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China: collective resistance against iSlavery

By Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, October 23, 2017

Review of Goodbye iSlave: a manifesto for digital abolition by Jack Linchuan Qiu (University of Illinois Press, 2016)

When 15 young workers jumped or fell from the upper floors of Foxconn’s factories in China in five months of 2010 – 13 of them to their deaths – it made international headlines. People across the world felt outrage at the oppressive working conditions in which iPhones and other high-tech products are made.

Much less well-publicised were the collective resistance movements that flowered at Foxconn and other big Chinese factories in the years following the “Suicide Express”.

In April 2012, 200 Foxconn employees at Wuhan took pictures of themselves on the factory rooftop, and circulated them on social media, along with threats to jump if the company kept ignoring their demand for a wage increase. The company backed down.

This action “differ[ed] qualitatively from individual acts of suicide. Instead, it became a collective behaviour that successfully pressurised Foxconn to increase wages”, the Hong Kong-based activist and university teacher Jack Linchuan Qiu writes in Goodbye iSlave (p. 134).

Qiu describes a world – our world – in which the latest technological devices are made by workers who are subject to dehumanising super-exploitation, and are also used by those workers in organising collective resistance to their conditions.

The main focus of the book is Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics manufacturer. Its workforce of 1.4 million, mostly in China, make most i-products for Apple – including iPads, iPhones, iMacs and MacBooks – and devices for HP, Dell, Nokia, Microsoft, Sony, Cisco, Nintendo, Intel, Motorola, Samsung, Panasonic, Google, Amazon and others.

Qiu describes how, after the slew of Foxconn suicides in 2010, the Chinese state – which had always, at central and local level, supported and encouraged the company’s bosses – felt compelled to act.

The authorities sent an investigation team to Foxconn Shenzhen. Its findings, leaked to the press by a trade union official, were that Foxconn workers were being compelled to do up to 100 hours of overtime a month, while the legal maximum was 36 hours; and that the company’s “semi-militarised management system” put too much pressure on workers, both when they were at the factory and when they were off duty (p. 126).

The friction between the authorities and Terry Guo, the multi-millionaire owner of Foxconn and a Chinese media darling, was real enough – but, as I understand it, was aimed at containing and dampening worker resistance at the giant factories.

If that was the idea, it didn’t work. Foxconn workers found new ways of fighting back , and students and others in China found ways to build solidarity.

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.

Networked socialism: back to the future

By Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, September 23, 2016

Germany, 1888. Karl Steinmetz, a precociously smart twenty-year old student, quit the university town of Breslau with the police on his heels. Steinmetz had been caught up in the crackdown on the Social Democrats, then Europe’s largest socialist movement by far.

Soon after starting university, Steinmetz joined the socialist club, which was banned after affiliating with the Social Democrats. A previous round of arrests had hit a party newspaper, The People’s Voice, and he took over as editor. Soon afterwards, he wrote an article that was deemed inflammatory, and he had to flee arrest.

Steinmetz emigrated to the US, travelling steerage class (i.e. sleeping in the hold). He anglicised his first name to Charles, and soon found work at a small electrical firm in New York. He became an electrical engineer and by 1893, aged 28, had made a key contribution to the invention of alternating current (AC) transmission equipment, working out mathematical formulae essential to its construction.

The electrical industry was in its infancy: the world’s first power stations had been opened in London and New York eleven years before in 1882. This incredible technology made it possible to produce artificial heat and light of unprecedented quality, and to power new gadgets from irons and radios to fridges. It paved the way for automation of factories, and underpinned the communications revolution of telephone and telegraph. Within a few decades a world without it would seem unthinkable to people in the rich countries.

Steinmetz’s work on AC current was crucial to the system’s growth. With transformers and high-voltage AC transmission lines, electricity could travel long distances, and a patchwork of local networks could be unified into regional or national grids.

When the small company Steinmetz worked for, Eickemeyer, was taken over by General Electric, he moved into senior research jobs and ended up as the head of the engineering consulting department. But his glittering engineering career didn’t lead to him abandoning his socialist ideas. On the contrary, he wrote and spoke about how electricity networks would hasten the arrival of a socialist society.

Steinmetz believed that, because electricity can not be efficiently stored, the network’s expansion would inherently compel producers and consumers to cooperate collectively. This would more rapidly usher a socialist economy into being.

“Implied in this argument was a planned economy, run by technocrats who would engineer this cooperation, by deciding which utilities to interconnect and when industries should consume electricity”, wrote Ronald Kline, Steinmetz’s biographer.[1]

Like many reformist socialists, Steinmetz thought that electrical networks, properly regulated by the state, could help to turn massive capitalist industrial corporations into socialist ones.

Back in Germany, and in Britain – where the welfare of urban workers had become a battlecry for many socialists, and liberals – the “municipal socialists” saw provision of electricity, along with e.g. water and sewage services, as a way for local government to constrain the power of private corporations.

But belief in the progressive potential of technology was in no way limited to the right wing.

The Battle to Control the 3D Printing Revolution: DIY or CIA?

By Eric Draitser - Truthout, March 23, 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.

Scientific and technological innovations have the power to fundamentally transform human civilization as new possibilities previously deemed impossible are made realities. However, it is not the technologies themselves that dictate the nature of the political, economic or social evolution. Rather, it is control over, and access to, technology that has the truly profound impact. While advanced medicines, new methods of energy production and biotechnology breakthroughs are in themselves important, when monopolized by a select few, the implications for the majority of people can be dire.

So it is with the emerging revolution in 3D printing, a technology that manufactures (or "prints"), layer by layer, physical objects from computer models using a variety of materials. While 3D printing has existed in concept since the early 1980s, only in recent years has the technology been brought to the desktop level, allowing individuals and small groups of hobbyists to print a wide variety of objects, from plastic coasters to medical equipment. Having started in the traditional industrial and fabrication setting, it was the application of 3D printing by independent, technologically inclined "hackers" (individuals who manipulate and/or customize computer and electronic equipment to fit their needs) that helped mainstream this technology.

Today, there is a consensus among those in the know - from the most ruthless capitalist profit-seekers to anarcho-communist hackers - that the 3D printing revolution is coming, and the world will not be the same once it arrives. So the struggle is not whether there will be 3D printers, but rather how that technology will be used, how it will be dispersed in society, who will have access to it, and who will control and/or steer its development.

The central question will not be whether a working-class person can 3D print some household object in his garage; this is a foregone conclusion. Instead, it will be whether or not the ability to 3D print the elemental parts of modern and future society (computer processors, nanobots, telecommunications equipment etc.) will be open to all, or controlled by the few.

A Brief Interview with Noam Chomsky on Anarchy, Civilization and Technology

This very brief interview was obtained immediately after Noam Chomsky arrived in Columbia, Missouri to deliver a lecture on “The New World Order” on April 1, 1991. Unfortunately, when taping began in the middle of our conversation, Noam announced that he had to leave in 5 minutes, so any plans for a more organized and extensive interview had to be scrapped. Anarchy magazine staffers Lev Chernyi, Toni Otter, Avid Darkly and Noa participated in the discussion.

The Environment

By the Workers' Solidarity Federation - January 1, 2005 [PDF File Available]

1. General Introduction

1. The Earth is facing an environmental crisis on a scale unprecedented in human history. This environmental crisis is already responsible for high levels of human suffering. If the crisis continues to develop at its current rate, the ultimate result wil be the extinction of human life on the planet.