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Technology, Workers' Control, and the Environmental Crisis

By Tom Wetzel - Ideas and Action, Fall 1989

IWW EUC web editor's note: Alien Nation was an anti-civ and/or primitivist oriented green anarchist "caucus" within Earth First!, active around the time that Judi Bari became active in both Earth First! and the IWW (ca. 1988-90). Alien Nation was not affiliated with either Dave Foreman or Judi Bari, though they most often drew animosity from Foreman and his "wing" of that movement. They didn't last very long within Earth First!, though their ideas would later inform those of Live Wild or Die (LWOD) as well as Deep Green Resistance (DGR).

"…We…like your publication even though we disagree with your "technology" position. Our position is—simply put—that technology is not a neutral tool and until technology is being created by a classless society, any superstructure that attempts to maintain the infrastructure of class technology will be doomed to retain hierarchy. Just as we are anti-statist, we are anti-"specialized, hierarchical technology". Worker owned and controlled pollution is still pollution.

- Alien Nation"

Alien Nation's brief note raises a number of tough questions. Questions which cannot be answered very briefly, alas. The following remarks are my own, but I believe the views set forth here are similar to those of others in Workers Solidarity Alliance.

Contrary to what Alien Nation seem to suggest, we certainly do not have the position that "technology is a neutral tool," independent of the social structure In which It develops. As we said in our leaflet "Bhopal and workers rights"· (Ideas & Action #6):

We should question the assumption that technology is neutral or value-free in its moral or political content. The high-risk technology that went wrong at Bhopal did not spring from nowhere. It has a history a history inseparable from the emergence and development of the large, bureaucratic corporation, the central institution of big business.

"Technology" is know-how based on systematic bodies of knowledge. The available technology refines the limits of what is feasible at a given point in time in the modification of natural materials to make things useful to people. Note that "technology," in this sense, is not identical with the actual techniques that are implemented at a given time. That's because there may be alternative methods that are each "technically possible" at that time. The path of technical development that actually takes place is not determined by "technology" alone, but by the human priorities and social structures that govern technical decision-making.

"Technology" is know-how based on systematic bodies of knowledge. The available technology defines the limits of what is feasible at a given point in time in the modification of natural materials to make things useful to people. Note that "technology," in this sense, is not identical with the actual techniques that are implemented at a given time. That's because there may be alternative methods that are each "technically possible" at that time. The path of technical development that actually takes place is not determined by "technology" alone, but by the human priorities and social structures that govern technical decision-making. In the early years of capitalism the "systematic bodies of knowledge," which the technology of that era was based on, were craft tradition, embodied in the various skilled trades. Capitalism had inherited this technology, and traditional methods of production, from previous eras. Social institutions to systematically study ideas about production or encourage innovation hardly existed before capitalism. Thus, innovation was a sporadic event.

But in the course of its development, capitalism has completely transformed. technology. Competition and the drive to control labor and minimize wage costs give companies a deep stake in the search for constant technical innovation. As a result, the system has organized the search for technical innovation on a vast scale. Craft tradition has been replaced by science-based engineering.

The techniques that are actually deployed in industry are not the product of "technology" in the abstract but are directly shaped by the logic of the capitalist social order which forces companies to pursue particular priorities. Because the interests of workers are not the same as those of employers, companies have had to systematically develop means of checking and controlling labor, to get the maximum of output with the minimum of wage costs. From the growth of a bloated supervisorial bureaucracy to the re-design of work, the aim is the subordination of workers to the profit-making goals of the firm. The use of equipment to impose a constant discipline on work serves to impose goals that are external to the workers themselves.


The principles of work design first elaborated by Frederick Taylor around the turn of the century and since articulated in countless changes in work processes are inherently capitalist methods. Complex, skilled jobs are analyzed into discrete tasks so as to isolate the simpler tasks that could be performed repetitively by less-skilled (and, thus, lower-paid) workers. To see the result, look at any assembly line. This method of work redesign not only lowers wage costs, it also destroys the mastery of the work process embodied in craft skill and re-assembles work as a set of fragmented tasks integrated by a managerial bureaucracy.

