Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 3, 2008

Technological Inheritance

Filed under: economics,technology — louisproyect @ 8:31 pm

Back in 1994, I came across an article by Gar Alperovitz titled “Distributing Our Technological Inheritance” in the October issue of Technology Review that I found very useful as a rebuttal of the kind of libertarianism that was thriving in Silicon Valley. Here are the opening paragraphs:

“Many times a day,” wrote Albert Einstein, “I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow-men, both living and dead.” The genius of an earlier era saw clearly how contemporary knowledge and technological advance depend to an extraordinary degree on the efforts of many contributors, not to mention a continuing cultural investment in science and numerous other areas of human endeavor. In fact, very little of what we as a society produce today can be said to derive from the work, risk, and imagination of citizens now living. Achievements from earlier eras, including fundamental ideas such as literacy, movable type, simple arithmetic, and algebra, have become so integrated into our daily lives that we take them for granted. What we accomplish today stands atop a Gibraltar of technological inheritance. Seemingly contemporary transformations inevitably build on knowledge accumulated over generations.

For example, Richard DuBoff, an economic historian at Bryn Mawr College, observes that “synthesizing organic chemicals…could not have been done without an understanding of chemical transformations and the arrangement of atoms in a molecule. After 1880, this led to the production of coal tar and its derivatives for pharmaceuticals, dyestuffs, explosives, solvents, fuels, and fertilizers, and later petrochemicals…By the early 1900’s the new chemicals were already becoming an essential input for metallurgy, petroleum, and paper.”

Present-day entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, one of the world’s richest individuals with a personal fortune estimated at $8 billion and hailed as a technological genius for inventing software for the personal computer, should therefore be seen as beneficiaries of this long and fruitful history as well as of significant public investment.

The personal computer itself–without which Gates’s software would not be possible–owes its development to sustained federal spending during World War II and the Cold War. “Most of [the] ‘great ideas in computer design’ were first explored with considerable government support,” according to historian Kenneth Flamm in a Brookings Institution study. Now a specialist in technology policy in the Department of Defense, Flamm estimates that 18 of the 25 most significant advances in computer technology between 1950 and 1962 were funded by the federal government, and that in most of these cases the government was the first buyer of new technology. For example, Remington Rand Corp. delivered UNIVAC, the original full-fledged U.S. computer, under contract to the U.S. Census Bureau in 1951.

The government’s shouldering of huge development costs and risks paved the way for the growth of Digital Equipment Corp., which created its powerful PDP line of 1960s computers. In turn, Gate’s colleague [and now fellow billionaire] Paul Allen created a simulated PDP-10 chip that allowed Gates to apply the programming abilities of a mainframe to a small, homemade computer. Gates used this power to make his most important technical contribution: rewriting the BASIC language, itself funded by the National Science Foundation, to run Altair, the first consumer-scaled computer. And indeed, Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, Altair’s developer, could never have placed a microcomputer of any variety on the market without the long preceding period of technological incubation.

Thousands of links in a chain of development–our shared inheritance- -were in fact required before Bill Gates could add his contribution. But if this is so, why do we not reflect more full on why Gates, or any other wealthy entrepreneur, should personally benefit to such a degree? If we admit that what any one person, group, generation, or even nation contributes in one moment of time is minuscule compared with all that the past bequeaths like a gift from a rich uncle, we are forced to question the basic principles by which we distribute our technological inheritance.

Apparently, Alperovitz has turned this article into a book, based on this review in the current issue of the Nation Magazine. I plan to read and review it myself first chance I get, despite the rather lukewarm Nation Magazine review, which characterizes it as “Fabian”, a charge that strikes me as the pot calling the kettle black:

Spreading the Wealth: Knowledge as Social Inheritance

By Mark Engler

In crediting luck, Buffett not only points to the birth lottery, in which some people are born into more privileged circumstances than others, but also recognizes that to a great extent he owes the accomplishments of his professional life to the manifold contributions of other people, known and unknown, past and present. They have collectively done Buffett enormous favors, affording him security and education, providing modern infrastructure, science and communications systems and creating a sophisticated market in which he could do business. Because of this, Buffett claims, “society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned.”

“But if this is true,” ask Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly in Unjust Deserts, “doesn’t society deserve a very significant share of what [Buffett] has received?” This question clearly indicates how thoroughly Alperovitz and Daly want their new book to upend commonplace notions about the relationships between economic growth, productivity and wealth. The duo cite “extraordinary developments” in the study of knowledge and economic growth as the foundation of their contentions. But they are actually returning the economic discussion to where it started, with Smith, Ricardo, Mill and Marx–to moral philosophy and debates about the values that should inform public policy. Their foremost ethical question is, given that we owe most of our productivity to a common social inheritance, to what extent can we say that we have “earned” our personal wealth? If we see far, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants, the argument goes. Therefore, a large portion of what we claim as payment for our productivity should actually go to the Goliaths who are doing the heavy work of holding us up. Even if your eyesight is much better than average, your individual claim is limited.

