Technical Expertise and Communist Production
In 1976, the shop stewards at the British Lucas Aerospace Corporation published a document that would come to be known as “The Lucas Plan.” The company was planning to lay off a significant number of workers as part of a restructuring effort. Faced with the prospect of losing their livelihood, many of these workers banded together to propose an alternative: that the British government should intervene to prevent layoffs so that the workers could redeploy the productive assets of the company towards socially useful ends rather than military contracting. They identified approximately 150 products that they could produce instead of military aircraft. These include medical equipment, transport systems, and development of alternative energy sources.1 The workers, understanding the potential of their industrial expertise and the harmful nature of militarism, proposed an alternative use of their technical know-how for common good. Sure, they did not go as far as proposing the end of commodity production, but there is a nugget of communist logic inherent to their proposal. The idea that the technical abilities of humanity can (and should) be deployed towards the creation of goods that are useful for human wellbeing above all else is at the very core of a communist productive logic.
The history of all hitherto existing productive activity is, among many other things, a history of the fusion between human knowledge and practice. The continuity of any society relies on the continuity of the productive activity that makes such a society possible. Distributed throughout the world’s workforce is a colossal amount of useful knowledge and experience that keeps capitalist production chugging along. This vast body of knowledge contains the practical know-how for not only our present capitalist society, but the establishment of a new society where the production and distribution of goods is rationally planned for the maximization of human wellbeing. This new productive process can only prioritize the general welfare of the human species through the active participation and cooperation of individuals holding all types of relevant expertise, knowledge, and relationships to the productive process itself. Such a society is called communism. This essay will focus specifically on the role of industrial productive expertise in the building of a communist society. Modern commodity production, the lifeblood of global capital, requires a staggering amount of scientific and technical knowledge to operate. This ranges from the most abstract theoretical models of our physical world all the way down to the first-hand skills developed through intimate hands-on labor. This is the expertise that not only undergirds capitalist commodity production, but would serve as the basis for the construction of a communist productive system.
This distributed intelligence represents a latent potential of the human species to leverage our skills towards our own mutual enrichment rather than our current state of enthrallment to the alien machine of capital. If communists, who are currently just a scant few neurons in the global proletarian brain, desire to break the spell and liberate the species from this alien totality, we must have a map of what this brain is made of and what it can do. We must have an understanding of how the productive knowledge and skills of the productive workforce are distributed, and how this can be leveraged towards not only the dismantling of capitalism but also the construction of communism.
For a communist revolution to be successful, it will immediately have to pose a fundamental challenge to the very logic of capital accumulation. Arresting capitalist production alone is not enough, as a revolution incapable of posing an alternative mode of producing and distributing goods will quickly die off as people cannot satisfy their basic needs, let alone live a better life than they experienced under capitalism. The backbone of worker power is the knowledge and expertise required to keep the productive gears of society moving. To seize the means of production requires that the seizing be done by those who understand and use these means. It is critical not to simply halt capitalist production, but to use the productive knowledge to build a communist society. The criticality of the productive knowledge is not that communist production will be the same as capitalist production but with red flags, but rather that the creative restructuring of capitalist means of production can only be performed by those who currently work with such means. The transition from capitalism to communism is not one of simply replacing political control of production, but fundamentally reorienting production for human ends. This will require the transformation of the production process for many items ranging from food to energy, vehicles, electronics, clothes, medicine, buildings, infrastructure and so many more into new processes that are healthier (socially, environmentally, etc.), more equitable, and participatory than they ever could be under a society ruled by the profit motive.
A speculative tale of revolution
Let’s suspend the notion of rigor momentarily and instead do some freeform speculation on future events: it is sometime roughly in the 2030s or 40s, and capital’s crisis of profitability is more acute than ever. A global buildup of fixed capital results in a vast overproduction of commodities that cannot be absorbed by consumer markets. This is not a new story, but rather a rerun of an episode of capitalism we have seen before. What may be novel to this situation however is the extent to which global consumer and labor markets have been tapped out,2 and the extent to which “externalities” like climate change, war, pandemics, and refugee migrations exacerbate the (superficially) fiscal crises gripping the world. For the overwhelming majority of the planet, quality of life has severely dropped. The idea that goods can and should be produced for the sake of direct need fulfillment3 rather than profit not only makes sense in the face of capitalism’s total failure to provide a good quality of life, but has also been taken up by a significant number of people as an active political program. These people, all of different ages, professions, and lived experiences who actively organize towards this end may call themselves communists, anarchists, socialists, or something else entirely.
