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The Factory under Capitalism and Socialism

The Factory under Capitalism

The BBC recently showed Rahul Jain’s documentary film THE FACTORY (2017). The film is a moving account of working class wage slavery and class exploitation in a textile factory in India’s Gujart region. In the factory workers spend 12-hour shifts earning the equivalent of $3 a day.

The film has no voice over, no text inserts and no musical score. The film concentrates on the working of machinery, the production process of manufacturing textiles and workers carrying out often dangerous and degrading work, like stirring vats of toxic chemicals with no protection and no concern by employers for their health and safety. To use a phrase of Marx, these workers are just an “appendage to the machine” (CAPITAL VOL. 1).

The film’s depiction of the productive process of making textiles as commodities is juxtaposed with the passive reflection of the workers, their inability to even form trade unions, and their reluctance to dissent and to question the circumstances under which they work. One worker even believed he was not being exploited, although his poor level of understanding of a scientific account of exploitation is held by most workers throughout the world. The politics of the film is in its silent questioning of the passivity of the workers and their apparent resignation to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Worried about victimisation from the bosses they may have had very good reasons to be cautious about what they said. Like all workers their condition is due to not owning the means of production and distribution; to being employed and having no control over how they work and for whom.

Yet in all this apparent hopelessness the film makes a case for activism and politics. Workers do not have to remain passive cogs in the machine; they can organise, they can question and they can take part in changing history in a revolutionary way. The film’s aesthetic shows beauty out of ugliness, dignity from degradation and solidarity out of exploitation. Art may not change the world but it shows why present society should and must be changed. Art can or should be political, or it is not nothing at Sarah Lowndes’s recently argued in her collection of essays, All Art is Political making reference to George Orwell’s insistence that ‘In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’.

The textile factory in India should also be contrasted with trends in modern factory production to be found elsewhere in the world.

Apple’s main iPhone assembler Foxconn, for example, located in China, announced recently that it has deployed 40,000 robots on its production lines, and is working towards a goal of fully-automated factories. At the present it employs over a million workers. Foxconn has already replaced more than half its workforce with robots since the launch of the iPhone 6, and the company is setting a three phase plan for full automation. It should be remembered Foxconn’s notorious and appalling treatment of its migrant labour workforce with its long hours, bullying and suicides.

In an article in the magazine 9to5Mac, Ben Lovejoy wrote of Foxconn’s plans:

Phase one,..., is to replace individual worker positions with automated work stations, starting with the most dangerous and unpleasant jobs. Phase two is to automate entire production lines... The company’s vision is to have entire factories – not just production lines – operate fully automatically. In the third phase, entire factories will be automated with only a minimal number of workers assigned for production, logistics, testing and inspection processes.

“Creative destruction” the economist Joseph Schumpeter called it. The creative use by employers in the use of new technology and the destruction of the lives of workers who find themselves displaced and thrown into the industrial reserve army of the unemployed

What of Marx and the Factory?

Marx wrote CAPITAL when most factories reflected the conditions of the textile factory in India, not the soon-to-be automated factories of Foxconn. Marx wrote of the factory system where:

...within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness of labour are brought about at the cost of the individual labourer; all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital”(CAPITAL VOL. 1, ch.25, The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation, Penguin 1990, p.799).

Marx’s remarks still hold true. Female and child labour are exploited in the Marxian sense of the word throughout the world just as men are. The International Labour Organization reports that Worldwide 218 million children between 5 and 17 years old are in employment with about 73 million working in hazardous conditions.

As of 2013, 49.1 per cent of the world's working women were in vulnerable employment, often unprotected by labour legislation,

It is mostly women and girls who work in the garment industry which employs 25 million workers in over 100 countries. The reality of this industry is that many individual producers in work long hours under strenuous conditions for pennies on the dollar, far less than need to live on – working what Marx called “in a crippled state”. Garment factories in Bangladesh, for example, are often dangerous places with of, building collapse and fires, where fire exit doors were barred and women workers were burnt alive.

According to the World of Labour, an on-line magazine:

A major concern among garment workers are long working hours and forced overtime. Employees normally have to work between 10 to 12 hours, sometimes 16 to 18 hours a day. When a factory faces order deadlines, working hours get longer. Chinese workers were frequently working a seven-day week in peak seasons and sometimes they sit working non-stop for 13 to 14 hours a day. They sew until their arms feel sore and stiff. In Thailand garment employees sometimes have to work a day shift and a night shift. Overtime is usually obligatory and if workers cannot work the additional hours they face penalties, verbal abuse and dismissals.

Women and children are still under “the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital”.

Workers remain appendages to the machine even if they are working in production logistics, testing and inspecting processes and maintenance of the robots. The exploitation of the working class still takes place at every stage, from the mining of the mining of minerals to actually selling the commodities at store outlets. All workers are exploited under capitalism no matter what they do.

