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Gabriel Levy

Interrogating digital capitalism

By Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, July 10, 2017

The ways that capitalism uses technology as a means of control was discussed on Thursday evening in London, at a meeting organised by the Breaking the Frame collective.

The meeting was called “Interrogating Digital Capitalism”. Ursula Huws, who researches technology and labour at the University of Hertfordshire, started her talk by arguing that terms such as “digital capitalism” and “biocapitalism” are unhelpful. “I prefer to talk about capitalism”, she said.

Capitalism uses technology at each stage of its restructuring, after recurrent crises, Huws argued. She pointed to three main ways that it uses technology for social control.

  • Technology is used to “simplify and standardise work processes” and sometimes – but not always – to substitute for labour.
  • Technologies are used to control work processes, and for surveillance.
  • Technologies are used to “create new commodities, bringing new areas of human activity into alienated, commodified relationships”. This included the “formalisation of the  information economy” and the “commodification of domestic labour”.

Huws talked about the role of internet-based employment platforms in the “gig” economy. With her colleague Simon Joyce, she last year published research suggesting that up to 5 million people in the UK have been pulled into the “gig economy”.

In a recent article about Uber introducing driverless cars in Pittsburgh, USA, Huws argued that “this kind of restructuring tends to create new jobs, even as it destroys others. Driverless cars may do to professional drivers what washing machines did to laundry workers. But capitalism, disruptive as ever, carries on as usual.”

Huws argued at the meeting that those hired via sites such as Freelancer, Upwork or Clickworker – often to do work conducted in isolated settings such as window cleaning or other domestic tasks – will find it harder to organise collectively than the Uber drivers. who have played a front-line role in worker organisation of precarious workers.

Richard Hall of De Montfort university spoke about the Cybernetic Hypothesis, published by the French collective Tiqqun in the mid 1990s. (An English translation of the document is here.)

Richard argued that cybernetics is “a systemic, structural and secular response to the issue of maintaining stable forms of accumulation and avoiding crisis inside capitalism”. (He has put notes from his talk on his blog.) He quoted Tiqqun’s assertion that cybernetics is “the tool by which capitalism has adjusted its capacity for disintegration and its quest after profit to one another”.

During discussion, Bob Hughes – whose book The Bleeding Edge, on technology and inequality, was published last year – argued that a critique of technology needed to acknowledge not only the dangers inherent in its use by capitalism, but also its potentialities for socialism and for human development.

Survival Is the Question

By Michael Löwy - Against The Current, January 2017

Facing the Anthropocene:
Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System
By Ian Angus
Monthly Review Press, 280 pages, $19 paper.

Green Capitalism:
The god that failed
By Richard Smith
World Economics Association, http://www.worldeconomicsassociation.org/, 115 pages, $21.50 paper.

CRITICAL ECOLOGY PUBLI­CA­TIONS are finding a growing audience in the United States, as is evident in the success of Naomi Klein’s  book This Changes Everything. Within this field there is also an increasing interest in ecosocialist thought, of Marxist inspiration, of which the two authors reviewed here are a part.

One of the active promoters of this trend is Monthly Review and its publishing house. It is this group that has published the compelling book, Facing the Anthropocene by Ian Angus, the Canadian ecosocialist and editor of the online review Climate and Capitalism.

His book has been lauded by the general public as well as by many within the scientific community, such as Jan Zalasiewicz and Will Steffen. Among the principal proponents of this outstanding work on the Anthropocene are Marxist researchers like Mike Davis and John Bellamy Foster, and ecologists on the left like Derek Wall of the Green Party of England.

From the work of such thinkers as chemist Paul Crutzen, who won the Nobel Prize for his research on the destruction of the ozone layer, geophysicist Will Steffen and many others, the conclusion that we have entered into a new geological era that is distinct from the Holocene (the era of the past 12,000 years) is beginning to be accepted.

The term “Anthropocene” is most often used to identify this new epoch, which is characterized by the profound impact of human activity on the earth-system. Most experts agree that the Anthropocene began in the mid-20th century, when a “Great Acceleration” of destructive changes were triggered. In fact, three-quarters of all CO2 emissions have been produced since the 1950s.

The term “Anthropos” does not mean that all humans are equally responsible for these drastic and disturbing changes — researchers have clearly shown the overwhelming responsibility of the world’s richest countries, the OECD countries, in shaping these events.