The populace of a particular coastal city has high rates of underemployment. Wages have been acutely stagnant in the face of large hikes in consumer goods prices. The police, ever militarized to secure the state’s grip on the continuity of bourgeois society, kills a single mother and her infant child in a botched drug raid. This is the third time this month this type of situation occurs in this city. Thousands take to the streets in protest. Several government buildings are torched. A significant contingent of protesters blockades the city’s shipping port. Thousands more pour into the streets, and hundreds of thousands more do the same in other cities, this spark setting aflame the dry tinder of bleak conditions. Police deploy increasingly violent suppression measures, but this only exacerbates the shared feeling of anger past the point that the soft counterinsurgency of NGO and electoral cooptation can do anything about.
In our unnamed city, the dock workers at the blockaded shipping port enthusiastically join the protests. Their paychecks have been delayed for over a month anyways. The dock workers form some sort of group decision-making apparatus. The first thing they do is to withhold their labor. Nothing is loaded on or off the ships or trucks. The circulation of commodities at this node of global distribution is completely paralyzed. At this point, the clock starts ticking. Go big or go home.
Now what? The dockworker’s possess a number of buildings and small vehicles. They likely have control of equipment for ship repair, including a machine shop. The shipping containers, wrested from global circulation, are cracked open and loads of food, industrial materials, and consumer goods are found within. The commodities and means of production held by these port workers are momentarily suspended from their capitalist functions. Maybe barricades can be built and food from the containers consumed. Even with sympathetic donations from outside, though, communism must spread or die. If this port is situated in or near an industrial zone, as many ports are, then more possibilities open up. But in general, it is what can be done with these possessions that constitute the power these workers have. What can be done with them depends on the knowledge and expertise held by these workers.
Where does technical knowledge come from?
The short answer: mostly from doing things. The long answer is a bit more complicated. The advent of European industrial capital several centuries ago brought along with it a need for the capitalist class to systematize their efforts to wring more profits out of their enterprises. The application of science and rationalization to the commodity production process engendered a massive revolution in the productive capacity of early capitalist society. Every innovation in the industrial sphere involves an innovation in scientific, engineering, and practical knowledge among the workers involved.
The development of productive knowledge, be it abstract and scientific or concrete and practical, is a lopsided affair. Certain strata of the technical workforce benefit from technical innovation far more than others.4 Profit, the core of capitalist logic, incentivizes a technical division of labor where the work of a large amount of workers is simplified and augmented with machines while expertise and decision-making is concentrated in a minority of high-status workers and managers.
This stratification of technical knowledge is nuanced, however. It is not axiomatic nor absolute, but rather a tendency contingent upon a variety of situationally specific factors. This stratification is driven primarily by the technical composition of the productive enterprise in question, which itself is structured around what type of commodities are produced there and what the business model of the company is. The two key elements that determine knowledge stratification are the diversity of parts produced, and volume of parts produced.
In manufacturing terminology, high mix low volume refers to the fabrication or processing of relatively low volumes of a large diversity of different outputs. This is in contrast to low mix high volume operations that output high volumes of a small variety of outputs. Operations such as quick-turn machine shops, 3D printer farms, electromechanical assembly houses, and engineering test facilities are examples of a high mix low volume operation as they frequently produce or process many qualitatively different goods in relatively low magnitudes, and are configured specifically for that diversity. Much of the time they are contract manufacturers who will take on jobs to manufacture goods for another company; however, plenty of larger companies with their own product lines may have a low mix high volume production facility for prototyping or even for full production if the required volumes are low enough.
Low mix high volume operations, by contrast, are specialized for producing large quantities of very specific outputs and cannot pivot to producing or processing something else without re-tooling.5 Picture an assembly line configured to produce huge quantities6 of a specific microchip, disposable medical component, ball bearing, screw, textile, packaged food item, metal ingot, formed plastic component, or any other item yielded from a production process that significantly benefits from economies of scale. High mix low volume and low mix high volume are two ends of a spectrum, and examples of both styles of production can sometimes even be found in a single facility. Individual production lines will usually resemble one more than the other however. Both styles are critical to global industrial capacity. Much of the tooling (custom machines, fixtures, dies, facilities, etc.) required to create low mix high volume manufacturing lines are produced in high mix low volume operations. Simultaneously, much of the raw material and equipment required for high mix low volume operations is produced by specialized low mix high volume operations. Any decently sized manufacturing/industrial zone in a given city is likely to have plenty of instances of both.
High mix low volume
Worksites that fabricate or process in a high mix low volume fashion are more likely to have a reduced level of knowledge stratification compared to enterprises performing low mix high volume work. To be clear, a stratification will certainly exist; however, the technical necessities inherent to high mix low volume production incentivize a work environment where “low-level” workers (machine operators, assembly technicians, shop assistants, etc.) not only have the opportunity to develop their technical expertise, but will likely be encouraged to by their managers as it is useful to shop floor operations. Meanwhile, “high-level” technical employees (engineers, specialized technicians, functional managers/supervisors, scientists, etc.) in these companies work more closely with the “low-level” employees and are likely to pick up practical knowledge they may not otherwise have been exposed to at a company with a stricter division of labor.
