Of Cakes and Bakeries: the Lucas Plan and the Politics of Technology

This is the first part of a two-part post on the Lucas plan. This part sets the scene for the Lucas Plan in the anti-technocracy movements and union struggles of the 1970s.

2016 is the 40th anniversary of the Lucas Plan, an opportunity to remember and celebrate the achievements of the Lucas workers, and think about the relevance of the Plan for current issues. But there is a danger of a selective kind of memory, commonly found in progressive radical movements, that I want to challenge: the tendency to ignore the politics of technology.

The Lucas Plan is mostly remembered as providing a convincing answer to the argument that arms production is necessary in order to create jobs; sometimes it is also celebrated as a brief flowering of what Wainwright and Elliott[i] call ‘a new trade unionism’, concerned not just with economic issues of wages, preserving jobs, etc., but with what is actually being produced and a broad socialist vision of socially useful production. But what is generally forgotten in this story is that the Lucas Plan was part of a larger struggle of workers in the late 60s and 70s, centred on the politics of industrial technology.

The phrase ‘politics of technology’ is, for most people, unfamiliar and puzzling, so I will try to unpack it. Firstly, who owns production technology is certainly critical in capitalism, and socialist movements have centred on this issue.  Industrial production technology is capital, the thing that steals the value that workers produce and generally dominates and alienates them. But this theft generally thought to be due to the economic system within which the technology is embedded, rather than anything to do with the technology itself. So, for many socialists, the crucial political struggle is to take ownership of industrial technology; then, they argue, it will serve the common good, with little need to change the technology itself.

In terms of socialist politics, there is a further dimension to the idea of a politics of technology, which was central to workers’ struggles of the 60s and 70s – the recognition that capitalism uses the design of technology to impose its will on workers and society at large.  In particular, industrial technology tends to reduce workers to nothing but cogs in the production process, and by deskilling their work, takes away their bargaining power vis-a-vis management.  In the 20th century, Frederick Taylor’s ‘Scientific Management’ system of organising industrial production radically exacerbated this, and this issue was a central element of the fight at Lucas Aerospace.

But these battles over the technological organisation of industrial production were also part of the 1970s transition from the Fordist-Keynesian regime that began after World War II to the neoliberal-information technology regime that we still inhabit. Lucas was, in fact, a critical alternative possibility to information technology-neoliberalism, and that is one reason why it is so important that we learn its full lesson today.

Taylorism and technocracy

The production line system that was developed by Henry Ford, and which dominated the 20th century, was based upon the ideas of Scientific Management, or Taylorism, developed by Frederick Taylor. Taylorism intensified one of the central processes of industrialism – the abstraction of workers’ skills and know-how and their embodiment in machinery and systems organisation. This allows the overall trend of capital intensification of production and the progressive elimination of labour.

Taylorism took the form of ‘time and motion studies’ in which experts minutely observed the movements of workers’ bodies in order to break tasks down, and create a system in which every second of the workers’ time was accounted for and ‘wasted time’ eliminated; machines were designed to do most of the work, and workers became machine minders, performing repetitive and mindless tasks, requiring little skill. As always, the declared aim was a supposedly apolitical ‘increased efficiency’, but these systems also serve to discipline workers and reduce companies’ reliance on their skills.

Obviously, Taylorism is partly an expression of the capitalist drive to control workers and maximise productivity.  However, another way of looking at it is to recognise that Western technology has its own its own inherent politics, its own built-in tendency to control and regiment people and nature.  This tendency is part of a philosophy of control that, although consistent with capitalism, springs from a different source, the philosophy of science and technology itself.

I have been calling this system of control, ‘technocracy‘. This word is often used to mean ‘rule by technical experts’, but that obvious visible phenomenon is legitimated by a deeper regime of control of nature and people through technology and systems of organisation, which began with the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century[ii].  The philosophers and scientists of that period developed an explicit philosophy of domination and control of nature through technology, which has been a central element of modernity. Although technocracy generally serves capitalism, it starts from a different set founding questions, about nature, and how to control and use it for human benefit. In his famous maxim, Francis Bacon, the key philosopher of technocracy, defined it succinctly: ‘Knowledge is Power’.

The (apparently apolitical) technocratic ideas, of efficiency, standardisation, rationalisation etc, shape the design of Western technologies. For scientists and engineers, as well as managers and bureaucrats, the ideal to be striven for is the optimally efficient, smoothly working machine and in modernity, the machine becomes a cultural icon of perfection.  Through technology and technological discourses, technocracy imposes organisation and order upon the randomness and messiness of nature, as well as upon human beings and society as a whole. The advance of this kind of order and of technological control over nature is defined in Western modernity as progress.  From about 1780 onwards, the primary manifestation of technocracy has been the industrial system of production.

Thus, for an engineer, it is obvious that industrial production systems should be designed to work as smoothly and efficiently as possible, and with the minimum possibility for being disrupted by workers’ mistakes. But this technocratic thinking also minimises the use of human skills, and creates a production process dominated by machine values rather than human values. Frederick Taylor expressed this simply: ‘In the past, the man was first. In the future, the system will be first.’

