Friedrich Pollock isn’t as well-known as other members of the Frankfurt School like Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse. But Pollock’s impressive work includes a brilliant, pioneering analysis of automation under capitalism that appears highly prescient today.

The automated paint shop for new vehicles at the Volvo Car Academy and the Volvo Car Gent production site, in Ghent, Belgium, photographed on August 29, 2023. (Jonas Roosens / Belga Mag / AFP via Getty Images)

The German social theorist Friedrich Pollock belonged to a brilliant cohort of left-wing intellectuals that came together around the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (IfS), better known as the Frankfurt School, which marks its centenary this year. He played a key role in the institute’s activity both in Germany and the United States over the course of several decades.

Pollock has often been overshadowed by others associated with the Frankfurt School such as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse. But his pioneering work on the development of automation in modern capitalist economies seems especially timely in today’s world. This essay will give an overview of Pollock’s career before discussing in detail his analysis of automation and its wider social implications.

From Frankfurt to Moscow

Friedrich Pollock was born in Freiburg in 1894, the son of a family of industrialists of Jewish origin who were active in Stuttgart. He studied economics and political science in Munich, Freiburg, and Frankfurt, graduating in 1923 with a paper on the Marxist theory of money. In the same year, he was among the founders of the Frankfurt Institute, which was financed by Felix Weil. The institute’s first director was the economist Carl Grünberg.

Friedrich Pollock has often been overshadowed by others associated with the Frankfurt School such as Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse.

Grünberg had a good relationship with David Riazanov, who was the head of the Marx-Engels Institute (MEI) in Moscow. Under Riazanov’s scholarly leadership, the institute was working on the first complete historical-critical edition of the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. To trace the manuscripts of Marx and Engels that were still scattered across various parts of Europe, Riazanov entered into a collaboration with Grünberg and the IfS, with Pollock playing a central role.

In the cellars of the IfS, over 150,000 pages of the Marx-Engels bequest were photographed and delivered, along with the manuscripts, to Moscow. This made it possible to publish the first volume of the complete works in 1927, coinciding with the celebration of the first ten years of the Russian Revolution. Pollock was invited to stay for a whole month in Moscow.

Although he was impressed by the great celebratory parades, Pollock also seized the opportunity to collect data and scientific materials in order to undertake the first sober analysis of the problems of the Soviet planned economy. The result was Die Planwirtschaftlichen Versuche in der Sowjetunion 1917–1927 (“The Planned Economy Experiment in the Soviet Union”), a work in which Pollock warned of the danger of an authoritarian, bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution.

This danger was especially pressing since in Pollock’s view, the revolution had been initiated on the basis of insufficient techno-industrial development. He raised the critical question of whether the preconditions for the construction of socialism actually existed in an agrarian country like Russia. His thesis sounded provocative to representatives of the Soviet Communist Party, and the Frankfurt Institute’s collaboration with the MEI did not continue. Riazanov himself was later dismissed from the MEI, deported, and sentenced to death during the Stalinist purges.

Pollock and Horkheimer

After Carl Grünberg’s untimely death in 1931, Pollock secured the appointment of a young philosopher, Max Horkheimer, as head of the IfS. From this point on, he worked continuously alongside Horkheimer, emigrating to the United States with him in 1933. Pollock’s concept of state capitalism became the implicit basis for Dialectic of Enlightenment, the masterpiece that Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno produced during their years in the US.

Pollock’s concept of state capitalism became the implicit basis for Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment.

After renouncing his German citizenship, Pollock obtained US citizenship in 1940. Between 1943 and 1945, he worked as a research consultant for a number of government organizations, placing his skills at the service of the war effort against Nazism. In 1950, he returned to Germany to teach political economy and sociology at the University of Frankfurt.

During these years, he conducted empirical research for the IfS on its Gruppenexperiment project. This remained unpublished at first, partly because it suggested that one could by no means consider antisemitic and authoritarian tendencies to have been overcome in Germany. In 1956, he published his pioneering book Automation. Materialen zur Beurteilung der ökonomischen und sozialen Folgen (“Automation: Materials for Assessing its Economic and Social Consequences”).

