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IS NATURE A LABOUR PROCESS?
by Robert M. Young
Marxism is an ontology in which persons (not men, not minds, not bodies) and labour (not subjects, not objects, not nature) are the most basic concepts, along with class, mode of production, and the historicity of concepts themselves. Its most basic definition of reality, that is, focuses on human endeavour. Labour is neither nature nor history, but their matrix.
In the following exploration of the limits of a labour process perspective on science, technology and medicine, the above epigrams and the ones that follow are intended to serve as guides to the direction of the argument:
History is the motor of technology-reversing the technological determinist thesis that technology is the motor of history.
Technology is the embodiment of values in artefacts.
Nature is an historical category (Lukács).
Natural science is also an historical category, a human relation, as is objectivity (Gramsci).
The following texts amplify the epigrams. First Gramsci:
The idea of "objective" in metaphysical materialism would appear to me an objectivity that exists even apart from man; but when one affirms that a reality would exist even if man did not, one is either speaking metaphorically or one is falling into a form of mysticism. We know reality only in relation to man, and since man is historical becoming, knowledge and reality are also a becoming and so is objectivity, etc. (p.446)
Lest it be thought that this was not intended to apply to 'real' science, Gramsci says in another place: 'According to the theory of praxis [his codeword in his prison manuscripts for Marxism] it is evident that it is not atomic theory that explains human history but the other way about: in other words that atomic theory and all scientific hypotheses and opinions are superstructures' (p.468)
Bukharin, in his contribution to Science at the Cross Roads, presented the relationship in the way I would like to emphasise:
At the present time all scientists more or less acquainted with the facts, and all research workers, recognise that genetically theory grew up out of practice, and that any branch of science has, in the long run, its practical roots. From the standpoint of social development, science or theory is the continuation of practice, but-to adapt a well-known remark of Clausewitz-"by other means". The function of science, in the sum total of the process of reproduction of social life, is the function of orientation in the external world and in society, the function of extending and deepening practice, increasing its effectiveness, the function of a peculiar struggle with nature, with the elemental progress of social development, with the classes hostile to the given socio-historical order. The idea of the self-sufficient character of science ("science for Science's sake") is naive: it confuses the subjective passions of the professional scientist, working in a system of profound division of labour, in conditions of a disjointed society, in which individual social functions are crystallised in a diversity of types, psychologies, passions (as Schiller says: "science is a goddess, not a milch cow"), with the objective social role of this kind of activity, as an activity of vast practical importance. The fetishising of science, as of other phenomena of social life, and the deification of the corresponding categories is a perverted ideological reflex of a society in which the division of labour has destroyed the visible connection between social function, separating them out in the consciousness of their agents as absolute and sovereign values. Yet any-even the most abstract-branch of science has a quite definite vital importance in the course of historical development. Naturally it is not a question of the direct practical importance of any individual principle - e.g., in the sphere of the theory of numbers, or the doctrine of quantities, or the theory of conditioned reflexes. It is a question of systems as a whole, of appropriate activity, of chains of scientific truths, representing in the long run the theoretical expression of the "struggle with nature" and the social struggle (pp. 19-21).
Lukács takes the argument a step further: 'Nature is a societal category. That is to say, whatever is held to be natural at any given stage of social development, however this nature is related to man whatever form his involvement with it takes, i.e. nature's form, its content, its range and its objectivity are all socially conditioned' (p. 234).
I cite Marx on technology and on labour to complete this introductory review of some neglected perspectives on these matters:
Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules, etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process (Grundrisse, p. 706).
In other words, nature builds no technologies. Beyond that, who builds nature and the other categories of life and thought? On this subject Marx has said, as a gloss on his examination of the concept of labour,
This example of labour shows strikingly how even the most abstract categories, despite their validity-precisely because of their abstractness-for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations (p. 105).
One way of addressing the substance of these epigrams and supporting texts is to ask, 'Is nature a labour process?' The answer is no, but the question itself is not only not silly, but a more fruitful one than many put by orthodox marxists, Bernalites, neo-realists, revivers of diamat, Althusserians and post-Althusserians. That is, in the left there is a persistent and recurring appeal being made to common sense, to reality, to the external world, to objectivity, to natural science-as a basis for Marxism. There is a hankering after some concept of scientificity which doesn't quite make the claim that the natural sciences make, but still seeks the aura that 'science' conjures up for most people. Marx said elsewhere in the Grundrisse, 'The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse' (p. 101).
To say that nature is not a labour process is, I submit, all that we can say and all that we can know about nature in itself. Yes, nature exists independent of humanity, but we can build no socialist struggle on that. However, to look at science-its categories and its relations in different epochs, with its conceptions of nature - in labour process terms has considerable analytic advantage and agitational potential.
The concept of the labour process and its sub-categories offer a framework which encourages us at every step to grasp the human purposes at the heart of science, technology, medicine or any practice. Moreover, this approach encourages us to do so in a period when the capitalist mode of production is itself restructuring its products, its processes of manufacturing, its educational system, its office work, its cultural activities, its consumption, its communication, its information systems - around science and technology. A labour process perspective offers the possibility of recovering the intentions already embodied in facts, theories and artefacts.