Technocracy serves and shapes capitalism, but has its own dynamic of development, and is independent of it: its authority rests upon science, Enlightenment rationality and the ideology of techno-progressivism.  Central to that authority, based upon the liberal dogma of the objectivity and value-free nature of science, is an insistence that its technical ‘solutions’ are ‘apolitical’.  Thus, they are the bread-and-butter of social democratic managerial governments, such as Tony Blair’s New Labour, and appeal equally to scientistic elements in Marxist socialism.  For example, Lenin wrote that:

Taylorism … like all capitalist progress, is a combination of the refined brutality of bourgeois exploitation, and a number of the greatest scientific achievements in the field of analysing mechanical motions during work, … the introduction of the best system of accounting and control etc. The Soviet Republic must at all costs adapt all that is valuable in the achievement of science and technology in this field[iii].

Technocracy and the 1960s revolt

Taylorism is an example of the way that technological changes which open the possibility for new technocratic systems of order, shape the form that capitalism takes. The Fordist system of mass production of standardised products that Taylorism created not only defined workers’ experiences in industrialised countries for the first three quarters of the 20th century; it also defined many aspects of society. Fordism is a general hierarchical regimented system of social organisation (as described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World), that produces bureaucracy, ‘depoliticised’ social administration by technocratic experts, as well as obligatory consumerism, the regimentation of time (the 9-to-5 job) and the general standardisation of life. By the 1960s this had become increasingly intolerable, especially to young people, who could see no prospect except mindless drudgery at work, a predigested culture and no freedom to express themselves.  It was the revolt against this that drove the anti-authoritarian and even anti-science counterculture movements of the 1960s[iv].

One thing that has been forgotten, due to the technological triumphalism caused by the success of information technologies, is the strong climate of anti-science sentiment in the 1960s and 70s, that was part of the 1960s revolt against Fordist technocracy. Radical movements, influenced by certain tendencies in anarchism, as well as by the critical theory of the Frankfurt School sociologists and Herbert Marcuse, identified science and technology not just as tools of capitalism, but as the source of the dehumanising machine-like mainstream culture. The Lucas Plan mentions the

‘much-publicised rejection by capable sixth formers of the places that are available for science and technology at British Universities. Science and technology is perceived by them to be dehumanised and even brutal and the source of a whole range of problems, not only for those who work in the industries themselves but also for society at large[v].’

While straightforward opposition to science is not helpful, it is understandable in the context of the technological horrors of the mid-20th-century: industrialised slaughter in the World Wars and Vietnam, industrialised murder in the Holocaust, impending nuclear destruction, the thalidomide disaster, environmental crisis, etc. The vast amount of work the Lucas workers put into the Alternative Plan was an effort to overcome the general scepticism about science and technology, to show that there really could be a genuine ‘science for the people’, as allied groups like the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science argued.

Trade union struggles over technology

The post-war period also marked a fresh wave of technologisation, driven by military research coming out of the war, as well as the demands of the Cold War: electronics, computers and cybernetics, nuclear power and weapons, the space race and rocket science. By the 1960s, Harold Wilson was speaking of the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’, which signified the beginning of globalisation and the shift of the basis of Western economies from heavy industrial manufacturing to high-technology and services. In industry, the creation of computer-controlled machine tools for metalworking across industries from aerospace to automobiles, chemicals, etc. produced a fresh wave of automation and intensification of Taylorist deskilling of work, as well as continual speedups, ‘rationalisation’ within firms and job losses caused directly by technology, referred to as ‘structural unemployment’. Dockers faced containerisation and all workers faced the centralisation of work process control by computers. Union leaders, fearing charges of ‘Luddism’, bowed to the gospel of technological progress, but shop floor workers and even white-collar staff were by no means so docile.  In a moment of pointed humour, directed against the influx of computer-controlled machinery, designers employed by a large Birmingham engineering company in 1973 put in a claim for ‘parity of environment’ with CAD equipment:

‘This claim is made in furtherance of a long-standing complaint concerning the heating and ventilation in the Design and Drawing Office Area going back to April 1972.… We believe that if electromechanical equipment can be considered to the point of giving it an air-conditioned environment for its efficient working, the human beings who may be interfaced with this equipment should receive the same consideration.[vi]

As the Lucas Plan’s Mike Cooley recounts, it took 3 industrial stoppages until the designers got something near what they wanted.