And employment under capitalism is still “hated toil” and a denial of the potential of human creativity and self-realisation. Machinery still dominates the worker as it is used for the sole purpose of commodity production and exchange for profit not as a means to free workers from toil or to meet the needs of all society.

William Morris and the Factory

What of William Morris, again like Marx, writing of a factory system found in India, China and Vietnam?

In 1884 William Morris gave a lecture, A FACTORY AS IT MIGHT BE (17th May 1884), on the conditions of a factory in socialism. He wrote:

Our factory then, is in a pleasant place: no very difficult matter, when as I have said before it is no longer necessary to gather people into able sweltering hordes for profit's sake: for all the country is in itself pleasant or is capable of being made pleasant with very little pains and forethought. Next, our factory stands amidst gardens as beautiful (climate apart) as those of Alcinous, since there is no need of stinting it of ground, profit rents being a thing of the past and the labour on such gardens is like enough to be purely voluntary, as it is not easy to see the day when 75 out every 100 people will not take delight in the pleasantest and most innocent of all occupations; and our working people will assuredly want open air relaxation from their factory work. Even now, as I am told, the Nottingham factory hands could give many a hint to professional gardeners in spite of all the drawbacks of a great manufacturing town. One's imagination is inclined fairly to run riot over the picture of beauty and pleasure offered by the thought of skilful co-operative gardening for beauty's sake, which beauty would by no means exclude the raising of useful produce for the sake of livelihood.

This brings us on to the question of work in socialism

In socialism – the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society - the factories and industries would be used to benefit all men and women. In socialism agricultural production would yield an abundance of products to feed the world’s population using advanced technology but with due care to the impact on the environment.

The factories, mines and mills could be safe and efficient, producing high quality goods to meet human needs. The destructive and anti-social force of the profit-motive will have been removed. Natural resources would be intelligently conserved. Production in socialism will be as different today as the Feudal Guild was to the factory in capitalism.

Morris, though, believed that machinery might only be needed in the early days of socialism. In a lecture HOW WE LIVE AND HOW WE MIGHT LIVE, he wrote:

I believe indeed that a state of social order would probably lead at first to a great development of machinery for really useful purposes, because people will still be anxious about getting through the work necessary to holding society together; but that after a while they will find that there is not so much work to do as they expected, and that then they will have leisure to reconsider the whole subject; and if it seems to them that a certain industry would be carried on more pleasantly as regards the worker, and more effectually as regards the goods, by using hand-work rather than machinery, they will certainly get rid of their machinery, because it will be possible for them to do so. It isn't possible now; we are not at liberty to do so; we are slaves to the monsters which we have created. And I have a kind of hope that the very elaboration of machinery in a society whose purpose is not the multiplication of labour, as it now is, but the carrying on of a pleasant life, as it would be under social order—that the elaboration of machinery, I say, will lead to the simplification of life, and so once more to the limitation of machinery.

(A lecture delivered to the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist Democratic Federation (S.D.F.) at Kelmscott House, on November 30th, 1884. It was first printed in Commonweal, 1887.)

Morris might be wrong in his view that a socialist society will eventually return to hand-work rather than machines. Socialist society might decide to keep using machinery and develop robotics and artificial intelligence to produce beautifully designed and useful things. Machinery might be able to construct building systems to rival the handicraft production of the old Feudal Guilds which Morris and others like Ruskin and Pugin looked back on with such romantic attachment. The Bauhaus in Germany, during the 1920s and 1930s, showed that through the unification of machinery and handicraft it was possible to produce high quality and durable goods.

Socialists and machinery do not necessarily have to stand in the same adversarial relation as Frankenstein and his monster. However, what form production will take in detail will be a question for future socialists to decide upon; not us. Making things is an enjoyable experience as Morris well understood but so is the need to ensure all society’s needs are directly met. The factory in socialism, at a local level, may be craft-based producing useful things for the individual or local community while production at other levels is more mechanised.

Nevertheless, what forms of production a socialist society chooses will not be the factory system shown in Jain’s film nor the factories turning computer components, cars, building systems and other commodities by robots for the purpose of profit.

The problem is not the factory and mechanisation per se but its use for capitalism’s sole purpose – profits. Hence the ruthless speeding-up, the compulsion and inhuman nature of the use of machinery in production with conveyor belts, and extreme forms of division of labour, with time and motion experts sub-dividing tasks as to reduce the labour-costs/time involve.

When a socialist society uses machines, under its own control and for its own social purpose, and taking time and care, socialism will produce something that will give pleasure. But, when working as a factory “hand”, as shown in Rahul Jain’s documentary, assembling bits and pieces of a commodity they never get to see, just going as fast as possible due to piecework pay, there can be no sense of pleasure in such dehumanising work process.

What a socialist society could do may well depend on factors – environmental especially – which at present we cannot predict. All we can say with any sense of certainty is that by throwing out the profit motive we will be able to open up other options which are currently ruled out. The choices, though, will be for a future socialist society not us.

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