But that possibility is fraught with obstacles and oppositions both inside and outside the left. The marxist and socialist traditions are deeply deferential to science as a progressive force, as value-neutral, as above the battle. Engels' Anti-Duhring, for example, was extracted into a pamphlet called Socialism-Utopian and Scientific which become the bible of Marxism for two generations. Dialectical materialism, and The Dialectics of Nature (written 1873-86 but not published until 1925) are instances of the same approach. Likewise, the putative scientificity of Marxism lay at the heart of the scientism of the Second International, Kautsky's biologism, Bernstein's revisionism, Plekhanov's treatment of Marxism as 'Darwinism in its application to social science'. Lenin, in turn, referred to Plekhanov's philosophy as 'the best there is in the whole international literature on Marxism' (Wetter, pp. 107, 100). In the case of Bernalism, an English appropriation of Soviet theory was reimported into the Soviet Union to provide part of the rationale for the official theory of the 'Scientific and Technological Revolution'. The German Democratic Socialists attempted to base their political theory on science, as did the British Fabians and Ramsay MacDonald.
The influence of the British left scientists persisted into the 'white heat of technological revolution' of the 1964 Wilson Government. Although that cooled by the 1970s, Callaghan and Shirley Williams gave us a warmed-over version of it when they began the 'great debate' which was trying to make education more relevant to 'the needs of industry'. This was smoothly carried on in the Thatcherite initiative giving scientific training at every level of education and putting greater resources into technological education.
The above litany is designed to evoke an awareness that deference to science is endemic in leftist writings in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nor in Britain are such views confined to the orthodox, the democratic socialists, and the social democrats. Edward Thompson shares this deference to empiricist scientism (I am thinking in particular about what he has written about Darwin); Raphael Samuel defends science and scientific rationality as standing at the heart of the socialist project. And if one would normally distinguish between the points of view of Thompson and of Perry Anderson, it is worth remembering that they agreed about a great deal with respect to science. Thompson may be more empiricist and Anderson more concerned with theory, but neither is in doubt about some version of science as of fundamental importance to socialism's self-conception. Anderson's trajectory moves from Althusser to Timpanaro, and the latest is Gerry Cohen and, God save us, Sir Karl Popper.
There is, then, a long-standing socialist/leftist/marxist tradition militating against the perspective I am advocating: the attempt to recover a perspective which roots conceptions of nature and science in human purposes. Such an attempt points not to the authority of science but to the need for class struggle around the process of prioritisation of research and development, for it is here that the purposes get built into scientific theory, into technological apparatuses, into medical procedures. pursuing those purposes, R & D departments create the products which come on stream-as, for example, sociobiology, microprocessor control systems for pacing and surveillance, and tranquilliser drugs. If we treat natural science as an historical process of the embodiment of values, as a transformative process of labour applied to nature (and to the products of previous activities), then we need a way of thinking about the structuring of that productive process. The analytical framework for examining production in Marxism is that of the labour process.
Here is one place where one might be tempted to treat nature as a labour process. Followers of my writings might see this as a fitting ultra-leftist end point for someone whose previous arguments have claimed that 'science is social relations' and 'science is a labour process'. The argument would run as follows: there is no nature for humanity apart from our own experience and our transformative efforts, and since the appropriate way of analysing our transformative efforts is in labour process terms, then why isn't nature a labour process? Why isn't it all human effort? This is, of course, a new way of putting a deep and perennial epistemological question about the existence of the external world beyond human experience and the process of knowing. Is there a nature out there-beyond our activities?
Answer: nature exists apart from us, but only as a noumenon, a category of the last instance, without any qualification or characterisation. For us, nature is an object of labour, a resource, a manifold, an attic, or a cellar, or a boxroom to be ransacked for - or shaped into-what we need. It is a potential to be actualised by different epochs with different goals, different priorities, different cosmologies, different world views and agendas. The metaphysical basis of reality, of experience, of investigation, changes. Ontologies change, epistemologies change, methodologies change. At a more mundane academic level, there are paradigms, research programmes, disciplines, grand theories -all of which are formed and constituted by the contradictions and moving resolution of class forces of different epochs. This is a dynamic, dialectical historical process, born in conflict and struggle. At any point in time science and technology, medicine and philosophy, art and the theatre reflect the existing state of tension of the historical forces at work. It is not a solution as in puzzle-solving; rather, it is a resolution as in a physics diagram where the position of a particle is the result of the direction and magnitude of the forces acting on it.
For example, the state of the law reflects the prevailing compromises in a society, not some Platonic notion of justice. Similarly, Cartesian mind-body dualism is an absurdity unless one views it as the resolution of what the new physics demanded on the one hand and what theological circles held out for on the other. The point is not as easy to make in science as it is in technology and the rest of culture, but it is what is required by a labour process perspective.