High mix low volume worksites have a reduced stratification of technical knowledge because there is a reduced opportunity for traditional rationalization of technical labor. Highly automated production lines and armies of workers performing repetitive tasks are only a viable business strategy when massive quantities of identical items are being produced (low mix high volume). Where low mix high volume approaches make sense for mass-manufactured goods, it is less sensible for operations that must produce large varieties of different items (high mix low volume). In contrast to high mix low volume, mass manufacturing requires huge sums of fixed capital in the form of dedicated custom tooling. These fixed investments pay themselves off by being optimized for the production of one particular part or closely-related family of parts that get manufactured (and, most importantly, sold) in huge quantities. All of this dedicated tooling can only be used to produce the specific commodities it was designed for. To produce different commodities with the same machines would require a lot of (expensive) time, labor, and materials for re-tooling. For the high mix low volume operation, by contrast, such huge investments per job make no sense as the outlay of fixed capital would never be recouped. Smaller quantities of each part type being sold means single-purpose tooling is not an effective investment. This does not mean that such companies do not make large investments in machinery. Instead they purchase machinery capable of being easily configured or programmed into creating a huge diversity of products rather than being optimized for one particular product design. This frequent reconfiguration and customization of productive equipment requires a significant level of skill and expertise from the machine users.
To understand what this high mix low volume operation looks like, let us first picture the opposite case: a low mix high volume contract manufacturer hired to fabricate millions of a particular bracket. To fabricate this bracket, they would likely start with a custom stamping die in the shape of the flattened bracket. The die is repeatedly cycled up and down into sheet stock to create cutouts that are the desired shape. The stamped cutout is then fed (likely by conveyor belt) to a press where it is automatically aligned to an automated press and another die is lowered into the metal, bending it to the desired shape. The now-bent parts are robotically placed on an anvil to have thread inserts pressed into them by an automated system. If the client wanted a significantly lower volume of this bracket, just thousands instead of millions, this larger fabricator would likely no-bid the job or demand an absurdly high price to justify the capital outlay for tooling. A smaller fabricator who specializes in high mix low volume production would instead fabricate it with similar methods but using very different types of machines requiring very different types of work to operate. Rather than a cyclical stamping of the sheet stock, they would likely use a programmable stamping machine with a turreted array of small, diverse dies that, together, can be combined to cut the desired, pre-programmed, composite shape. Alternatively, the sheet may simply be loaded into a high powered laser cutter or waterjet cutter where the outlines of the flattened bracket are cut one by one in succession. From there, they will be carried (likely on a cart or pallet jack) to the forming station where robotic presses are pre-programmed to adjust the position of their backstop in a certain sequence so an operator can quickly make all the bends in the part. The now-bent parts are taken to a pneumatic press where the appropriate thread inserts (possibly hopper or magazine fed) are pressed into each hole by an operator.
At the conclusion of both the high and low volume processes, functionally identical brackets are yielded, but the role of the engineers and operators strongly differs in each use case. In the high volume situation, a large amount of knowledge and labor time is needed initially to create the manufacturing line itself. Engineers need to design all the custom equipment, have it fabricated by experienced machinists/technicians, and validate both the accuracy and repeatability of each step in the process. This requires the leveraging of scientific knowledge and technical experience built up over time by many individuals. However once the line is in place and running, the role of engineers is reduced, and the tasks that were not automated are assigned to operators who must perform very tedious work such as transporting parts back and forth across the factory or performing a repeated visual inspection before pressing some button. Even supervisory functions like quality control can be partially automated through machine vision and in-process go/no-go filters. The low volume application, however, requires much less engineering time to set up. Rather than creating large amounts of single-purpose tooling, the existing machines are simply set up to run the specific job. Depending on the nature of the machine, this involves programming a routine for the part run, and setting up some generic tools and fixtures for the machine.7 The setup technician must understand the complexities of the run and the best way to configure the tools, fixtures, and the machine itself to minimize errors and maximize throughput. The operators still experience a simplification of their work, but the more variable nature of the high mix low volume work environment means they must develop the skills to run the machine properly for many different types of parts. Being confronted with a diversity of different machine configurations and seeing first-hand the results they produce, the high mix low volume operator develops an intuitive understanding of what works well and what does not. The operator gains knowledge that complements that of the technicians and engineers, rather than performing mundane tasks at their behest. In smaller shops some of these roles may be combined, such as the operator also performing machine programming and machine maintenance. Operators and technicians whose labor is more rationalized still develop expertise that is critical to the shop. Likewise, the manufacturing and process engineers who enact this rationalization must learn from low-level operators in order to design processes that make proper use of these practical skills.
