The Lucas Plan & Silicon Valley

January 29, 2019 (1861 words) :: In the 1970s, workers at Lucas Aerospace came up with a plan to repurpose the company's equipment to build more socially useful products, while also bringing it under worker control.
Tags: class-struggle, big-tech, working-in-tech

This post is day 29 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

History doesn’t always move in straight lines. Sometimes it loops back on itself, and we’re left with an eerie similarity between then and now. Even if the context is never exactly the same, echoes of the past can reverberate in the present. If we look at history through the right lens, not only can we learn from old mistakes, but we can also expand our imagination, by finding inspiration in ideas that have since disappeared beyond the horizon of possibility. History is streaked with utopias that could have been, and perhaps some of them can still be salvaged.

The Lucas Plan was born in a time not too unlike our own. The political order was in crisis; the established order was crumbling; and it wasn’t clear how things could ever get better. At a time like this, the workers at Lucas Aerospace could have accepted the factory closures and mass layoffs as a fact of life, and just resigned themselves to it.

Instead, in the twilight of this dying company, they reached for something new: they came up with a fairly unprecented plan to take over the company, and run it under worker control. Instead of making weapons - previously 70% of their product line - they would instead come up with new products, optimising for use value over exchange value. Wind turbines and dialysis machines, not nuclear weapons.

This was uncharted territory. It posed a radical departure from established trade union strategies, as the unions at the time could only conceive of small, incremental changes that wouldn’t threaten the company’s profitability. These workers were innovating not just around the type of product made, but in the very fabric of social relations within the workplace. It would have forced a massive paradigm shift both in the company itself, and in other workplaces, as other workers would start to ask, “Why can’t we have that?”

Last September, I went up to Liverpool to attend The World Transformed, a 4-day festival on politics & culture from a left-wing perspective. One of the sessions, called The Lucas Plan and the New Economics, featured one of the architects of the original plan (Phil Asquith) along with everybody’s favourite Labour MP, John McDonnell. The goal was to bridge the gap between the past and the future, by connecting the historic lessons of the Lucas Plan with the shadow chancellor’s “New Economics”, an umbrella term for McDonnell’s socialist economic vision devised for the modern age.

Alongside the session’s chronological traversal was its emphasis on the fluidity of scale, showing the connections between the micro & the macro. In the context of a broader economy that’s so massive and so complex, individual workplace struggles can sometimes feel like little rowboats in the ocean. Do they matter, in the grand scheme of things? Can they have an impact on the economy as a whole?

This session’s answer to those questions was a resounding yes. Its original title was “Workers’ Control in Economic Planning”, and there’s an implied continuity here between small- and large-scale control. For Hilary Wainwright, who introduced the panel, the session was about how economic change could arise from the power of working-class people. Even small-scale worker actions can diffuse outward, inspiring actions in other workplaces in ways that aren’t always predictable.

Now, the Lucas Plan didn’t work out: management wasn’t willing to concede its power that easily, and the plan didn’t get enough support from established trade unions or politicians to meet the challenge. But its spectre still haunts us today. As Wainwright continued in her introduction:

initiatives defeated in the past somehow reappear […] The fact of defeat in one moment of history isn’t a sign of permanent defeat, because the same crisis that led workers to produce an alternative at moment - the underlying structures and tendencies producing that crisis deepen and get worse, and reoccur. And workers, in their different ways and different forms, learned lessons and apply that alternative again.

If you’re curious about the details of the Lucas Plan, and how it’s relevant to the Labour Party’s “Alternative Models of Ownership” project today, I recommend listening to the recording.

Silicon Valley needs its own modern-day Lucas Plan. This Notes From Below article explains:

Workers’ control over the design of technology is thus a way to make it more ethical. Many of the problems we encounter with modern-day information technology are caused by unrestricted capitalist control over it, and workers’ control can be a necessary counterweight to push through human-centered design choices.