As David Noble describes in his book ‘Progress Without People[vii]’, by the late 1960s, within the general social climate of revolt, union leaders and social democratic politicians could no longer contain an explosion of workers’ discontent and grassroots-led trade union militancy. This took many forms, ranging from skyrocketing rates of absenteeism and labour turnover, slowdowns and shoddy work, and wildcat strikes and sabotage, across the industrialised west, including the USA.   In this period, workers no longer trusted union officials and took things into their own hands. In June 1970 the New York Times noted that ‘there is a challenge to management’s authority to run its plants’. The San Francisco longshoremen put out a leaflet during their strike of 1971, in which they said:

‘We, like many other workers, are faced with a technological revolution of new ‘labor saving’ devices and methods of operation. This is what our employer means by ‘progress’. But, if this ‘progress’ is left unchecked, it will simply mean that our employer will line up at the bank with ever bigger profits, while we line up at the unemployment and welfare office. … it is essential for labor to challenge the notion that the employer – in the name of ‘progress’ – can simply go ahead and slash his workforce or … close an entire port, and to do this without any regard for the people and community involved.[viii]

At General Motors’ most automated plant at Lordstown, there was a sustained campaign of sabotage, as workers realised that the strategy of automation, at least in the short-term, made companies vulnerable to disruption and wildcat strikes. In France, the problem of sabotage by workers and activist groups became so severe that the government felt it necessary to pass a new law against industrial sabotage.

In the 1970s the Australian trade union movement also staged a series of strikes over technology related issues, for example the 1977 telecommunication workers’ strike over the introduction of a new system: ‘Our members will not move over for a computer’, they declared. In 1979 the Australian Council of Trade Unions requested the international labour organisation to ‘consider placing a five year moratorium on all technological change.’ John Baker, the former general secretary of one of Australia’s post-telecommunications unions observed:

‘A little bit of creative Luddism might not be amiss until we sort things out. … like John Brown’s Body, that spectre, that special understanding of the Luddite Martyrs marches on, coming back to haunt the heirs of those who transported them in irons to the shores of Botany Bay.

In 1982, strikers in Australia began distributing stickers that read: ‘SMASH THIS MACHINE’.  And in 1975, print workers at the Washington Post, facing the same straightforward elimination of their jobs by new technology that the workers at Rupert Murdoch’s papers in London faced a decade later, went one further, staging a classic Luddite predawn raid on the new machinery, systematically disabling all 72 units of the Posts presses. Like the original Luddites, militant workers in the 1970s were not against technology, but they knew the difference between a machine that they controlled and a machine that controlled them.

Noble cites many more examples of trade union struggles around technology in European countries. Amazing as these might seem from the perspective of 2016, they were only one aspect of a deeper shift in the left, its overcoming of dogmas of progress through technology, and a focusing of its concern on the politics of technology.  There was a flowering of ‘labour process theory’, focusing on the way that new technology and automation was designed to de-skill, discipline and ultimately eliminate the labour grit in the industrial machine, such as Harry Braverman’s Classic ‘Labour and Monopoly Capital’, and later by the writings of the Lucas Aerospace Combine Committee’s leading theorist, Mike Cooley.  In ‘Architect or Bee?’, Cooley looks at the deskilling of the work of product designers through Computer-Aided Design software, as an example of how deskilling affects intellectual as well as physical labour.  The US International Association of Machinists developed a ‘Technology Bill of Rights‘, which states that ‘Uses of technology that violate the rights of workers and society will be opposed’.

In response to the upsurge in militancy focusing on technology and the work process, corporations and the state developed a variety of strategies to contain and defuse it.  In the USA and Europe, many companies created ‘job enrichment’ schemes, and workers consultation and ‘participation’ schemes aiming to moderate deskilling and authoritarian management, and a new academic discipline arose, analysing work technologies and attempting to humanise the workplace and advise trade unions.  In social democratic countries, there were often formalised ‘technology agreements’ between unions and management, governing how technology was to be introduced, and even the placement of worker representatives on the boards of companies.

The Lucas Aerospace workers dismissed such initiatives as ineffective in protecting jobs: the Plan was a hard-nosed exercise in workers’ power: ‘There cannot be industrial democracy until there is a real shift in power to the workers themselves[ix].’ Although the Plan was never implemented, as they continue to insist, it was an effective weapon in preventing job losses at Lucas Aerospace.  Noble also emphasises that in practice many of these attempts to humanise the work process were of little help, unless backed by the use of workers power, and were used by unions and management to block workers’ demands for a veto power on new technologies.  Overall, they were effective in dissipating the energies of rebellious workers.

In the second part of this post, which will be uploaded next week I look at the significance of technology politics in the Lucas Plan and the wider historical significance of these issues in relation to our current situation.


[i] Wainwright, H. and Elliott, D. 1982 ‘The Lucas Plan: a new trade unionism in the making?’ Allison and Busby, London.

[ii] See, e.g. Merchant, C. 1980 ‘The Death of Nature’ Wildwood H ouse, London.

[iii] Lenin, V.I. 1918 ‘The immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government’, in Collected Works, Vol. 27, Moscow, 1965

[iv] Robins, K. and Webster, F. 1999 ‘Times of the Technoculture’ Routledge, London.

[v] Lucas Aerospace Shop Steward Combine Committee (LASSCC), 1976, Corporate Plan, p8.

[vi] Cooley, M, 2016 ‘Architect or Bee?’ p112 Spokesman, London.

[vii] Noble, D.A. 1995 ‘Progress Without People’ Between The Lines, Toronto.

[viii] Noble, D.A. op. cit., p27.

[ix] LASSCC op. cit., p9

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