The earlier example of a sheet metal fabrication facility is simply used to highlight a dynamic present across a large variety of high mix low volume worksites. An auto repair shop experiences a large variety of work (many different types of cars, many different types of problems that need repair) that necessitates specialized technical knowledge learned hands-on. A company that sells one-off custom unmanned subsea-exploration robots will have not only knowledgeable scientists and engineers, but also capable technicians and operators that can fabricate the custom components and join them into intricate subassemblies, which must then be integrated by technicians and engineers working jointly. A product development consultancy may have a prototyping facility on-site where the product design engineers have a detailed understanding of the shop’s capabilities, and the shop technicians are skilled at crafting prototypes that are useful for the engineers. This dynamic can even be found in other economic sectors such as food service. Cooks in an upscale restaurant or bartenders at a fancy cocktail bar must possess a breadth of knowledge and ability that are simply not required of a line cook at a megachain fast food restaurant.8 No matter the work environment, a higher diversity in work tasks corresponds to a higher amount of knowledge and expertise. Production workers in high mix low volume sites are more likely to have well-rounded technical expertise that would be particularly useful for a communist restructuring of society.
Low mix high volume
In contrast to high mix low volume, low mix high volume operations have a more intense stratification of expertise. Mass production requires strong centralized control over the process in order to keep costs down. Repeatability and standardization is critical. Relying on the combined expertise of a large amount of skilled laborers is prohibitively expensive, as it is a cost that scales with the number of units produced. Instead, fixed capital in the form of equipment affords a large number of lower-skilled laborers the ability to churn out consistent parts using machines and processes developed by a small group of highly skilled engineers and technicians.
Where a machine operator in a small shop might be incentivized to pick up skills and knowledge, a machine operator on a huge factory line will often have those opportunities foreclosed to them. Any process that requires some sort of judgment from an operator carries the risk of introducing variability into the process. Variability can cause parts to be out of spec, which is bad for business. Manufacturing and process engineers do their best to eliminate the need for operator judgment to the point where any further rationalization would incur a greater cost than the expected savings. The work that is left for the operator to do, if it has not been automated entirely, is often absurdly boring. In environments like this, operators are structurally excluded from many opportunities to develop the kind of deep and diverse expertise that “low-level” employees at a high mix low volume company get to learn.
Attitudes vary among operators whose decision-making is stripped away. For some, the ability to perform something the machines are incapable of is a source of pride and a sense of importance. Historically much labor struggle has been fought over this dynamic. For other operators, further automation is often welcomed. In environments that are already highly automated, tasks requiring human judgment and skill are often no less tedious than the tasks that require near-brainless repetitive action. Sure, it may take some skill to precisely align a workpiece by hand or to manually target placement fiducials with a camera, but doing this hundreds of times per day is extremely draining. Tedious work that does not require focus is often preferable, as it frees up the brain for chatting with neighboring workers or listening to a podcast, especially if the pay is already low. Workers in these types of roles are plenty capable of developing useful skills and knowledge, but this is at perpetual odds with the logic of capital accumulation which will tend to concentrate mass production knowledge among an elite minority of engineers and upper-echelon technicians.
Many communist thinkers of the last century held the view that the rationalization of work and concentration of expertise was preparing the industrial proletariat for post-capitalist social organization. Lenin, for instance, argued that post-capitalist society could take Taylorism9 to an extreme where the efficiency gains are maximized for the sake of society as a whole rather than for individual business units.10 This idea assumes that the material content of communist production will be the same as under capitalism, only its management will be different. It is no surprise that counterrevolution-from-within in the USSR took the form of a quota-driven industrialization process that sought to further the brutal expansion of a rationalized proletarian population.
High mix high volume, low mix low volume?
Production environments that can be described as high mix high volume are often a connected series of smaller environments that are themselves better described as either high mix low volume, or low mix high volume. Picture a large car factory or a big contract semiconductor fabrication plant or a high volume plastics molding facility. In these there is a large variety of parts being produced, yet also a high enough volume of individual parts to require big investments in fixed automation and work rationalization. Some particular roles in the factory will spend many hours repeating the same simple tasks over and over. Operators may be shuffled between different work stations as the need arises, but will still have their work subject to varying levels of simplification. The extent to which this simplification is enacted is tied to how high the volume of work is for that work station. These same factories, given the high mix of parts to process, will also have lots of technicians and engineers performing complicated and expertise-driven work of developing and maintaining processes, enforcing quality control, integrating systems together, validating product functionality, and many other expertise-oriented tasks. For these large facilities, even the privileged minority that rationalizes the work of the overwhelming majority of workers will itself have its own division of labor that results in gradations of labor simplification and consolidation among an even smaller minority. The larger the organization, the more incentive there is for this dynamic. In essence, this is a microcosm of how knowledge stratification in commodity production works throughout the global economy.
