Workers vs. Machines: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

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I left this comment on Joe Humphrys’s article in today’s Irish Times, which is titled ‘Workers are losing the war against machines’.

While I agree with many things here, the premise that “workers are losing the war against machines” is highly misleading. It is akin to saying “the Indians are losing the war against the Indian Removal Act”, or “the Jews are losing the war against cattle trucks”. Hidden from consideration in the sentence are the people who exercise control over the machines in question and hence stand to benefit from greater automation of work processes.

So the full truth contained this statement can be revealed by turning the worker into the object: the people who own machines are waging -and winning- the war against workers. Or, if you like (I’m afraid it’s in terms that might put lots of Irish Times readers off their breakfast) the bourgeoisie is winning the war against the proletariat. Well, there’s quite a simple solution to this: the proletariat should seize the means of production. That might be difficult to achieve in practice, but hey, there is no alternative.

It’s tempting to single out the ideological abstractions of ‘technology’ or ‘innovation’ or ‘history’ or ‘the market’ as the root cause of this phenomenon. However, all such explanations obscure the fact that we are speaking of a particular set of social relations that can be changed through human agency and political means, and hence are by no means inevitable. Workers would be foolish indeed to become enthralled by the vast workings of the machine when the focus should be on the man behind the curtain.

In political terms this means refusing to take at face value the statement in the article that the increasing automation of work processes poses ‘a huge policy challenge for Ireland’. Which ‘Ireland’ is the author talking about? We know that there is vast corporate influence exercised -by the American Chamber of Commerce and IBEC, for example- over State policy. For them, the nature of the challenge is wholly different -if not diametrically opposed- to that of workers forced to confront immiseration. If ‘Ireland’ only ever means ‘big business and political elites’, then the future is bleak indeed. A decent future for the majority depends on being able to formulate the problem to be solved on their own terms, and not what is being presented as a given.

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