Can technology “save the world”?

1 December, 2020 · Marxism> Critique of ideology

In quite a few books, in educational institutions and in the media, we are told that technology created by itself the industrial revolution and other great social changes. We are now told of the umpteenth industrial revolution. Supposedly we are already going through the fourth one thanks to new technologies and their transforming power. They speak of a series of brilliant inventors who would have created processes and machines at the precise moment so that these could unleash their productive magic. But is it true that good ideas and technology transform the world?

Something sounds odd at first: How could the great industrialization of the 19th century have been unleashed without the previous existence of a mass of dispossessed workers to exploit and a market to sell the produced commodities? Until the enclosure of the communal lands, peasants were able to survive without selling their labor power to the factories or through the putting-out system, so that they did not have labor to mobilize nor the wages that allowed the bourgeoisie to make a profit. And on the other hand, it was necessary to be able to sell what was produced, there was a need for a market in a society in which the greater part of goods were not commodities. This market could be either internal or external thanks to the forced de-industrialization of the colonies, but it needed to be created beforehand. Let us examine in detail several of the great inventions of the industrial revolution to see whether they created the industrial revolution themselves or whether the change in social relations was what allowed the spread of the technology in question.

Capitalism-driven inventions

Jerónimo de Ayanz’s steam engine used to pump water out of Guadalcanal’s mines.

The most classic example of a machine that created the industrial revolution is the steam engine. It is common to hear in many lectures and in some books that Watt was the inventor of the steam engine, in slightly more serious media such as the BBC, it is stated in no uncertain terms that the inventor was Newcomen and that Watt only improved the machine. Newcomen’s machine was used in 18th century Britain to pump water out of the mines and Watt’s modifications, from the new piston to the centrifugal governor (praised in many academic books as Watt’s invention) would have allowed the use of the machine to propel a multitude of semi-automatic machinery in the great new factories of the 19th century. However, most of this story is a later nationalistic tale and has little basis in reality.

Steam engines were invented and abandoned repeatedly from times long before Newcomen. For instance, Jerónimo de Ayanz used his steam engine to pump water from the mines of Guadalcanal in the early 17th century, and other inventors and artisans such as William Petty devised steam engines throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The big difference between the result of Newcomen’s machine and the previous ones did not lie in the invention itself, but in the fact that the machine had no really profitable use before large-scale industrial production. And the latter only became feasible thanks to the appearance of a massive proletariat and the national market.

Steam-powered looms

Another of the great famous inventions of the industrial revolution is the programmable loom, also known as the Jacquard loom. This loom is capable of weaving incredibly complex embroideries thanks to its particular configuration. The machine itself is capable of producing all kinds of movements of its needles, but it is not directed by the weaver, but by a program introduced in the form of a series of punched cards. The holes in the cards indicate which needles and threads are allowed to be knitted at any given time, i.e. the cards follow a code which guides the machine and is external to it. In the nineteenth century, this loom spread through the new textile industry multiplying production and allowing to start a wave of automation. Its invention is commonly attributed to Joseph Marie Jacquard in the early 19th century, although it has been known for quite some time that this was not the case. Weaving machines with perforated cards are much older than Jacquard and all come from the region of Lyon and its surroundings.

Since the attempts of manufacturing expansion of Louis XI, the city of Lyon held the monopoly of the silk textile industry. There are glimpses of the use of punched cards before the 18th century, but the first semi-automatic loom with punched cards was created by Basile Bouchon a century before Jacquard. This loom was not completely programmable yet, but the great craftsman Vaucanson –the author of legendary automata– created a fully programmable loom a little later, in the first half of the 18th century.

None of these looms were used in textile production, although both reduced the use of labor force and could have increased production. They had little future in the world of Lyon’s closed guilds and their luxury production. However, during the boom of the textile industry in the 19th century, Jacquard looms spread and revolutionized textile production… leaving the newcomer as the inventor of the system. But their impact did not end there. The idea of detaching the machine from the program is directly and indirectly the precursor of the distinction between hardware and software and the precursor of the first electromechanical computers of the 20th century . Something that the craftsmen who began creating the first programmable looms could never have imagined.

Contrary to the story of a lifetime, inventions and ideas do not have a direct effect on production, even if they are potentially applicable and enable industry to save working hours or to improve exploitation conditions from the moment they were conceived.

Inventions and technological advances will fall on deaf ears if social and productive conditions are inadequate. For instance, the French Revolution called for turning the practice of craftsmanship into a science, creating the first engineering courses and founding the École Polytechnique in 1794. The great mathematicians and scientists of the era wrote treatises on how to improve machine design. Lagrange, for instance, created a whole system to deal with the dynamics of machines by means of differential calculus. However, machine production remained artisanal for almost all of the 19th century and the influence of Lagrange and Poincaré’s work was negligible until well into the 20th century.

The theory of machines and their production in the 19th century began instead to take into account kinematics, which studies the geometry and relative movements of the parts that make up a machine, while ignoring the dynamics of the entire machine… Causing among other things clattering and vibrations in machines due to resonance effects. This was dangerous for the workers, but acceptable for investors, and only when the level of vibrations became unacceptable for profits when more precise machinery became necessary was the theory of Lagrange and company rediscovered.

