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Bringing Back The Lucas Plan

By Felix Holtwell - Notes from Below, March 30, 2018

“We got to do something now, the company are not going to do anything and we got to protect ourselves”, proclaimed a shop steward at Lucas Aerospace when filmed by a 1978 documentary by the Open University.

He was explaining the rationale behind the so-called Alternative Corporate Plan, better known as the Lucas Plan. It was proposed by shop stewards in seventies England at the factories of Lucas Aerospace. To stave off pending layoffs, a shop steward committee established a plan that outlined a range of new, socially useful technologies for Lucas to build. With it, they fundamentally challenged the capitalist conception of technology design.

Essentially, they proposed that workers establish control over the design of technology. This bottom-up attempt at design, where not management and capitalists but workers themselves decided what to build, eventually failed. It was stopped by management, sidelined by struggling trade unions and the Labour Party, and eventually washed over by neoliberalism.

The seventies were a heady time, the preceding social-democratic, fordist consensus ran into its own contradictions and died in the face of a triumphant neoliberalism. With it, experiments such as the Lucas Plan died as well. Today, however, neoliberalism is in crisis and to bury it we should look back to precisely those experiments that failed decades ago.

How to change the course of human history

By David Graeber and David Wengrow - Eurozine, March 2, 2018

The story we have been telling ourselves about our origins is wrong, and perpetuates the idea of inevitable social inequality. David Graeber and David Wengrow ask why the myth of 'agricultural revolution' remains so persistent, and argue that there is a whole lot more we can learn from our ancestors.

1. In the beginning was the word

For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

In the Shadow of Honest Journalism: GateHouse Media Publishes Atrocious Anti-Wind Article Devoid of Scientific Evidence

By Brendan DeMelle - DeSmog Blog, December 13, 2017

This week, Gatehouse Media published a long-form investigative report called “In the Shadow of Wind Farms” claiming that wind energy has caused negative health effects for residents living near wind turbines — a claim that flies in the face of actual science.

GateHouse Media’s anti-wind article leans almost entirely on anecdotal evidence compiled during its six-month long project that included interviews with dozens of people who claim negative outcomes from living near wind farms.

Meanwhile, in the realm of scientific facts, the American Wind Energy Association, the main trade group representing the wind power industry, points to 25 scientific reviews that document the safety of wind farms for human health and the environment. One health researcher has told DeSmog the GateHouse article was “simply irresponsible journalism” and actually had “potential to exacerbate the experience of anxiety and related health effects.” 

Although GateHouse, a syndication outfit that publishes 130 daily newspapers in 36 states, briefly mentions the fact that scientific evidence for these claims is nearly non-existent, it plows ahead with a lengthy article full of anecdotes and unsubstantiated claims that aren’t supported by real science.

How this piece got published in its horribly one-sided (anti-wind) approach is a question worthy of many letters to the editor. Whether GateHouse — which is notoriously quiet when asked questions by other media outlets about its operations — will answer or attempt to defend this attack piece, time will tell.

But there is no hiding that the anti-wind movement is clearly coordinated, which even GateHouse admits its reporters were told repeatedly by sources contacted for their piece.

Many of the people who do complain, several representatives said, are well-known among industry insiders and comprise a small but vocal group of anti-wind activists,” the article said.

There are a good number of people who seem to pop up in different states and fight any wind project they can find,” Dave Anderson of the Energy and Policy Institute, a pro-renewable energy watchdog group, told GateHouse.

But the GateHouse reporters failed to disclose important information about several of their sources, including some with extensive ties to highly coordinated anti-wind activism.

Technologies that multiply inequalities

By Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, December 18, 2017

Review: The Bleeding Edge: why technology turns toxic in an unequal world by Bob Hughes (Oxford: New Internationalist, 2016)

How is it that the internet – a technology with such powerful, democratic potential – hovers over us like a monster that intrudes and spies, interferes in our collective interactions and thought processes, force-feeds us corporate garbage and imposes new work disciplines? What happened?

Bob Hughes, by thinking both about how computers work and how society works, offers compelling insights about these and other questions.

One of Hughes’s riffs on technological themes starts with the Forbes web page about Marc Andreessen, one of the world’s richest men, who in 1994 released the first version of the Netscape Navigator browser. Microsoft distributed Netscape with the Windows operating system, making Andreessen an instant multi-millionaire.

When Hughes visited the page, he found 196 words of information about Andreessen (last week, when I looked, there were only 81). Hughes found (and so did I) about another 1000 words of promotional and advertising material.

Behind those words lay a HTML page with 8506 words, or 88,928 characters. The promotional material multiplied the capacity required by the page 88 times – and that was not including the graphics. Including these, the page took about three-quarters of a megabyte of memory.

In the mid 1990s, Netscape Navigator made such advertising displays easy. It allowed web pages to create “cookies” on users’ machines to monitor the information that they enter, and enabled them to record and monitor information used in commerce. It effectively buried the principle, with which Tim Berners-Lee and other founders of the internet began, that the system would base itself on a huge mountain of identifiable text-only documents.

Hughes describes how Netscape Navigator and other developments opened the way for the dotcom bubble on the world’s stock exchanges, in 1997-2000, and a new technological leap, Web 2.0. This made possible live search functions, interactive social media, and the proliferation of online auction, booking, commercial and banking sites.

“Web 2.0 was created under pressure from increasingly powerful e-business interests, against principled resistance from the World Wide Web Consortium, whose founding principles included a commitment to making the Web accessible to all, including the visually handicapped and the blind, and in as many different ways as possible”, Hughes writes (p. 226).

The interactivity of the modern web is linked with an obsession among those who control it with speed – the computer-crunching power that allows pages to be updated and re-rendered instantaneously.

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.

Potential, Power and Enduring Problems: Reassembling the Anarchist Critique of Technology

The Environmental Crisis

By the Workers' Solidarity Federation - January 1, 2005

The world is facing a very serious environmental crisis. Key environmental problems include air pollution, the destruction of the ozone layer, vast quantities of toxic waste, massive levels of soil erosion, the possible exhaustion of key natural resources such as oil and coal, and the extinction of plants and animals on a scale not seen since the death of the dinosaurs 60 million years ago. We think that this crisis is likely to have catastrophic effects in the future. Even today, the negative effects of the crisis are evident in the form of growing deserts, increased rates of cancer, and the loss of plant species which could hold out cures for diseases for diseases such as AIDS etc.

What caused the crisis?

We disagree with those environmentalists who blame the crisis on modern machine production. Many dangerous, environmentally destructive technologies and substances (for example, coal power stations, non-degradable plastics which do not rot in the ground) can be replaced with safer and sustainable industrial technologies (for example, solar technology, starch-based plastics). We think that modern forms of production have many potential advantages over small-scale craft production. Such as greatly increasing the number of essential products like bricks produced, and freeing people from unpleasant toil. We also disagree with the argument that says that workers and peasants cause the crisis by consuming “too many” resources. Most goods consumed in the world are consumed by the middle class and ruling class.

Instead, the real blame for the environmental crisis must be laid at the door of capitalism and the State. These structures create massive levels of inequality which are responsible for much ecological devastation. How? The accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the few is associated with excessive and unjustifiable high levels of consumption by the ruling elite. The poverty caused by the system also creates environmental problems. For example, by forcing the poor to cut down trees for firewood, exhaust the tiny bits of farm land that they own in a desperate attempt to provide food, pollute rivers because they lack proper plumbing facilities etc.

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