive smaller firms out of business.

The other, probably more important reason numerical control as chosen over record playback is described by an engineer as follows: “Look, with record playback the control of the machine remains with the machinist — control of feeds, speeds, number of cuts, output; with N.C. … management is no longer dependent on the operator …. With N.C., control over the process is placed firmly in the hands of management — and why shouldn’t we have it?”(10)

Numerical control, then, was not an inevitable stage in the development of technology. It was chosen for specifically capitalist reasons.

Moreover, the alienating effects of numerical control were not inherent in the technology. Numerical control, as it has been deployed, has meant the deskilling of !he machinist by means of the separation of program mg and machine tending (the separation of conception and execution, in Braverman’s phrase). These might seem to be purely technical relations. But in fact they are merely one set of technical relations that numerical control makes possible.

Braverman explains why these were the ones chosen. “The design that will enable the operation to be broken down among cheaper operators is the design which 1s sought by management and engineers who have so internalized this value that it appears to them to have the force of natural law or scientific necessity.”(11) But there is no inherent reason why the same person cannot do both.

Noble reports asking some shop managers why the machinists couldn’t do their own programming, to which they gave one technical reason after another each of which Noble rebutted. Finally they pave the real reason: “Because we don’t want them to.”(12)

In fact: happily from our point of view, capitalist intentions with regard to numerical control did not meet with complete success on the shop floor. Management control still isn’t complete. The problem, from the capitalist point of view, is that it still takes workers — with intelligence and the “right” motivation — to run the machines. And the basic antagonism of managers and workers in a capitalist society limits the effectiveness of any management plan.

Technology Under Workers’ Control

In a society where the workers were the managers, very different decisions would be made. Either numerical control would not exist in a genuinely socialist society because other equally productive but less alienating technologies would be chosen, or if it did, it would be used differently. Specifically, those who carry out the job would also be the ones who conceive it.

This kind of individual job control would be impossible for workers on an assembly line, regardless of the mode of production. As argued earlier, since there are other equally productive but less alienating forms of technology, assembly lines would not have to exist in a socialist society. However, a socialist society might decide, for a variety of reasons, to keep assembly lines for a certain period. Assembly lines might, mistakenly, be seen as an inevitable part of industrialization or other technologies might be too expensive in the short run.

If assembly lines existed, they would not have to be so alienating in a socialist society. First of all, because it is possible to rotate unskilled jobs and make other such changes that workers would be motivated to do. But more importantly, because the causes of alienation go deeper in capitalism (or any class society) than the technological account allows.

The technological view focuses only on those aspects of alienated work having to do with the technical conditions governing the performance of work (performance-related alienation) and ignores the alienation stemming from the economic relations and roles workers are in (system-related alienation).

In capitalism the means of production are in the hands of a small minority of the population while the majority are forced to sell their labor power to the minority in order to live. Those who buy labor power then control that labor, as well as what is produced and how, the purpose for which it is produced, etc. All these are part of system-related alienation that would not exist in a genuinely socialist society.

On the other hand, they would still exist in fully automated production (if it could occur) in capitalism. Moreover, in one key respect, performance-related alienation would increase in capitalist automated production. Workers in automated production have more control over their labor conceived as bodily acts — for example, when to read a particular dial — but the production process is carried on by the machines, not the workers. The machines embody productivity and science; workers have become spectators, not participants.

In a socialist society of large-scale industry, individual job control will not always be possible. But workers collectively can control what is produced, why it is produced, and how. That is, they can decide on the technology to use.

To sum up my argument against the technological account of alienation: alienation in assembly-line factories is only in part due to the technology itself. Primarily it is due to capitalist social relations. The same is true for numerical control. That it was chosen and how it is used cannot be explained purely by technical requirements but rather by capitalist social relations.

Similar phenomena of alienation exist for workers in industries with little actual technology-for example, in education. Alienation would not decrease with automation production in capitalism because the structural causes of system-related alienation remain the same. In a socialist society, on the other hand, these structural causes would be absent.

