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New Left Review I/40, November-December 1966


Ben Brewster

Reply to W. Thompson

Ben Brewster writes:

Willie Thompson correctly points out that Sartre’s concepts seem more immediately applicable, and more comprehensive when applied to parts of the world and historical periods where scarcity is radical and all-embracing. But to see seriality in advanced areas, situated as it is within deeply sedimented institutions, as the product of scarcities created within the system which is technologically capable of overcoming them, is to confuse technological theory with the forces of production. On the level of pure technological theory the Sahara Desert could be irrigated with spades, but it is extremely doubtful if the total world forces of production, the possible product of the world’s manpower, machines and institutions of production (social production), under any system of relations of production, precapitalist, capitalist or socialist, can meet the needs of the undernourished three quarters of the world. Capitalism only overproduces in relation to its possible market, not in relation to real needs. Nor can we rind an immediate solution in technological advance. Seen in real perspective, this means the application of new methods, discovered in their praxis by scientists and engineers, highly trained specialists in expensive establishments, to the means of production. This is done in a capitalist society both in relation to the social production conditions, the manpower available and its skills and customs, and to the relations of production, the profitability of innovation for the capitalist. Even the profit motive drives towards higher productivity, i.e. higher social productivity, but, of course, it misallocates innovation as far as needs are concerned. But irrespective of this problem of allocation, if technology is considered not as theory but as its application, as technologists who can adapt theory to practice, it is one of capitalism’s principal present-day scarcities (see Gorz’s ‘Capitalist Relations of Production and the Socially Necessary Labour Force’, Internation Socialist Journal, 10). But on the other hand, if we cannot find a panacea in technology, this does not imply that automated industry is necessarily ‘alienating’. Alienation, reification and fetishism are products of the exploitation relation between capitalist and worker, and of the scarcity behind this relation, not of the machines themselves.

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Ken Tarbuck, ‘On Richard Pryke's 'Labour and the City'’, NLR I/40: £3
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