By Víctor Báez
History and Context
We, trade unions, have strongly and consistently criticized the way in which technological developments occured in our societies. Indeed, our concern about the way technological developments are combined with capitalism began long ago.
At the end of the 18th century, what was known later as the First Industrial Revolution began in England. Workers, distressed about deteriorating living conditions and the practice of their trades, reacted by destroying the machines which they saw as the cause of their misfortunes. This unorganized movement lasted for many years in the early 19th century and became known as Luddism because the mythical Ned Ludd was the first to break the looms. This unorganized movement was later outdone by workers organizing into trade unions and raising their demands. Machines were not the problem: it was the form of organizing the society which used these new machines.
One hundred and fifty years later, after the end of the World War II, this long struggle of workers seemed to have tamed the devil who used to push social setbacks into technological developments. The developed capitalist countries of the North experienced a unique period known as the glorious 30 years by historians; as the end of economic cycles by economists; or as social welfare states by sociologists. Important technological advances were achieved, together with important social triumphs for the majorities such as public social security, public health, public education, increase in real wages, markets operating close to full employment, all of which were part of the capitalist landscape of the times. In the South, some Latin American countries experienced a parallel scenario with industrialization by substitution of imports and advances in social and labor legislation, without ever having established social welfare for the majority of the population.
The crisis of the 1970s installed the issue. A change occurred in the dominant agenda of the ruling classes of North and South, which became known as neoliberalism, and as the Washington Consensus in the case of Latin America. Financial liberalization was part of said agenda and what had been cause of the economic crises prior to WWII was now being implemented again. And so began the so-called financialization of wealth. For many years now there has been more wealth in financial instruments than in the actual economy. And mechanisms have developed in our economies through which these excesses of fictitious wealth have taken hold of material wealth, leading to a monstrous concentration of wealth and income worldwide and in each country.
Simultaneously there was an attack on all redistributive mechanisms of the post-WWII social model. States sought to weaken trade unions and succeeded: long-term unemployment reduced workers’ militancy and employer strategies sought to dissolve the fraternal bonds that united workers, and the social solidarity on which universal public policies are predicated was undermined, with proliferation of reactionary myths based on alleged meritocracy, entrepreneurship and employability.
The context of this struggle was the globalization of economies, the advance of unification of markets, leading to planet-scale strategies of large corporations, the establishment of international chains of production and distribution, so that the worst social and labor standards of a country or region would put downward pressure on other countries or regions. Blow after blow, the triumphs of social welfare were being lost to global goods cheaper than those that could be produced in the national market. The result has been the creation of societies where a third of the population lives well, and two thirds do not. Based on an important argument: the excluded were to blame for social exclusion; the poor were criminalized and poverty reduction policies were undermined.
And all the above, the financialization of the economy and the triumph of societies where a third of the population lives well occurred in against a backdrop of new technological revolution, changes in materials, new information and communication technologies, new biotechnology and nanotechnology frontiers. Unlike the post-WWII period, as of the 1990s to date there has been a vicious spiral of technological development in conjunction with the destruction of the social fabric. This is the structural context of our global and regional political scenario.
Specialists refer to the emergence of a new techno-economic paradigm: the era of information and communication technology (ICT). At its base is a product that is not new: integrated circuits, which in recent decades underwent an accelerated process of size and price reduction, while processing capacity increased. We estimate that between 1970 and 2000 processing capacity doubled every 18 months! And, along with this phenomenon, information technology and telecommunications experienced an unprecedented convergence. In the 1980s it was hard to imagine that large mainframe computers would be replaced ten years later by increasingly smaller personal computers. In the 1990s who would dream that soon all of them would be interconnected through the Internet, and soon after a small cellphone would replace PCs, while an IT cloud would transform our pocket-sized personal points of access and processing into terminals of a giant computer, a planetary mainframe, of which we are now part.
Without this technological backdrop, multinational enterprises would probably not have networking company strategies with offshoring and global chains of production and distribution. There would be no exuberant, irrational growth of finance without that network turning the planet into a single unified online financial market.
Are large multinational enterprises the inevitable victors of the information society? Is society, with the State as the main articulator of social benefits, doomed to failure and extinction? Is it a consequence of technology that now each and every one has to manage on their own? These are ideas arising from neoconservative ideology which seeks to inculcate that there are no options because technology defines society.
However, the new ICTs have unveiled another world, a world very different to the neoliberal and excluding appropriation of the technological revolution underway. Bill Gates, the computer entrepreneur at the top of the current lists of millionaires of the world, represents and champions this new order. He added piracy to his computer genius (stealing technology from another genius, Steve Jobs) with monopolistic (for Windows to be the only program to be used on PCs) and extortive strategies (forcing the world to pay for frequent program upgrades to continue operating, as well as the use of an antivirus that needs to be updated every single day).
Let’s compare that behavior with what is known today as open source, antitrust, free software, technologically superior to Windows and upgraded collaboratively by its users. Indeed, collaboration is also part of ICTs. Many of the developments fully enjoyed by everybody were the result of people who did not want to patent or charge for their work. Internet browsing is the result of actions of this kind, i.e. non-commercial, non-monopolistic, freely accessible approaches. This is what the best-selling writer of economic prophecies, Jeremy Rifkin, calls the zero marginal cost society that would lead us to the eclipse of capitalism , since there will be increasing contradictions between the logic of business profit and technological developments achieved without commercial sense, i.e. free of charge.
This means that the ICT society has two souls: one is libertarian, solidary, open, non-commercial. Why can’t we, based on political and labor progressivism, foster this dimension of the ICTs?
Technology to live better
Technologies are not neutral, and they are not unambiguous either. Since the dawn of humanity, tools and social life maintain a dialectical and complex relationship. This means that we cannot analyze the issues caused by the current technological revolution without analyzing the issues of the current form of organization of our society.