Lenin, Technology and Taylorism

Lenin supported the introduction of Taylorism and scientific management into the Soviet Union. In “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government,” written in 1918, he discussed the problem of raising the discipline and productivity of labor, and said:

“The Taylor system … like all capitalist progress, is a combination of the refined brutality of bourgeois exploitation and a number of the greatest scientific achievements in the field of analyzing mechanical motions during work, the elimination of superfluous and awkward motions, the elaboration of correct methods of work, the introduction of the best system of accounting and control, etc. The Soviet Republic must at all costs adopt all that is valuable in the achievements of science and technology in this field.”(13)

It is indeed ironic that Taylorism should have been so attractive both to capitalists and to the leaders of the Soviet Union. Although there was strong, ongoing opposition from workers and left Communists, the Central Labor Institute was established in 1921 with the responsibility, among others, to coordinate all the re­ search on the rationalization of labor. In all such research the worker was conceived, to use Braverman’s words, “as a general-purpose machine operated by management.”(14)

Alexei Gastev, the director, shared Taylor’s conviction that there was one best way to do a job and that this was best ascertained by an outside scientific expert An extreme technological determinist, Gastev had a grandiose and chilling philosophy of social engineering that may have indirectly inspired the famous dystopian novels, Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984.(15)

By the 1920s the trade unions in Russia had been taken over by the scientific managers and “ … much of Taylorism was adapted eventually to Soviet industry.”(16) Although Lenin cannot be charged with sharing Gastev’s technocratic philosophy, it was Lenin who had established the Central Labor Institute and strongly supported it until he died.

What does this show? Some critics charge that it shows Lenin shared the “mechanistic and evolutionary materialism” of the Second International.(17) They argue that Lenin radically differentiated productive forces and relations, identifying productive forces simply with physical machines, and relations of production as superstructural. On their account, Lenin thought all that was necessary was a political change — that is, a workers’ state-on top of the capitalist organization of the labor process.

They quote the following as typical of Lenin’s views on the matter:

“Let us first of all take the most concrete example of state capitalism It is Germany. Here we have ‘the last word’ in modem large-scale capitalist engineering and planned organization, subordinated to Junker-bourgeois imperialism. Cross out the words in italics, and in the place of the militarist, Junker, bourgeois, imperialist state, put also a state, but of a different social type, of different class content — a Soviet state, that is, a proletarian state, and you will have the sum total of the conditions necessary for socialism.(18)

Numerous other quotes support the authors’ criticism that Lenin did not sufficiently appreciate the interpenetration of the forces and relations of production. These critics argue, against Lenin’s view, that a mere political change would simply change the relation between capitalist and worker to a relation between the state and workers.

This, in effect, is what happened in the Soviet Union. But does it show, as these critics charge, that a principal cause was Lenin’s incorrect understanding of these theoretical issues? I don’t think so, though this is an issue going beyond the scope of this article.

Lenin may or may not have had the mistaken view of the relation between the forces and relations of production these critics attribute to him, but I will suggest an alternative explanation for his policies. I am less concerned here with the correctness of the choices that were made in Russia, than with what they reveal — or don’t reveal-about the role of technology in society. Specifically, they do not show that my support for the possibility of workers’ control of capitalist technology is misplaced.

There are two ways of arguing for the conclusion that the Soviet Union’s sad history of Taylorism does not show that the productive forces have a greater determining role than I have allowed, depending on one’s view of Taylorism or scientific management By far the dominant view on the left is that scientific management techniques are not part of the productive forces. Taylorism and its successors are methods that can be applied to technology at any stage of development. According to Braverman, “Taylorism belongs to the chain of development of management methods and the organization of labor, and not to the development of technology, in which its role was minor.”(19) He cites other experts who say the same thing.”(20)

Sociologist Michael Burawoy argues that Taylorism involves no fundamental changes in the labor process. “Scientific management’s intervention in the handling of pig iron at Bethlehem, in the machine shop at Midvale, in the inspecting of bicycle balls, in Grant’s analysis of bricklaying, and in the research on metal cutting, all involved the perfection of tasks already defined rather than the reorganization of the division oflabor.”(21)

However, other participants to the discussion of the labor process in recent years have a different view of scientific management, believing it to be a genuine advance in technology. Chris Nyland(22) has recently argued that the left view is one-sided, overemphasizing the increased potential Taylorism gives for control of people and ignoring the increased control over things it makes possible.

While Taylorism was used to increase exploitation, its potential to reduce necessary labor time could be liberating in the right social system. By subjecting the production process to systematic scientific examination Taylor developed techniques that could be used to substitute human planning for the anarchy hitherto reigning within production.

Some of the same techniques could be applied at the level of a whole industry or even to the nation as a whole. The full potential of scientific management is, of course, impossible to realize in a capitalist society. But Nyland argues that it is this “rational kernel” of Taylorism that explains Lenin’s endorsement of it.

I am unable in this paper to resolve this dispute about the nature of Taylorism: whether scientific management techniques should be understood on the one hand, as being primarily productive relations (Braverman’s view), or as inextricably connected to them (Santamaria and Manville’s view), or, on the other hand, as consisting of both productive forces and productive relations but which are separable from one another. Nor am I clear which view Lenin had of scientific management. However, neither of these unsettled issues matters for the point I wish to make.

