IntroductionThe following article by Sam Marcy on "The Superconductor Revolution -- Its Impact on Workers and Wages" appeared in Workers World (WW) newspaper on April 30, 1987.
The scientific-technological restructuring sweeping capitalist industry at the present time was first examined by Sam Marcy in "The Changed Character of the Working Class" (WW, October 25, 1984). A further study of this dramatic reorganization of industry and its resulting dislocation, mass layoffs and shift to lower-paying jobs was developed in his book High Tech, Low Pay, published in May 1986.
The excitement in scientific and business circles all over the world that greets each new breakthrough in superconductors demonstrates that this current trend will vastly intensify. New plants, facilities, processes and even whole new industries in energy, transportation and communications are projected.
In the face of such enormous change, those most affected -- the producers, the workers -- need an understanding of the forces at work and their future impact on wages and working conditions. This is crucial in order for the workers to safeguard their class interests, raise their own demands and organize a fightback strategy.
In reading this present article on superconductors it is important to restate the perspective raised by Sam Marcy in High Tech, Low Pay:
The scientific-technological revolution has become such an enormous economic factor that it has changed the social composition of the U.S. working class.
The basic content of the change has been a massive general shift of the workers away from relatively high-skilled, high-paid jobs into lower-skilled, lower-paid service jobs.
Because of this shift, the social weight of the lower-skilled, lower-paid workers, made up mostly of Black and Latin people and women, has become preponderant in the general workforce of the U.S.
Instead of raising the level of Black, Latin women and other oppressed workers in capitalist society to that of the higher-paid more privileged, so-called aristocratic sector of workers the scientific-technological revolution is mercilessly and ruthlessly leveling down and demolishing the higher social stratum in the working class and reducing it to the level of the lower paid.
While the apologists for the ruling class are celebrating this new condition of the working class, they stop short at drawing the deeper social and political significance it has for the process of the newly emerging social composition of the working class. The growing demolition of vast sections of highly paid workers and their sinking to the level of the more oppressed sections spells out a new constellation of internal forces in the working class. It will, for one thing, fundamentally alter the relationship between Black and white workers.
This developing relationship bodes ill for capitalist apologists because it discloses a new material basis for classwide solidarity and even a revolutionary potential for the working class. The new composition of the working class will give it a more homogeneous character and limit greatly the racist, hierarchical stratification upon which the ruling class has been able to thrive and which it has cultivated and promoted all these years.
It will inevitably shift the political balance away from the more privileged layers of the working class in favor of the hitherto underprivileged, unrepresented and more scattered oppressed workers. The internal political relations between the different strata of the working class will become more harmonized on the level of working class politics. This new trend in the working class goes contrary to the historical tendency of capitalist development in the past.
The scientific-technological revolution is a truly global phenomenon and should not be assessed solely on the basis of its national manifestation in the U.S. Its influence stretches from one end of the globe to the other. Its effects can be felt in Tokyo and Sweden, in France and Mexico, all over the globe.
It is a phenomenon that cannot be reversed. Those who bemoan its existence today must look to the future, not to a return to the past, which in any case is impossible.
The devastating effects of monopoly capitalism's latest assault will, after trials and errors, inevitably give birth to an upsurge in the movement of the working class and oppressed peoples -- and one which has incalculable potential for progressive and revolutionary working class solidarity.
The Superconductor RevolutionThe superconductor revolution is still in the making. However, extraordinary breakthroughs have been made which demonstrate that this revolution is well on its way.
What are superconductors? They are materials which, when cooled sufficiently, carry electricity with no loss of energy. That's because they have no electrical resistance.
When an electric current is sent into a conduction loop made of conventional copper wire, it decays quickly. However, if superconducting material is used, the current will circulate indefinitely even after the power is turned off.
Until now, extremely cold temperatures (from minus 430 F to minus 459 F or absolute zero) were required to trigger superconductivity in certain materials. Superconductivity could be achieved by packing the material in liquid helium, but this was far too costly to be practical.
Just in the last year, materials have been discovered that will become superconductors at warmer temperatures. Instead of having to cool a substance to near absolute zero, the point at which electrical resistance disappeared was raised to minus 406 F in January 1986, minus 284 F, in February 1987 and as high as minus 28 F by this March. Researchers now believe that superconductivity at room temperature is not inconceivable.
'Will change structure of society'
These discoveries are so profound in their potential application that their influence may exceed that of the transistor revolution. Dr. C.W. Chu, a scientist at the University of Houston who has made significant contributions to the recent superconductor discoveries, has said they will involve "a major change in the infrastructure of our society."
All this is bound to accelerate the restructuring of U.S. industry and exert a most powerful impact on the condition of the working class.
Among the many projected uses of superconductors is their application to the refining of petroleum and processing of chemicals and metals. While this has yet to move out of the laboratory and onto the factory floor, it is expected to revolutionize the refining industries.
New refining processes using superconductors promise to cut costs and boost profits. But cutting costs and raising profits, as we have learned through bitter experience in these last six years of the scientific technological revolution and anti-labor drive, invariably mean layoffs, cutbacks and plant closings.