In his insistence that conscious decision-making and planning be removed from the shopfloor and concentrated in management, and planning and engineering staffs directly serving management, Taylor understood that the aim of the system is the subordination of labor. The result of this dynamic is that the various techniques employed in industry, the way in which industrial workplaces are designed, and the evolution of a division of labor that concentrates planning and decision-making in a hierarchy, all mirror the particular needs of the employing class.

Those technical possibilities that improve the leverage of employers against militant workforces will be particularly seized upon. Computerized typesetting and containerized transport of merchandise are two technical innovations introduced in the '60s that are both examples of this. The numerous bitter struggles that have been fought around these two areas also remind us that the bosses' control of technical change is a weapon in the class struggle.

When the maritime bosses introduced containerization in the' 60s, this provided increasing flexibility to manufacturing firms for far-flung dispersion of the various components of their operations as well as bringing a drastic reduction in the size of the longshore workforce (for a discussion of this, see "Spanish Dock Workers Build Union Without Bureaucrats," Ideas & action #11).

What Shapes Technical Decisions?

Though control of an often recalcitrant workforce, and minimizing labor costs, is a major factor influencing the evolution of technology under the prevailing social order, it is not the only factor affecting technical change. Other factors include:

  • The natural propensities of materials used in industry, and the current state of human knowledge about these properties. However, the development of this knowledge is also not "neutral" of the prevailing social structure. Research and technical expertise are funded and organized to serve the priorities of business and the military. "Pure science"—expansion of human knowledge of the world around us for its own sake—does have some existence in academic ghettos but the idea. that "pure science" drives most research in the present society is a myth.
  • Usefulness to potential buyers. Within the present system, "usefulness" must take the form of products that can be owned by somebody and thus have a market value. Minimizing pollution of the planet's air and water, on the other hand, would obviously be "useful", but it's not something you can buy in the supermarket.
  • Minimizing waste of energy and other raw materials. For example, continuous casting replaced the open hearth furnace in steel-making because it eliminated the need for reheating steel in the shaping process, which consumed more energy.

However, in the prevailing social setup, the use of energy and raw materials are a factor in shaping technical development only insofar as they have a price, which must be paid by the consuming firm.

The integrity of the natural environment, of the intricate set of relationships between the air and water and the diverse species of plants and animals, is a common, "social good," since our lives depend upon it. Yet its value is not adequately reflected in the various market prices of commodities that are directly removed from their natural context by extractive industries such as mining, oil-drilling, timbering and so on. These prices mainly reflect labor costs of production and the market price of "property rights."

For example, according to Randy Hayes of the Rainforest Action Network, 70% of the present destruction of the world's tropical rainforests is attributable to commercial logging for tropical hardwoods such as teak and mahogany. This destruction of the rainforests—which also means destruction for the indigenous communities whose living is based on these forests—will have vast consequences for the planet's climate and air quality. Also, the rainforests are by far the richest concentration of biological diversity of plant and animal species, whose extinction is not far off if the rainforests continue to be destroyed at the current pace. This means not only a loss of much that is beautiful in the world but also a loss of pi ant and animal species that might have proved useful to human beings (e.g. for medicinal or agricultural purposes).

But the logging outfits don't have to pay for this "social cost" of their operations. It's not even clear what would count as "payment" here—how do you put a price on the destruction of most of the world's plant and animal species? But, if, somehow, we could express the adverse consequences in monetary terms, the loggers' balance sheet would show massive red ink if they had to pay for the consequences of their operations. Or, to put it another way, teak and mahogany would carry a price so outrageously high that no one could afford to buy it. As it is, these woods do "carry an outrageous price"—only not a monetary price paid by buyers of mahogany furniture, but a "price" in terms of environmental deterioration.

A Fragmented World

This illustrates the fact that it is the existing social structure governing production that is at the heart of the present environmental crises. The organizations that govern production under the prevailing global order—both the individual firm as well as whole nation-states—are fragmented in the sense that each organization of production controls only certain of the things it needs to keep going.

