Universities could be transformed into “laboratories” for “human-centred” production and become ‘anchor institutions’ for a “different kind of economy”, Hilary Wainwright suggested at a Coventry Trades Union Council (CTUC) meeting on 16 November.
Speaking on the topic of ‘Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and the Future of Work’, Wainwright pointed out that while universities were often the “new drivers” of local economies, the rapid expansion of universities within Tory-led market reform did not so much create a “knowledge economy” but a “property economy driven by finance”.
However, as universities were now central to regional economic regeneration, academic trade unionists had an important part to play in the transformation of the ‘knowledge economy’ – which currently works in the profit-making interests of the few – into a socialised economy that provided for the social needs of the many.
With a left Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn now an immanent possibility, Wainwright urged activists and trade unionists to start moving beyond the purely oppositional space they have had to occupy during thirty years of neoliberalism and start proposing concrete alternatives.
The workers’ control initiatives of the 1970s – such as the ‘Lucas Plan’ – continue to provide inspiration for today’s trade unionists, she argued, and could provide a model for academic trade unionists who are already questioning the unsustainable corporate plans of rapidly expanding higher education institutions.
“University workers have got leverage [though trade unions] to stop this mad drive for profit and make universities into genuine resources for a different kind of economy,” she argued.
Politics of knowledge
Wainwright spoke about the Lucas Aerospace shop steward combine’s ‘Alternative Plan for Socially-Useful Production’. In response to the possibility of mass redundancies – as management looked to shift production overseas – workers proposed 150 “socially-useful” products, including green innovations decades ahead of their time.
Although the Plan was rejected “out of hand” by Lucas Aerospace management, as the published version of the Plan pointed out, its significance lay in the fact that “trade unionists attempted to transcend the narrow economism which has characterised trade union activity in the past and expand out demands to the extent of questioning the products on which we work and the way in which we work upon them.”
For Wainwright, the problem posed by ‘automation’ – which describes the process through which control of decision-making systems become increasingly independent of human intervention – was not just what to do with the time liberated and wealth created through technological advances, but also how far technology is embedded in social use and how much it draws on the intelligence and creativity of those who produce.
“What I learned from the shop stewards at Lucas Aerospace was that technology is not some kind of neutral force that can only go one way and that the question is simply who benefits financially from the results of technological innovation,” she said, “but that actually technology itself is embed with values and choices made at every point.”
“For example, the American Fordist model of production [rationalised in Taylorist management techniques] – the idea that production processes should minimise the involvement of the intelligence of the worker – was designed to eliminate the discretion of the worker in all production jobs and extract the knowledge involved. This knowledge could then be controlled by management, who would instruct the worker to perform according to a brief or framework set by management.”
“Anything codifiable is immediately subject to automation. All you need to do is eliminate the worker, replace them with a robot, and you already have the production framework. Automation just completes the process.”
Wainwright pointed to the work of Mike Cooley – a leading figure in the Lucas Aerospace combine and author of influential book, Architect or Bee? – who proposed an alternative, “human-centred” idea of technology, “which retained the skill and capacity of the craftsperson but used computer-aided design (CAD) and other computer-aided processes to increase productivity in a way that was humanly driven”.
“A lot of thinking about artificial intelligence is based on the idea that knowledge is a set of logical propositions that can be mathematised and turned into computerised language,” Wainwright argued. “Cooley stressed at the combine committees the idea of ‘tacit knowledge’ – which Michael Polanyi defined as “things we know but cannot tell”.
“This idea of tacit knowledge came from observing scientific experiments and recognising that actually science – supposedly the great location of logical thinking – is full of intuition and hunches and collaboration. The idea of tacit knowledge is very much to do with collaboration and working with other people.”
“So once you have this different understanding of knowledge, you actually don’t have to accept the idea of technology as a neutral force”.
For Wainwright, the lesson of the Lucas Plan was that workers – especially skilled workers – have an intimate knowledge of production, and are therefore in a unique position as both producers and users of technology to link production to social need.
“Trade unionists – who are representing the skilled design workers of our industries – have got the power, potentially, to challenge the design choices of new technology and the way this technology is implemented, what the purpose of the introduction of technology is.”
Danger and opportunity
“We now have an amazing opportunity,” Wainwright stressed, “a bit like we did in the 70s with Tony Benn, but even more so with a Corbyn-led Labour Party that has already set out a different strategy for industry and a plan for public ownership.”
Wainwright mentioned John McDonnell’s speech at the September Labour conference fringe event, ‘The World Transformed’, in which he said that Labour had “laid out a framework for public ownership that is necessary for radical transformation” but that it “wanted the people, the working people, who have the knowledge, to develop alternatives”.
However, while this opportunity is exciting, we must also heed the lessons of the 1970s, Wainwright urged, when Labour last had radical left MPs like Tony Benn and Audrey Wise exploring workers’ control and “nationalisation was on the cards”.
“Public ownership – which is now on the cards – isn’t enough, we need to be thinking about the content and structure of industry and the purpose of technology,” Wainwright urged.
“When Tony Benn invited the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards to come to his office – much to the shock and horror of his civil servants, because they were used to meeting trade union officials – he asked them whether they wanted him to nationalise Lucas Aerospace.”
“They said that they didn’t think nationalisation was enough, that Labour needed to have a plan for what they wanted to do with the nationalised industry. So this then set them out on their alternative corporate plan for socially-useful production.”
“What Benn did has an interesting parallel with what Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell could potentially do. What Benn did in the Department of Industry was make it clear to the shop stewards that he would support them if they developed alternatives, so that’s how the Lucas Plan really arose.”
Similar ideas came from elsewhere, Wainwright pointed out, from Chrysler and Triumph in Coventry, for example. The Institute for Workers’ Control – including Audrey Wise, a Coventry MP in the 1970s and author of Women and the Struggle for Workers’ Control – played a key role nurturing and supporting such initiatives.
“[The Institute for Workers Control] brought together many groups of radical workers that were developing alternatives which weren’t just about public ownership but also about the content and purpose and forms of organisation of production, the nature and direction of technology.”
However, “all this was defeated by pressures from the CBI, the city [of London] and Harold Wilson, who sacked Tony Benn”, Wainwright warned. “All these pressures Jeremy Corbyn will also face – but then he will be prime minister and will have a bit more power than Tony Benn had.”
“After all of this had been defeated, we thought – they can’t just get away with it – so we organised what we grandly called a ‘worker’s inquiry’,” Wainwright added.
“We called it State Intervention in Industry, and in Newcastle, Liverpool, North Tyneside and Coventry, the shops stewards worked with the trades councils to find out what had gone wrong in the different companies and what went wrong in their eyes with government.”
“We had planned a kind of grand conclusion in a grand committee room in the Houses of Parliament, in which the trades councils and the shop stewards would hold a tribunal calling ministers to account for what had gone wrong.”
“Then we wrote it up. The shop stewards documented their experiences, what their fears and hopes were and what actually happened. We ended up with conclusions and recommendations for the future, so it’s an important book that’s worth going back to in thinking about what this would mean now.”