It is not uncommon for high mix low volume operations to receive a massive order from a client that necessitates the creation of a dedicated low mix high volume production line just for that order, as the expected volume justifies (and necessitates) investment in dedicated tooling. In this situation, the shop will use its in-house expertise to develop and maintain this line. Depending on the extent of the automation and amount of labor required to actually operate the new line, it will either be attended to by an existing employee or by entirely new workers (possibly under temporary contracts) hired to perform the repetitive and low-skill labor required.
Low mix low volume operations are rare, and only really describe some owner-run businesses operated out of a garage or very small family businesses that are highly specialized. In the modern world these are not significant players in global manufacturing capacity, but the individuals who operate them generally have an appreciable amount of technical expertise. These people are generally petty capitalists.
Interrupting the flow of capital involves the identification of chokepoints. There are many such weak points in the sphere of commodity circulation11, a phenomenon that has already been explored in detail.12 In the productive sphere where goods are actually produced, however, chokepoints are synonymous with factory size and specialization. The larger an industrial facility is, and the more specialized it is (low mix high volume), the more likely it is to be a chokepoint. This is especially true if the factory produces goods that are inputs for a large variety of other industrial processes around the globe. An industrial chemical plant or chip manufacturer is more likely to be a chokepoint than a similarly sized sex toy manufacturing facility, due to the criticality of these outputs to many other industries. The fewer competitors it has, the more vulnerable the global economy is to business interruptions at this facility. Any attempt to end capitalism will need to be able to put a halt to production and circulation such that they can only be restarted on new terms. Halting the productive process does not require the creative deployment of skill by workers in those industries, but it does require their participation.
Simultaneously, as the profit logic of capital is interrupted, a new communal productive logic must be established to take its place. While the interruption of capitalist production can be most effectively enacted in low mix high volume facilities, it is high mix low volume shops that would play an outsized role in the building of a communist productive system. Particularly in the early period of a revolution, demand for a variety of goods will fluctuate wildly depending on the geographic boundaries (and productive facilities) under working-class control. Low mix high volume facilities are very specialized, and cannot easily be reconfigured to produce goods other than what they were built up for. If there is a sufficient demand for these items, and the necessary inputs can be obtained, then this is hardly a problem. It is likely, however, that a nascent communist society will need smaller amounts of a wide diversity of products, and that specialized facilities to make these products will be very limited in number. High mix low volume shops are much better equipped to handle this sort of situation very much by design. The expertise of the workers at these facilities would be instrumental in producing the high variety of parts needed in appropriate volumes. Given the shattering of the profit motive, it does not matter if a particular worker-controlled circuit board manufacturer, for instance, is not the most efficient (from a capitalist standpoint) at pumping out high volumes of boards. What matters is that it can make a couple dozen of one board today, a couple hundred of a different board tomorrow, and several thousand of a different board the day after that, all without needing to totally re-engineer huge amounts of tooling each time. The decisions about what circuit boards (or any other goods) are needed and the best way to leverage equipment and resources towards meeting these needs hinge on the creative and technical expertise of the workers at these facilities.
There are some exceptions to the primacy of low mix high volume applications for revolutionary productive strategy, as some commodities will always be needed in high quantities. Some obvious examples are food, water, and energy. Given the amount of time it takes crops to grow, a nascent communist society could not survive even if a million community gardens were planted on Day One of the revolution. A serious interruption in critical energy and water infrastructure would also spell doom. Farms, water-treatment facilities, and power plants can be roughly considered low mix high volume operations that would require continuity in their productive operations but for the sake of keeping society running rather than turning a profit.
To simultaneously sever capitalism’s arteries and pump blood into our own, communism as a movement will require the participatory expertise of technical workers across all levels of the knowledge stratification. The industrial research scientist and the machine operator, and everyone in between, have important roles to play in tearing down the society that separates us from our human capacities while also building up a new society that allows us to live to our full potential.
Let us continue speculating
If we return to our hypothetical blockaded shipping port, we can begin to see how these arrangements of industrial expertise become relevant. The productive facilities within a couple kilometers of this port are, per the good business sense of their owners, situated such that they can easily receive raw materials and other inputs arriving at the port, as it is just a short truck drive away. These facilities, now cut off from receiving material due to the blockade, are effectively severed from the supply chain as soon as their stock runs out, which may happen quickly.13 Many of these workers are furloughed or laid off as business continuity is interrupted. At a handful of these facilities, the workers decide to occupy the shop floor. Maybe these workers have dockworker friends blockading the port. Maybe these facilities have enough activists among their rank and file who are organized enough to coordinate the takeover. Maybe it is a spontaneous bout of revolutionary solidarity. For the sake of our story, let’s say the occupied facilities include an aerospace machine shop, a foundry, and a specialized semiconductor chip manufacturing plant.
At the port itself, the massive crowd of protestors keeps the police at bay. The port becomes a symbolic rallying point faster than it does a tactical one. The blockade signifies that the protestors and dock workers do have some kind of power, even if that power is to simply throw a wrench into the gears of the status quo. But soon that power attains a productive element as well.