Of course, there are a lot of open questions around how to achieve “workers’ control”, not to mention how it’s even defined. As another Notes From Below article has noted, tech companies’ (non-management) workforces tend to be split into roughly two groups: those who work in productive roles (i.e., building the product in some capacity) and those who don’t. The fact that productive employees are actually building the product but still don’t have full control over what they’re building - they have to optimise for metrics handed down from above, even if they find them unethical - is an obvious complaint. The first step towards a Lucas Plan for modern-day tech companies would be to institutionalise a process for giving these workers more control over what they build, so they have the ability to work on something they can be proud of.

But what about everybody else? Those who don’t work on the product have even less of a say in product decision-making. This is usually seen as normal, and basically fine, since, after all, working on the product isn’t part of their job description. But these workers’ time is still spent in service of their company: distributing in the product, performing admininistrative duties, ensuring that other workers are fed, and keeping the office clean. They deserve at least some say in what their company actually does, so they, too, can work on something they can be proud of. Excluding them from this vital aspect of workplace control is to exclude them from exercising their democratic rights in their local section of the economy.

And what about users? Right now, most users have virtually no control over the design of the products that encroach upon more and more of their daily lives. The apps and services they use are imbued with hidden politics and hidden agendas, nudging them toward certain behaviours and futures while foreclosing on others - all in order to enrich a few corporations. And unlike the workers mentioned above, users can’t even strike; consumer boycotts only go so far when these companies have diversified their product portfolios beyond all recognition (for instance, see this chart for a striking illustration of Jeff Bezos’ empire), especially when there isn’t always a feasible alternative service.

Zooming out even further, we have to consider more than just tech workers and direct users of tech products, because the tech industry affects everything. I alluded to this in yesterday’s blog post: the tech industry’s whole raison d’être is to “disrupt” the rest of the economy, to capture the value generated elsewhere by inserting itself as an unshakeable intermediary in global value chains. That’s the real magic of tech, and it’s why tech companies can rake in so much money in such a short period of time. In the last two decades alone, Facebook, Google, Amazon et al have all dramatically reconfigured capital flows on a global scale, and have managed to divert a ton of it into their own coffers in the process. Even workers outside the direct purview of these tech companies have seen their work conditions adjust to accommodate the new tech titans, without any way to exercise democratic oversight.

That’s a hell of a lot of power. But so far, tech companies haven’t been keen to embrace the responsibility that accompanies that level of power. And it’s hard to see how they ever will, unless someone forces them to.

Who’s that going to be? Surely the relevant government bodies will step in to make things right? But the government is not some neutral, unattached third actor, springing in to save the day at the last possible moment like some political deus ex machina. As I mentioned in my fragment on scooters, the government should be seen as a site of struggle, and its actions will reflect the balance of political power as manifested in society. In these dark days of runaway wealth inequality and unchecked corporate power, capital currently has the upper hand; in the absence of a larger political movement to confront capital, the state can and will only do so much.

What I’m saying is that things won’t get fixed through the regularly-scheduled functioning of the system. The system does not have internal accountability mechanisms to ensure that the people who run these trillion-dollar tech companies are actually the benevolent dictators they’re often imagined to be. As they amass more and more power, they also develop diverging class interests from those of the people who work for them. They start hanging out with fascists, or trying to figure out how to monetise climate change, or enlisting employees in building technology to fuel America’s endless wars and deportation regime.

Sometimes it feels like there’s no way to correct this divergence. The stakes are high, and the road ahead is dark and winding. It’s easy to lose hope.

At times like this, when it feels like there is no future to look forward to, it’s useful to look for a ray of light in the past, in the ashes of old struggles. The Lucas Plan is a reminder that there is an alternative to our decaying socioeconomic order, where workplaces are authoritarian and the profit motive trumps all other concerns. Perhaps it’s time to modernise it, expand its scope, and make it a reality.

Thanks for making it this far. If you work in tech and aren’t already involved with Tech Workers Coalition, I highly recommend you check it out. There’s a Slack, and a newsletter, and lots of in-person events (centred around large US cities). If there isn’t a chapter in your area yet, you could start one!

Recommended further reading/listening on the topic of the Lucas Plan:

« See the full list of fragments