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Machines and tools

Summary:
It’s International Workers Day, still celebrated as the May Day public holiday here in Queensland, at least when the Labor party is in office. So, it’s a good day for me to set out some tentative thoughts on work and its future. Via Matt McManus, I found this quote from Marx ‘Fragment on Machines”. The hand tool makes the worker independent — posits him as proprietor. Machinery — as fixed capital -posits him as dependent, posits him as appropriated Reading this, it struck me that, whereas mainframe computers were archetypal examples of impersonal and alienating machines, personal computers are, or can be, regarded as extensions of their users, that is, as tools. Employers have long struggled to exert control over office computers and the workers who use them, making

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It’s International Workers Day, still celebrated as the May Day public holiday here in Queensland, at least when the Labor party is in office. So, it’s a good day for me to set out some tentative thoughts on work and its future.

Via Matt McManus, I found this quote from Marx ‘Fragment on Machines”.

The hand tool makes the worker independent — posits him as proprietor. Machinery — as fixed capital -posits him as dependent, posits him as appropriated

Reading this, it struck me that, whereas mainframe computers were archetypal examples of impersonal and alienating machines, personal computers are, or can be, regarded as extensions of their users, that is, as tools. Employers have long struggled to exert control over office computers and the workers who use them, making them extensions of the machine that is corporate IT. But these efforts have always been resisted, and have broken down, to a large extent, with the shift to remote work. My intuition, following Marx, is that this development presages a bigger shift in the relationship between between workers and bosses.

As far as neoclassical economics in the strict sense is concerned, it makes no real difference whether workers work on machines owned by their employers or using their own tools. In the first case, the wage is a simple payment for labour, and all the surplus from the enterprise goes as capital income to the employer. In the second case, the workers’ wage will include a ‘rental price’ for the use of tools, along with the ordinary labour wage. All that matters is that each factor of production should earn its marginal product.

Economists, including those classed as ‘mainstream’, have long recognised that the simple neoclassical model is inadequate. Beginning with a classic paper by Chicago economist and Nobel award winner Ronald Coase, it has been recognised that if the neoclassical model was a complete description, there would be no reason for firms, with their internal command structures, to exist. There is no a huge literature on transactions costs, principal-agent relationships and other ways of understanding the relationship between workers and bosses.

But as far as I am aware, the machine-tool distinction hasn’t been addressed in this literature, at least not explicitly. For bosses, a central feature of the machine, exemplified by the Taylorist time-and-motion expert, is the capacity for detailed control over the work of those employed to tend it. With a skilled worker using their own tools, such detailed control isn’t possible. In simple forms of production, where output can be measured easily, control over work can be replaced with production quotas or piecework payments. But in with collective products and where quality is hard to measure, such straightforward methods of control are no longer feasible. Workers can demand, and receive, more autonomy and require more motivation than simple monetary rewards and penalties.

In the case of computers, bosses have done their best to fight back with various forms of spyware and remote control. But this has turned out to be costly and counterproductive. As far as I can tell, most of these attempt have been abandoned. Similarly, despite repeated ‘back to the office’ announcements, backed up by dire threats, working arrangement seem to have reached an equilibrium of 2-3 days a week as the median, with the weekend increasingly starting early on Friday afternoon, rather than at the traditional 5pm.

The direct effects of these changes are confined to those workers (around 50 per cent of the total) for whom computers are the central tool. But when these developments coincide with a period of low unemployment, and with the new opportunities for organization offered by an era of universal Internet access, there are signs of a broader shift in the balance of workplace power, including a resurgence in support for unions.

John Quiggin
He is an Australian economist, a Professor and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland, and a former member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government.

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