An example of technology driven by capitalism which is unrelated to machines is the big chemical industry. The first complex processes in the chemical industry date from around the time of the French Revolution, when the kingdom announced a competition to reward the chemist who managed to manufacture soda efficiently. Soda ash (sodium carbonate, not to be confused with caustic soda) was used to produce glass and soap, which were scarce at the time. So scarce that most of the buildings in the 18th century did not use glass windows, but used oiled paper or translucent waxed cloth instead. Without soda, the manufacture of glass and soap required ashes coming from the burning of entire forests. Many chemists set to work, but it was Nicolas Leblanc, the chemist, surgeon and personal physician of the Duke of Orléans, who developed the industrial process named after him. However, even though he won the prize, Leblanc did not see it being run profitably. The revolutionary wars first and then the Napoleonic wars wreaked havoc with his plans. When plants using the Leblanc process were built in France during the restoration of Louis XVIII the business was not working, it was unprofitable. The French domestic market was not generating enough demand.

The chemical industry only got off the ground on a large scale when an English manufacturer spied on one of the plants in France and copied the process in Great Britain. The much larger and more interconnected market, coupled with better communications, boosted English production 20 times over that of France and boosted industrial integration. The most developed capitalism in the world at the time allowed what the French domestic market could not give.

Each mode of production encourages the development of new ways of organizing social work

The famous clock of the Conciergerie, Paris, built by Henri de Vic in 1370.

The large industrial plants and concentrations, as well as the fact that the urban population is much larger than ever before, are not mere coincidences but rather consequences of the capitalist mode of production. The new division of labor and the emergence of a massive proletariat, both coordinated by capital, are what allowed the extension and development of all these technologies. That is, capitalism is what allows the creation and existence of heavy industry, not the other way around. Without a victorious bourgeoisie and without the expulsion of the peasants from their land to become proletarians, there would have been no one to work in the factories in a profitable way for capital. Like feudalism led to deforestation and an extension of the arable land and the agrarian population never before seen.

But if feudalism also shaped the technology of its time, what kind of technology are we talking about? Let Leibniz, in an argument defending body-soul dualism, give us the most famous examples of his day:

Even if we had eyes as penetrating as you like, allowing us to see the smallest parts of the structure of the bodies, I don’t see how they would be useful to us. We would have the same chances of finding the origin of perception there [in the body] as in a clock, where all the parts of the machine are visible, or as in a mill, where one can even walk between the wheels. For the difference between a mill and a more refined machine is only a question of size. It is conceivable that a machine may be capable of the most magnificent things in the world, but it could never perceive them.

Letter from Leibniz to Pierre Bayle 1702

The most refined machines of feudalism are indeed the mechanical clock and the windmill. Both are quite sophisticated and reflect the social conditions of the time. Mechanical clocks were accidentally invented by members of the clergy in the 13th century, probably in a monastery. The most important part of a mechanical clock is the escapement mechanism, which enables the hands of the clock to move in a constant circular motion. The original interest for the monks was to find a mechanism to represent circular motion in their astronomical models and devices, but it was quickly adapted to a new class of watches never seen before.

The escapement mechanism gradually and regularly releases the energy accumulated in some counterweights or a spring, resulting in medieval clocks with a 15-minute time offset per day. The church controlled time and set the canonical hours by which society was guided, so there was a boom of large mechanical clocks between the 14th and 15th centuries. Paris, Padua, Bern… All the bishoprics wanted one, they were much more precise than sundials and hydraulic clocks. The mechanical clock was originally a symbol of the divine control of time which later moved to the secular part of society.

Windmills in Consuegra, Toledo.

The other example is the windmill, a mechanism much more advanced than it may seem at first sight and, above all, one of the most profitable local businesses. Since the fall of the Carolingian empire, the nobility had taken over the royal prerogative of the ban, they were entitled to make the peasants and villains pay all kinds of tolls, but also especially a toll to grind their own grain, the banality.

The exaction pushes the construction of increasingly complex mills. Since the 17th century they can be directed towards the wind thanks to a large gear system, and they even have a feedback control system. This mechanism avoids excess wind to damage the millstones and prevents these stones from sparking and causing fires because of excessive speed. This mechanism is none other than the centrifugal governor which many people attribute to Watt and which he will place on the steam engine in order to regulate fuel input according to the speed of the machine’s main shaft.

The implications for capitalism and its overcoming

Volkswagen plant in Zwickau, Germany. From 2021 it will only produce electric cars.

The enormous industrial concentrations encouraged by capitalism also lead to all kinds of negative effects, in addition to the obvious ones derived from the exploitation of workers. It is more profitable for capital to create enormous centralized plants, such as ammonia and nitrate plants, where each plant – well established in the countries with the most concentrated capital – produces 5% of the total nitrates on the world market. The geographical centralization of production produces high transport costs and shortages in several regions of the planet, such as in Africa.

Only now, when investments and large state subsidies are organized for the ecological transition as part of a larger project to transfer mass income from the workers to capital, does the bourgeoisie realize that it can (and it is convenient for them) to electrify production. Just as the industrial revolution was accomplished at the cost of the exploitation of millions of workers, this new industrial revolution will be undertaken also at the cost of squeezing the working class for the umpteenth time. Although this time it will not even be able to improve the living conditions of the workers.

We will not solve the underlying problem and satisfy human needs by letting ourselves be exploited. Capitalism imposes and will continue to impose scarcity in order to satisfy the needs of accumulation. The solution is to reorganize the way in which production is socially carried out, not to believe in the saving power of the umpteenth industrial revolution.

We have seen in previous articles how a new mechanical obsession of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy led to a whole series of isolated inventions during the 17th and 18th centuries, but did not in itself give rise to a new social use of the machinery. Ayanz’s machines or Vaucanson’s automatic loom were exhibition pieces for the powerful of the time, but they were only used for production in isolated cases. To suggest or invent new technologies is not enough to solve our needs, which are universal, it is necessary to change social relations. And that starts here and now, it is not a task for a hypothetical tomorrow.

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