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randwolf

The end of industrialism?

These were written for the comments section of economist J. Bradford Delong's excellent blog. I have slightly edited them for grammar, but they are otherwise unchanged. On reviewing these, it seems to me that the transformation of production from industrial to an as-yet-unnamed model is the story, rather than what is usually called politics.

"'Socialism,' on the other hand, is dead".

But industrial capitalism seems to be dying, too. It seems to me that much of the reason for industrial capitalism in the first place--the need for huge accumulations in small areas of the tools of production, operated by huge numbers of people working in a highly formalized order--is now a thing of the past. The core of modern production in the USA and Europe, increasingly, is the property of state monopolies (roads), state-regulated monopolies (utilities), or large businesses that are very nearly states themselves (GM, Sony, IBM.) As if this were not enough, the major large-scale technical achievement of recent years--the internet--is the largely the work of a collective consisting of several state-funded research cooperatives and a great many not-particularly well-organized smaller groups. The internet, it appears, is an achievement of socialism by any honest construction of the word.

Blink.

I am astonished to have written that last sentence.

Is it plausible to expect that, barring global war or global environmental disaster, this transformation of the system of production will continue, until the whole system is governed by collectives, large and small? Is such a thing even possible? How does one analyze an economy where many transactions are not monetary? What are the forms of power in such an economy?
Posted by Randolph Fritz at July 7, 2003 12:20 PM

Anne, I'm not sure that manufacturing jobs are the story any more. They became critical in a time when manufacturing required (1) easy access to a source of energy, like a river, (2) easy access to a transportation network (canals), (3) a large capital-intensive manufacturing plant, and (4) a large concentrated workforce to operate the plants.

Time went by, and (1) energy became increasingly easy to move, first as oil and then as electricity, (2) transportation networks became first regulated and then state-sponsored public services. So built infrastructure replaced geographic. Now we have information technology and (3) manufacturing is becoming increasingly small and generalized; what 19th-century technology did for energy and transportation, making it decentralized and general-purpose, 20th-century technology is bidding to do for capital. And with plants smaller, and more general in their capabilities (at the extreme, advances in material science might do away entirely with the need—that is a goal of nanotechnology), what is the need for (4) a large concentrated workforce? Manufacturing would, I expect, become increasingly local, and I am at a loss to predict the form of an economy so transformed.

For the moment, the old engine of industrialization is working away in the third world. But the end, I think, is in sight. And what comes after?
Posted by: Randolph Fritz on August 18, 2003 01:33 PM

Nanotech will, if it is even half of what is hoped for, obsolete industrial capitalism. It will do so by, for many purposes, obsoleting the need for large, expensive, fixed machinery--industrial capital property--and the vast armies of workers needed to operate such machinery. So nanotechnology will bring us to one of those times of which Marx wrote when the social order of production, and the legal order of property that reflects it, will be overturned. The question comes up what the crucial form of property will be--the one which would order a nanotechnological mode of production. I think the answer is information and ideas in physical forms, material, especially biomass, and, as always, energy. The people who own such things--may be groups rather than individuals. It is likely that nanotech will make solar energy relatively easy to gather and use for (slow) production--it will become easy to cover large areas with devices which gather the energy, or perhaps even use biomass directly.

"It is then safe to assume that even when (and if) the nanotech revolution strikes, much of the world will be lagging behind." Not so—because there is no requirement for extensive capital property, the revolution can spring up anywhere, indeed is more likely to spring up in the third world, which is not already committed to industrial production.—December 5, 2003

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