Cyber-Proletariat

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* Book: Cyber-Proletariat/ GLOBAL LABOUR IN THE DIGITAL VORTEX. Bhy NICK DYER-WITHEFORD. Pluto Press, 2015

URL = http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/C/bo20704212.html

Description

"The utopian promise of the internet, much talked about even a few years ago, has given way to the information highway’s brutal realities: coltan mines in the Congo, electronics factories in China, devastated neighborhoods in Detroit. In Cyber-Proletariat, Nick Dyer-Witheford shows the dark side of the information revolution through an unsparing analysis of class power and computerization. He reveals how technology facilitates growing polarization between wealthy elites and precarious workers and how class dominates everything from expanding online surveillance to intensifying robotization. At the same time he looks at possibilities for information technology within radical movements, casting contemporary economic and social struggles in the blue glow of the computer screen.

Cyber-Proletariat brings Marxist analysis to bear on a range of modern informational technologies. The result is a book indispensable to social theorists and hacktivists alike and essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how Silicon Valley shapes the way we live today." (http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/C/bo20704212.html)


Excerpt

Letter from Detroit

"It is 1949, the Second World War just ended, the Cold War newly begun. Norbert Wiener, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pioneer of the new discipline of ‘cybernetics’, writes to Walter Reuther, President of the United Auto Workers (UAW), headquartered in Detroit, world centre of car production. In what David Noble (1984: 75) calls ‘one of the most remarkable letters in the annals of twentieth century science’, Wiener (1949) tells Reuther he has been asked by ‘a leading industrial corporation’ to help them develop ‘an inexpensive small scale, high speed computing machine’. Technically, Wiener believes, the project is relatively simple. Socially, the implications are momentous, for it will ‘undoubtedly lead to the factory without employees; as for example, the automatic automobile assembly line’. Under the control of ‘the present industrial set-up’, i.e. corporate capitalism, the unemployment ‘can only be disastrous’. A ‘critical situation’ will arise in ‘ten to twenty years’, sooner if war with the Soviet Union requires full-scale mobilization of industrial resources. Wiener tells Reuther he has declined the corporate request but warns that in future it will not be enough to take a ‘passive’ attitude. Trade unions should acquire the rights to computer technologies or campaign for their suppression. The scientist sends the trade unionist a copy of his forthcoming book, Human Use of Human Beings (1950), actually a denunciation of the inhuman potentials of computerization, and asks to meet with him.

As a young man Reuther had entered the automobile factories of Henry Ford, where mass production methods rede ned industry in the twentieth century. Later, as a trade union leader, Reuther represented the power won by the workers within ‘Fordist’ capital. Before Ford, car manufacture was a craft business, employing skilled workers making carefully customized, very expensive, automobiles. Fordism broke this craft tradition. The means came from various sources. Francis Winslow Taylor’s management techniques, dividing mental from manual work and reducing the latter to repetitive timed operations, originated in the US steel industry. The mechanized line moving products for processing past stationary workers had been invented in the carcass ‘chain’ of Chicago slaughterhouses. But Taylorism and mechanization came together in the vast industrial mega-complexes of Ford’s Detroit auto plants, where workers produced cars through the performance of routinized tasks using standardized parts in a process whose rhythms and sequence were determined by the assembly line.

Work was exhausting, monotonous, noisy and dangerous. Ford became famous for the ‘5 dollar day’, enabling workers to purchase the cars they made, setting in motion the virtuous circle of mass labour and mass consumption that by the mid twentieth century boosted advanced capitalism to extraordinary prosperity. But these wages were a concession forced on Ford by his early workforce of farm-boys and immigrants, who quickly learned a hatred of the assembly line that resulted in massive labour turnover. Increased pay xed this problem, but at a price – literally. Exchanged for work that o ered no other reward, the wage became the focus of ongoing industrial con ict. Because auto factories concentrated many workers in one place, large-scale trade union organizing was possible. Ford tried to prevent it by surveillance, intimidation and the outright violence of goon squads (see Gambino and Sacchetto 2014). However, because any interruption of production immobilized millions of dollars of machinery and inventory, work stoppage was a formidable weapon. In 1936–7 car workers at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan paralyzed assembly lines with sit-down strikes, making the auto industry a bastion of the mass worker.

Workplace solidarity backed by strike power also characterized mass worker organization in the steel, shipbuilding, mining and transportation industries in the US and Europe. Similar organization spread to clerical, administrative and public sector jobs. Not all workers had such strength. Ethnic minorities tended to be employed in more vulnerable sectors; it took black Americans decades to break into the car industry in Detroit in the face of erce opposition from white workers (Georgakas 1975). Moreover, mass worker formations often depended on the gendered division between male workers, who went to factories as ‘breadwinners’, and housewives, who cared for children and dealt with the physical and psychological damage in icted on their men by the assembly line. Women worked in the auto industry, but in low-wage o ce and ‘detail’ jobs, such as upholstery sewing; during the war they joined the assembly line, only to be pushed out afterwards by the return of male workers. Nonetheless the mass worker was a form of class composition that won unprecedented gains in wages, social bene ts and living standards for North American proletarians.

Autoworkers remained the paradigm example. By 1949 the car was becoming central to North America’s culture and economy, a symbol of personal freedom and prosperity, the crucial commodity in a nexus linking vehicle ownership, highway construction, suburban homes, and fossil fuel consumption. In the 1950s, General Motors, the biggest manufacturing company on the planet, would alone generate 3 per cent of the US GDP. The UAW too bene ted from this prosperity, and, as it gained power, became increasingly integrated with US capital. Reuther typi ed this process. His reputation was as a labour rebrand, yet as UAW President he purged communist militants, held the union under tight bureaucratic control, and bargained hard, but for limited objectives (Moody 1988; Davis 1986). Auto factories might be sweatshops, he allowed, but they would be ‘gold plated sweatshops’ (quoted in Mann 1987: 56).


At the end of the Second World War the metropolitan area of Detroit – ‘Motor City’ – had the highest median income and home ownership of any sizeable US city (Schi erers 2007; Reich 1992: 46). In the city’s Institute of Arts the great murals of the Mexican Marxist artist Diego Rivera, commissioned by Edsel Ford – son of Henry, and president of his father’s company – celebrated the dynamism of humans and machines in assembly-line production and the paradoxical combination of industrial capitalism and worker power that Detroit represented. Jobs in the car industry placed ‘the American dream’ within reach not just of the middle managers who oversaw Fordist factories but of the workers who everyday watched their life vanish down the assembly line in return for reliable, rising pay checks that created the possibility of good nutrition and clothing, buying a house – perhaps eventually even a cottage on the Great Lakes – and sending kids to college. Now Wiener told Reuther the mass worker was threatened by cybernetic automata."