The workforce at General Motors does occasionally buy GM cars but in their lives they use countless things that are not made by GM as well. These are things whose production are under the control of organizations completely independent from CM. This means that GM can't simply give these things to its workforce as recompense for the work done on assembly lines, at computer keyboards and so on. To acquire the things produced by other organizations, the GM workforce must be given something that would be of value to these other organizations, so that an exchange can take place. That's the function of their wages.

In countries where the economy has been centralized under state control, such as the Soviet Union, there is less internal fragmentation, within the boundaries of that particular nation. This centralization tended to occur in relative backwaters where the local business class was too weak to achieve industrialization. In these nations the State bosses can provide directly to the workforce many of the things these people need since their production is under the control of the same "firm" (so to speak). But this tends to be limited to things produced locally, within the boundaries of that country, such as housing or public transit. Thus, in countries like the USSR or Cuba, many things that have a market price in the USA are free or have only a token price. Nonetheless, even these more "centralized" areas of the global economy must acquire things from production organizations outside the boundaries of their nation, and, for this, they must be able to sell things to other countries them selves or they won't have the necessary funds. If the Soviet Union doesn't export oil to Western Europe (say), then it won't have the wherewithal to buy American grain that it needs to feed its own workforce.

So, the whole world is enmeshed in this system of exchange. When people talk about "the market economy," it is good to remember that the underlying reality that this refers to is this fragmented way in which our lives are maintained, with completely independent production organizations whose workforces require things produced by other organizations. When human society is structured this way, then each component has certain very definite constraints which affects its chances to survive and flourish. Individual bosses, even of big companies, are not complete masters of their fate. Each firm must be able to pay its workforce the wages necessary to buy consumer goods and services produced by other outfits. And they must also buy physical inputs (such as electricity) which are controlled by other organizations.

In order to make these payments, the firm must have a sufficient source of funds. This means the firm must control things that others will pay for. Production organizations live or die on how well they maintain this balance in their exchange relations with others. In this fragmented social order there are other firms who may produce competing products. There is little the firm can do to prevent that.

Even giant mega-corporations cannot feel totally secure here&emdash;new upstarts can emerge that take away their markets. 50, the firm is always under competitive pressure, though, of course, this varies from time to time. Today, for example, American companies are under more intense competitive pressures than in the years after World War II because the postwar growth of firms in many countries and closer integration of the world economy has brought new players into everyone's backyard at a time when the world economy is growing more slowly.

Though the degree of competition waxes and wanes, it is always there, an ever-present reality built into the fragmented structure of the exchange economy. In order to sell products at competitive prices, and maximize the revenue it has available for building up its business empire, the firm must always be looking for ways to minimize the money it must payout in production&emdash;for wages, energy, raw materials, and so on. If each firm does not take advantage of ways of cutting costs, it knows that a competitor is likely to do so, and that will give the competition an edge in surviving within the piranha tank that is world capitalism.

Fatal Flaw

But this dynamic does not lead firms to reduce all "costs" to humanity associated with its production efforts, but only those costs that require monetary payment to others. A fatal flaw of the present social order is that a firm's production activities may have adverse impacts or costs to humanity that the firm does not have to pay for (or, that the firm need not pay the true cost of). In effect, the fragmented, exchange-oriented social order gives, inevitably, massive, constant subsidies to the various production hierarchies, in the form of social costs that are not reflected in monetary costs to the firms, and thus not reflected in prices.

Or, to put this another way, firms will not have an incentive to produce things that are useful or of value to human beings unless they can be sold (and sold at a market price sufficient to cover the firm's expenses in production). A steel company in Pittsburgh in 1950 (say) couldn't go to its customers and say, "We've just spent a huge amount of money to develop a way of greatly reducing air pollution. To pay for this, we're going to raise our prices." Since each production organization is independent, they couldn't be sure that other 'companies wouldn't continue to pollute in order to sell steel at a lower price. Air pollution may have been destructive to the health of people in the community, but the steel companies didn't have to pay the costs.

