Book Review: Microelectronics: Capitalist Technology and the Working Class

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Book Review: Microelectronics: Capitalist Technology and the Working Class

by Alan Epstein

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 13, No. 6, November-December 1981, p. 33 — 34

Microelectronics: Capitalist Technology & The Working Class 

by The Conference of Socialist Economists Microelectronics Group. 

CSE Books, 55 Mount Pleasant, London, England WC1X OAE. 1980. 

Alan Epstein coordinates and teaches computer word processing training at the Somerville, MA adult education center. He has been involved with the Boston SftP Computer Group.

What can workers do when they are faced with job deskilling, increased alienation and layoff due to introduction of computer technology in their workplace? That is the central question that the Conference of Socialist Economists (CSE) Microelectronics Group poses and illuminates through analysis of the British economy. 

Microelectronics deals with the effects of the latest innovations of small computers in new machinery, commonly known as “microprocessor based technology”, on a broad range of jobs and workers. While the initial impetus to developing computers was primarily military, the more recent breakthroughs have been instigated by businesses which seek to lower their costs and increase their profits. However, a simple application of the profit motive is not sufficient to explain the rise of innovation; Microelectronics shows how worker strength and its ability to slow the rate of profit and future profitability have been important in corporate planning. 

Microelectronics provides an in-depth study of various sectors of the British economy and the part microprocessors have played in the degradation of the work. There are descriptions of the work environment which adequately portray this decreasing control by workers over their lives. In the office, for example, “Operators are … continuously plugged in with no idea of how much more work they have to do, when it will stop, and when they can maybe sneak a break.” (p. 48) 

It is here, in relation to office work, that management policies of control are first discussed. The office is dissected and discussed both in terms of its changing machinery and working conditions, with attention to racist and sexist practices. The book includes speak-outs by office workers who attest to the racist and sexist divisions in the office: 

Racism is clearly visible to anyone who walks through a big office company. Pretty young white women work as private secretaries in the carpeted offices of the new downtown buildings. Black clericals are mainly reserved for the keypunch room, the typing pool, or the data processing centre across town—the routine, pressurized, low-paid jobs. (p.49) 

Heavier industry is also discussed in terms of the changing production techniques, the upheaval of the labor force, and the corporate reasoning for such changes. With Numerical Control equipment (see Peter Downs’ article, “Technology and Productivity,” SftP, Jan./ Feb., 1981), much of the precision skill is removed from the machinists’ domain, and placed under the control of the computer programmer. Skills become concentrated in a few highly paid professionals who stay aloof from the producation floor, while the few shop workers who remain become merely monitors of the equipment and need few skills. The intent is obvious: pay fewer workers less. 

Microelectronics continues with a look at other basic industries, including automobile production and mining. The dangers to industrial workers of robots and of microprocessors in small batch production (in which industrial machinery is produced in small numbers by multi-purpose producing machines) are explained in sufficient detail to inform those without extensive technological training. The corporate tendency toward the completely automated production shop is exposed, but the arguments are balanced well between the Luddite1approach of refusing to work the new technology, and the more conservative approach of allowing the new technology to replace workers in boring and dangerous jobs. 

On the one hand, Microelectronics points out that militant resistance to new technology introduction will win workers little in the long run. On the other hand, it is in no way assured that workers who are removed from dangerous jobs by robots and other machines will be retrained, transferred or upgraded in position. “The myth of technological upgrading has been … used by civil servants, politicians and media experts as part of an ideological offensive to sell microelectronics to the working class … The industrial worker will have the opportunity to acquire new skills and the freedom associated with white-collar work.” Since labor costs tend to be so high, any move toward higher capital investment (investment in machinery) carries the obvious implication that labor costs be lowered. Of course corporate planners do not specify how this will happen, nor who is responsible, and certainly the barriers to social upward mobility which exist are never challenged. It reminds me of the “anyone can become President” story. 

Speed-up is another result of automation introduction. The thought of working on an assembly line alongside a robot that has been programmed to set a particular pace is frightening, especially where that pace only marginally corresponds to an assembler’s ability to perform the task in the allotted time. In the office, too, management’s control tool—computer terminal monitoring—is used to push workers to higher speeds of work while intimidating them with the threat of replacement. 

Other chapters outline the effect of computer technology on the state (for repression and paper work), on education and training programs supported by the state, and on banking. Attention to union response is noted throughout. There are also three chapters dealing with the computer itself and how it operates. I was disappointed with the brevity and confusing complexity of the treatment of basic computer principles, however, and would expect a person unschooled in computer use to fully understand only part of it. They have their facts straight, but a year course in hardware and software cannot be given in three short chapters. 

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book presents alternative designs. As Microelectronics examines primarily the British economy, the effect of workers successfully “resisting the harmful effects of new technologies” is shown in the context of the refusal of multinational corporations to invest in British industries. This could have serious implications for other industrialized and developing countries whose trade union movements are strong. 

Microelectronics does not embrace the simple solution of dropping resistance to new technologies; instead it outlines other ways workers can preserved integrity. Aside from demanding higher wages and refusing job loss and job force shrinkage, workers can demand input into the design process itself when new technologies are introduced. Technology is not inherently negative or bad; rather the use to which it is put defines its politics, and the designers define the use. Workers can also demand training to assist them in preparing to make these design decisions. 

The Scandinavian successes (and failures) presented serve as good examples of how organized trade unions have dealt with these issues. In addition, the discussion of the Lucas Aerospace Shop Stewards Combine in Great Britain, which has designed and implemented socially useful machinery at Lucas, and other union successes, gives the reader the sense that movement is occurring, with union strength increasing despite the management trends. 

Microelectronics does not draw conclusions from their arguments; neither does it look at those losing their jobs and the prospects for shorter work weeks and increased leisure time, but these omissions are stated in the Preface. The Microelectronics Group apparently intends to continue their discussions internally and publish further on the subject. The book does serve well as a discussion focus and an informed first step toward understanding and solving the problems that arise between employers and workers over new technologies. The radical economic approach is refreshing, a foil for the plethora of pro-business technical literature which exists. CSE has done extensive research and has produced an informed guide on the subject.

>> Back to Vol. 13, No. 6 <<


  1. *Luddites were bands of working people in England between 1811-16, organized to destroy manufacturing machinery, believing that its use reduced employment.