Public meeting – The politics of alternative technology and workers’ plans – Jan 2014 – report

The January Breaking the Frame café discussion focussed on ‘alternative’ approaches to technology development by green and left movements but, as Patrick Mulvaney, who is an advisor to Practical Action (formerly the Intermediate Technology Development Group; ITDG) pointed out, at least in his major area of interest, food and agriculture, in fact 70% of the world’s food is grown and consumed locally: it would be more appropriate to refer to that technology as ‘majority’, rather than alternative.

Patrick gave a basic introduction to the philosophy of intermediate or appropriate technology as developed by EF Schumacher in his famous book ‘Small is Beautiful’. Schumacher was very clear that technology is never ‘neutral’, every decision about the use of particular technologies is politically charged. Schumacher advocated the use of technologies that can be developed and controlled by their users, and contrasted that with the mega-technologies, epitomised by nuclear power, developed in the capitalist industrial system. Basic problems with such technologies include their enormous scale which leads to them dominating people, and the fact that the expertise involved in such technologies is far beyond the understanding of ordinary people. Although Schumacher’s experience as chief economist for the UK National Coal Board put him in the mainstream of the technocratic system, his experience in India, where he saw Western technologies being imposed on poor, rural communities, led him to a Gandhian philosophy, which prompted him to set up the ITDG. The idea of intermediate technology was to strike a compromise between basic subsistence technologies and Western high technology, in a way that could encourage economic development through the creation of many affordable workplaces. This could lead to a much more democratic and participatory form of development, which could be sustained, as opposed to the introduction of the latest Western technologies which could only be financed and managed by elites, thereby actually polarising wealth and destroying indigenous low technology industries.

Patrick gave a fascinating history of struggles within the ITDG to preserve Schumacher’s politicised philosophy in the face of the enthusiasm of scientists and engineers for the use of ‘less political,’ more technocratic approaches. Within two years from the founding of ITDG, the agricultural side of the organisation had been captured by agricultural engineers with their focus on making farming more efficient through mechanisation. The first thing that he was asked to do when he joined the organisation was to write a report on different methods of removing trees in order to clear fields! Before long, the group had become enmeshed in government strategies to ‘dump’ British technologies on the Third World. By the mid 1980s, a revolt had built up within ITDG, asserting that technology is not about widgets, but about knowledge and skills, and the group reverted to a more listening approach aimed at strengthening the resilience of people’s livelihoods. However, by the mid ‘90s, the pendulum had swung again to the technology-centred approach, consistent with the obsession with ‘innovation’. At the same time, biotechnology and its articulation within the industrial agricultural system and intellectual property regimes that grants corporations monopoly patent rights on seeds has shifted official approaches to development. In the present climate, the appropriate technology paradigm has been marginalised and increasingly new development NGOs are helping corporations to disseminate their products. However, the development of agro-ecological approaches and the growth of La Via Campesina, the international peasant movement provides grounds for continuing hope.

Suzanne Jeffery of Million Climate Jobs Campaign introduced herself as someone coming very firmly from the socialist tradition, who got involved in the trade union group of the Campaign Against Climate Change in order to try to overcome the political polarisation between greens and trade unionists. She argued that it was vital to overcome stereotypes of trade unionists as people who cared only about jobs and were not worried about the environment and of greens who supposedly care more about trees than people. The MCJC has tried to bridge this gap through its ‘worker’s plan’ for the creation of a million jobs in industries that reduce carbon emissions, eg through public versus private transport, home insulation and renewable energies. She also cited the resistance to fracking company iGas in Salford, a strongly working-class area, despite the company’s promise of jobs, as another example of how the divide can be overcome.

The MCJC and the attempted takeover by workers of the Vestas wind turbine factory in the Isle of Wight are recent examples of the tradition of workers’ plans, the most famous of which was the Lucas Plan of the 1970s and 80s. Lucas was an aerospace and defence company with a number of major plants around the UK. In response to threatened redundancies, the shop stewards’ Combine, which represented all the plants, asked workers for their ideas about ways in which the companies existing technology could be used for peaceful purposes and to address genuine needs. This resulted in over 150 ideas from the shop floor including kidney machines, a heat exchanger for use in operating theatres and alternative energy ideas such as wind turbines based upon the company’s expertise in aerodynamics. Many of these ideas were genuine innovations that were ahead of their time and have now been developed elsewhere.

