Managers not to blame for capitalism

The main thing I am taking away from In the Age of the Smart Machine is Zuboff’s effort to view technology as a possible way to save capitalism from itself and resolve the tension between capital and labor. If only information technology was used correctly, managers would share authority and all workers would become well-respected knowledge workers who are not alienated but enhanced and fulfilled by their working life. Authority would never again be a matter of exploiting anyone but instead would become a way of collectively negotiating the best way to seize the “innovative” possibilities that ubiquitous data about work processes make possible.

Zuboff never ceases to be amazed that managers would make the apparently petty decisions to use technology to spy on workers and shift blame and protect their prerogatives and power rather than to seize opportunities to “informate” the workplace and develop the skills of blue-collar “operators.” She likens the belief in managerial authority to a spiritual faith, a sort of false consciousness holding back cooperation and the general intellect. “The informating process sets knowledge and authority on a collision course,” she claims, but what that means in practice is that middle managers are getting proletarianized, having their managerial leverage eroded by automation.

As long as organizational members are unwilling to critically examine their faith in this system, individuals at every level will remain like weeds in the wind, able to do only as much as their roles prescribe, seeking the psychological equivalent of the graveyard shift in order to test one’s wings, only to be pulled back daily by the requirements of the faith.

Capitalism is premised on those prescribed roles. They are not a flaw in the system but its essence. Capitalism is a way of organizing production precisely so that individuals become “reeds in the wind” without sufficient agency to redirect the system toward a goal other than profit (like, say, empowering or enriching the lives of all workers and not merely the managing elite or property owners). They are brought to be dependent on the system and generally have incentive only to protect their own interests. The system invests them in the existing hierarchy and precludes alternatives. It’s not a failure of the individual imagination that such alternatives don’t appear to workers and managers; it’s a failure to organize, a failure to believe in a collective imagination worth fighting for. The alternative is to embrace class struggle.

Without a capacity to imagine an alternative, it is likely that our work organizations will continue to reproduce relationships that impede a powerful understanding of the economic and social potential of new technology.

Yes, that is capitalism’s purpose — to reproduce its necessary relations, which are ones in which managers (representing capital) maximally exploit workers. Workers must organize resistance to this; they can’t count on technology to resolve the struggle with better data and managers’ sudden beneficent desire to communicate better. If communication is “improved” by management, it is in service of extending exploitive opportunities and subsuming more of workers’ capacities to capital, to the production of surplus value. The “powerful understanding” of technology’s potential involves undoing capitalism, so it’s useless to expect capitalist managers to recognize it and nurture it. The extent to which they see it, they will thwart it in their institutional capacity. They have to operate outside or against the firm to nurture it.

Technology is neutral, but authority is necessary to exploitation, which is necessary to maximizing profit and justifying patently unfair distribution of the surplus. Technology, that is, doesn’t automatically solve exploitive relations in capitalism but merely exacerbates them, moves then to a higher and deeper level, absent the sort of deliberate politics to prevent such deepening. Politics solves capitalism’s inhumanity, not technology.

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