The problem here is that the atmosphere is a "common good," it's not anybody's private property. So, the steel companies didn't have to pay anybody to use up the clean air (by polluting it).

In order for the value of something to register in the exchange economy, it must be possible for an individual or organization ("private" or "public") to monopolize possession of it, or access to it, so that a price can be demanded for it in exchange. Since "common goods " cannot be possessed or monopolized in this way, the prevailing social order systematically under develops or deteriorates "common goods." And, indeed, the entire global ecosystem, on which our lives depend, is the most basic of all" common goods," in this sense. The deterioration of the ecosystem, through pollution, is, in effect, a huge subsidy to the business class, an I.O.U. that will be "paid" by others, by future generations.

The competitive, market-driven, shortsighted conduct of firms is an inevitable result of the fragmented, uncoordinated way in which social production is organized. Each individual fragment doing business in this economy is powerless, by itself, to end this destructive cycle. The life prospects of each firm are played out, ultimately, in market terms. It must maintain that surplus of revenue over expenses; and it must do so in a relatively short time period if it is to avoid insolvency. "In the long run we're all dead" is an apt motto for a social order whose logic systematically discounts long-run consequences, and fails to take account of consequences to others in society that firms can avoid paying for.

Uncontrolled Growth

Fragmentation breeds competition, and competition breeds uncontrolled growth: The constant search for new products and new markets and innovations to cut labor costs, the growth of top-heavy hierarchies to plan and control, every facet of production and marketing. Firms that are less successful in this pursuit of business empire-building will have fewer resources to aid their survival in the constantly changing world of business competition.

Some environmentalists have argued that it is only "bigness," "distant corporate bureaucracies," that are the problem. They see small, "human scale" businesses as consistent with ecological sustainability. This forgets, however, that the huge corporate bureaucracies of today grew out of the small, "human scale" businesses of the 19th century. A hundred years ago, in the 1880s, the largest industrial company in the U.S. (other than the railroads) was the McCormick Harvester Works in Chicago, which employed only 200 people. The social relations of business enterprise will generate growth that discounts the environment, irrespective of the "size" of the firms, and these social relations will transform successful small businesses into large hierarchical bureaucracies. This process is continually repeated, as in the recent rise of new "high-tech" giants from humble origins (e.g., Apple Computer). It is social production organized as business enterprise that is the source of the problem, not "bigness" per se.


The various organizations that control fragments of social production—from small mom-and-pop gas stations to giants like Exxon and government-owned facilities—all are based on the exploitation of human labor. These various organizations control access to the products we need to live—eyeglasses, shoes, bags of rice, whatever. Money provides our "ticket" to get these things. This particular social arrangement thus forces us to put ourselves at the disposal of employers, to do what they want, so as to get our share of the total social product.

Therein lies our enslavement, our exploitation. If human beings are reduced to the monetary value of what they can produce, if they are subjected to authoritarian bureaucracies and conditions ruinous to their health, then is it surprising that nature is also exploited, reduced to the market value of the commodities of extractive industries? Ecological degradation and human exploitation have the same source; they stand or fall together. The frenetic growth and technical innovation that the prevailing system creates has developed productive capacity to such a point that its tendencies to degrade "common goods" and discount the future are having consequences that cam no longer be ignored. Increasing social protests, and the threats to the very foundations of all life on this planet, have forced the employing class to constrain some of the free-wheeling independence of the fragments of the system. And so we see belated government regulation, which has imposed some token costs to the firm for pollution, in the form of fines. But the logic of decision-making about production isn't changed. New pollutants are thus introduced, with government action to curtail pollutants (or make a show of doing so) only after serious problems can no longer be ignored. And the protections are always inadequate since the government is itself an institution of the business class. The top-down structure of the State makes for inadequate accountability to the populace.