Poor old nature. At one level we must always acknowledge that nature is innocent, yet in every epoch nature has been framed.
Putting Priorities and Values into R & D
The analytic framework I am proposing does not set up a dichotomy between science and technology, between pure and applied, between academic and industrial. It treats them as merely differing degrees of mediation, of how societies prioritise and carry out their purposes in R & D. It's always been true that these are very closely linked. Marx says,
...but to the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose "powerful effectiveness" is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production. (The development of this science, especially natural science, and all others with the latter, is itself in turn related to the development of material production.) (Grundrisse, pp. 704-5).
Sciences and their subdisciplines wax and wane-like other categories in culture-according to what and how much societies or their patrons value and want to know. Some examples: navigation in relation to divination and astrology and astronomy. This is a whole complex of investigations which have to do with peoples' mythic symbolic relationships and with their trading relationships-auguries and navigation. The close link between social need and intellectual endeavour is exemplified in Hessen's argument about 'The Social and Economic Roots of Newton's "Principia" ' in industry, mining, etc. In another area of society, Aries points to the origin of the concept of childhood as something which appeared historically as a category in culture. Foucault says similar things about psychiatry, about the clinical point of view, and about prisons. Paul Forman does the same for the social resonances of Weimar physics, as does Luke Hodgkin for computational mathematics.
There could be a long list of disciplines whose existence as disciplines in their own right makes very little sense unless you ask what interest-groups wanted to know about that part of nature and for what reason. Nuclear physics was a very esoteric and obscure discipline in its annus mirabilis of 1932, but within ten years we know that it was a very large branch of the weapons industry and in another ten years was in close liaison with the heavy goods electrical supply industry: nuclear weapons to nuclear power. The study of electricity itself in the 19th and 20th centuries tells a similar tale. So does the military interest in space research and in recent astronomy. The current funding of oceanography would make no sense if it weren't for submarine warfare. The great push to explore oceanography to such depths and in such detail, and to do the mapping of the ocean floor, only adds up if seen in geopolitical terms in connection with places to manoeuvre or hide submarines and related questions of modern warfare.
It should be remembered that earlier explorations and aspects of navigation and cartography gave rise to some rather dramatic spinoffs. For example, the voyage of the Beagle which took Charles Darwin around the coast of South America can only be understood in the context of the cartographic goals of the British government that sent ships to make preparations for the economic domination of parts of Latin America (e.g., Argentina) which occurred in the nineteenth century.
More recently the real growth of seismology has been about the monitoring of test ban agreements in the 1970s and 1980s. The burgeoning growth of scientific pharmacology and of the drugs industry only makes sense when seen as mutually constituted: drugs as commodities. Numerical control of machines was developed because the American Air Force started the project and funded it all the way through. Similarly the move from the thermionic radio valve to the transistor to the microprocessor occurred because code-breakers and aeroplanes needed reliable machinery that wouldn't burn out or malfunction from constant use or vibration. This was followed by the need to make increasingly complex electronic equipment smaller and lighter for planes and rockets and code-breakers, then banks and military planners. Modern computing and its miniaturisation have to be seen as part of a trajectory running from gunnery and the logistics of military supply to banking, the office and the home. The grand discipline of solid state physics, as we now know it, would not exist were it not for these developments centering on transistors and silicon chips.
Many other examples of my general thesis come to mind. Statistics only developed in the wake of actuarial research for the insurance industry. Insurance and research in public health are tied to the need for a reliable workforce in connection with the development of the factory system and machinofacture. One of my favourite examples is Thomas Edison's light bulb filament. He ransacked nature, trying substance after substance, until he found one that would glow incandescently and not be consumed. He went through thousands upon thousands of substances and bit upon one which worked perfectly and which, when refined, gave us the modern vacuum light bulb.
My second favourite example is one of the most wasteful and inefficient experiments that anyone ever did: to take two isotopes, which differed by 3 out of 238 elementary subatomic particles, and to build huge hydroelectric project to separate uranium 235 from uranium 238-by diffusion, of all things. There is just no sillier thing to do than to take two isotopes of a single element that have such a small difference between them and separate them by passing them through sieves, as it were. But because the Manhattan Project wanted the correct isotope of uranium to make the atom bomb, they set up Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which was then the world's largest hydroelectric project. They committed those resources to that crude, inefficient technique because they wanted to make nature divide in that way for that purpose, and they were in a great hurry. That, for me, is a model of how any given discovery happens. It depends on how much people want to know it and how much trouble they're prepared to go to to get nature to yield up elements which can be transformed by human labour into the combination of its resources which is required. That's why, I think, nature should be seen as a manifold, a resource, a boxroom or attic, something to be ransacked. It is also why I think it is important to focus on our transformative relationship with nature.
The automobile provides an example of the same process in technology. The Model T had to move in mud and had to go up hills because the road system was underdeveloped. That is why it had the gearing system that it did. With improved roads, rising incomes, and the ambition to make automobiles available to a wider buying public, Henry Ford was able to turn his attention to lowering the cost as a main criterion. Here is a table of what he managed (by more intensive extraction of surplus value) once he turned his mind to that project.