Most of us with regular work lives get up in the morning, expend our energy and intelligence to meet the day’s challenges and retire, depleted, in the evening. In this respect, Alperovitz and Daly claim, we toil away our workdays just as, for example, subsistence farmers did for thousands of years. What makes us more “productive” than these forebears–in the sense that they often struggled to ward off starvation, while we, relatively speaking, are surrounded by abundance–is not our individual strength, initiative or daring. Rather, it is our inheritance of thousands of years of cultural knowledge, innovation and discovery. Owing to this legacy, a person in the United States working the same number of hours as an American from as recently as 1870 will produce, on average, some fifteen times more economic output.

As early as the 1950s, economists began establishing a greater role for socially accumulated knowledge in mainstream understandings of economic growth. Alperovitz and Daly note that Robert Solow “calculated that nearly 90 percent of productivity growth in the first half of the twentieth century (from 1909 to 1949) could only be attributed to ‘technological change in the broadest sense.'” This suggestion was a radical shift away from accounts that stressed the more specific agency of capitalists and entrepreneurs–or of laborers, for that matter–in expanding our economy.

But would progress in the realm of science and technology truly have happened without the grit and determination of hard-working innovators? Because Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, a creation of tremendous social value, doesn’t he deserve to be exalted as a genius and richly rewarded for his patent? Not necessarily. The telephone, as it turns out, was simultaneously invented by another innovator, Elisha Gray, who visited the patent office the same day as Bell with a superior design for transmitting vocal sounds but who lagged behind Bell in completing the patent process. Five years earlier, an Italian immigrant named Antonio Meucci had declared the invention of a “voice telegraphy device”; he merely lacked the $10 required to register his work. With or without Bell, the telephone would have arrived.

This example is not an isolated incident. As Alperovitz and Daly write, the pattern of simultaneous invention “is so obvious to modern scholars that it is no longer considered controversial.” New innovations rely upon thousands of previous advances in understanding and technical capability: “What is called an ‘invention,’ is always a combination of diverse constituent elements, mostly drawn from existing technology.” Yet even as mainstream economists cite the increasing role of this socially accumulated legacy in driving our “knowledge economy,” inequality grows ever more severe. In 2004, the top 1 percent of American households held almost half of all “non-retirement account stocks, mutual funds, and trusts” and Bill Gates’s net worth alone “was more than twice the direct stock holdings of the entire bottom half of the U.S. population.”

Avoiding the Marxist tradition, Alperovitz and Daly tap a long stream of philosophical thought, running through Locke, Ricardo and Mill, that distinguishes between “earned” and “unearned” gains. “Nothing is more deeply held among ordinary people than the idea that a person is entitled to what he creates or his efforts produce,” they note. But if a person reaps gains through no effort of his own, society has a quite different view of his deservingness, or what philosophers know as “desert.”

One complication of using the “standing on the shoulders” metaphor to explain the notion of desert is that the “giants” in question are not discrete living beings. Past greats like Einstein and Newton are not around to claim their cut of your paycheck. What’s left, then, is the state. Ultimately, what Alperovitz and Daly dub the “knowledge inheritance theory of distributive justice” offers a much deeper justification for government-imposed taxation than what Americans are normally challenged to consider. The closest we have come to hearing these arguments in contemporary political debate was in the recent fight over the estate tax, a levy dubbed by conservatives as the “death tax” and by some defenders as the “Paris Hilton tax.” “Responsible wealth” advocate Chuck Collins, who wrote a book with Bill Gates in defense of the estate tax, has argued that the justice of such a tax is rooted in an appreciation of social contributions to prosperity, an idea that has previously been recognized in American political life. In 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Hate Taxes, Collins quotes Andrew Carnegie, one of the key figures of our country’s first Gilded Age, who approved of taxing accumulated wealth: “Of all forms of taxation this seems the wisest,” Carnegie held. “Men who continue hoarding great sums all of their lives, the proper use of which for public ends would work good to the community from which it chiefly came, should be made to feel that the community, in the form of the State, cannot thus be deprived of its proper share.”

