Capitalism and Technology: To whose benefit, at what costs?

Doug Dowd


1917, as war ripped Europe apart, Einstein wrote to a friend that "Our

much-praised technological progress, and civilization generally, could be

compared to an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal." 

Subsequently, in showing that E=MC2, that lifelong pacifist had paved the way

for the most catastrophic technology ever. 


was neither the first nor the last instance of a "father of invention"

discovering that once the genie is out of the bottle it is also up for grabs;

Bill Joy, Chief Scientist of Microsystems, recently warned of the terrifying

possibilities now attaching to robotics, genetics and nanotechnology. 

Shades of Ted Kaczynski.


since knives and spears, technology has been used both constructively and

destructively; when, how, where and why it will be used — and, in consequence,

who will benefit and who and what will be harmed — finds its answer in the

structure of power, at whose center sits capitalism and its State.  There

have been "collateral benefits" for the less powerful, of course. 



is a very large "but" that broadens, deepens, and becomes more

multi-dimensional over time.  It is common to think of production when

technology is mentioned, its main home until very recently; now, however, its

use and misuse shape and permeate all of human, social, and environmental



technology took its first big leaps in England, the harm done was almost

entirely to farmers and pre-industrial workers; and the gains went almost

entirely to what became large landowners (who, by 1790, owned 80 percent of the

land of England).  Thus was laid the basis for the industrial capitalism of

the nineteenth century:  the earlier "progress," in obliterating

the fabled "yeomanry" and cottage industry, gave birth to what became

a powerless working class — inspiring, in 1770, Goldsmith’s "Deserted

Village," and its "Ill fares the land/ to hastening ills a prey/ where

wealth accumulates and men decay…."  


exploited were the fuel of industrial capitalism, and their lives burned out

quickly.  As Hobsbawm has shown, between 1821 and 1851 the lifespan of the

average working person in Britain declined substantially — from 37 to 46

percent who died by age 19.  Exploitation became less lethal as Britannia

came to rule the waves — allowing workers’ real incomes in Britain to rise (in

the 1880s), but only because exploitation spread and deepened globally.


familiar?  In the past several decades, the advancing technologies of

transportation, communication and transportable capital equipment have allowed

transnational corporations (TNCs) — with the easily-corrupted support of their

governments and those of the "emerging market economies" of Latin

America, Asia, and Africa — to deepen and tighten their hold on the human and

other resources of the whole globe.  Once again, peasants been swept off

the land, to allow the new technologies and agribusiness owners their way. 

In consequence, small farmers have plummeted from a life that was merely

difficult to one that is harrowing, have lost their culture and history, have

been forced into the exploding cities of their own land or richer societies,

where they confront hatred and a squalid existence.


economists have said for over two hundred years and still say:  but in the

long-run, all this is for the good of all; those in the poorer countries need

only be patient:  behold the levels of real income of industrial workers in

the strongest countries!   There is much wrong with such observations;

here we look at only some of it.  


there is no chance whatsoever that the people of the poorer countries will ever

reach the material comfort levels of the leading industrial economies of today,

if only because there is no other set of countries which they can "imperialize";

nor will they ever have the access to the relative military might that cleared

the path for the now rich societies.  And they are already or will be ruled

not by their own governments but by the new Holy Family: TNC/WTO/IMF. 


in the richest countries,led by the USA,  exploitation is very much on the

rise, very much facilitated by technological "progress."  In the

past ten years, as U.S. growth and wealth  break records, worker

exploitation has been rising:  not only did real wages fall or remain

stagnant from 1973 into the late 1990s, but, as Business Week (12-6-99) has

reported, the average worker (not just the poorest) put in 260 hours more in

1999 — six weeks of extra work — than in 1989, with little or no wage

increases (and this says nothing about unreported data, such as the spreading

practice of having workers "punch out" and then continue to work, and

of diverse "overwork" practices of home workers and part-time temps —

"beloved by many employers, because they’re cheaper and more flexible than

those you put on payroll…" (Fortune Small Business (4/2000). 