In later periods speed, then size, then luxury, became criteria, while in our own time, attention has been turned to safety, pollution and petrol consumption. The engineering work in the automobile industry has changed dramatically as those criteria changed. The automobile itself was constituted by social forces. It was based on assumptions about the size of groups in which people travel, the indefinite variability of destination, the availability of fossil fuels, etc. A different society would reconstitute small-group transportation in a different way.
People often think that existing technologies would just carry over into a socialist society, but this doesn't follow at all. Different societies constitute different sciences and technologies according to different priorities. Biotechnology at the moment is almost exclusively concentrated on 'high added value' products in the drug industry. That is because the raw materials (or 'substrates') for the bonanzas that biotechnology is supposed to bring us are oil and sugar, and oil and sugar are expensive substrates. Drugs, on the other hand, can be sold for very high prices compared with the cost of the raw materials and processing. That's why we don't yet have huge biotechnological developments around food, recycling and all the things that the boosters of biotechnology say that it's going to do. What biotechnology is in fact doing is producing interferon, insulin and other things for which you can charge a lot for a little. The other things haven't happened yet because the cost and efficiency relationships aren't yet right for investors. The development of the technology is paced and structured by these economic criteria. In nuclear physics and power, by contrast, cost of research and development has been subsidised directly or indirectly by the arms race.
In the context of industry it is possible to grasp the transitivity between the social relations of production on the one hand and the forces of production in science. The boundary is ever shifting and one can analyse a given process of production 'backwards' or 'forwards' between living and dead labour, people and machines. For example, paint-spraying an automobile was a skilled craft, now done by an industrial robot. The first analysis of amino acid sequences of a protein won a Nobel Prize; now one can buy a machine off the shelf that can do it in a matter of hours. Marx describes it in the Grundrisse:
Thus, just as production founded on capital creates universal industriousness on one side-i.e. surplus labour, value-creating labour-so does it create on the other side a system of general exploitation of the natural and human qualities, a system of general utility, utilising science itself just as much as all the physical and mental qualities, while there appears nothing higher in itself, nothing legitimate for itself, outside this circle of social production and exchange. Thus capital creates the bourgeois society, and the universal appropriation of nature as well as of the social bond itself by the members of society. Hence the great civilizing influence of capital; its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry. For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production (pp. 409-10).
The instruments of labour, or the means of production, are themselves end points in a lineage of the embodiment of values. Production exists in a highly recursively embedded set of instruments with use values, that is, they represent an ever-present industrial archaeology. The beginning of one labour process already assumes in its means of production the end points of all sorts of other labour processes, with the use values which those labour processes yield up. All, however, are sclerosed living labour, all are resolutions of social and economic forces, all are snapshots of the history of class struggle. Marx actually offered the moving resolution of class forces as a model for the history of technology:
It would be possible to write a whole history of the inventions made since 1830 for the sole purpose of providing capital with weapons against working-class revolt. We would mention, above all, the self-acting mule, because it opened up a new epoch in the automatic system.
Naysmith, the inventor of the steam-hammer, gave the following evidence before the Commission on Trades Unions, with regard to the improvements in machinery he himself introduced as a result of the widespread and long-lasting strikes of the engineers in 1851. "The characteristic feature of our modern mechanical improvements is the introduction of self-acting tool, machinery. What every mechanical workman has now to do, and what every boy can do, is not to work himself but to superintend the beautiful labour of the Machine. The whole class of workman that depended exclusively on their skills is done away with. Formerly, I employed four boys to every mechanic. Thanks to these new mechanical combinations, I have reduced the number of grown-up men from 1500 to 750. The result was a considerable increase in my profits.
Ure says this of the colouring machines used in calico printing: "At length capitalists sought deliverance from this intolerable bondage" (namely the terms of their contracts with the workers, which they saw as burdensome) "in the resources of science and were speedily re-instated in their legitimate rule, that of the head over the inferior members." Then, speaking of an invention for dressing warps, whose immediate occasion was a strike, he says: " The combined malcontents, who fancied themselves impregnably entrenched behind the old lines of division of labour, found their flanks, turned and their defences rendered useless by the new mechanical tactics, and were obliged to surrender at discretion." Of the invention of the self-acting mule, he says: "A creation destined to restore order among the industrious classes... This invention confirms that great doctrine already propounded, that when capital enlists science into her service, the refractory hand of labour will always be taught docility" (Capital, pp. 563-64).
Transitivity between Living and Dead Labour
The next step is to connect machines and science with the issue of structured social relations-to treat human nature, nature and the forces of production as points on a continuum. There are, of course, valid distinctions between people, artefacts, and unmediated nature. But boundaries between these have to be seen as shifting-or as ones which can be crossed back and forth, i.e., transitive. They have to be seen in terms of relative unyieldingness or refractoriness. Technologies have to be a analysed into the social relations they sclerose and control. A machine (as Marx described it in the above passage) is an attempt to structure in an unmodifiable way, something which has been previously part of the fluidity of skill and the craft of individuals.