The predicaments of our societies today: the generalization of precarious work (or unemployment pure and simple), the deterioration of pension systems, the rise of poverty, the absurd levels of inequality in the distribution of wealth and income, and multiple forms of social exclusion, combined with the environmental crisis, whose negative effects tend to impact the vulnerable sectors of society, all the above are not due to the technological revolution but to the counterrevolution executed by neoliberalism as of the 1980s.
Obviously, when certain technological changes take place in said social context, they reinforce their scourges, but do not necessarily provoke them. Moreover, the configuration of our current societies, as societies of one third living well, i.e. societies of exclusion, end up reinforcing economic issues. Ongoing demand is insufficient and spasmodically solved by incorporating new contingents into the markets – such as the transition of the former socialist republics of Europe and Asia to globalized capitalism in the 1990s – or the generalization of subprime credit – resulting in speculative bubbles such as the 2008 crisis in the United States. But without recovery of income for the majority of the population, it is impossible to solve the issue of effective demand in the economy, as established by Keynes in the 1930s.
Of course, reactionary elites can always turn to a demand that is completely unrelated to the wellbeing of the population, such as the armaments industry and the needs generated by wars or threats of war. The person to state that the US government was a political hostage of the military-industrial complex was not leftist Noam Chomsky, but republican US President Eisenhower at the end of his term in 1961:
“Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address to the Nation, January 17, 1961
But this option is not viable either in the medium term.
We must retrieve the capacity to develop the goods in society. And in order to succeed, we need to alter the logic of the economy… because our economy is already one of material abundance, with the pains of social exclusion.
Politics and the Economy
At the time of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign against sitting president George Bush Sr., whose reelection seemed unquestionable, Clinton’s campaign strategist summarized the meaning of the victorious campaign coining the phrase: “It’s the economy, stupid.” He was referring to people’s priority in those times.
Usually the economy and politics are intertwined, interwoven; they are not easy to separate, especially when we are in the midst of a crisis similar to that suffered by many countries and regions as of 2008, when globalization and financialization stretched beyond their limits. At the time, the issues appeared inverted in the political terrain: large contingents of the population in various countries attributed their social issues to foreigners : either migrants arriving to steal jobs or to increase social marginalization and urban violence, or workers with spurious advantages of low labor and social standards of other competing countries. It is the time of demagogue politicians, Brexit in the United Kingdom and Trump in the United States, a phenomenon that saw its first expressions in France in the 1990s with the rise of the National Front of Le Pen, father and daughter, although they were never elected to office.
Why have demagogues succeeded? Because the progressive forces have failed.
Our resistance did not suffice when the reactionary right pushed the neoliberal counterrevolution, and upon our return to office we did not present alternatives, but only patches and adaptations of the new exclusionary order. The third option never materialized. Even worse, ideologies of that adaptation were formulated, praising an alleged new cosmopolitan and meritocratic middle class, forsaking the vision of class solidarity, losing the identity of the working class.
Given the above, can leftist forces complain if, in their despair, workers and poor sectors follow demagogues?
We must recover the ground lost because progressivism mistook the social political subject. Majorities continue to be workers, with employment or unemployed, with permanent or precarious work, with social security or with vulnerability, nationals or immigrants, manual or professional workers, men and women.
Therefore, the TUCA considers that the primary challenge of the trade union movement is its self-reform. Trade unions have been weakened by the neoliberal attack and will not be able to resume the offensive or offer an effective resistance. We need a new unionism that unites the historical values of the working class and responds to the challenges of today’s capitalism.
This is necessary, but not enough. We will only succeed in responding to the political challenge if we offer an alternative project. Hence the TUCA has worked on the Development Platform of the Americas (PLADA), which articulates the most heartfelt demands of the working class of the continent with the public policies required to reorganize societies based on the inclusion of the majorities; this is the flag of the re-emergent labor movement that seeks to surpass Blair’s failed New Labour under the slogan for the many, not the few .
We are grandchildren of Keynes
The main economist of the 20th century was an English liberal who dreaded the socialist revolution and Nazi barbarity, John M. Keynes. In 1930 he gave a lecture in Madrid, Spain, which was soon published under the title Economic Possibilities of our Grandchildren”. It was an exercise in futurology rooted firmly in the history of English capitalism and in the present economy that our author knew better than any contemporary of his.
Keynes projects 100 years as the time of his grandchildren and, in fact, we are 13 years away from that imagined future. And what does the economist, whose theory saved Western capitalism from economic depression, state? He basically points to what would end the fundamental economic difficulty, i.e. scarcity: “Three-hour shifts (daily) or fifteen-hour weeks (of work) can eliminate the problem for a long time. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!”
Keynes did not live long enough to see what happened with his legacy: after his death in 1946 it was quickly metabolized by the prevalent economic science into a synthesis that removed his critical arguments and later he was completely discarded by the neoliberal boom.
We are the grandchildren of Keynes, but instead of reducing the hours of the working day and changing our lives to perform new creative activities as he had imagined, we work longer hours, have two jobs or more jobs in order to survive, and experience declining remuneration and social benefits.
If we wish to establish another virtuous cycle of technological developments with social cohesion, as in the post-WWII period, we will have to combine a new social pact with the technical revolution. Not a simple patching of the old neoliberalism. Not negotiating to lose less . Probably we will not be able to return to the old state of well-being. It has to be a new society, a great society capable of encompassing the entire population with equal rights and benefits, not only a few. We are standing on the threshold of this challenge. Let’s not leave the people in the hands of demagogues. We must not abandon people to their own (mis)fortune. This new project needs to be built with the majorities. Let’s organize the offensive to then launch the offensive!