Whether Lenin believed, mistakenly or not, that the good things about Taylorism could be separated from the bad, he did not in practice try to separate them. Before taking power, Lenin opposed Taylorism.(23) His support for it came at the same time that he “moved to curb workers’ control and the power of factory committees, a concern uppermost in the minds of the technical experts at this time.”(24)

He also supported the introduction of progressive piece rates and paying experts more than ordinary workers, which he described as “a compromise … a departure from the principles of … every proletarian power … a step backward on the part of our socialist Soviet state power … “(25) Justifying piece rates, he said, “We must take into account the specific features of the transition period from capitalism to socialism, which, on the one hand, require that the foundations be laid of the socialist organization of production, and, on the other hand, require the use of compulsion … “[my emphasis).(26)

The adoption of these measures did not, in short, involve the adoption of capitalist productive forces so much as capitalist productive relations, or rather, hierarchical relations of production, which are incompatible with a genuinely socialist society. Lenin understood that, but believed them necessary in order to create the conditions required for socialism. The material backwardness of the country and the failure of revolutions in the West presented the revolutionary government with terribly difficult choices. The war, he said, had taught them that without the highest technology they would be crushed. Above all, increased productivity was necessary. Hence capitalist methods to achieve that end were seized upon.

Resolving what Lenin’s understanding was of productive forces and relations, and of Taylorism in particular, and whether his understanding was correct or not, is not critical to explaining why he supported Taylorism when he did. And wherever scientific management belongs, it does not show that workers’ control of capitalist technology is impossible.

Utopian Speculations

In Volume III of Capital, Marx looked toward a “true realm of freedom” for the development of human potential, for which “the shortening of the working days is its basic prerequisite.”(27)

The function of technology is to do just that. Now suppose the world had reached that state of productivity and abundance of the highest stage of socialism or communism. What would work be like? What would our technology and our life be like?

Quite different visions have been offered by socialists. One is projected in Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, whose political philosophy was closest to the Fabian Socialists. His vision of how socialism would come to be was an evolutionary, mechanistic one. And his vision of life under socialism was of a highly organized life in a machine age. The book is filled with details about all the machines and automated processes that would be available. Little labor is required, but what people do with their time and with each other is not described.

William Morris, poet, artist and communist utopian,(28) wrote News from Nowhere(29) as an alternative to Bellamy’s vision, which he hated. Morris defended a revolutionary transformation to socialism and concentrated on relations between people rather than on the technology of the society.

The society is a classless one where the administration of things has replaced the governing of people. The people are “happy and lovely folk who had cast away riches and attained wealth.” Instead of “the human nature of paupers, of slaves, of slave holders, .. . [we see] the human nature of wealthy freemen.” No longer exploitative, work has ceased to be a sacrifice of pleasure and freedom, to be avoided as much as possible, but in­ stead has become one of the greatest pleasures of life. Indeed, life is described by one of the main characters as “work which is pleasure and pleasure which is work.”

Yet work is never mere play; people are serious about their work and strive to be good at it Any work that cannot be made pleasurable is either eliminated altogether or done as efficiently as possible with the aid of vastly improved machinery. Many things formerly considered necessary are no longer regarded as essential, but as people live according to Morris’ credo that all things useful must be beautiful, many former luxuries are now necessities. The divisions between town and are now necessities. The divisions between town and country and mental and manual labor have broken down and most people choose to do a variety of things. Alienation from work is overcome and so is alienation from nature.

One aspect of Morris’ vision that is especially interesting for us here is that people in his society have chosen not to use much of the technology that was available to them. Instead they prefer to produce a great many things by hand-hence much more slowly — simply because they find it so satisfying; not because the technology is inherently alienating, but because it is so much more pleasurable to do some work by hand.

Obviously this could be just the romantic vision of the craftsman that Morris was. It might also be totally impossible ever to supply the world’s needs and still have time to do so much without advanced machinery. But the vision of work in Morris’ utopia is an imaginative presentation of Marx’s description of unexploitative work as “self-realization, objectification of the subject, hence real freedom, whose action is, precisely, labor.”(30) And in Morris’ vision this work would not take place only after the necessary labor of society had been done, as Marx suggests in the quotation from Capital III above. Instead, necessary labor would be transformed. The role of technology is to do that work that cannot be so transformed.(31)


I have concentrated in this article on debates about technology and the labor process. However, the same debates about technology occur in other contexts, for example, in the area of reproduction. An early radical feminist, Shulamith Firestone,(32) had a utopian perspective on technology. She attributed women’s oppression to a biological cause-the fact that women bear children — and looked to a technological revolution to overcome the biological fact and liberate women. However feminists today are more inclined to a dystopian view of reproductive technology.(33)

A final example of an overemphasis on technology outside of a social context is found in many discussions of weapons, the military and the arms race. It has been argued that since the only purpose of military technology is to kill or harm people, we cannot say that “technology is neutral, it’s how it’s used.” E.P. Thompson even contends that military technology has brought into being a new system he calls “exterminism.”