A different category for thinking about these things has to be introduced: not so much 'nature'-which is an unknown-I-know-not-what-but 'second nature', nature constructed, shaped, framed. What is said of machines can be said of ourselves. Human nature may then become a project, rather than something with fixed laws which research scientists make careers out of seeking to discover. We have to ask how refractory is this or that aspect of human nature? How refractory is this or that artefact, this sclerosing of living labour? How unwilling is nature to yield up this or that thing that we need for our industry? How unwilling is nature to do so for this or that mode of relating socially? The issue is one of struggle, not laws of nature, technics or human nature.
First human nature itself: it should not be the set of eternal essences which are sought in sociobiology and ethology, but something about which we say, 'What are we up against here?' I, as a child of the 60s, can speak with some experience of these matters. People started out saying, 'Throw off nature's insolent yoke; destroy these paper tigers of bourgeois institutions: jealousy, sexual possessiveness, individualism, etc.' But they found out that those emotional structures were deeply embedded or sedimented and had become 'second nature', but not, as a sociobiologist would have it, utterly unmodifiable first nature or genetic inheritance. It appears as first nature because it is so refractory.
The concept of relative refractoriness can start with simple matters, e.g., with whether or not academics wear creased trousers or blue jeans. When I was a don I wore wool trousers. Now dons get to wear blue jeans. That's a change at a quite superficial level-fashion. Then you move on to things like gender arrangements and patriarchy, which go much deeper. Then you go to things like the factory system, and finally to the mode of production. The splits and sectarianism of political sects are somewhere about halfway along the line, I think. The nuclear family, hierarchical authoritarian social arrangements are even further along-harder to transform. I'm suggesting that we see these degrees of refractoriness as a continuum. All of them are translatable back into the social relations which they attempt to structure and control. Where a given form of social relations is on that continuum can only be discovered by trying to change it-by praxis.
This way of thinking offers a new perspective on social movements like Luddism, redundancy agreements and technology agreements. They all become attempts to redraw or maintain boundaries. Luddism is an attempt to say that workers want to keep a particular process in the sphere of craft. Neo-Luddism has a universally bad name, especially in the left, because of the left's deference to science. Yet it is an attempt to say that workers want to have a voice in what research gets developed into products.
For example, it is an attempt to have a voice in whether or not to accept word processors or surveillance systems (such as the IBM 3750 or the Chubb 8000) which can monitor and control an entire factory and office environment-the 'electronic battlefield' brought home. Universities and company offices now have computer systems which can monitor all telephone calls. Similar systems can tape any conversation, can say who is in what part of a building, can control access. Technology agreements are attempts by capital to introduce new technologies in a controlled and civilised way. They are a form of containment. Neo-Luddism, technology agreements, redundancy agreements-are all slow-motion versions of the kind of moving resolution of forces over which socialists want to gain some control. Let us move on from human nature to other biological phenomena: at a biotechnology conference an ICI executive said, 'We've found the bug that makes plastic.' Their research laboratories simply looked long enough until they found a bacterium which makes plastic as part of its natural repertoire of biochemical activities. In its normal environment the bug makes plastic as an insulator against cold. It's a coincidence that it happens to have evolved in such a way as to manufacture' something that ICI spends fortunes setting up factories to do. In order to convert the bacterium into a factory one simply has to fool it into believing that it's about to get very cold, and it sets about making lots of plastic. That's nature, unmediated though slightly constrained-a product of natural selection. But for us it becomes a factory in the same way that in genetic engineering a bacterium can be made to become a factory for another substance. The distinction between first (unmediated) nature and second (mediated) nature ceases to be meaningful. It's a matter of how long you ransack the attic to find what you're looking for. It's a matter of its relations with human labour. In this particular case ICI didn't go to a great deal of trouble but found a German professor who had discovered this feature of the bacterium. The same can be said of the Israelis who found an algae which concentrates ethylene glycol when placed in a very salty environment such as the Dead Sea. It just so happens that ethylene glycol is the main ingredient of the anti-freeze we use in automobiles. Once again, the distinct locations between science and technology, and between mediated and unmediated, begin to look like points on continua.
Labour Process Perspective
The model which is useful to bring to bear on all these things is a set of analytical categories that Marx used when he wrote about the labour process. In order to connect a particular labour process with the rest of its relationships, one should think of it as embedded in a network of connections or articulations. Think of it like this: one builds up a spider's web or set of molecular bonds so that there are nodes, and a given labour process connects up with others which can be dominant to it, subordinate to it or related in other ways. One ends up with a lattice-work of labour processes with differing degrees of determination. These show the strengths of the connections as they impinge at the points of articulation which, in turn, affect others. One of the most important kinds of articulation is the interface between living and dead labour.