Smaller motors, fewer workers
Superconductors should also make it possible to reduce electric motors to perhaps a tenth of their current size, according to the Wall Street Journal (March 30). This will make electric autos more feasible for big cities. However, one can well imagine how this will reduce the workforce in plants where electric motors are produced. And, given the restructuring that is already taking place in the auto industry toward robotization and fewer workers, won't this trend continue with the new technology?
It will now be possible to build superfast trains that use electromagnetism to travel at the speed of an airplane suspended above the rails on a cushion of air. The Japanese industrialists have produced such a train already, using earlier technology. The new discoveries make such forms of transportation all the more feasible.
What is anticipated from all this is a revolution in the way electricity will be generated, transmitted and stored. If the excitement surrounding these developments is any gauge of their significance, then the meeting of the American Physical Society held in New York on March 18 showed how truly revolutionary they are.
Normally the APS meeting is conservative, dignified, even staid. This time it was uproarious. Instead of the 1,200 participants who were expected to fill the New York Hilton auditorium, there were almost 3,500. Hundreds stood in the aisles while others watched the proceedings on closed-circuit TV in the halls and exhibit rooms.
It was a veritable "Woodstock of physics," as a New York Times writer called it, so great was their jubilation on hearing the papers that recounted scores of discoveries regarding the new superconductor revolution. The session lasted until 3 a.m.
International competition spurs discoveries
While some say it may take years to realize the potential of the superconductor revolution, others believe the distance from the laboratory to the factory floor may be considerably shortened. The reason for this lies in factors which usually were not that significant in earlier periods.
Superconductivity is not a discovery which is the property of a single individual corporation or government to the exclusion of others. It involves scientific achievements and work on at least three continents Hundreds of scientists have been working on this problem in universities and corporations in the United States, Japan and other capitalist countries as well as in China. It is also very likely that similar work is going on in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries.
What must be remembered in connection with all this and which concerns the working class most of all, is that it takes place at a time of the vast restructuring of industry on a global basis. There is no question that this will take on even swifter momentum once the practical use of superconductors is perfected.
The crucial social question for workers in the capitalist countries is whether the industrialists who own the plants affected by this new technology will try to embark upon the same kind of restructuring already carried out by the auto barons and the steel magnates and which has caused so much dismantling of plants.
The ominous effects which have followed restructuring may also follow the introduction of superconductors on a mass scale. The workers must be prepared for the possibility that once the momentum of the superconductor revolution takes hold restructuring may develop at an even swifter pace.
More significant than transistor
The superconductor revolution is bound to be at least as significant as the invention of the transistor, which was developed by Bell Laboratories of AT&T. The difference, however, is that when Bell Labs developed the transistor, the company immediately took out a patent on it and others who wished to produce or sell it had to obtain a license from AT&T.
It must be noted that in earlier periods, whenever an invention or discovery was made by an individual or single corporation, it was usually desirable to keep it under lock and key for a considerable period. This allowed the company to take full advantage of the older technology it possessed until that became at least relatively obsolescent. And at the same time the company was able to garner in the advantages of the higher price of the older product.
Just recently, for example, a new food-packaging technology was announced which it is claimed will keep meat, poultry, produce and other perishable foods fresh for as long as a year without refrigeration. The General Foods Corporation has applied for a patent on this new technology but is keeping it under lock and key for now, getting whatever price advantage it can from the older technology.
Obtaining patents and having exclusive rights to an invention or discovery tends toward monopoly, on account of its exclusive control. However, it should be pointed out that in the past this did maintain relative stability in the workforce, notwithstanding the capitalist cycle of development and its recurring recessions with their devastating economic effects on the workers.
In the present phase of the scientific-technological revolution, the period of telecommunications and satellites, many of the discoveries and inventions take place almost simultaneously on a world scale. Secrecy around a very significant development in science and technology is no longer as easy as it was in an earlier period.
This has been shown in the development of computers and electronics, the field of atomic energy and the current phase of the struggle for the domination of outer space.
Scientists in laboratories in Japan, West Germany, Holland, Switzerland and the socialist countries are all working on space-related problems at the same time. This puts pressure on the corporations to bring whatever products are derived therefrom to the market faster than their competitors. They call these products fallout or by-products of the race in outer space.
In earlier times it was only the product that became relatively obsolescent in record time. Now it is the plant and equipment themselves that become obsolescent before full use can be made of them. This is due entirely to the fierceness of the international competition among the leading imperialist powers, as witness the growing bitterness between the U.S. and Japan over imports.
Pressure to restructure industry
The superconductor revolution will result in greater pressure to more speedily restructure U.S. industry. For one thing it involves many of the very same giant companies -- IBM, AT&T, GE, Westinghouse as well as others -- that have led the restructuring in the U.S. Most of the leading universities are also directly involved in the effort.
The Pentagon is also directly involved. An astrophysicist, James A. Jonson, heads the Office of Innovative Science and Technology, an arm of the Pentagon's Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO). He has already lined up a sufficient number of scientists from universities and is busily forming his own consortium.
