4 years ago, I took a stab at this topic, showcasing a government form redesign that struck my fancy. What goes around… comes around, and today I’m back with reflection inspired by the Rosa Luxemburg, one of my favorite writers and thinkers. I am making my way through a phenomenal book that traces Marxist writing/politics through 6 influential activists, which is also inspiring this post. If you make it to the end of this philosophical ramble, I hope you’ll find the application to tech useful and thought provoking!
Let’s review what Rosa has to say
In her 1899 classic Reform or Revolution, Rosa applies her impressive intellectual faculties to the important question of undoing capitalism. Seriously, her rhetoric/argument skills are *fire emoji*. I’m going to skim over her skirmish with Eduard Bernstein (important, but less germane to this topic) and try to stick to the main ideas.
- The contradictions in capitalism will ultimately lead capitalism to collapse; social activists should work to exploit and accelerate this historical process
- Regulations (like labor reforms) might seem like a good idea, but they are easily revoked unless there is a movement to demand them; the movement should be pushing for revolution the whole time anyway
- The struggle for reforms is training ground for the proletariat to practice self-advocacy, governance, and honing political education
- Democracy is obviously good, but can easily be exploited or revoked by the ruling class, who are unlikely to accept being voted out
- Revolutionary theory should be grounded in a coherent analysis of history (ie dialectical materialism), not a hypothetical prediction of the future (ie social democracy reformism / idealism a la Bernstein)
- Capitalism can’t be undone in a “piecemeal” fashion
Why am I writing about Rosa Luxemburg on a tech blog?
Well, I’ve long held the notion that I write about whatever I want (and you should too!) and also, I want to write about ideas that inform my decisions as a tech advocate.
I spend a LOT of time working through what we call “change management” (ugh Rosa is probably rolling her eyes so hard at this term!), which is to say, preparing to make big and small changes in how people and orgs use technology to make meaning of the world around them. This is intrinsically a political undertaking, both from a $$/product perspective and from a social analysis perspective and a labor rights perspective.
Also, I am currently in a “form building sprint” at my day job, so I’ve had a LOT of time to think about data intake processes, politics (I mean, this is the most tedious thing every, and my mind wanders…), and of course the totally unoriginal pun of reFORM vs revolution comes to mind.
Which raises the question (as data bestie Emily posed to me earlier today) – in a big project like this one, am I doing REFORM or REVOLUTION in my data system?
It turns out that this is a very difficult question to answer.
I decided that switching to a new form-building platform is revolutionary because there is new potential for self-determination (ie new features that we can leverage). However, the form substance (the actual questions) are more reform-like. They are getting a few tweaks, but are otherwise staying the same. From a Rosa perspective, I could say that I am building the skills/practice to be able to make more sweeping changes later, but if I don’t actually have a plan to make those changes, then am I honestly building toward “revolution”?
The risk of waiting/building revolution ONLY is that (1) it might never happen; (2) it might take so long that we die; (3) people are going to suffer a lot in the meantime; (4) the revolution might not work out.
From a tech perspective, it means living with a bad system (maybe for a long time) (and often paying for it), while morale deteriorates and you lose out on having good data and a positive data culture. Or even worse (?), you implement a new thing that doesn’t work as well as you hoped it would. #Stalin
The risk of doing all reform/incremental changes is that (1) you might get distracted from the big goal; (2) you might become satisfied with a slightly better version of the status quo; (3) your incremental changes might take you down a path that you never would have chosen from the beginning; (4) it is difficult to prioritize which reforms to do first.
From a tech perspective, it means introducing technical debt and investing in a potentially bad system.
Trotsky entered the chat
I think it’s really compelling how Rosa L. proposes the idea that reforms should be building blocks on the way to revolution. I know that she wrote a lot about the transition (post revolutionary phase), but I’m not as well versed in those ideas.
Leon Trotsky, on the other hand, had a LOT to say on the subject, specifically the idea of “perpetual revolution” where the governing layer of society were continuously replaced with workers to correct for nepotism and self interest. This was considered an unpopular idea by socialist thinkers who had a lot to gain by securing power for themselves. But I think it has a lot of merits.
In particular, when it comes to technology implementations… “the only constant is change.” In other words, even the best systems will ultimately need to be replaced (ugh – because of capitalism???). Most of the time, I think this is good. Technology advances [through labor of course!] and our needs change. It’s worthwhile to evaluate if the technology we have still makes sense, and if the answer is no, then take a close look at changing it to be a better fit.
Are we the vanguard?
Perhaps us technologists (Salesforce Admins and the equivalent) are temporarily best equipped to introduce new technologies and skills to workers and volunteers in social change orgs. And we should obviously be maintaining/sustaining those technologies over time, for pay or as a contribution to social justice movements. However, we won’t be in charge of them forever! Eventually, our successors, or potentially better yet, teams of co-workers, can gain the skills to advocate for tech features that they need and build capacity to execute their own technology ideas.
Now, I am well aware that us Admins are ourselves proletarians and beholden to power systems, labor exploitation, and multinational tech conglomerates. Our influence is limited, but we can’t deny the power we DO have!
I think fear/complacency/scarcity re: tech is preventing movements from reaching our full potential so from a Marxist perspective, it makes sense to have a self-conscious vanguard intervention to shake things up a little bit, and put in the hard work of establishing a vision/practice for how we can revolt.
As Rosa pointed out so well, this work can’t happen in a vacuum (one factory at a time nor one industry at a time nor one country at a time). We have to be connected and interdependent, sharing our wins and strategies freely throughout movements while incorporating new people in meaningful tasks (not just selling newspapers!).
Where do we go from here?
It’s not all clear. And I think many of you have more knowledge about all of this than I do. I’m a beginner when it comes to Marxism, no doubt about it.
But what I’ve learned from this analysis maps somewhat well onto the pros/cons of waterfall vs agile methodologies – how about that?!
- If making incremental changes, make sure they relate to a larger end goal (rather than a whim or elaborate workarounds that only further entrench bad systems).
- If making incremental changes, acknowledge your learning and how you can apply that learning to bigger future changes.
- If making huge changes, plan for a transition phase.
- New technology should improve working conditions, transparency, user experience, security, etc. You shouldn’t end up with the same old problems and the same old hierarchy with a brand new system.
- Expect that all platforms (and regimes) will eventually be replaced.
- Revolutionary tech won’t come around unless we push for it. And hopefully revolutionary tech will help us actually achieve revolutionary social justice!