Class, capitalism and the tech industry

Over at, a contributor to SDK has collaborated in breaking down some of the class relationships and conflicts in the tech industry. Here’s an excerpt on the position of software developers:

Programmers typically have more control over their working lives than workers on an assembly line or at a checkout counter. Nobody has yet figured out how to Taylorize software development. The task of writing a working program has yet to be broken down into subtasks that can be performed without specialized knowledge and some grasp of the whole system. Individual output is hard to measure effectively, especially in the short term, which makes it difficult for employers to control the pace of work or use carrots and sticks to make up for a lack of internal motivation on the part of employees.

For these reasons, programmers are often thought of as “professionals,” like doctors or lawyers, and not part of the “working class.” But this is misleading…

Despite the most celebrated tech companies’ aversion to explicit hierarchy, their widespread use of stock options as compensation, and other corporate techniques to convince workers that every member of “the team” is on the same side, it’s clear that the people at the top are know that wages come at the expense of profits.

Thus, Apple, Google, Intel, Adobe, Intuit and Pixar have not yet disentangled themselves from antitrust and class action lawsuits resulting from an agreement–initiated by Google and Apple, and eventually involving dozens more companies, with more than a million employees in total–to cap wages by refusing to compete for each others’ employees.

This cartel resulted in several billion dollars in lost wages, which went straight to corporate profits. But this transfer, which the law might recognize as theft, is in fact only the tip of the iceberg. It represents a deviation from the ideal of a competitive market, which itself offers no guarantee to workers that they’ll receive value equivalent to what they provide.

Across the whole U.S. economy, hourly productivity grew by 80 percent in the last 40 years, while hourly income for the median worker grew only 10 percent. In the software industry, measured productivity has grown 12 percent a year for the last 25 years–meaning that it doubles about every six years. Wages have increased in tech, but not that fast.

Software developers often buy into the idea of advancement by individual merit–either through a liberal lens in which meritocracy is an ideal we still need to work toward, or a libertarian one in which everyone is already where they deserve to be, top or bottom.

This is partly a trickle-down illusion, based on an aspiration to have more in common with Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg than a bank teller or barista. But it also has a basis in the following reality: Most programmers personally know a lot more colleagues who became unhappy at some workplace and quit for a better job than who achieved something through any kind of collective organizing. In this context, it’s easy for those who believe they are being mistreated to feel isolated and even personally inadequate, rather than seeking solidarity from co-workers.

But it gets more optimistic than that! Read the whole thing for discussions of organizing possibilities, manufacturing workers, Internet companies and the logistics industry, the emotional labor of user support and content moderation, the structural subordination and exclusion of women and people of color, the big fish and the small fry among the owning class, the transformation or maybe obsolescence of work, and more.


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