As the days drag on, the police begin resorting to increasingly violent measures. Workers at a hydroponic farm14 sympathetic to the protestors organize a food drive and send delivery vans full of food and water. One of the vans is riddled with bullets by the police. The driver is killed. Police allege she was transporting explosives to be used by the protestors. This does not hold up as footage of the van’s actual contents spreads across social media. This brings even more people out into the street, but also gives the workers of the machine shop an idea. The dockworkers have access to all the digital shipping manifests and know the contents of all the containers stuck at the port. Someone at the shipping port creates a database with all the various commodities at the port, which includes a lot of steel. The machinist proposes that several trucks loaded with steel stock be sent to the foundry where it can be melted down and cast into armor plating for the trucks, which is fixed into place by the machine shop’s welders. The trucks, painted with iconography and slogans popular with the growing protest, smash through one of the police lines to retrieve supplies from one of the many groups willing to donate material goods useful for keeping the blockade active, which has turned just as much into a site of communal gathering as into the front line against the police.
The machine shop continues to craft useful items. Empty shipping containers are welded together to form more structures and barricades. Workers at a 3D printing farm and a circuit board manufacturer, both located a few kilometers from the port, team up with the machine shop to build some mesh network devices. These devices, deployed across the blockade by IT workers from a nearby computer server farm, restore communications after the police shut down the cell towers.15 A warehouse is retrofitted into a small industrial kitchen with kitchenware looted from the shipping containers. A furnace is modified into a large oven with food-grade stainless steel sheet, and the makeshift kitchen is staffed by protestors. Over several weeks, the blockade expands to encompass not just the industrial zone but a sizeable portion of the city, including neighborhoods, retail centers, and office parks. The police are unequipped to fight on this many fronts at once. As the territory under worker control expands, more and more is expropriated and reconfigured to meet the needs not just of active militants, but of the general populace.
The specialized semiconductor manufacturing plant occupied at the onset, a factory mostly configured to produce in a low mix high volume fashion, is empty and unused. This is in contrast to the machine shop, foundry, and 3D printer farm, which contain equipment and expertise suited to high mix low volume production. The occupation of the semiconductor plant initially served a useful role: denying the factory’s output to a large number of manufacturers downstream in the supply chain across the world. The economic ripple effects were not insignificant. The utility of the plant to directly producing useful goods for the revolution, however, is virtually nonexistent. Even if the semiconductor factory had all the various inputs needed to produce the chips it is configured for, these chips by themselves do not have much utility to the immediate needs of the nascent revolutionary territory. The chips are hyper-specific to products that are simply not needed and cannot be manufactured in large quantities anyways at this early stage. A couple machines that would be useful for one of the circuit board fab shops (a high mix low volume production operation) are relocated as such, and much of the clean-room equipment is sent to be used at the occupied hospital. The rest of the factory lies lifeless, the executive offices defaced during the initial occupation.
It is not that a nascent communist society will not have a need for high-tech industrial products, but that it has no need for this particular one at high quantity. With the machines delivered to the circuit fab shop, all manner of electronics can be assembled, including microelectronics comparable to those that come out of this factory. The fact that the technicians and engineers at the circuit fab shop cannot do it as profitably as the large plant can is irrelevant now that profit is not the driving factor behind production. Unmediated necessity now is. Engineers and technicians from the semiconductor plant assist the circuit fab shop workers with integrating and using the machines they donated. While the plant workers have expertise developed in a low mix high volume environment, the context of revolution requires them to redeploy that expertise in a high mix low volume environment to meet the turbulently shifting needs of the growing communist territory. There is a significant primacy to the revolutionary power of high mix low volume operations at the start of a revolutionary transformation of capitalist production into communist production. The turbulence of a revolutionary setting shares some similarities to the turbulence of modern business demand and the flexibility (and labor expertise) required thereof. Opportunities for the reintroduction of larger scale manufacturing will materialize as time goes on and communist society is more established. As it is reintroduced, efficiencies of scale and a wholistic participatory deployment of automation will push humanity closer to an existence free of drudgery than capitalism ever could.
As weeks turn into months, the impetus behind the production of goods for the immediate satisfaction of needs shifts as the territory grows. These immediate needs become less about the tumultuous spread of revolution and increasingly become about the reproduction of the new society. The productive processes themselves begin to undergo changes. Machines are reorganized geographically. Non-specialized machinery used for high mix low volume manufacturing is sent to the areas that need it, along with appropriate training. A flattening of disparity between different regions’ industrial capacities is enacted to decrease the vulnerability of any particular locale to supply disruptions. Working conditions for industrial workplaces is drastically improved such that the (now much shorter) shifts are a fun social activity as much as a necessary productive process. Access to the means of social reproduction, no longer mediated by money or the lack thereof, become accessible to all. The guarantee of survival frees many people to perform labor that is rationally useful for society rather than work that is only rational from the capitalist point of view. At the same time, the amount of labor time required of individuals drastically drops with the elimination of a significant number of superfluous jobs that were only useful to capitalism—police, lawyers, insurance workers. It will be crucial in the first months to institute technical training programs for all manner of skills, so that the burden of reproducing society does not fall upon a minority of expertise holders. The initial austerity engendered by the collapse of the capitalist status quo will be remediated by the continual growth and improvement of the productive apparatus and the immediate elimination of a significant chunk of work—weapons manufacture, financial services, for example—hardly needed to keep society running.