Hierarchy Means No Social Accountability

At the heart of the environmental crisis is the system's absence of social accountability. Blind market forces, and the corporate bureaucracies that they generate, are not subject to any real democratic control, except for changes that are forced by oppositional movements. Hierarchy, both corporate and governmental, reflects a social order that is exploitative, and not socially accountable. The risks and health effects for the workforce, and for the whole interrelated system of air and water and living things, do not have much palpable reality for elite decision-makers sitting in far-off, air-conditioned offices. So, it should be no surprise that the more centralized, state-run fragments of the global system, such as the Soviet Union, have an environmental crisis just as serious as that in the countries with more internally fragmented, competitive economic structures.

The environmental crisis is really a crisis of the world-wide system of social relations governing production. For, the deterioration of the ecosystem has its origin in the fragmented, competitive, hierarchical nature of the prevailing economic system, as I've argued above. For this reason, ecological sustainability cannot be achieved within the framework of capitalism. Ecological sustainability requires a revolutionary re-organization of the social relations of production.

This is a re-organization that could only be accomplished by the workforce itself. For how else could the social relations of production be democratically, non-hierarchically reorganized except through a rebellion of the millions of people now directly subordinated to those relations? Taking responsibility for the survival and protection of the ecological basis of life on this planet is an historic task that now confronts the working class.

Ecological sustainability requires an economy structured so as to systematically take account of the long-term, social consequences of decisions about production. This means that such an economy cannot be made up of independent firms forced to survive on the basis of market revenue and the short-term balance of market transactions.

What is needed is an economy that is not top-down, but democratically accountable to society and globally coordinated. This means an economy self-managed by its workforce, but coordinated and unified, so that all the various components and regions are democratically accountable to the entire working population, that is, to the whole society. To have an economy that protects and expands "common goods," such as the ecosystem, it is necessary to have direct, collective, democratic control over production by the whole workforce.

Social Ecology & Workers Struggle

Within the environmental movement, "social ecology" is the label that has been given to the viewpoint that the environmental crisis has its origins in the competitive, hierarchical, exploitative social structure, rather than "bigness," "industrial technology," or "too many people," which are, at best, symptoms or factors that aggravate the situation. To be consistent, an anarcho-syndicalist viewpoint on the environment must, I think, inevitably gravitate towards "social ecology."

"Social ecology" has been developed in he writings of Murray Bookchin, and espoused in the principles of the Left Green Network. Despite many similarities in our views about the cause of he environmental crisis, however, the writings of Bookchin, and the positions of he Left Green Network, have a major failing, from an anarcho-syndicalist viewpoint, in that they fail to see the critical importance of the workplace as an arena of struggle against pollution and environmental degradation. However, toxic chemicals are transported by workers, ozone-destroying CFCs are used on the job by electronics workers, construction workers are employed to build nuclear weapons facilities. As the "Green Bans" of Australian workers have shown (e.g., refusing to transport uranium), workers are often in the best position to take effective action against environmental hazards.

And industrial poisons that are spewed into the air or water are first exposed to the bodies of people on the job. And ultimately find their way into dumps or water sources in workers' communities. Both in today's environmental struggles, as well as in the long-term goal of building a new, socially accountable, self-managed organization of social production, the role of the workforce is crucial.

Workers Control Must be Unified

When Alien Nation talks about worker controlled pollution," it's possible they are assuming that "workers' control" means merely control of a firm by its own workforce in the context of the present, fragmented, market society. But this is not what Workers Solidarity Alliance means by "workers' self-management."

Genuine workers' mastery of production could not be achieved by setting up companies controlled by their workforce within the present fragmented, capitalist society. For, they would continue to be subjected to external, market conditions beyond their control. Their fate would not be in their own hands. We have argued against this idea on various occasions in the pages of Ideas & Action, going back to issue #1. (For example, see "The Limits of the Cooperative Movement" and "The Origins of the Spanish Collectives" in Ideas & Action #9.)

Even if this private "workers control" of individual firms were extended to all the firms making up the economy, so long as they exist as fragmented, independent firms, the workforce of each will require things produced by other such firms, and thus their lives will be dominated by market-exchange relations.