The struggles around the Grunwick photo-processing plant in London in 1976-77 may help to make the point more concretely. Most people think of those battles as an attempt to fight against an outdated and exploitative work environment-the trailing edge of old-fashioned work relations. That is the last thing it was. Grunwick is at the leading edge of instant nostalgia consumerism and automated film processing. It had the fastest turnaround time of any of the snapshot processors (according to Which Magazine) and was automated to nearly the highest degree. But there was one thing that it was still marginally not worthwhile to automate-the mail room. People thought of the mail room as the 19th century sweatshop. It was in fact the one thing left in this high technology company-with the most advanced equipment-which it was still not cost-effective to put on a computer. For example, most people sending in snapshots would not fill in the forms properly and place letters in particular little boxes so that a machine could read them. At one level this is what Grunwick was all about: the interface between living and dead labour, and the fact that fixed capital at this photo processing plant was so expensive that management could never afford to leave it idle if there was any throughput available. Those women workers in the mail room had to be available for overtime any day that there was anything to process, because of the high expense of the fixed capital and because of the need for fast turnaround to maintain the firm's competitive edge. I'm trying to show that the understanding and practice of class struggle can be affected by thinking in terms of the labour processes and the interfaces between living and dead labour.
According to the labour process model, the result of bringing together (1) the means of production or the instruments of labour, (2) the raw materials or the materials of labour, and (3) purposive human activity or living labour, is to produce a use value. Once again, there are three elements-(1) means of production, (2) raw materials, (3) purposive human activity. Result: something useful. Marx emphasises in the Grundrisse how important it is not just to think of them as abstract categories. He says, 'material of labour (this, not raw material, is the correct expression of the concept), means of labour and living labour' (p. 691).
That analytic framework is shot through with teleology. I don't mean this in the most provocative philosophical sense, but very nearly so. The means of production are the end processes of other labour processes. They become starting points for another labour process. So the means of production are already 'embodied human values'. They are objects, artefacts, created by another labour process, the use value of which becomes the starting point of another labour process. I need my spanner to tighten this nut to get my bike ready to take this article to the typesetter... 'Raw materials' is a euphemism, because in the world of human beings no materials are truly raw. They are all 'cooked' in some degree. There is simply no such thing for humans as 'nature in the raw'. Even bauxite or uranium deposits, volcanoes and tornadoes, are replete with human meanings.
Labour Process Strategy
We need to get inside the process of origination at one end-what values were set by the R & D-and at the other end the use values. We want to see the articulations of those with processes of prioritisation to which at the moment we have little access: how and why the boss gets the boffin to do this or that bit of work, and to what commodity or career purpose. Where are the rooms in which these things get decided and happen? Struggle around the process of origination of new science, technology and medicine-given the capitalist restructing around them-is the area that we have to think about in a way that traditional economistic trade unionism hasn't considered. Traditional working class struggle tends to experience these matters in the process of application-when the word processor is wheeled into the office or when the speed of the production line is to be changed in a factory. People tend to make their struggles there. The point is that given capital's strategy-the intimate penetration of science, technology and medicine into our work and lives-we have to get back up that pipeline to the process of origination of word processors and other technological innovations. Unless subversives can get up that pipeline and open up the process of setting priorities to political struggle and public scrutiny, there is no hope of being involved where it is historically possible to affect the process of origination.
There have been powerful landmarks in the history of real subordination in these matters. One was the introduction of the factory system; another the introduction of machines that drove other machines; a dramatic one was the introduction of a moving assembly line; now we have very subtle instruments of pacing, surveillance and control. All of these affect the porosity of the labour process of people at work. Their jobs lose flexibility, and the little spaces in which they can remain human and in control of some aspects of what they do get smaller or disappear. Therefore, it behoves us not only to struggle in the process of application but actually to engage with the class fraction whose job it is to design the technologies.
Traditional trade union struggle has been at the point of production. This has been extended as the result of the activities from various pressure groups-particularly the women's movement-to the sphere of 'reproduction'. Capital, on its side, has changed the terrain, to a very unpromising class fraction: professional managerial class workers-people with qualifications who have got a lot to lose, many of whom struggled out of the industrial working class. The last thing they want to do is to acknowledge how they're being proletarianised. Computer programmers and designers, whose jobs are leading to increased real subordination in other people's jobs, are finding that computer-aided design and other forms of automation are beginning to affect them in their white collar roles. Indeed, since the 1890s, capital has been restructuring by relying on a class fraction whose work is now, in turn, being automated.
The shifting of the interface between capital and labour from one class fraction to another is by no means new. It was always the project of Taylorism that it ramify into other spheres. Taylor says at the end of the Introduction to his Principles of Scientific Management:
It is hoped, however, that it will become clear to other readers that the same principles can be applied with equal force to all social activities: to the management of our homes; the management of our farms; the management of the business of our tradesmen, large and small; of our churches, our philanthropic institutions, our universities and our governmental departments (p. 8).