In various articles and in a book published in 2005, America Beyond Capitalism, Alperovitz has rejected the statism of former Communist bloc economies, and he has expressed a desire to craft a progressive vision that “takes us beyond both traditional systems” of socialism and capitalism. Yet this type of “neither right nor left, but forward” rhetoric represents a fairly weak dodge. The actual political tradition Alperovitz and Daly seek to revive has deep roots in classical economics and represents a long-established strand of non-Marxist socialism. The authors show sympathy for nineteenth-century American reformer Henry George, who drew an international following with his belief that land should be the common property of humanity. George promoted free trade and productive business, but he wanted state control of monopolies and argued in his bestselling Progress and Poverty for a steep tax on parasitic rent-seeking landlords. Alperovitz and Daly also align themselves with many of the leading lights of the Fabian Society, a group of British intellectuals who were influential in shaping the early Labour Party around 1900.

Just as unionists who believed in the productive power of labor were critical of George’s sole focus on land, the leftward ranks of today’s political economists may be skeptical of the overwhelming weight of “knowledge” in Alperovitz and Daly’s formulations. But most would probably agree that the authors strike upon a vital topic when they highlight the need for the benefits from productivity gains to be shared throughout society.

As recently as the 1970s, there were discussions on college campuses of how people would while away all their spare hours after modern timesaving technology improved efficiency and inevitably shortened their working days. Since then, productivity has indeed increased dramatically, but working people have experienced a bitter twist: owing largely to the waning power of organized labor, real wages have been stagnant and hours at the office have only lengthened.

The Marxists of old criticized the gradualist tactics of Fabianism, accusing the British reformers of being naïve utopians who wanted socialist ends without the class struggle. Whatever the moral validity of Alperovitz and Daly’s argument about wealth, following through on its public policy implications will require a long and hard fight. And it’s not clear from their book that Alperovitz and Daly are up for a rumble. When it comes to how we might “take back our common inheritance,” their concluding call to arms tepidly invokes a “renewed moral and political understanding of [our] responsibilities.”

The best Alperovitz has suggested in his recent writings is that policy-makers concern themselves more with taxing wealth than income, and that they focus on going after the top 2 percent of households, leaving those few elites vastly outnumbered by the remaining 98 percent of the population. This is a sound position, but it is hardly a silver bullet. At the same time, the nation now seems uniquely prepared for a new debate about value and desert. Few moments could be riper for revisiting the connection between our economy and our social ethics. As housing values–the bedrock asset of the American middle class–fall, stocks plunge and retirement investment accounts are wiped out, there is an acute awareness that things do not find their worth just in the market’s valuation on a given day. And even without unusually candid voices like Warren Buffett’s fanning their doubts, Americans have begun to conclude that CEOs are not so worthy as their bloated compensation packages suggest.

There is a growing consensus, too, in favor of a more robust public compact to regulate the conditions under which we are together able to live, save and retire. Recent scholarly notions about “the developing trajectory of the knowledge economy” likely have less power than Alperovitz and Daly imagine to bring about a shift toward the social. But amid the ruins of our new Gilded Age, a devalued and depressed American public may nevertheless be ready to demand more.


  1. Like you and most leftists with an interest in technology and a memory of the John Perry Barlow era of “cyberlibertarianism”, I’ve been on this point a long time. However, I would like to point out that Fearless Leader also made similar remarks in one of the debates which were widely reported as a “gaffe” (though perhaps without being widely believed to be one a la Gore’s claim vis-a-vis the Internet; easy for a handful of people to make a lot of noise these days, no?) Not quite the glorious socialist future, but also not an imagined glorious capitalist past.

    Comment by Jeff Rubard — December 4, 2008 @ 2:26 am

  2. I’ve come across a good many cyber-libertarians, all of whom have no idea about the history of technology, and are generally left sputtering once you explain that the labour theory of value is not the nonsense that Friedman et al. make it out to be.

    What is more, according to the docu-fiction “Pirates of Silicon Valley”, Gates’s great innovations not only built upon but were largely ripped off of other people’s work. The film is apparently based on extensive research, with the director claiming to have “two or more sources that verify each scene.” Although the wiki entry doesn’t seem to pick up on it, my comrade Diego found the film to be an excellent confirmation of Alperovitz’s thesis.

    Too bad about the film’s sneering attitude to student radicals (Steve Jobs, founder of Macintosh, states “Those guys [Berkeley students] think they’re revolutionaries. They’re not revolutionaries, we are.”), could make a good piece of pop-ed material otherwise.


    Comment by Nik Barry-Shaw — December 4, 2008 @ 2:09 pm

  3. The left skulks in the ruins of 19c cultural lumber – Morris, Marx, Bakunin, & Trotsky, etc. It should be re-organizing its ideas. It can’t, because of its dismal theoretical fundamentalism. Come on, for krissake. Marx died a century & half ago.

