Revolutionary Change in America
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek –
And finding only the same old stupid plan
of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
O, yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me
And yet I swear this oath– America will be!
– Let America be America Again, Langston Hughes, 1936
(Editors’ Note: Originally published in 1994 this excerpt below from Revolutionary Change in America by Nelson Peery was farsighted regarding the formation of a new class of workers being created by qualitatively new technology, its stages of development and the political tasks this sets for revolutionaries.)
All of us sense or understand, in one way or another, that the accelerating development of electronics is the basis of the worldwide economic and social disorganization. Being human, we are so involved in grappling with the immediate problems of homelessness, unemployment, the rise of a new racism that only a few have studied, discussed and really understood the historic implications of our time.
The term “electronic” means different things to different people. To some, it means a qualitative improvement in their sound and entertainment systems. To others, it means a new quality in the process of producing our means of life. I would like, for the moment, to speak of electronics as a new quality that is emerging and forming the basis of not any particular aspect of life, but creating, or has the potential to create, a whole new form and quality of life.
When we speak of the electronic revolution, we are not talking about electricity. By electronics, we essentially mean processing knowledge with matter other than the brain. The electronic revolution should be compared to the discovery of fire. Fire was more than a means of production — it was the foundation for the quantitative separation of humans from animals. Everything that the following social and economic formations created was based on the discovery of fire. Steel and the steam engine, to name just two things basic to our civilization, are unthinkable without fire.
Electronics should be viewed the same way. Far from being simply a “Third Wave” in the production of social wealth, we are constructing the launching pad for humanity’s second great leap. The result will be humankind’s complete separation from the animal world and its restrictive, brutal systems of natural law. Unfettered by such restraints, humanity will begin the journey toward its full realization.
Between the dangerous jungle of our time and that wonderful future lies an epoch of struggle, destruction, revolution and change. This is the topic of our discussion.
Great social problems do not happen out of the context of a certain time. To understand a problem, we must understand the period of time in which it occurred. I do not think it is possible to understand a period of time by simply describing a series of events. Events are a chain with a key link which drags the entire chain forward. We must identify and concentrate our thinking on that key link. Or to put it another way, it is necessary to understand the crucial content of a time in order to understand the time.
The content of our time is the historic shift from production by electro-mechanics, that is production by human labor aided by electrically driven machinery, to production by robotics, or production by computer-controlled machinery with very little, or no human labor involved. This ongoing economic revolution shapes and determines the social destruction we see around us. It is bringing to the forefront a political struggle unknown to our country.
Beginnings of the New Class
With this in mind, let us dig beneath the form that this historic shift is taking — the millions of homeless, the tens of millions of jobless, the acres of burned-out neighborhoods, the slaughter of our youth, the “in your face” looting of the public treasury, the decline of health care and education and the elimination of social services. The important thing is to understand why this is happening and what the political results are bound to be.
Naturally, robotics entered industry at the lowest and simplest level. Its first victims were the unskilled and semiskilled workers. Part of the legacy of slavery was that a huge section of the African American work force remained tied to the land and especially employed in cotton culture after emancipation. Tractored off the land after the development of the cotton-picking machine, they were the last section of the rural population to join the industrial work force. Consequently, they were concentrated in that sector — the unskilled and semiskilled sector — that was first attacked by the robot.
The social oppression of the African American is the fulcrum for the political leverage of the economic elite of America. We are used to using this historic oppression as a context of understanding the economic and social motion of the country. Last hired and first fired has been the economic lot of the African American since Emancipation. Therefore, it was natural that the wholesale wiping out of African Americans from industry was understood as racism. It is one of the rare times when this analysis was wrong.
The effects of robotics on the white unskilled and semiskilled workers were not so easily seen. They are scattered throughout the general white population, especially in the suburbs. The African Americans were highly visible, being concentrated in a relatively small urban area. Also, the percentage of Black laborers among the African American population was higher than white laborers among the white population. Racism provided the form, but the content is the beginnings of a social revolution. The first expression of that revolution was the wrecking of the economy of working-class Black America. That revolution now is moving on to wreak its havoc against the formerly secure sections of the blue-collar, white-collar and lower management levels of the white workers.
The economists, their social vision distorted by racist ideology, were unable to understand the difference between the reserve army of unemployed created by industrial capitalism and the structural, permanent joblessness created by robotics. They only saw a growing mass of African Americans outside the labor market. They eagerly embraced the term “underclass.”
Those who coined the term “underclass” perhaps thought here again was a group unable to keep up, and once falling behind and supported by welfare, consciously accepted an existence outside the capitalist relations of worker and employer. It must have seemed that a subclass of Blacks, reliant on welfare, had lost the work ethic. Worse, that they were creating a subculture of immorality and criminality in the midst of a great national expansion of wealth and productivity.
A more concrete look will show something different. First, the new productive equipment has polarized wealth and poverty as never before. Absolute wealth in the form of 145 billionaires and absolute poverty in the form of some eight million homeless and absolutely destitute are new to our country. [Note: This figure has risen to 540 billionaires and millions still are homeless.] Secondly, the increase in production was accompanied by an increase in unemployment and joblessness.
Not an Underclass, but a New Class
The Black workers were hit first and hardest by both these aspects of the new economy. The Black bourgeoisie fled their traditional sections of the city as soon as the ink was dry on the laws allowing them to do so. A section of the African American workers also benefited from integration. Holding stable jobs, they too, moved from the inner city into much more stable neighborhoods. With the factories shutting down, the land around these factories quickly lost their value. Those who could flee did so. Taxes fell, maintenance dwindled and the combination of the American form of apartheid, plus the liquidation of jobs, created a new type of slum: the Black, permanently destitute, rotting inner core of the formerly central working-class area of the city. This was also accepted as simply the result of racist economic policies of capitalist industry, rather than the social expression of an economic revolution that was couched in the historic American form of racial discrimination.
Since that phrase “underclass” was coined, the process of social destruction has continued. We can see now that this new group of permanently unemployed is not the result of the welfare system, but of the new means of production.
The results are broader than the social problems caused by racism. It is acknowledged now that, in fact, the white so-called underclass is larger and growing faster than the Black. What we are dealing with is not an underclass, but a new class. A new class outside the constraints imposed by the worker-capitalist relationship is a mortal danger to the system.
Class Unity and the Building of a New World
Electronics as a new means of production is producing more than an irresolvable depression. It is creating a social revolution. By social revolution we mean the process of qualitatively new means of production disrupting the economic order. In turn, new classes are created that disrupt and disorganize the existing society. The new class (or classes) finally overthrow the ruling class and create a society in their own image.
The new class includes the throw-away workers — temporary laborers with no benefits, the part-time workers, the newly unemployed as well as the permanently unemployed. This class is rapidly gaining an elementary consciousness of itself and the world. This consciousness is couched in the concepts of rich and poor. It is elementary and shallow, but it is a different conception than white and Black.
It is already clear to the more advanced thinkers that as this society is destroyed, a new one must be built. The class struggle is the fight between the old and new classes over how, and in whose interest, the new society will be organized.
Unity of the new class of workers being created by electronics is the most urgent political question we face today. In America, this means confronting the legacy of slavery, white supremacy and racism that developed along with the development of capitalism. Today electronics is not only destroying the economy, but it is tearing apart America’s social fabric. New ideas are being brought into the process – there is the promise of a new world, in which humanity can be free at last – America will be!
January/February 2017. Vol27.Ed1
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011