Certainly the powers of technology have never been greater, but killing and torturing can be done without any specialized instruments. Some liberals are critical of certain weapons such as the SST, and are part of the movement against them, but their reason is that the weapons are not as effective as they might be. Though for different reasons, some people in the peace movement, like Thompson, share the same fixation on the weapons themselves.

This is understandable given their awesome powers of destruction. But unless we turn to the structural features of the social systems that give rise to the technology of destruction, we will not be able to put an end to it.


  1. My description of utopian and dystopian views is based on Bernard Gendron’s Technology and the Human Condition, New York, SL Martin’s Press, 1975(?).
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  2. Some Marxists disagree with this, holding that the productive forces cause changes in the relations of production. See G.A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: a Defense (Princeton, 1978).
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  3. Forces and relations of production are sometimes confused because the forces of production also contain relations between people and machinery: These relations within the productive forces are best understood as technical relations. They can, however, be influenced by the relations of production as we will see later in the discussion of numerical control technology.
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  4. Robert Blauner, Alienation and Freedom (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1964).
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  5. Some of the following is developed in more detail in N. Holmstrom and B. Gendron, “Marx, Machinery and Alienation,” Research in Philosophy and Technology, ed. Paul T. Durbin (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1979).
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  6. These quotes are from Capital I, Part IV. Although Man’s most famous writings on alienation are found in his early Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, and although he seldom uses the word “alienation” in Capital, it is clear that this is what he is talking about. In the Grundrisse, another late work, the word “alienation” occurs repeatedly, disproving those who contend that Marx rejected a theory of alienation in his “mature” or “scientific” work.
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  7. Capital, Vol. I, (N.Y.: International Publishers, 1967) 371.
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  8. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital (New York, Monthly Review Pres ,1974), can be considered an updating of Part IV of Capital.
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  9. Politics and Society, nos. 3 & 4 (1978).
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  10. Noble 337.
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  11. Braverman 200.
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  12. Noble 342.
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  13. Collected Works: Vol. 27 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974) 259.
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  14. Braverman 180.
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  15. Kendall E. Bailes, “Alexei Gastev and the Soviet Controversy over Taylorism, 1918-24,” Soviet Studies, Vol. 29, no. 3 (1977) 379.
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  16. Kendall E. Bailes, Technology and Society under Lenin and Stalin, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978) 50.
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  17. Ulysses Santamaria and Alain Manville, ‘”Lenin and the Problem of the Transition,” Telos 27 (1976); Michael Burawoy, “Towards a Marxist Theory of the Labor Process,” Politics and Society, Vol. 8, nos.3 & 4 (1978).
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  18. Collected Works, Vol. 32, 334.
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  19. Braverman 85.
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  20. For example, Peter Drucker says scientific management “was not concerned with technology. Indeed it took tools and techniques largely as given.” “Work and Tools,” Technology and Culture, eds. Melvin Kranzberg and William H. Davenport (New York, 1972). Quoted in Braverman, 86.
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  21. Michael Burawoy, op. cit., 276.
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  22. Chris Nyland, “Scientific Management and Planning,” Capital and Class 33 (winter 1987}; Worktime and Rationalization (Cambridge, 1988).
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  23. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 20.
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  24. Bailes (1978) 50.
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  25. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 27, 249.
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  26. Lenin 259.
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  27. Marx 821.
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  28. See E.P. Thompson, “Romanticism, Utopianism and Moralism: The Case of William Morris,” New Left Review 99 (1976).
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  29. William Morris, “Three Works by William Morris,” (New York: International Publishers, 1977).
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  30. Kari Marx, Grundrisse (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1973).
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  31. An unappealing aspect of Morris’ utopia is that gender roles still exist, although they are not hierarchical. Everyone chooses to do what he/she likes and does best, but in Morris’ vision, this would break down on gender lines.
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  32. Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Dell Books, 1970).
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  33. A recent, informed discussion of reproductive technologies is found in Gena Corea, The Mother Machine (New York: Harper and Row, 1979).
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July-August 1988, ATC 15

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