Severely disappointed by the process of denazification in West Germany, which he considered to have been left unfinished and betrayed, Pollock emigrated to Switzerland in 1959 along with Horkheimer. They lived close to one another in a small village in the south of the country. Pollock died in 1970.

Dynamics of Automation

The impact of technological transformations on the world of work was central to Pollock’s writings. He grappled with the tendency to create “deserted factories” that would “replace the labor force by fully automatic processes.” The first edition of Automation appeared in 1956, and the book was soon translated into six languages. Pollock published an expanded and revised second edition in 1963.

The impact of technological transformations on the world of work was central to Pollock’s writings.

He explained that the new edition was necessary in view of the “extraordinary development” that automation had undergone since the book was first published:

Not that I was forced to revise the considerations and theoretical analyses set out in the first edition: in all essential points they proved to be correct. But the pace and scale of the spread of automation have exceeded all expectations. Its technical and organizational possibilities have largely crossed frontiers that even a few years ago were considered impassable in the near future.

The book, which suddenly made Pollock internationally famous, was one of the first investigations of automation as a new “production system,” based on empirical data. It mainly referred to the United States, while also taking account of developments in Western Europe and the USSR in the second edition.

Pollock’s work opened with an important chapter dedicated to defining the concept of automation. The scope of the concept, from the factory to the office, is very wide. For Pollock, it designated a method that was capable of reconfiguring the production of material goods as well as services and intellectual or immaterial goods through the use of machinery.

He specified the difference between the age of industrialization and that of automation: in the former, many functions are still the responsibility of the worker (such as “the introduction of material, starting and stopping machines, [and] controlling the quality and quantity of the product”), while in the latter, those functions can mainly be performed by electronic devices: “The final logical outcome of automation, which would technically already be possible, but which in practice is currently only exceptionally aimed at, is the fully automatic working process.”

This would mean a work process in which machines have completely replaced human labor power, both physical and intellectual:

Automation as a production technique has as its aim the replacement of human labor power by machines, in the functions of service, control, and supervision of the machines, as well as in the function of product control, until at the very most one hand has to touch the product from the beginning to the end of the working process. Its methods can be used either for partial processes or for a complete production cycle, from the raw material to the finished product.

Pollock mentioned several examples of factories that were already close to being fully automated, from the weapons industry to petroleum refineries and the production of automobile engines, as well as glass bottles, biscuits, and cigarettes. But the same methods could, he stressed, also be applied to the service sector as well as the production of goods.

Chain Reaction

Although Pollock was cautious and analytical throughout the book, he did not conceal his belief that automation increased the risk of crisis:

The mass unemployment that could occur could provoke a contraction of the market, from which the crisis would develop in a chain reaction. . . . If the development of the second industrial revolution were to be left to the free play of [market] forces, contained only by improvisations and palliatives, it could produce destructive tendencies that no free society would be able to resist.

In support of this argument, Pollock cited a warning by the British Labour politician Harold Wilson in a speech at his party’s 1963 congress. Wilson suggested that technological development would lead to high profits for the few and unemployment for the masses if it was “controlled exclusively by private industry. . . . Only if technical progress is incorporated into a national economic plan can it serve the interests of the community.”

Pollock was deeply skeptical about the idea that automation could result in a genuinely positive liberation of time.

The book, especially in its second edition, also highlighted the wider social implications of automation. Pollock warned that there would be growing pressure on workers for mobility and adaptability to new and unforeseen situations, with a continuous demand for training and retraining in order to remain in touch with technical development. In theory, automation should result in an increase in free time, as trade unions argued. In practice, however, this was unlikely to be the case.

Pollock identified a tendency in the United States for the spare hours earned through automation to be “partially or totally confiscated for the solution of urgent vocational training tasks.” Those workers who would not submit to such confiscation for retraining would have to maintain their previous working hours or resign themselves to a corresponding wage deduction.