    Banks collapse. ‘Capitalism, prepare to meet thy doom’. Hooray, we got it right at last, finally, maybe? But how many spot the parallel & linked drift to apocalyptic environmental collapse? The threats to human survival & economic crisis have the same cause.

    The environment is going, because the aetherial operations of last-gasp deficit financing demand that the final resource, the future, must be fed into capitalism’s boiler. Left fogies can only dimly glimpse this thru the bottle-tops of their 19c philosophical materialism; cognition is missing. Oh, they will fervently aver that ultimately, capitalism is the cause of all our ills. But beyond this, they are hazy on the details, so also the ‘transitional program’.

    M M B & T above at least kept abreast of the science of their days. The left seems not to have noticed that science moves on. In a revolution now, what’s to ‘seize’, or ‘occupy’? The means of production today are less & less material, more & more ephemeral (a BIG problem for capitalism also). The last chance for mobilizing an undustrial proletariat for revolution came & went in the 1970s. Ordinary people paid a terrible price for that missed cue.

    The great factory piles of iron with thousands of workers have gone. Modern versions are compact, portable across borders, & have few staff. You can take a row of big sheds, but how do you ‘seize’ technical production or distribution processes that are essentially a bunch of esoteric technical skills in the heads & hands of a few practicioners?

    Of course, you can’t. The left hopes that the brightest & best will contribute to the common good. Fine, because economics now is tied increasingly to services, processes & ideas, deployed by a relatively few ‘elite’ minds. The armies of heroic hammer-swingers of Stalinist fantasy are gone. And ‘we’ cannot own or control one single mind. Tellingly, much of the left still clings to those 19c comfort-blankets, ‘the workers’ & the faux-materialistic Labor Theory of Value.

    After a large circle, we are back to dusting off philosophical idealism – or maybe the physicists have done so already. Time to apply it to history – IT has revolutionized our economies. If we re-examine past societies for their communications technologies, we can identify similar dynamics. Like human beings, societies & cultures can be understood as information-processing systems. Another dance thru academic groves? Not quite, because the economic energies of societies are ultimately released & controlled by their info. systems. The first permanent settlements followed the ‘Graphics Revolution’. The first city-states were enabled by inscribed clay tablets.

    Capitalist polities typically use top-down controls, resisting input & influence from below, even in fake-democratic forms. The macro decisions are taken at the top. At present, globalized capitalist control systems in cyberspace have largely over-ridden 19c national governments, rooted to obselescent terrestrial constituencies.

    How is this relevant? The Russian Soviet system was similarly authoritarian, & far worse in crushing popular upstream input & resistance. And so is the present Chinese communist-cum-capitalist arrangement. So we apparently rediscover Proudhon’s correctness, & Marx’s mistake. CONTROL is the primal issue (democracy), not ownership. Control is a far more elusive notion than ownership of material ‘stuff’.

    But take heart, history taketh, but it also giveth. IT is more subversive than Gutenberg’s press. It can be a revolutionary tool. There is much work to bring it about, but for the first time in history, we have the practical means for a real grassroots democracy, with every person’s hand on the levers of power. The power of political decision-making can be diffused so that no minority of powermongers can subvert it – Desktop Democracy, or ‘subsidiarity’. This is a far more potent guarantee of real democratic control than a Kalashnikov in every household.

    The work to bring this about is to unite the fragmented & confused elements who increasingly feel frustrated & despairing at their powerlessness under the present system. Not easy, but first are the ideas. What else has the left got?

    The suspicion is, the left’s continuing impotence has deep theoretical causes. It resists the revolutionary socio-political implications of recent genetic research concerning the origins/nature of modern humanity. This offers rare, hard evidence about the atavistic foundations of modern humankind. As ever, the left which should embrace the best of new ideas, resists painful re-thinking.

    Clive Gamble’s seminal ‘Timewalkers’, or the Out-of-Africa expositions of Chris Stringer: they potentially explain much that has puzzled us for centuries. Most relevantly, we have not come from Rousseau’s Noble Savage, & been corrupted by civilization. We are genetically disposed to expand in excess numbers & dominate all environments & species. Modern-modern humanity emerged from Africa 70 – 40 thousand years ago. This sub-species was apparently marked out for aggressive domination by its psychic ‘software’, not its anatomy. Capitalism does not pervert human nature, it expresses its flaws.

    Please note: this is NOT to argue the indefinite inevitability of capitalism. Our psychic heterogeneity is a saving grace. Unique amongst animals, we possess near-unlimited behavioural adaptability, a potential seated in what we call ‘consciousness’ (Trosky observed that revolutions happen when peoples’ minds change). Consciousness is a control mechanism we can apply to our unstable & endangered human societies, for good or ill. If the right kind of consciousness-message can be wedded to the IT medium, we may well survive & rise to the next level of human-social evolution.

