Of cakes and bakeries: the Lucas Plan and the politics of technology – part 2

The Lucas Plan: running the bakery

This is the second of a two-part post looking at the Lucas Plan and the politics of technology. The first part looks at the context of the Lucas Plan in union struggles around technology in the 1970s.

It was against this background of political struggle around technology and the overcoming of the belief in the inevitability of technological progress, that the Lucas Aerospace workers developed their Alternative Plan.  The Plan was driven primarily by the need to save jobs in the context of impending defence cuts and recession but, drawing on the approach of the growing alternative technology movement, they went one step beyond resistance and beyond the conventional limits of ‘defensive’ trade unionism, deciding to use their own technological expertise to design completely different products from those demanded by the existing market.  It is the positivity of this approach, and the emphasis upon socially useful production that inspired millions of people in the 1970s and 80s and led to their nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The workers’ own technological expertise gave the Alternative Plan great credibility and gave the lie to that central myth of capitalism, the idea of workers’ incompetence and that only technically expert middle-class managers can run the show.  It was this political challenge to the Lucas managers’ ‘right to manage’ that was the most revolutionary edge of the Alternative Plan, and it was probably this that led to its summary dismissal by the company.  The Lucas workers, in terms of that old socialist slogan, were saying, ‘We don’t want more cake, we want to run the bakery’, and no-one could deny that they really could. They were also saying that they knew how to make better bread.

Human centred technology

But it is crucial to understand that the Lucas workers’ ideas about socially useful production were based upon their revolt against the Taylorist approach, through which capitalism had for the last 70 years been trying to make the myth of workers’ incompetence into a reality, by dumbing down their jobs with successive waves of new technology.  At Lucas, faced with the concrete reality of new technology, there was little truck with the naive liberal notion that more high-technology means progress for workers or anyone else.

Cooley’s book and a section of the Alternative Plan are devoted to criticising Taylorist management methods and the underlying dynamic of capital intensification that the Luddites also fought against, 160 years earlier.  The Alternative Plan quotes Taylor’s famous remarks that, ‘The workman is told minutely just what he is to do and how he is to do it, and any improvement he makes upon the orders given to him is fatal to success’, and, ‘The requirements of a man for a manual job is that he should be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make up the ox than any other type.’ It goes further, advocating what Cooley calls ‘human-centred technology’, designed to maximise the use and development of workers skills, thereby fostering their development as people by giving them pride in their work and abilities.

The Alternative Plan also emphasises the importance of ‘tacit’ rather than formalised knowledge, the sort of know-how that resides in an experienced workers’ hands, their feel for the materials, rather than in the abstract scientific knowledge of technological experts. Cooley insists that all work involves both the use of the hand and the mind and that it is vital to overcome the division of physical and intellectual labour and the greater value accorded to the latter in technocratic capitalism. In the industrial model, especially since 1850, innovation is driven first by scientific discovery and design by technologists in a way that minimises the input of those who actually produce the products.

This emphasis on skills and workers’ knowledge is central to their notion of socially useful and meaningful work (not just socially-useful products), and some of the Alternative Plan’s proposals were designed with this specifically in mind.  Cooley even has the temerity to talk about ‘socialist technology’.  In Architect or Bee, he gives a very interesting set of criteria for deciding whether products are ‘socially useful’[1]: at least half of these criteria are about the process through which products are designed and produced and the impact of that process upon workers. The important point is that social usefulness is about a holistic concept of both process and product: there is no point in socially useful products that are produced in a way that oppresses and alienates those who produce them.

The Lucas workers also took more traditional defensive measures against the introduction of new technology.  In 1980-81, when the power of the Combine Committee was on the wane, and the labour movement was facing the white heat of the Thatcherite revolution, it forced the company to accept a moratorium on the introduction of new machinery at all the Lucas plants.  During this period, the Combine Committee undertook consultation with workers of all types across the company, about how to deal with new technology. They also adopted other strategies, relying on the vulnerability that expensive technology created for the company, such as occupation and interruption of production, and the feeding of nonsense data into the company’s computers.

The historical significance of the Lucas Plan and its current relevance

What makes the Lucas plan so historically significant and worth celebrating is not merely that it departed from negative, defensive trade unionism by producing a positive, credible and genuinely eco-socialist vision of social development, based on production for need which inspired millions of people.

The key to its significance and credibility is its holism: it envisions not just a new society, but a new system of production premised upon a critical politics of technology. Marx was surely right in identifying the production process as critical in shaping society: any move beyond capitalism must rethink the production system, which means rethinking the kind of technology that we use and how workers interact with it.