An Administered Society

Pollock was deeply skeptical about the idea that automation could result in a genuinely positive liberation of time:

The use of so-called “free time” has long been the subject of manipulation and enormous social pressure in a totally administered world. Industries of great importance in the economy as a whole, and which are developing rapidly, serve to satisfy the needs that have arisen as a result of the reduction in working hours and that are largely artificially retained. There is even talk in America of leisure industries, and they are expected to absorb a large proportion of the workers freed by the introduction of automation.

The theme of automation in Pollock’s book thus merged with that of cultural manipulation: “The introduction of a four-day working week will mean one more day for workers to waste watching Westerns on television.” To counter the tendency for mass manipulation through the media, Pollock called for educational countermeasures of various kinds.

The theme of automation in Pollock’s book merged with that of cultural manipulation.

He put forward a gloomy picture of a fully administered society similar to the one that we can find in the better-known works of his Frankfurt School colleagues Horkheimer, Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse: “Man is increasingly ‘socialized’ by social institutions. The shaping of leisure, encouraged and realized with the best of intentions, contributes in turn to the process of depersonalization already accelerated by automation.”

In short, automation, as a “general system of production,” tends to govern human subjectivities in their entirety. It also shapes the world of politics through communication strategies and computer simulation. The latter makes it possible to anticipate and predict the behavior of groups to a large extent. Voters can be studied and manipulated in the same way as consumers:

Like extra-human nature, social processes cannot be arbitrarily subjected to the will to dominate. But the more one learns about their “laws of motion,” the more one can use them to achieve the ends of the manipulating subject. Applied to the sphere of political struggle, the further development of computer simulation means a possible further emptying out of the meaning of democracy.

Pollock recognized that these computational techniques and communicative practices could in theory be used by all parties: this “new power machine” remained available to any party, “provided it has sufficient financial means.” But he urged us not to underestimate a rather ominous totalitarian danger associated with the development of such a machine:

One cannot overlook the danger that it might eventually be monopolized by a totalitarian group that holds power. This group would no longer need an ingenious minister of propaganda to perpetuate its domination; it could instead, using rigorous scientific means, achieve its domestic and perhaps also its foreign policy ends with a degree of perfection that would overshadow Orwell’s “big brother” world itself.

In a letter that Pollock sent to Felix Weil in 1957, he sounded the alarm: “The technocrats are on the march — all over the world.”

Mythologies of Automation

From today’s vantage point, with the growth of automation in the key centers of industrial capitalism, Pollock’s book appears strikingly prescient. At the time it first appeared, however, critics such as the French left-wing writer Pierre Naville suggested that the idea of “total automation” could be a “false mythology” that obscured the realities of capitalist production.

Naville drew attention to the outsourcing of human labor to European colonial territories, where it assumed a very tangible form. In our own time, we see the direct and brutal exploitation of the labor force used for the extraction of raw materials in countries of the Global South, where there is no question of replacing human workers with machines. This limitation of Pollock’s analysis was related to a Eurocentric perspective that often characterized the writings of the Frankfurt School theorists.

There is a second limitation that we can identify in his work. For Pollock, the idea of the “mass worker” as a social force with oppositional or even revolutionary potential — an idea promoted by the Italian current of operaismo (“workerism”) during the 1960s — seemed already to be outmoded.

In contrast with those theorists who saw the big Fordist-style factory as a fertile and expansive terrain of anti-capitalist struggle, Pollock saw modern industrial plants as sites where the scientific power of administration was liquidating every possible form of resistance. Yet the current shift toward automation and the use of robots in production, which is consistent with Pollock’s diagnosis, still leaves room for us to conceive of new organizational forms of struggle and consciousness.

In spite of the atomization of workers, not only in knowledge-based industries but also in logistics, we have seen the development of strike action among Amazon workers in countries such as Britain, Germany, Italy, and France, with projects to coordinate such action on a global scale. These seeds of resistance may offer us a valuable corrective to the refined but overly hasty picture of irreversible “reification” that the Frankfurt School theorists once painted.

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