As months turn into years and a significant portion of the planet (if not its entirety) is enveloped, the assertion of communist society becomes less of an active project by militants and more of a self-sustaining system. Industrial productive processes are drastically transformed. Certain types of high mix low volume productive capacity become much more generalized alongside the skills required to perform them so that local demands can easily be met. Generic items consistently needed in vast quantities (simple hardware, microelectronic components, precursor chemicals, raw materials) have their production centralized in a smaller number of highly specialized facilities (very low mix very high volume) that are maximally automated to reduce required simple labor down to a bare minimum. With the largest difficulties overcome, the full force of human technical knowledge, now increasingly generalized across the population, can be deployed towards more existential ends.
Global problems such as climate change, ecological disaster, infectious disease, and poor nutrition can be tackled at their root cause rather than being swept under the rug by capitalists. Big-picture science and low-level productive know-how are both of critical importance to solving these large-scale issues. Such efforts would be impossible without the participation of all manner of people with all manner of expertise. Reinventing existing processes (or inventing new ones) for the production of food, energy, infrastructure, transportation, medicine, resource extraction, communications, and countless other aspects of human society is impossible without the cooperative leveraging of technical knowledge across disciplines. Growing sustainable food is just as much the domain of the agronomist as it is the farmer as it is the fruit picker. Equitable and effective healthcare requires cooperation between doctors, biologists, nurses, lab technicians, and patients. Sustainable energy strategy necessitates input from not only scientists and engineers but also plant technicians and miners, not to mention individuals living near extraction sites or energy facilities. Effective solutions are just as likely to originate at the bottom of the knowledge stratification as from the top of it once the profit barrier to innovation is abolished. In time, a communist society would see a serious flattening of the expertise hierarchy, as the separation of knowledge and practice is no longer maintained by the capitalist division of labor.
Proletarian composition and revolutionary participation
Some important aspects of an imaginable transformation of the social reproduction systeem have not yet been discussed here. The first is the relationship between the industrial working class, among whom productive expertise is distributed, and the rest of the proletariat. The second is the organizational aspect of communist revolution.
The working class in capitalism can be thought of as being composed of two main categories: productive workers and unproductive workers. Classifying individuals into either of these categories is not always straightforward;16 however, the key distinction is their role in the generation and circulation of surplus value. Productive laborers, through their work, imbue a commodity with concrete utility and with a sale value. Unproductive laborers perform work that facilitates the circulation of money as produced goods are sold and contracts to produce them become objects of speculation, but do not add to the value of those goods. The workers staffing social bureaucracies similarly produce no surplus value, but must be paid out of the surplus created in production. As the production systems becomes mechanized, it reduces the amount of productive labor needed, while increasing the amount of administration required to manage increasingly complicated and technical business operations. The proportion of unproductive to productive labor has significantly increased in highly industrialized countries.
This has a massive implication for any potential contemporary communist movement. The last time communist movements had any serious traction, the composition of the global proletariat was significantly different than it is today. In Western Europe and North America, the ratio of employees performing productive to unproductive labor was much higher than it is now. In Russia and East Asia, the industrial working class was significantly outnumbered by a peasantry that had not been fully absorbed into the capitalist center of gravity. Industrial businesses, not nearly as sophisticated as today, required much more manual labor and significantly less administrative labor. Capitalism did not have nearly the global reach or penetration it does today.
Today, there are very few people untouched by capitalism. Wage labor is the defining social structure for the majority of the human populace. An even larger number of people are dependent on capitalist consumer goods markets to meet their needs. Significant numbers of people have been rendered surplus to the needs of productive capital and are either unemployed/underemployed or work in superfluous jobs buoyed by state subsidy or simple bureaucratic inefficiency. In most regions, the industrial worker (i.e. the productive laborer) is no longer the de-facto cultural flag-bearer for the working class. In some regions they simply never were in the first place. Even China’s workforce, famous for its criticality to global industrial manufacturing, is on the same path of deindustrialization of its proletariat.17
Modern communism faces a distinct challenge: the building of a new global society inextricably depends on the technical expertise distributed across a minority of the global workforce. To the extent that the industrial worker served as the strategic center or aspirational beacon of historical communist movements, such a movement today will likely not find the same purchase given the historical recomposition of the working class and the extensive proletarianization of the global population. The specific experience of the industrial worker, as having a direct hand in building the material basis of our society, is not generalizable across the working class, for most of whom the technical production of goods is a mysterious black box. Even if such a technical-productive ethos were generalizable, the myth of industry as the fuel of social progress has begun to show cracks. The infallible forward march of technological and social “progress” becomes harder to believe in as fossil-fuel-powered global industry threatens to end civilization and billions of human lives with it. Even the supposedly fun stuff sucks. Space travel is only useful for the military and for billionaires to show off. “Innovations” like cryptocurrencies, most social media, and “Web3” are just ways to hustle money or data out of us. Even shiny consumer gadgets only grow in price as build quality drops and planned obsolescence renders them quickly useless.
