Failed Techno-Utopias

Failed Techno-Utopias

By Cara H.

Living in the Bay Area means constantly being promised a better world by tech CEOs and venture capitalists, while simultaneously being constantly confronted by the failings of capitalism via astronomical rents, massive homelessness, and the failure of public institutions. If this better world is coming, heralded by historic advancements in technology, then why has it failed to materialize? If work-focused technologies like Zoom and Slack have increased productivity, then why are we still working 40 hours a week - or more - for essentially the same wages - or less?

Where did the money go?

Venture capitalists and tech boosters like to claim that, under capitalism, the global standard of living has increased dramatically. The lion’s share of that growth in the last 20 years has, however, been driven by China under the banner of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics — hardly an endorsement of a capitalist world order. And in the rest of the world, this growth has come at a tremendous cost and left a trail of destruction in its wake, with institutions broken by colonialism, conflict exacerbated by nationalism, environmental collapse, and all of society reoriented to the whims of the Market. But technology, and the forces of production, have advanced, and they have improved productivity; so why isn’t this making our lives materially better?

Put simply: technology makes individual capitalists rich, but makes capitalism as a system less stable, exacerbating its worst tendencies. As it becomes cheaper to produce goods, capitalists translate those cost savings into reduced prices for the things they sell. Think of a software company that adopts new coworking software that streamlines the process of building features. The first few capitalists to use this new software can shave a tiny amount off what they charge for their product, relative to the total cost beforehand. They’re now able to sell their software for a cheaper price than their competitor, with the same margin, netting them a solid profit.

Because competition is the engine of capitalism, these new technologies will get adopted across an entire industry, as no capitalist wants to be the one getting undercut on price. Let’s go back to our software company: their competitors will quickly adjust their prices to match the new standard, and will likely adopt similar processes for streamlining production. In the end, everyone’s getting the same percentage of profit for the thing they were making before the technology advanced, but they’re selling it at a reduced price. Assuming they’re already making and selling as much of their product as they can, the profit they make from each sale is now, as an absolute value, considerably less. This is called the tendency of the rate of profit to fall - an economic phenomenon that has existed as long as the capitalist mode of production itself.

Corporate profits – whatever the cost

When this happens, there are a few ways to artificially increase the rate of profit that capitalists make for selling their product. First, by increasing demand for a product. There are several ways to do this, from the relatively benign (induced demand via marketing campaigns) to the outright evil (imperialism and colonialism). Contemporary tech companies usually start with the former and devolve into the latter. Take Facebook, for example. Originally, they marketed their product via college campuses, then to the (western) world at large. When it became evident that the competition from other social networks presented a threat, they began a wide-ranging campaign in the developing world to get people onto their service, offering free Facebook as part of mobile plans, or widening access to the internet via their ostensibly-humanitarian Internet.org project.

It’s not difficult to see where this goes awry: one of the countries that Facebook offered Free Basics in was Myanmar. Shortly after the company made concerted efforts to expand there via this program, it was being used to coordinate the genocide of the Rohingya people. This is merely one of the most dramatic and fast-paced examples of how a need to create new markets leads to horrific consequences; the constant hunger for expansion in capitalism has resulted in innumerable tragedies over the course of the last hundred years.

The other way to stem the tide of lowering profits is to get more value from labor. This is similar - and often related - to the introduction of new technologies, in that it results in goods produced for less money for the capitalist. But without any monumental leaps in advancing the productive forces, the only way to achieve this is via the exploitation of workers. Bosses create unreasonable pressure to deliver products cheaper and faster than competitors can, netting them a profit, but at the cost of workers’ well-being and often their very lives. This is the strategy taken by Amazon, where, in order to make money selling massive volumes of low-margin goods, they force delivery drivers to pee in bottles to save on time, or demand their employees work through a tornado that collapses their warehouse and leaves several dead. Internally, there are tech workers at Amazon who create technology which enforces this relationship; time-tracking tools which surveil warehouse workers, location trackers which enforce strict timetables on delivery drivers — these are all tools created by other workers at the company.

New technology, then, might be able to keep workers in the imperial core from being further exploited for a short period of time, but it will never free capitalists from the need to find new markets, and in the end, that freedom from exploitation even here will be short-lived, as other capitalists rush in to saturate whatever new markets are forced open and the rate of profit once again falls, leaving exploitation and ecological destruction in its wake.