This means questioning those apparently non-political technocratic criteria that dominate technology design – efficiency, automatic control, reduction of the possibility for human error in operation.  Human-centred technology of the type advocated by Mike Cooley and the Alternative Plan must reinstate human values of skill and craftspersonship as central to personal development and socially useful work.

Cooley et al were able to articulate these values not just because they were directly experiencing the same deskilling of their work as manual workers, but because they were influenced by the anti-technocracy movements of the 1960s and 70s, which criticised all aspects of the Fordist regime of social control through science and technology. In the 1960s and 70s, it was clear to radicals that the computer, which only existed as mainframes in the hands of the state, bureaucracies, the military, large corporations, etc. was a tool for the intensification of that hierarchical system of social control.  In the 1960s to 80s, many leftist writers[2] and other social critics pointed this out.  Overwhelmed by the power of information technologies, the left has sadly forgotten these critiques.  But if we are to undo the damage caused by neoliberalism, we also need to return to critiques of technology of the anti-technocracy movements and the Lucas Aerospace workers.  This one important reason for celebrating their 40th anniversary.

Information technology neoliberalism

In the 1970s, no-one at that point could foresee the astonishing trick that capitalism was about to pull off with the personal computer: by putting computers in individuals’ hands, as well as those of corporate managers and bureaucrats, it would simultaneously dissolve the revolt against the rigidity and hierarchy of Fordism and apparently allow much greater individual freedom.  But at the same time this facilitated the creation of the neoliberal ‘post-Fordist’ ‘flexible economy’, corporate globalisation, etc. in which Taylorism is, in fact, intensified.

The economic neoliberalism that flowered in the 1980s is inseparable from the computer technology that underpins it, as exemplified in one of its early manifestations – the Big Bang of computerisation of the London Stock Exchange in 1986. Although we habitually speak of ‘neoliberalism’, that whole economic, social and political regime is inconceivable without information technology: we really should say, ‘information technology-neoliberalism’. Computers are the latest example of that ‘constant revolutionising of the means of production’, celebrated by Silicon Valley as ‘disruption’, which Marx and Engels, in the Communist Manifesto, say is the basis of the power of the bourgeoisie.

It is computers that have enabled corporate globalisation and the deindustrialisation of Europe and North America, by creating the communication capacities necessary for managing global corporate empires. It is computers that have allowed the financialisation of the economy and the ‘magic’ of derivatives which crashed it in 2008. It is computers and mobile communications that allow the zero-hours contracts ‘flexible economy’ with its precariat, constantly glancing at their phones to see if they have work today. It is computers that allow us the freedom to watch 1000 TV channels and a million websites, thereby co-opting us all into the culture industry.

And most importantly in relation to the struggles of the 1970s, it is computers that permitted the continuation of the underlying dynamic of capital-intensification/ automation/structural unemployment, which is creating the ‘squeezed middle’ of angry Daily Mail readers. This trend is just as significant as anti-union laws and the off-shoring of industries in destroying trade unions, holding down wages, and magnifying economic inequality. Current predictions are that almost 50% of the jobs in the economy will disappear the next 20 years, because information technology creates far fewer jobs than it destroys: in 2014, Google, valued at over £280 billion, employed just 46,000 people. Compare that to the £38 billion auto giant General Motors, which in the same year employed more than 200,000.  Those in employment face the relentless speed up in both work and life that computers have imposed, and the resultant epidemic of stress-related diseases and other social pathologies.

From an anti-technocracy viewpoint, the crucial aspects of information technology-post-Fordism are:

  • The influence of the cybernetic philosophy of automatic system control in creating the culture of networks rather than hierarchical organisations, and the paradoxical affinity between neoliberal individualism and the computer mindset, as Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron described in ‘The Californian Ideology‘.
  • The use of digital communications to monitor and control employees in an apparently non-Fordist setting, that potentially allows them the greater freedom and creativity that critics like Mike Cooley called for.
  • The extension of Taylorism to social life through social networking, allowing the creation of free data for corporate surveillance, and the erosion of the distinction between work and leisure.
  • The more traditional, but now automated, state surveillance that the digital communication platforms allow.

The key point is that technocracy does not have to be top-down or rigid – it works much better and less obviously in the cybernetic mode that mobilises people’s energies rather than repressing them. But we should never fool ourselves that it has gone away – on the contrary, ‘post-Fordism’ is really hyper-Fordism.

The current situation

Today, we are in a different situation from the 1970s. The trade union movement has been disciplined and forced back on the defensive. The spectacular successes of electronics and information technology, and the technologisation of life that it has brought, have contributed to a wave of technocratic triumphalism that has led to the forgetting of the Lucas Plan and the anti-technocracy movements of the 60s and 70s.  The highly political process of introduction of new technologies is referred to in depoliticised technocratic language as ‘technological change’, as if it ‘just happens’.