The Pentagon's objective is of course related to a speedup of missile development. It intends for example to utilize superconductivity to achieve smaller and more accurate missiles. Otherwise the SDIO would not have been so eager to get into this new field so quickly.
In the period when the transistor was invented, the pressure to restructure industry was not as intense as it is today. At that time competition with Japan and the other imperialist countries was still on a relatively low level.
But now economic competition has reached the stage where the U.S. has felt forced to invoke tariffs against Japanese products, which it hadn't done since the Second World War. The competition with regard to superconductors is even keener than that over microcomputers, microchips, televisions or other electronic products.
The U.S. and Japan seem to have been running neck and neck to achieve a breakthrough in superconductivity. The U.S. barely nosed out Tokyo when on Feb. 15 the University of Houston announced it had pushed the limit of superconductivity to above the minus 284 F, degree point.
Nevertheless, it must be remembered that Japan already has a train that uses superconductivity to travel over 250 miles an hour five inches above the track. Japan is also leading in industrial ceramics which will certainly help to develop ceramic superconductors. All this is sure to heighten the pressure here to cut costs in order to compete.
Lower wages are end result
Ultimately the pressure will be transmitted to the working class, as reducing the cost of a unit of labor time is the essence of the whole struggle.
As we noted in our book High Tech, Low Pay, the Japanese railroad workers have been involved in a long struggle over the restructuring of Japanese railroads. The superfast trains together with the restructuring of Japanese industries would devastate their wage level and reduce the workforce.
If, however, these developments are still so many years away, as some say, is there really any reason to worry about them now?
The distance between laboratory and factory floor may be shortened very quickly, depending upon how many problems which have not yet fully emerged can be resolved.
What has to be stressed is the breakneck speed at which superconductivity is being developed, spurred on by competition on three continents involving huge corporations universities and governments.
As we noted, AT&T, IBM, Westinghouse and GE are most intimately involved at the present time and these are the very multi-nationals that are engaged in intense restructuring of plant and equipment which means tremendous layoffs because the new technology requires a smaller workforce. Their plans with respect to superconductivity are kept secret from the workers, the public at large and in particular the unions that protect the interests of the workers.
The heads of the research departments of these giant corporations who work with the banks for financing are looking at the superconductor revolution in the light of their present restructuring of industry. Already there is talk of a government and industry conference regarding this. There is already work being done of a legislative character that is making its way through Congress and about which little is known.
But what is known, and it concerns the working class very profoundly, is that there is no sign that either the government or the giant corporations are attempting to consult with either the public or the unions representing the workers.
When the transistor was developed in the 1940s the labor movement was very strong, yet the union leadership took no interest in the developing scientific-technological revolution. Even now when the labor movement has been ravaged by the restructuring, the tremendous layoffs and the anti-labor offensive the leadership is woefully late in giving this the necessary attention.
This new technological revolution involving superconductors portends vast changes which could do even more havoc in disintegrating the influence of organized labor and the public in general.
The heads of the large corporations who are privy to the research and development of superconductors have a monopoly of knowledge. They leave open no possibility for the working class as a force to have a say in the matter; the workers are to be driven like cattle from one industry to another.
What workers must do
Resistance of a most massive character must be developed and begun in a timely way. Some steps can be taken almost immediately.
The AFL-CIO and the unions most directly involved with the giant corporations must demand an impact study of the superconductor revolution to be financed by the government, the giant corporations and the universities involved. But the working class through its organizations, especially trade unions and community groups (really the bulk of the population of the U.S.), must conduct the impact study, which would ask, how does all this affect the workers?
It took many years for the progressive environmental organizations to finally make impact studies a part of the struggle against the hazards in industry. But compared to those hazards, the social effect of massive layoffs and plant closings brought on through the introduction of massive new technology can be just as disastrous, if not more so.
No introduction of these new technologies should be permitted without a study being conducted and approved by the communities and unions that are directly involved. After sufficient public notice has been given, extensive hearings must be held by all workers' organizations and including the communities, especially oppressed communities, almost all of whom have a direct or indirect interest in the outcome.
The overall objective must be to attain such massive strength of organization as to be able to insist upon a veto over the introduction of any new scientific-technological systems in industry if they are deemed harmful to the workers and the community.
In the early days of capitalist development, the economists who praised the system claimed that each new advance in technology would bring more order and security into social life. But as capitalism has expanded, and particularly since entering the monopoly stage, the profound new discoveries like atomic energy, the penetration of outer space and the invention of computers and electronics have introduced greater instability and disorder.
Never has the working class been more afraid of the future. The great scientific discoveries of this age which could have such beneficial potential, are turned into frightful hazards which threaten their jobs and even life itself.
In the contemporary bourgeois world, technology comes into being as capital. Its purpose is to enhance the exploitation of labor and the amassing of profit.
As long as technology is the product of this social relation, it will cause havoc for the working class. Technology will become the instrument of true human development only when it has been transformed from private capital into the socially owned means of production.
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