Who is to hold the strategic center of a global communist movement? On what mass basis will communism constitute itself? It is important to remember that technical productive expertise is only one part of the equation (but an indispensable one). The distribution of produced goods around the world, largely ignored in this essay, would require a creative restructuring that draws from the modern expertise of the truck driver as much as the materials acquisition coordinator. The administration of production, freed from the burden of financial strategy or fiduciary duty, will involve drastic transformation by the unproductive laborers who currently perform it. The reproduction of human life itself by healthcare professionals, educators, food service workers, and parents stands to potentially undergo more transformation than any other aspect of human society.
Only time can tell us how exactly a movement for the abolition of capitalism will reconstitute itself and what parts these different portions of the proletariat will play. What is clear is that the proportional growth of workers shuttled into unproductive labor and/or the surplus population has limited the power of worker opposition to capitalism,18 as the global wave of popular struggles this century has continually butted up against the limits inherent to rioting and occupying squares without simultaneously extending this struggle into the productive realm of capitalism. Productive and unproductive workers share the general proletarian condition of declining wages, increases to cost of living, and frustration over standard workplace woes. The structural reasons for the shift in class composition hardly preclude the engagement of productive workers in creating a new society. If anything, they make it a bigger priority than ever before. Workers must become capable not only of disrupting capitalist production but of building something new out of it.
- Lucas Aerospace Combine Shop Steward Committee, “Corporate Plan”, 1976
- Phil Neel’s forthcoming piece in International Labor and Working Class History is instructive here.
- There are many ways to describe the material content of communist production. One should imagine communism as the expansion of the horizon of rationality from the narrow purview of profit towards, instead, social organization as a whole.
- See my article “The Present and Future of Engineers,” published in the October 2021 edition of Field Notes. For a long form exploration, read Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century by Harry Braverman (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974).
- Tooling here means fixed capital that is designed for a specific purpose and cannot be readily used to produce something completely different.
- How much qualifies as a “huge quantity” of a commodity depends on the commodity in question. For some items it may be hundreds per year, for others it may be millions per year.
- The advent of programmable machines is itself an example of the stratification of technical expertise, as the technical knowledge of preparing the machine is concentrated in a small number of technicians rather than distributed across the machine operators themselves. See David F. Noble’s book Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984).
- As with manufacturing, highly rationalized labor still takes skill and ability. Fast food kitchens, with pre-portioned ingredients, custom single-use equipment, engineered recipes, and real time cost metrics for managers much more closely resemble a low mix high volume assembly line than they do a high mix low volume operation restaurant.
- Taylorism is the name given to a system of thought attributed to Frederick Winslow Taylor, a prominent industrial engineer, that advocates for the simplification of factory work using division of labor and machinery in order to boost labor productivity and decrease necessary labor skill. This has had the effect of generally lowering worker pay, autonomy, and working conditions. This is the intellectual basis underpinning most scientific management paradigms such as JIT, Lean, and Six Sigma.
- V.I. Lenin, The Taylor System - Mankind’s Enslavement by the Machine. Retrieved online from Marxists Internet Archive.
- See “Empire Logistics” (https://www.empirelogistics.org).
- See Jasper Bernes’ essay “Logistics, Counterlogistics, and the Communist Prospect” in Endnotes 3, 2013.
- Time will tell if JIT will survive as a capitalist ideology or if it will deteriorate alongside supply chains that are increasingly vulnerable to “external” shocks like pandemics, climate disasters, civil unrest, etc.
- Let us imagine that hydroponic farms of the future have significantly higher output and throughput compared to today.
- I have no idea what telecommunications and network infrastructure will look like in the coming decades, but let us assume it is not too different than today and that this type of action makes sense for this context.
- See chapter 6 of Jason Smith, Smart Machines and Service Work (London: Reaktion, 2020).
- Chuang, Measuring the Profitability of Chinese Industry: Data Brief. https://chuangcn.org/2020/06/measuring-profitability/
- See No Way Forward, No Way Back (Chuang 1, 2016) and The Holding Pattern (Endnotes 3, 2013).