phenomena are but part of a long list of dire outcomes resulting from the

combination of the most concentrated-ever business power and the uses to which

new technologies can be put, much assisted by the media technology’s teaching us

(as Paul Baran put it) "to want what we don’t need, and not to want what we

do."  Thus have most been seduced into senseless debt while being

"down-sized and outsourced" as unions have weakened.  The upshot

is a population desperate to stay afloat in the high seas of debt — now 102

percent of disposable income, up from 62 percent in 1978.


in the eighteenth century workers were rioting against new technology, famously

so with the "machine-breakers" (or Luddites) by the early 19th

century.  Those who protested technological change were not protesting the

technology as such, but the ways in which it was — or was not — used; as, in

our day, workers are protesting not "free trade" but the ways in which

the freedom of capital harms the lives of workers in both the rich and the poor

countries, despite economists’ and politicians hype to the contrary. 


then there is the massive waste, much of it destructive waste, of modern

industrialism — obscene in the face of the inadequate to fatally low levels of

income of at least two-thirds of the world’s people, recklessly insane in terms

of the already accomplished and rising levels of environmental damage. 

More:  the waste of human resources and possibilities foregone goes beyond

obscenity to something like social criminality:  consider what could have

been done in the past century with the technology, knowledge, and resources of

the globe; and set that next to the perils and tragedies that instead confront

us every day:  moderate estimates see half of U.S. GDP as sheer waste; and

that ignores the common practices in durable consumer goods of "deliberate

obsolescence" (carried to perfection in computers now) and the gross waste

of the military.


foregoing is not merely or mostly a litany of annoyance and outrage.  It

describes an ongoing calamity whose proportions have already been lethal on a

large scale and that threaten to expand always further.  Of the abuse and

misuse of technology, there will be no end, so long as it is capital’s wants,

not human needs and possibilities, that guide its use.  Marx put it

forcefully long ago:


Within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness

of labour are brought about at the cost of the individual labourer; all means

for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination

over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a

fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine,

destroy every remnant of charm in  his work and turn it into a hated

toil….  (Capital, I, 645)


told, then, no matter who we are, where we live, or what we do for a living, our

work is cut out for us, if we are to live in a safe, sane, and decent society.  

Among the many, many things that are both required for and would flow from such

a society is the transformation of technology from being mostly a blight to

becoming a contribution for furtherance of life, for all.


existence of political democracy provides us with the ability to change the

society for the better through existing and new unions and diverse political

organizations of both narrower and broader scope.  But

"abilities" mean little unless they are used, and they are unlikely to

be used without a three-sided effort:  1) to unlearn what we have been

socialized to see as the good life and "common sense"; 2) to learn the

full realities of the interaction of business power with "our much-praised

technological progress" and, in the same processes, 3) to teach ourselves

the ways to mount a broad and deep political movement that does not depend upon

crumbs from the table of establishment politics.


is more difficult than learning; habits are harder to break than to make.  

That is not because of some intrinsic complexity in the matters to be shucked

off, but to the sticking-power of ideology, of what we have come to take for

granted in distinguishing between good and bad, right and wrong, desirable and

horrible.  A large part of the difficulties in forming a strong political

movement sits in that seat of "common sense."  With sufficient

learning we will learn to brush that and to regain our "good sense."


ideology tells us to see the business system — now wearing the smiling mask of

"the free market" — as simultaneously competent, efficient and

responsible.  Maybe so; mostly it is not.  In an era when technology’s

powers, already immense, are always multiplying, we cannot trust business —

whose driving force is, after all, the search for individual gain — to make

decisions affecting all the people, all the time, all over; and all of nature as

well.  There have been too many Pinto bumpers, too many thalidomide babies,

too many Love Canals, too many lung cancers, too many…. — and too much denial

and obstructionism all along the way.  So it’s up to us.


work was done in the past, of course; good work that gave many of us effective

unions, pensions, health care and better wages, along with laws against

discrimination of most kinds.  But:  1) since the 1970s, much that was

won has been lost; moreover, 2) there was much that needed winning earlier that

was never fought for at all, let alone won.


grand old slogan "An injury to one is an injury to all" was directed

at workers in the United States; today’s technologies require that all workers

recognize the unity of their needs with workers everywhere, and join with others

to end injuries of all kinds, including those to Mother Nature, not just those

turning on wages and working conditions.  The time to begin was years ago. 


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