The exploitative relations of capitalism would tend to re-emerge. For example, if one company went broke, what would stop other companies from hiring the displaced workers as mere wage-labor, without equal rights? This tendency has shown up in the plywood cooperatives in the Pacific Northwest, for example. There would also be some of the same pressures as at present to dump social costs of production on those outside the firm, and to discount long-run consequences. This means we would tend to see a re-emergence of environmentally destructive decisions.

What is needed is a socialized economy, meaning that the various components of social production are not "privately owned" by their separate workforces, but socially accountable. Genuine workers control can only exist when there is collective, unified control of the whole of production by society's entire working population. Workers control can only be realized at the level of the economy as a whole, it cannot be achieved through fragmented control of individual firms.

It's possible, however, that Alien Nation is not operating with the misconception of "workers' control" that I am arguing against here. It's possible that they know that, as anarcho-syndicalists, our aim is a unified, coordinated self-management of the entire economy by the society's whole workforce.

But, in that case, their position is self-contradictory. For, on the one hand, they suggest that "workers' control" would not mean a change in the techniques used in production. The idea seems to be that we'd just have "worker-controlled" pesticide plants, nuclear bomb factories, nursing homes, and so on.

But, if Alien Nation is assuming that technology wouldn't change under workers control, they would be assuming that technological development is "neutral," independent of the social structure in which it takes place—a position they say they reject.

A New Technology

Once the society's workforce becomes real masters of the economy, this would set in motion a radical change in the sorts of techniques that would be adopted in production. The whole planning and development and research processes would be changed to reflect a different set of priorities.

Alien Nation should agree with this since they suggest that there would be a radically different path of technological development under a "classless society." Industrial societies are stratified into "classes" by the hierarchical structure governing social production. Thus, in a society of genuine workers control, where there is direct, collective, democratic control of production by society's workforce, how can there be a class-stratification? As we see it, real workers control is a "classless society". So, Alien Nation can- not really disagree with our claim that there would be a radically different path of technological development under workers' control.

A change of this magnitude in the organization of human society is not a sudden, "spontaneous" happening, of course, but the product of an historical process of social struggle and movement-building. And, just as an impending change in social structure in the direction of workers control will find expression within the preexisting capitalist society, in an increasing unity, solidarity and militancy and directly democratic association amongst the workforce, so, too, we can expect that struggles around pollution and toxic substances, in the workplaces and in the communities, would be a part of such a movement, and would foreshadow the new ecological orientation under workers' management.

Though workers struggles within the present system can be a critical factor in the fight against environmental degradation, and can force changes in corporate behavior, a change in the dominant direction of technical development requires the construction of a new social order.

Precisely because technological development at present is shaped by, and reflects, the priorities of a hierarchical, exploitative, market-dominated social order, a different direction for technical development requires that the workforce build new social relations of production that are egalitarian, non-hierarchical, democratic, coordinated and socially accountable. For us, workers taking over the running of production is not for the purpose of continuing the existing techniques under workers control but precisely to radically change the methods and orientation of industry.

In the period when this takeover of industry is consolidated, humanity will have inherited an industrial infrastructure that was developed under capitalism, and thus reflects the logic of that system, just as early capitalism was first based on methods of craft production which were inherited from an earlier, pre-capitalist era.

The workforce will, thus, be confronted with a massive task of conversion, of healing the wounds to the ecosystem and establishing their own real, egalitarian mastery of the production process. This period of conversion and re-design of industrial methods, of working out needed changes for ecological sustainability and democratization of technology, will be a period of transition. The old industrial infrastructure, which includes production of things needed in our daily lives, such as clothes and medicines, cannot be wholly scrapped all at once.

I'm sure that there would be certain industrial processes gotten rid of right away, and getting rid of others will be a high priority. For example, I think that a high priority should be converting agriculture to organic farming, and abandoning the present addiction to petro-chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, which are destructive to the health of farmworkers and a major factor in water pollution.

However, for this change in the direction of technical development to get off the ground, there must be a libertarian, democratic revolution in the social relations of production, which only the workforce can bring about.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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