Technologists turned Technocrats

Waiting for capitalism to deliver a better world through the use of clever technology is obviously a losing game. As I’ve described, the incentives that exist in our society are demonstrably stacked against it ever occurring. But capitalism has a long history of assuming that the upper-crust technocrats can deliver prosperity to all; it’s a myth they perpetuate to ensure their continued dominance. You can trace this tendency to the beginnings of capitalism. You can see it in the Physiocrats in France in the 18th century, or the Federalists in America in the 19th; in the final years of the Porfiriato in Mexico with its Científicos struggling against imminent revolution, or in American economists managing Chile’s economy, coming in on Pinochet’s coattails after the brutal repression of Allende’s aborted revolution. The capitalists perpetuate capitalism through an ideology that stresses that the world will only get better with the right rich people in charge, and they only get louder about that promise when their regime is in crisis. It’s no wonder, then, that in a society where technology represents a substantial share of economic growth and political power, the capitalists that are adjacent to that particular gold rush breathlessly proselytize its utopian potential, promising it most fervently to the ones mining the gold for them.

More and more of the mechanisms that ensure that the Jeff Bezoses and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world stay in power and can continue making money hand over fist are mediated by the Internet. Amazon, in addition to selling cheap goods for home delivery, also owns a huge amount of Internet infrastructure, for which it pays engineers high salaries to maintain and further develop. Facebook employees often believe the altruistic promises of programs like Internet.org, even when those programs have demonstrably ended with mass murder and genocide. Employees of both companies, and of tech companies in general, are conditioned to believe that they’re building a better world through their work because they’re the ones closest to the actual mechanisms by which the capitalists achieve their profits.

If Amazon’s Internet engineers were to go on strike on behalf of their coworkers in the warehouses, they could grind the business to a halt and force management to share more of their hoarded gains with the workers themselves. But, if such a strategy ends up succeeding, and workers as a whole come to understand that they can take collective action to defend their common interest, one of the major tools billionaires can use to dodge the pressure of a falling rate of profit disappears. In that way, they’re forced to an inflection point: either lose their power and riches, or fight tooth and nail against the potential of organizing. One weapon in that fight is this techno-utopian ideology; it’s to their benefit that every worker who could potentially exercise control over the means of production believes their bosses’ stewardship is leading the world to a better place. Another, of course, is a salary that prevents the need for much introspection.

Critical Vulnerability

In the end, though, there’s only a finite number of low-level employees that a business can exploit before that exploitation moves up the chain. As shown, technological developments only postpone the inevitable conflict between workers and our bosses, and imperialist expansion might stave off this conflict as well, but with its own horrible consequences. We’ve been watching this play out for over a century now and it can’t go on forever; that expansion goes hand-in-hand with the devastation of the natural world, and the present day climate crisis is the direct result. A development-at-all-costs regime at home has led to its own catastrophes, where the manufacture of electronic parts for the tech industry has left Silicon Valley littered with superfund sites.

If you’re a tech worker who sees this future beginning to play out, the solution isn’t some individual action you can take. You can’t found a better tech company that’s not premised on this exploitation; there are structural forces that make that impossible. Donating a tech salary to charity won’t stop the exploitation of the factory workers on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder. Your one option is to organize.

When a venture capitalist or tech CEO tries to tell you they’re improving the world, what they’re really selling you is your own complicity in their reckless pursuit of profit. Instead of believing these failed promises of utopias, we can build a real utopia together through collective action, where productivity gains from technology benefit all of us, and we can put an end to exploitation overseas for the sake of profits. There are DSA chapters across the country that connect workers with other workers to realize our collective power. In San Francisco, DSA has close connections with the labor movement and can help workers build the strength, together, to reject the path towards exploitation and build something new.

All the fairy-tales of techno-utopias in the world can’t change the fact that this exploitation is coming for every worker. When you see it coming, you can either bury your head in the sand, or talk to your fellow workers and prepare for it, together. It’s organize now, or wait for your turn to be grist for the mill. Highly-paid tech workers might find it unimaginable that they would be forced by bosses to pee in bottles or die for the sake of a quarterly earnings report, but the rung they occupy on the ladder is not as sturdy as it may seem.

Cara H. is a former member of the DSA San Francisco Steering Committee.

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