Capitalism and Technology Essay

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Technological change is seen to be a natural evolution within the scope of capitalism. A capitalist society depends on competitiveness to drive innovation, and increase market share as well as profits. Producers desire to gain an important edge over other firms working within their industry, this competitiveness, therefore, drives mechanization and the increased use of technology. According to Marx, it is this technology that will eventually lead to the downfall of capitalism due to the crisis-prone capitalist system. Ultimately, the rise of profit will fall as the foundations of capitalism are undermined. With the growth of intellectual property and the popularity of 3D Printing, technology represents a great challenge to capitalism, creating a threat to its hegemonic characteristic.

As defined by the government (n.d.), intellectual property is something an individual creates using their ideas, mind, and thoughts. Usually, it is something that can be shared and distributed for free, however, due to capitalist structures, there is a desire for the formal ownership of intellectual property. This usually means placing a limit on the information and what people can do with it. This can include formalities such as trademarks, registered designs, or patents. Without privatizing this information, it is possible to erode property rights and in return, destroy the relationship between wages, work, and profit. The ability for information and intellectual property to reproduce in the form of 'copy and paste' erodes profit (Mason. P, 2015), representing a serious challenge to capitalism. The expansion of technology and technological progress can come at the expense of jobs, shaping the labor market, and posing a threat to the sustainability of capitalism. Marx's idea of alienation, where he argued; that the bourgeoisie exploited the proletariats, to get surplus value to compete with other industrialists, such as through the division of labor, specializing workers through monotonous tasks. Workers then lose the ability to see themselves as the director of their actions and become estranged through the lack of ownership (Drosos, 1996). However, through the presence of technological change, freedom of creativity through Peer Production (PP), creates a threat to capitalism.

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Two of the most groundbreaking revolutions in PP were the creation of the General Public License (GPL) in 1984 and secondly, in 1991, a system from which people could voluntarily cooperate on knowledge started via the Linux Kernel. These were the origins of Peer Production and open software, which represented a challenge to capitalism through the freedom of sharing information and intellectual property (Rigi, 2013). Firstly the GPL license allowed for property rights to be all-inclusive, leading to the inability of capitalism to extract rent from knowledge, posing a challenge to its core idea of the ownership of the means of production and their ability to make a profit. Secondly, the invention of the Linux Kernel, allowed volunteers to participate and cooperate freely on the development of software. This extent of cooperation was on a global scale, with the distribution of labor, rather than the division of it. Despite the efficiency of specialization, as set out by Adam Smith in 1776 with the example of a pin factory, the distribution of labor with the Linux Kernel was much bigger and a deterritorialized system, making it a threat to capitalism. Thirdly, the threat of digital technology to produce material objects means that capitalism is greatly under pressure. The previous examples were challenges to capitalism via the internet or online, however, through the process of 3D printing and the aid of algorithms using Computer-Aided Design (CAD), the printer's nozzle can produce and create objects that are required from it. Despite it being a relatively new technological advance, they are becoming more and more affordable, making it equitable in households with the cheapest printers priced between $200-$500 (Flynt, 2021). With the ability to access open source programming via Peer Production, it would allow individuals to download designs from the internet, apply them to the printer, and fit them to their own needs, all without the requirement for retooling, undermining the need for a market. In addition, with the ability to install and purchase these printers and machines within factories, many roles of workers would be abolished and mechanized, losing labor value across the world. Lastly, capitalism can further be threatened through the promise of basic income; where all adult citizens are given a set amount of money from the government at regular intervals. As technological progress increases productivity, it also threatens people's jobs and livelihoods, due to mechanization. Therefore, as aforementioned, the ability to have a deterritorialized creative outlet via PP and also to live off of basic income would create 'flex secure workers' meaning that people would be able to pursue activities that would be more rewarding, leading to happier, leisurely lives, (Lucarelli and Fumagalli, 2008). This threatens capitalism as it means that a lack of employment income would still allow people to have a fallback safety net, able to sustain themselves in the absence of high wages, and unlikely to be employed in full-time work.

However, it can also be argued that due to the capitalist hegemony of society, any advances in technology, or intellectual property, will be tailored towards, or made for capitalistic purposes. Therefore the extent to which it poses a challenge depends on the ability for capitalism to stay dominant. In addition, despite the freedom of cooperation, many people who work on or contribute to peer production for free, do however have their source of income through wage labor. This is due to the impracticability of surviving without income in a capitalist society. Secondly, it is also difficult for technology to pose a threat to capitalism when certain communities are excluded from access to information. Estimates by the International Telecommunications Union state that approx 51% of the population was able to have access to the internet and get online in 2018 (ITU News, 2018), however the other half of the population, especially in the Global South, are unable to access this growth of new information, leaving a digital divide. This means that the presence of capitalism is not globally threatened. Lastly, despite the development of 3D Printing, the machine is still an item that needs to be built, meaning there will still be a demand for materials and infrastructure. Resources will still be needed to build these machines, contending the argument of the abolishment of labor and the market. Another interesting idea of the hegemony of capitalism comes from David Graeber in his book 'Bullshit Jobs: The Rise of Pointless Work, and What We Can Do About It' (2018), he outlines the idea that people work in jobs that are 'pointless' despite knowing so, with 40% believing that their job shouldn't exist (Graeber, 2018, 11). This articulates the idea that, despite the growth of technology, people still decide to participate in capitalistic jobs, despite knowing that it is somewhat meaningless. This therefore casts a shadow of doubt on the argument of people leaving the labour market willingly and surviving merely on basic income and other PP creative outlets. Despite basic income providing people with a safety net, it is still important that people receive income to support their daily lives. The extent and amount of basic income may not be enough to do so therefore, instead of reaching levels of unemployment, capitalism may still thrive under 'cognitive capitalism' (Lucarelli and Fumagalli, 2008), capitalism that depends on knowledge and ideas, stabilized by basic income.

To conclude, for technology to become undoubtedly a threat and therefore represent a challenge, it needs to grow beyond its immaterial nature and be able to, not just produce information, but also physical goods and services (which we are starting to see with 3D printing). It is also possible that technology could provide an important gateway for transformation, with the ability to follow Marx's idea of an eventual revolution. Sharing information via the internet such as the best practices of transformative strategies allows a greater likelihood that the ideas of revolution and change will spread, especially more likely to prevail if it is in alliance with other social movements that are anti-systematic. Due to the hegemonic behavior of capitalism, without these extra pushes, it is unlikely that the growth of technology will completely take over, however, it does pose a great challenge to it.

References:

    1. Drosos, D., 1996. ADAM SMITH AND KARL MARX: ALIENATION IN MARKET SOCIETY. History of Economic Ideas, [online] 4(1), pp.325-351.

 

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