But technocratic capitalism has not changed fundamentally, and there are strong continuities. The very success of information technology in automating more and more jobs, and the polarisation of wealth that has resulted from this are now reaching a new crisis: again, we have a fundamental crisis in the mode of production, and ongoing financial crisis, resulting in the Brexit vote and the populist polarisation of politics that the technocrats thought they had finally overcome (remember Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History’ and Gordon Brown’s ‘No More Boom and Bust’?). Capital intensification is, as the Marxists have rightly insisted, one of those fundamental internal contradictions of industrial capitalism that always comes back to destabilise it.

How can we respond to that crisis?  Just as the believers in techno-progressivism in the green movement and corporations see the resolution of the environmental crisis through ‘better, cleaner, versions’ of the industrial technology that caused it[3], so those committed to that religion on the left argue that the crisis caused by automation and technological unemployment can best be resolved by more automation and basic income for those useless human workers.

Apart from the ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’ character of such proposals (see e.g. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams), such a view, which is gaining much support on the left, is based on the fatalism about the supposedly inevitable ‘advance’ of technology, that the Lucas Aerospace workers and other militant trade unionists around the world did so much to fight. Srnicek and Williams’ derisive description of peoples’ struggle for liberation through their own efforts as ‘folk politics’, would better be applied to their own liberal naivete about technocracy and their quaint faith in capitalist technology to solve our problems.

Doesn’t it make more sense to address both the twin crises of work and environment (in reality, they are one crisis) by returning to the ideas championed by the Lucas Aerospace workers and others? We need to look again at what people really need and how those things could be produced in a more labour-intensive way that builds people’s skills and our society’s resilience.  Breaking the Frame has produced a popular badge with the slogan, ‘Off your computers and onto the streets!’. Perhaps now is the time for a badge saying, ‘Off your computers and into the workshop!’ And this time we mean a real hands-on workshop that produces things we need, not a place where people sit around in a circle and talk.

As the Lucas workers acknowledged, no single group of workers can define social need: that requires a process of people’s democratic planning that they and others started to organise in the early 1980s, on a regional basis, and continued through the GLC technology networks projects, in which products were designed together with and sometimes by their intended users, e.g., disabled people.

Like much of the socialist movement from which it sprung, those initiatives have been swept away by information technology neoliberalism, or else incorporated in a tokenistic way in local and regional planning.  Coming from green politics, there are initiatives such as the Transition Towns movement, local energy cooperatives, Community Supported Agriculture schemes, etc. that are closer to the alternative technology movement of the 1970s.  But like the related hacker/maker movements, what they lack is a coherent social politics (beyond a vague libertarianism), which comes from being embedded within a social movement committed to the common good that the Lucas Plan represented.  They also lack the holistic approach to production and society that demands involvement of workers’ ideas and energy, as well as an awareness of the real politics of technology, rather than naïve liberal dogmas of techno-progressivism.


The crucial lesson of the Lucas Plan that has been largely forgotten by the more recent generation of the left is that the control of design of technology is a keystone of capitalist power. In order to really move beyond that, in order to really run the bakery, technology has to be designed to satisfy social needs, including the need for socially useful work. This means that both the technical know-how, and the critical understanding of the politics of technology that workers have, is essential to any efforts towards a post capitalist technological as well as social and economic world. The Lucas workers saw the issues of deskilling and the production of inappropriate products through a holistic socio-technical politics, and they insisted that the production of socially useful products is inseparable from a redesign of technology and the work process.

As Mike Cooley says, in his closing paragraph of ‘Architect or Bee’:

The alternatives are stark.  Either we will have a future in which human beings are reduced to a sort of bee-like behaviour, reacting to the systems and equipment specified for them, or we will have a future in which masses of people, conscious of their skills and abilities in both the political and technical sense, decide they are going to be the architects of a new form of technological development which will enhance human creativity and mean more freedom of choice and expression, rather than less[4].

The current crisis of industrial capitalism and political reactions to it, such as the Brexit vote, are very frightening to many people, and conventional politics seem incapable of facing it.  But it is also an opportunity for positive initiatives based on remembering and hope.  It is a chance to think again about how we run this bakery. Our conference in November will be a chance to continue that process together.

[1] Cooley, M, 2016 ‘Architect or Bee?’ p112 Spokesman, Nottingham.

[2] See eg. Webster, F and Robins, K 1986, ‘ Information Technology: A Luddite Analysis: Post-industrial Society or Capitalist Control? Ablex, London.

[3] See eg. http://www.ecomodernism.org/

[4] Cooley, M. op. cit. p 180.

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