Machines, Manufacturing, and Class

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Quote from 1999, N. Dyer-Witheford's Cyber-Marx (pp. 3-7), on Marx and Babbage:

"Marx, Babbage's contemporary, read his work. And what he found in its pages was not evidence of the ineluctable march of progress, or an approach to divine wisdom, but a strategy of class war. Writing in London, within living memory of the Luddite revolts that had seen hundreds hanged or transported and vast sections of England subject to martial law, Marx analysed the introduction of machinofacture as a means by which the bourgeoisie strove to subjugate a recalcitrant proletariat. He alludes to Babbage's writings in the great chapter of Capital --"Machinery and Large Scale Industry"--where he describes how the factory owners' relentless transfer of workers' skills into technological systems gives class conflict the form of a "struggle between worker and machine."7 He cites, as evidence of the political economist's technological strategy, the work of Babbage's colleague, Ure, who in the conclusion to his 1835 The Philosophy of Manufactures declared "when capital enlists science into her service, the refractory hand of labour will always be taught docility."8 "It would be possible" Marx observes, "to write a whole history of the inventions made since 1830 for the sole purpose of providing capital with weapons against working class revolt."9

Later, in a section of volume three of Capital entitled "Economy Through Inventions," Marx again footnotes Babbage. Commenting on capital's ever-increasing use of machines, he notes that "mechanical and chemical discoveries" are actually the result of a social co-operative process that he calls "universal labour":

Universal labour is all scientific work, all discovery and invention. It is brought about partly by the co-operation of men now living, but partly also by building on earlier work.10

The fruits of this collective project are, Marx argues, generally appropriated by the "most worthless and wretched kind of money-capitalists."11 But the ultimate source of their profit is the "new developments of the universal labour of the human spirit and their social applications by combined labour."12

Marx had already discussed this tension between the social nature of technoscientific development and its private expropriation by capital--in the final pages of the notebooks for Capital, the Grundrisse. Here, he again makes passing reference to Babbage as, in some of the most volcanically brilliant of all Marx's writing, he foretells the future technological trajectory of capitalism.13 At a certain point, Marx predicts, capital's drive to dominate living labour through machinery will mean that "the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed" than on "the general state of science and on the progress of technology."14 The key factor in production will become the social knowledge necessary for technoscientific innovation-- "general intellect."15

Marx points in particular to two technological systems whose full development will mark the era of "general intellect"--automatic machinery, which, he predicts, will all but eliminate workers from the factory floor, and the global networks of transport and consolidation binding together the world market. With these innovations, Marx says, capital will appear to attain an unassailable pinnacle of technoscientific power. However- -and this is the whole point of Marx's analysis--inside this bourgeois dream lie the seeds of a bourgeois nightmare. For by setting in motion the powers of scientific knowledge and social co-operation capital undermines the basis of its own rule. Automation, by massively reducing the need for labour, will subvert the wage relations--the basic institution of capitalist society. And the profoundly social qualities of the new technoscientific systems-- so dependent for their invention and operation on forms of collective, communicative, co- operation--will overflow the parameters of private property. The more technoscience is applied to production, the less sustainable will become the attachment of income to labour and the containment of creativity within the commodity form. In the era of general intellect "capital thus works towards its own dissolution as the form dominating production."16

Babbage and Marx were alike prophets of today's information society. But their prophecies are radically opposed--one promising the technoscientific consolidation of market relations, the other the dissolution of that rule. Both spoke, as befits nineteenth century men of science, in tones of confident certainty. After the catastrophes and surprises of the twentieth century, such teleological certainty should no longer be available to any one. Nevertheless, the predictions of both Babbage and Marx are alive and well today, present as vectors of struggle, antagonistic potentialities meeting in a collision that I term `the contest for general intellect.'"