Sadly, the Lucas Plan was never put into action, with management being unwilling to take risks with the company’s bottom line. As Suzanne noted, what this demonstrates is that good ideas are not enough – what is needed is actual control of productive capacity. This led her into broader considerations of the role of labour in the capitalist system and how it becomes just another commodity, which encourages a disengagement of workers with questions about what they are actually producing. She argued that what is needed is a system in which the primary focus is on the quality of work, and the creation of worthwhile jobs, in which production is aligned to genuine social needs rather than markets.

A Red-Green synthesis?
The talks set up a fascinating discussion about the big issues of how technology can be used for the goals of radical movements rather than to perpetuate the existing environmentally and socially disastrous purposes.

Both socialist and green approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. The Lucas plan was very valuable in turning industrial capacity to socially useful purposes, empowering workers and emphasising the importance of who controls technology, movements of the left have tended to lack a critique of industrialism and industrial technologies as such. This perspective has its roots in decisions taken by both Marxist and social democratic movements in the 19th century, which saw the industrial development of productive forces as an overall benefit to humanity and a progressive historical movement. At the beginning of the 21st century, it is abundantly clear that this approach needs revising. The industrial system’s voracious consumption of resources, destruction of the environment and use of fossil fuels leading to global warming, have shown that industrialism simply cannot be sustained; that does not necessarily mean a complete abandonment of industrial production. It is vital that the left takes on board the green critique of industrialism and rethinks its unquestioning allegiance to the industrial paradigm.

By contrast, as Patrick’s description of the history of ITDG showed, the green approach to technology has its own failings, which stem from its tendency to depoliticisation. The fundamental basis of green politics is a scientific critique of the industrial paradigm, which points out its neglect of ecological realities. It is a technical critique of a particular crude version of technocracy. But because greens often wish to avoid taking sides in the left/right debate, they often tend to ignore the ways in which technocracy is intertwined with capitalism. Greens often believe that if we can just get the technology right, clean, green technologies can save the world.

Whilst nobody would want to argue against the many excellent efforts of the alternative technology movement, its focus on technology can often make it just as technocratic, and as addicted to technofixes as the mainstream technological development system it criticises. An example of this is the much-lauded Zero Carbon Britain plan, produced by the Centre for Alternative Technology which proposes massive industrial wind farms off the west coast of Scotland and the conversion of large swathes of British agricultural land to biofuel rather than food production. Meanwhile, those elements of the green movement that are unashamed to embrace capitalist corporations, such as Forum for the Future, promote a purely technofix approach to sustainability, including, for example, growing meat in laboratory petri dishes in order to reduce the impact of cattle on the climate.  The Planet Under Pressure conference, held in London in 2012 exemplified the convergence of environmentalist and technocratic approaches, with scientists and corporate leaders discussing ‘Earth System Governance’ in the run-up to the Rio plus 20 intergovernmental conference.  Amongst the extreme technological approaches to climate change and biodiversity collapse were ‘synthetic biology’ (designing life from scratch) and geoengineering (the incredibly dangerous idea that we should try to engineer the planet’s climate.  The ‘green economy’, the plan for financial trading in ‘ecosystem services’ which has been widely criticised as just another scheme for banks and corporations to cash in by monetising the environment, is not just another example of neoliberalism – it is based upon a classic technocratic assumption, that it is possible to quantify such services and thereby balance loss of eg wetlands by planting forests.

Clearly, what is needed is some synthesis of the green and left approaches which embraces the strengths and avoids the weaknesses of both. In my view, that synthesis is Luddism, a movement based upon workers’ resistance to industrial destruction of their livelihoods, which focussed on opposing technology they felt was ‘hurtful to Commonality’. That Luddite critique is, in essence, the same as the Marxist critique of the commodification of labour under capitalism. As Suzanne pointed out, what happens as a result is that the worker becomes simply a resource of hands and brain and work loses any relationship either to the worker’s own healthy development through development of skills, or to the dignity that the worker gains as a producer of socially-useful products. What needs to be placed back at the centre of our thinking about work is the idea of social labour, which focuses on the quality of both work and the products produced.  Both of these must be seen in a broader social perspective, which must include the environmental soundness of  the product and the process of its production. An anti-technocratic approach to choice of technology must start from these social, political and human considerations, not from technical decisions about the most technically efficient way to do things.  This is precisely the kind of approach embodied by writers like Schumacher and Illich in their writings on both work and technology.

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