Most people who have been subjected to the increase in real subordination in the productive and other spheres have no idea who Frederick W. Taylor is and no clear grasp of the overall strategy of scientific management which is colonising the different departments of their lives, work and leisure. They are even less likely to see it as part of the larger project of the subordination of nature, with the sub-division of the subordination of humanity, which lies at the heart of the scientific revolution. In the application of the methods and assumptions of science-efficiency-successive spheres of natural, biological and social reality have been subsumed. They came together, for example, in the employment of management consultants who wrote a series of documents which led to the recent reorganisation of the National Health Service. They came together much earlier in the domestic sphere when the Ladies Home Journal published a series of articles under the title 'The New Housekeeping', in which each new instalment was headed with a box which said the following:
A bricklayer used to lay 120 bricks an hour. A man who studied the subject prepared an adjustable table to be placed at the bricklayer's side, so that he wouldn't have to stoop, and had the bricks delivered on it in just the right position, so that the bricklayer wouldn't have to turn every brick right-side up. The result is that the same bricklayer who laid only 120 bricks an hour under the old method now can lay 350 bricks in the same time without any more exertion.
This is a good example of what modern "efficiency" and "scientific management" are doing in factories, stores and offices, revolutionising all kinds of work.
It is housework's turn now to become revolutionised, and these articles have told in detail just how it may be done. Mrs. Frederick, a mother and housewife herself, and unusually well qualified for her work as the National Secretary of the Associated Clubs of Domestic Science, has given years of practical study to the subject.
If any point in these articles is not entirely clear to a reader Mrs. Frederick will be glad to supply further information by mad, if she is asked, and a stamped addressed envelope is enclosed. Address Mrs. Frederick c/o The Ladies' Home Journal, Independent Square, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The sub-title of the article is 'How It Led a Friend of Mine to Devise a Plan "That Comes Nearer a Solution of the Servant-Girl Problem than Anything I Have Ever Read", as The Editor of The Ladies' Home Journal Says'. There are related documents concerning the role of the electricity supply industry in claiming to increase efficiency. All these phenomena are about the ideology of the factory system brought into the sphere of reproduction. The next step in this process is the introduction of the home computer terminal where a new generation of outworkers will be able to move directly from their housework to inputting by means of antennae or a new fibre optics cable system. Labour processes and articulations also, then, mean ideological articulations where the same criteria are brought to bear in another sphere. The network of articulations extends widely throughout culture and society.
We want to penetrate into the processes whereby values become embodied-to reopen struggle in areas where it seems hopeless. When I first walked into a Ford assembly plant, I took it as given that that was the environment and that my job was part of it. It did not occur to me that it was a historical result of a moving, and on the whole depressing, resolution of class forces in what counted as manufacturing. So it didn't occur to me that one could, as it were. roll back the history of real subordination, that those sclerosed human relations were open to renegotiation-not simply for the recovery of craft but for new social relations of production in manufacturing.
This essay is part of an ongoing development in a way of reinterpreting and reintegrating goals (purposes, values, teloses) into struggle, and into conceptions of nature and of science. When I worked as a philosopher of science, my right-wing colleagues were teaching me that all facts were theory laden. They went on to acknowledge that all the theories are value laden. But they never asked where the values came from. They never connected that set of propositions inside the philosophy of science with the question of ideology, of how world views constitute what values lead people to ask what questions to lead to what versions of 'facticity'. In moving on, in the way that's being argued here, it is possible to go beyond those three propositions-that sort of pseudo-syllogism: all facts are theory laden, all theories are value laden, all values are derived from world views and ideologies. It is possible to reach the idea that science is, in its nature, in how it is constituted, ideological: it embodies values. From there it is a short step, first to science as social relations, in the way that Gramsci saw it, and then to 'science is a labour process'. But we have to stop there, because nature is not a labour process. Never mind; it hardly matters.
The sciences of matter, mind, life, animal behaviour and society are not the places to look for the limits of social aspirations, much less for the bases of socialist visions and struggle. On the contrary, they are moments in the naturalisation of value systems. The analytical and political task is not to defer to, but to challenge, the extra-polations which, for example, ethologists, functionalists, cyberneticists and systems theorists attempt to derive from thermodynamics, structural and functional physiology, evolutionary theory, catastrophe theory, etc.- a vision of the limits of human nature in society. Our task, rather, is to transform the process of prioritisation, or origination and of application of science, technology and medicine, or development studies or local government, or manufacturing, retailing, education, publishing, media, childcare. The aim is to transform them so as to embody different values.
Nature itself is no labour process. But 'first nature' was never our area of struggle. Again, Gramsci is quite clear about this:
Clearly, for the philosophy of praxis, "matter" should be understood neither in the meaning that it has acquired in natural science (physics, chemistry, mechanics, etc.- meanings to be noted and studied in the terms of their historical development), nor in any of the meanings that one finds in the various materialistic metaphysics. The various physical (chemical, mechanical, etc.) properties of matter which together constitute matter itself (unless one is to fall back on a conception of the Kantian noumenon) should be considered, but only to the extent that they become a productive "economic element". Matter as such therefore is not our subject but how it is socially and historically organised for production, and natural science should be seen correspondingly as essentially an historical category, a human relation. Has the ensemble of the properties of all forms of matter always been the same? The history of the technical sciences shows that it has not. For how long was the mechanical power of steam neglected? Can it be claimed that this mechanical power existed before it was harnessed by man-made machines? Might it not be said in a sense, and up to a certain point, that what nature provides the opportunity for are not discoveries and inventions of pre-existing forces-of pre-existing qualities of matter-but "creations", which are closely linked to the interests of society and to the development and further necessities of the development of the forces of production? (pp. 465-66)
(I should mention that, as this passage continues, Gramsci grants relative autonomy to natural science in ways that are not characteristic of the other passages of his that I have quoted.)