We also know the consequences of these transformations, notably climate change: most temperature rise, increasing extreme climate events, elevating ocean levels, the drowning of large coastal cities, etc. These changes are not gradual or linear and can be both abrupt and disastrous.

It seems to me, however, that this part of Facing the Anthropocene is less developed. Although Angus mentions these dangers, he does not discuss in a more detailed and concrete way the threats that weigh on the survival of life on the planet.

What are the established powers doing — especially the governments of the rich countries principally responsible for the crisis? Angus cites the fierce response of James Hansen, the North American NASA climatologist, to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, saying, “a fraud really, a fake…. It’s just bullshit.”

Indeed, even if all the countries present at the conference keep their promises, which is very unlikely considering that not a single sanction is expected to be fully met by the Paris agreements, we still will not be able to avoid an increase in the planet’s temperature past two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

We need to talk about the Anthropocene

By Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, January 16, 2017

Working out the time-scale of the Anthropocene epoch can not be left to natural scientists, a group of researchers argued in Nature journal last month. Historians, anthropologists and others who study human society need to be brought in to the discussion, they said.

“The Anthropocene” is a now widely-used term, signifying that human activity is changing the natural environment so profoundly that it has brought a new geological era into existence.

Among scientists, it is accepted that any precise definition would best be
rubber-stamped by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, an organisation of geologists that has overseen definitions of all geological eras.

It has an Anthropocene Working Group that has since 2009 coordinated discussions of the issue among scientists. In August last year, the group reported to the 35th International Geological Congress that it collectively considered the Anthropocene to be a real phenomenon. Work on determining when it began should be formalised, the group argued.

But now geographers Erle Ellis and Mark Maslin, archaeologist Nicole Boivin and anthropological archaeologist Andrew Bauer, in a Nature article, have warned that “the formalisation of the Anthropocene should not be rushed”.

Kazakhstan: legal shackles on workers’ movement challenged

By Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, June 21, 2015

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’s.

A challenge to laws that shackle trade unions in Kazakhstan was mounted at the International Labour Conference this month – and activists hope this will boost workers’ efforts to rebuild grass-roots organisation.

The conference, staged by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a United Nations agency,

in Geneva, said Kazakhstan would have to amend the Trade Union Law it passed last year – or face action for breaching its obligations under international treaties.

The conference said that “excessive limitations” on unions, that “limit the right of workers to form and join trade unions of their own choosing”, had to be removed, and laws banning financial assistance to unions from trade unionists in other countries scrapped.

The decision came just after the Kazakh authorities refused registration to the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, an alternative to the state-run federation of “yellow” (government- and employer-controlled) unions.

Kazakhstan’s Trade Union Law was introduced on the back of the violent repression of oil workers, whose seven-month strike in 2011 – the country’s biggest ever – ended with a police massacre of demonstrators at Zhanaozen. At least 16 were killed and 60 wounded, and an unknown number tortured in police detention.

In 2012, 32 oil workers were put on trial, and some sentenced to imprisonment of up to six years. A wave of repression against journalists, opposition politicians and community activists produced the toughest conditions for social movements in post-Soviet Kazakhstan’s history.

A radical critique of science: writing the next chapter

By Gabriel Levy - People and Planet, April 13, 2015

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’s.

Social and labour movements need a coherent critique of science and technology, it was argued at a meeting in London on Saturday.

On a practical level, battles against damaging technologies have often been waged separately from each other, and cover1could do more to reinforce each other, it was pointed out.

This includes technologies deployed by corporate power in an anti-natural, anti-human way (e.g . “extreme energy” or genetic engineering of people or crops), technologies of social control (e.g. anti-crowd hardware or electronic surveillance), and technologies that harmed workers’ health and/or reinforced their exploitation (e.g. hazardous chemicals or building practices).

The use, misuse and abuse of science in developing these technologies is crucial. And the meeting highlighted the history of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS), that in the 1970s and 80s successfully mobilised scientists to work with labour and protest movements. It considered the lessons of this experience for activists today.

The gathering (title: Radical Science and Alternative Technology) was organised by the Breaking the Frame group, and featured talks by veteran BSSRS activists and by present-day campaigners. Here are my impressions of an inspiring day’s discussion. (Stuff will be posted on the Breaking the Frame site and the BSSRS archive site, and I’ll update this post when I hear about that.)