    Really, that is not a choice, it is a survival imperative. We adapt socially, by revolution, or we go extinct. The choice is harsh & urgent. Already, rational maniacs have devised or are developing ‘controllable’ atomic & biological weaponry. These are the trapdoor to the hell of Mutually Assured Destruction.

    Instead of understanding & grasping the new ideas available, the left blocks them. It clings essentially to human goodness – basically 18c Rousseau with various bells & whistles. But we are not ‘nice’. We are the most dangerous species on earth, not least to ourselves. Understanding this is a necessary step towards remedying it. We have the IT tools. Where are the left’s creative artisans?

    Old git Tom

    Comment by Old Git Tom — December 7, 2008 @ 8:29 pm

  4. Tom, after wading through several paragraphs of breathless vituperation, I was hoping for something that would at least be more entertaining than an appeal to embrace evolutionary psychology.

    Comment by Arkady — December 9, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

  5. Arkady’s post:

    “Tom, after wading through several paragraphs of breathless vituperation, I was hoping for something that would at least be more entertaining than an appeal to embrace evolutionary psychology.”

    Old Git Tom.
    You misread or misunderstood? There was no ‘vituperation’. I think you refer to vigorous criticism of contemporary ‘Marxism’ for its sterile conservatism. There followed an appeal to Marxists (whatever) to come out of the 19c Olde Curiositie Shoppe & recognize that materialism is insufficient for a theory of revolutionary action: physics has long left it behind.
    Briefly, the speed & range of information dissemination sets the pace of soci-economic change. Eg., you may have lifted your head long enough from the holy tomes long enough to notice that modern ‘production’ is increasingly of intangibles. I thought at least this might interest would-be revolutionaries. If I have merely disturbed them in their familiar old grooves, my apologies. Wind up the gramophone, put on a good old song, & you can enjoy before we all disappear down the hole in the middle of the record.

    Comment by Old Git Tom — December 9, 2008 @ 5:38 pm

  6. Tom, I may have spent too much time skulking in the ruins, amidst the lumber, the curiositie shoppes and the gramophones, but even in my dotage I can still recall the problems caused by the revolutionaries who seek revolution through the application of half understood science and pseudoscience. In the course of my skulking, I’ve found that Old Karl himself remains one of the best guides to understanding the extraction of surplus value from increasingly ephemeral forms of rent seeking and financial manipulation. The capitalism he dealt with and his critique of it continue to be relevant — just as Pythagoras continues to be relevant to geometry, Newton to physics and Darwin to biology. That each field has moved on from their work does not negate their value. Anymore than the work of Marx’s successors negates the value of what he wrote.

    You appear to have gone looking for fundamentalists and from the outset determined to find them. With that as your basis, you always will, whether they exist or not.

    Comment by Arkady — December 9, 2008 @ 10:52 pm

  7. Arkady,
    indeed, much of Marx remains highly relevant, & Marx foresaw/understood the ‘idealization’ of monetary values we see today; too right. And, much has gone plonkingly mainstream, at least in academia, as varieties of historical materialism.

    Note, I did not discount Mx, but stressed the necessity of examination of the non-materialistic tendencies around us as well.

    ‘Pseudo-science’ ? As a layman, I don’t understand even a tenth of ‘science’, however you define that. But I do take cues from the likes of Paul Davies. Have you looked at the macro/sub-atomic theorizings of physics lately? They have left the 19c scientific positivism of Marx, Hume & Helmholz far behind. We no longer live in a conceptual universe of balls that interract in mechanistic causality.

    Relevance – the old mass-manned industries are gone, most traditonal ‘workers’ with them. There is little crucial material for a revolution to ‘seize’. Increasingly, monetary values are taking flight from material foundations. The implied corollary is, the focus must shift from control of tangible ‘things’ to the less identifiable core of democratic, grass-roots democracy. For this, a greater awareness of how democracy & political power relate to ease & freedom of info. flows. Hint; notice how things hotted up after Gutenberg?

    ‘What is to be done?’ Weld the disaffected majority as fragments into a coherent political movement, using IT as a political weapon, not merely as a medium for electronic pamphlets of 19c texts. But that’s another story. First, you have to admit that the old stories are useful, but inadequate. Look around: Marxists are a peripheral microcosm. History is bypassing them. Why? Answer w/out gradualist refs. to the scales of time, please. Time is not on humanity’s side.

    Comment by Old Git Tom — December 10, 2008 @ 9:00 am

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