Our concern is nature transformed, and human nature socialised. It's this second nature and degree of refractoriness which stand in the way of our projects. Human nature is our project. The limits of nature itself are too distant, and not only beyond phenomena, noumenal, but also, as far as we are concerned, nouminous. Our domain is the products of human labour, including and especially the forces of production and the social structures which constitute them and which they sustain-the factory, the office, the town plan, the home, the school.
I want to close with some reflections on the relationship between a labour process view of marxism and the history of philosophy. As the Sophists said, ' "Man" is the measure of all things'. That, I suggest, is the ancient way of saying that science is a labour process. Claiming that nature is a labour process is the reductio ad absurdum that is parallel to the caricatures of the Sophists made by the Platonists in their search for absolute truths. If a labour process perspective makes us Sophists in one sense, it doesn't have to make us people who-as their enemies claimed-seek 'to make the worst cause appear the better'.
Indeed, I had a go at seeing if I could take head-on the charge of sophistry and thereby defend a humanocentric concept of reality. Some of the critics of those who treat marxism in these terms would label us relativists, Sophists, humanists. 'Sophistry' has a bad name, and science is commonly counterposed to it. I set about reconsidering how the original Sophists fared in the face of Socrates' method of disputation. Plato gives us the most determined contrast with belief in eternal concepts as real on the one hand and with the human disputation and rhetoric of the Sophists on the other. Here is the charge that's against us-if we accept the label 'Sophists'. The genealogy of 'The Sophist' is spelled out in the Platonic Dialogue of that name:
He, then, who traces the pedigree of his art as follows-who, belonging to the conscious or dissembling section of the art of causing self-contradiciton, is an imitator of appearance, and is separated from the class of phantastic which is a branch of image-making into that further division of creation, the juggling of words, a creation human, and not divine-anyone who affirms the real Sophists to be of this blood and lineage will say the very truth' (p. 280).
Anybody to whom Plato tried to give a thoroughly bad name can't be all bad. The labour process perspective is not a million miles from the Aristotelian categories of 'coming to be' or causality, where the purposive aspect is always inseparable from the 'formal', 'material' and 'efficient' ones. These analytical categories never operate separately from their embodiment in things or in living things-living things as the model for other things. The 'raw materials', 'means of production' and 'purposive activities' leading to use values seems to me not at all distant from the Aristotelian categories. I offer this loose analogy in the context of grasping the nettle of the humanism of the Sophists in order to say that if Sophists are people who always want to emphasise the values in things, I find this position preferable to those who look to nature for their values without realising that the values of nature come from human vision in the first place.
In the beginning was the goal-the human purposiveness, the labour of human beings. 'Human and not divine', said Plato in the above quotation. This takes us back to Marx on divinity. He says: once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be criticised in theory and revolutionised in practice' (Selected Works, p. 29). This, in turn, takes us back to epistemology on the one hand and human nature on the other-back to two more of the 'Theses on Feuerbach':
The question of whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.
And the second is: 'Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations' (pp. 28-29).
So instead of Plato's malign indictment of a humanocentric view of our relationship to knowledge and nature, I prefer this one from Marx's 1844 manuscripts:
The natural sciences have developed an enormous activity and have accumulated a constantly growing mass of material. Philosophy, however, has remained just as alien to them as they remain to philosophy. Their momentary unity was only a chimerical illusion. The will was there, but the means were lacking. Even historiography pays regard to natural science only occasionally, as a factor of enlightenment and utility arising from individual great discoveries. But natural science has invaded and transformed human life all the more practically through the medium of industry; and it's repaired human emancipation, however directly and much it had to consummate dehumanisation. Industry is the actual, historical relation of nature, and therefore of natural science, to man. If, therefore, industry is conceived as the exoteric revelation of man's essential powers, we also gain an understanding of the human essence of nature or the natural essence of man. In consequence, natural science will lose its abstractly material-or rather, its idealistic-tendency, and will become the basis of human science, as it has already become the basis of actual human life, albeit in an estranged form. One basis for life and another basis for science is a priori a lie. The nature which comes to be in human history-the genesis of human society-is man's real nature; hence nature as it comes to be through industry, even though in an estranged form, is true anthropological nature (pp. 110-111).
Putting it another way, 'we know only a single science, the science of history' (German Ideology, p.28n). History is for us a history of class struggle, and we need to see that it is embodied in the forces of production and in science, technology and medicine as well. Nature is not, then, a labour process, but socialist practice is.
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The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM