Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Science and Scientificity in the Society of Capital

Before we continue with the discussion of the "entrepreneurial spirit", we present here the promised short excerpt from the book on Nietzsche, titled 'Umwertung: Nietzsche's Trans-valuation of All Values'. There is an evident link between this excerpt and our discussions of "The Science of Logic and the Society of Capital" that you will find just below. As we saw in those discussions, the uncontainable social antagonism of living labour against the wage relation that is both the act of birth of the capitalist economy and the lynchpin of bourgeois society - this antagonism that was "absent" during the "Great Moderation" (from the early 1980s to 2007) and that was almost entirely due to the sudden "opening" of the vast Chinese workforce for exploitation by Western capital and its accomplices in the Chinese dictatorship (something we have reviewed repeatedly on this site) - this antagonism, we were saying, has suddenly burst out of its "protective lid" constituted by the ability of finance to hide and dissimulate it through the creation of what George Soros (he who should know) has dubbed "fictitious value".

But this "explosion" of antagonism, which at first took the economic and institutional form of "the Great Financial Crisis", has determined a "crisis" that is not only financial and now more broadly "industrial" - but also one that invests the "legitimacy" of both bourgeois society and institutions as well as of its "science". And it is this "crisis of bourgeois economic science" that we confront in these pieces. It is worthwhile noticing that as social antagonism mounts, the status of bourgeois "science" is undermined, and not just in economics. For it is the very notion of "scientificity" that the "crisis" brings back prepotently into question.

You will recall that Schumpeter, first among bourgeois economists, recognises that "crises" - far from being "exogenous" or "external" to capitalism - are in fact its very "differentia specifica" and they manifest themselves in waves of "creative destruction", in the "innovation process" of production technologies, labour practices, and consumption patterns. But Schumpeter fails to confront the antagonism inherent to such "creative destruction", to this "innovation": he prefers instead to translate it into a pattern of "economic evolution-development" (Entwicklung) that removes the antagonism, the assertion of capitalist command over living labour that is inextricably intertwined with the notions of "entrepreneurial spirit" and of "innovation".

An obvious "indicator" of the "crisis" of bourgeois economic science is the fact that the Nobel Prize Committee has recently taken refuge from the broader "theoretical core" of bourgeois economics (equilibrium and monetary theory) precisely because of its "crisis", and moved into the more "technical" corners that little have to do with the "substance" of economics - from the New Institutional Economics to "Labor Economics" to (just the other day) even "Econometrics"!

We saw with Milton Friedman's discussion of "Positive Economics" that one of the foremost and sharpest theoretical minds of bourgeois economics had preferred to retreat from any "substantive" position about the "scientificity" of economics to its mere ability to be "fruitful" - in other words, its ability correctly "to predict" the course of economic events in capitalist society "as it is"! Now, the present "crisis" has removed this last mainstay of Friedman's position: not only is it not permissible to remove "the goal" of economic activity from its "scientific analysis", but it also turns out that the reduction of economic analysis to mere "prediction" has been shown to be a complete and utter failure!

And yet this "denouement", this "shipwreck" of bourgeois economic science is instructive: - because it induces us to question the very ingredients and substance of "scientificity". And this is where Nietzsche comes irrepressibly back on centre-stage. The history of "science" shows that scientific "research" is a "search" for something - for "truth" or some practical solution or remedy. So long as the "universe" of scientific "experimentation" remains relatively "open", it may be possible to ignore the "interest" of scientific activity and concentrate on its "certainty". But once the "universe" of scientific practice becomes very "finite" and "circumscribed", then we begin to face a problem common to Nietzsche and - let us bring him back - Schumpeter, too. The problem is that once the "scientific calling", as Max Weber called it, and the "entrepreneurial spirit" (which Weber left to Schumpeter to study) grow increasingly intertwined and "organised" or, to use a word that both theoreticians loved, - rationalised - it is then this very Rationalisierung that becomes questionable, controversial, and dangerous.

The all-important point that we are making here is this: have we reached a point in the "development" (Entwicklung - that word again!) of the society of capital at which "science"  and "scientific discovery" and "innovation" are no longer autonomous activities and become instead "instruments of social and political power"!! Differently and mischievously put, what did Friedman mean by the "fruitfulness" of "positive economics" - and, to echo Nietzsche, what "Will to Truth" as disguised Will to Power lurks behind the "practice" of bourgeois "science"?

[To avoid ambiguity: This question has nothing to do with Foucault's "microphysics of power" - a concept that we execrate as much as the French philosopher himself. Foucault was an incurable romantic, focussed on pedestrian critiques of "the social sciences" - which, precisely, are not "sciences" at all! The question here concerns "all" of science - including the physical and mathematical ones. THAT constitutes the greatness of Nietzsche's implicit critique {admittedly from an ultra-reactionary perspective} of the "self-dissolution" of Christianity into bourgeois society, and of bourgeois society into nihilism.]

[Another note for readers of French, this editorial today - the second - from Jean-Marc Vittori at 'Les Echos' on the state of economics clearly sets up the "polar opposition" between economics as "formally predictive" or "positive" science confined to invreasingly "narrow" spheres of "reality as it is", and the consequent loss - through "formalism" - on the part of economics of its "content and substance", of its "purpose". {Incidentally, Gunnar Myrdal, another Nobel Prize laureate, confused this "loss of purpose" or "abulia" of mathesis with its "meaninglessness": in this, he was "mathematically" wrong! I'll leave the explanation of this until after the book is published.} Here goes:]

Here is the piece on Nietzsche.

The Wille zur Macht in Nature – From Newton to Mach

The Cartesian dichotomy between mechanistic operari and transcendental esse governs the worldview of the triumphant bourgeoisie at the beginning of the seventeenth century – with the formation of the Hobbesian state-machinery in Cromwellian England. (See Tronti and our Civil Society 1.) The individual is a Body that is either in motion or at rest. It generates a “Force” necessitated by its conatus or appetitus that, applied over time, produces and determines its “Power”. Already with Hobbes’s Leviathan, published one year before the Principia Mathematica, we have all the physical and political notions (body, motive, momentum, force, power) that will provide the basis of Newtonian mechanics. The “space” in which bodies move is strictly “Newtonian”, it is “external” (the forum externum) as against the “internal” time of the soul or psyche that “perceives” passively the bodies in this “space” and that is determined by the “forces” in it just as much as are “heavenly bodies”. Just as we learned to re-interpret the categories of truth and falsehood applied from the standpoint of a historical human society, so can we re-examine the worldview associated with liberal bourgeois society from its contrast with the mythical “state of nature” or “neutral state” that Hobbes invokes in order to enucleate “scientifically” his categories of that bourgeois society.

As we have seen, the analytical separation of the categories of truth and science, of knowledge, from those of the structure of society, of its social synthesis that allows its “reproduction” through social labour and symbolic interaction is not warranted ab initio because – and this is the point we wish to establish here following Nietzsche – the worldview that a social system generates may well depend not on an “objective scientific” observation of life and the world but rather on the self-understanding that the social system may have of itself! In other words, it may well be that science itself is not an “objective” set of tools and instruments that allow us to study social systems but may be itself the pro-duct of a given social system. If it turned out indeed that the very definition or con-ception of “science” depended entirely on the mode of activity of social interaction of that social system, then we would need to examine the society more closely to understand science rather than the other way around! Make no mistake: this is not a “hermeneutic” or “perspectivist” stance because, as we shall see, “perspectives” are neither “neutral” nor “equal”. But the re-interpretation of “science” will give us a new and powerful vantage point from which to understand and orient our activity in life and the world.

The existential aims of the nascent and rapidly dominant bourgeoisie are dual: one is to assert the “freedom” of each individual human being from all social ties so as to allow him to alienate his living activity as labour-power to the bourgeoisie already in possession of the means of production. The second is to permit the “an-nihilation” of the human environment for the purpose of its appropriation by the bourgeoisie to be utilized as further “means of production” to be worked on by an ever-expanding number of alienated human workers in exchange for a part of the past, objectified living labour, now dead labour, so as to enable their own survival and reproduction on an expanded scale.

The capitalist bourgeoisie therefore has the twin aims to assert the “political” freedom of individual workers with the aim of utilizing and subordinating the human physical and social environment for the purpose of its own “economic” exploitation subject to the laws of science and economics that rationalize and regulate this domination. In the circumstances, the living activity of each individual has to be defined and rewarded through its “exchange” with dead labour by “separating” it not just from the means of production that ensure its reproduction but also from one individual to another, in such a manner that “social labour” appears as a collage of separate individual labour-powers that are brought together, that are “concentrated” by the capitalist himself. As a result of this “concentration of social labour as individual labours” capital appears as an independent factor or power of production without which the production of social wealth and the very reproduction of society could not take place!

What compels and constrains capital to expand its own “accumulation” as dead labour commanding more living labour is the antagonism of living labour itself – which compels individual capitals to become “concentrated” the better to be able to organize and command living labour. It is this process of “accumulation of dead labour” as capital that is then used to command “expanded living labour” that characterizes the antagonistic motor of capitalist accumulation and development. At the same time, as is evident, this expanded reproduction of capital and alienated living labour, this accumulation of capital requires an expanded control and dominion over the living and social environment of workers. But because workers are understood and described as “free subjects”, the means of production and the entire world become potential “objects of domination” by capital to be exploited for the sake of the expanded reproduction of capitalist society. It is this process that the bourgeoisie comes to define as “science”.

The process of accumulation requires the regularity and predictability as well as the acceleration of the process of production which in turn necessitates the indefinite repeatability of these processes under controlled conditions (what is known as “experimentation”). Following the logic of “free human agent” alienated from its “object” and calculable operari, an opposition arises ineluctably between Subject and Object in which the latter, already “separated” from the former, becomes the “object” of experimentation that can be accurately predicted and repeated theoretically ad infinitum and therefore be “described” and “related” by means of abstract mathematical “laws” that, finally, are deemed “to explain” the observed phenomena that make up the experiments.

It is at precisely this point that the “necessity” of the mathematical relation or description of events that are deemed to be “linked causally” becomes problematic because the “description” or “explanation” of the causal nexus can never fully describe or capture the “necessity” of the events that remain in any case “separate” both in time and in thought. Both the “order” and the “connection” between events is problematic because the very separation of observing Subject and causal Object makes it impossible to reconcile with “certainty” the ordo et connexio idearum with the ordo et connexio rerum. What remains mysterious is whether the “order and connection” between events belongs to “the things themselves”, the Object, or whether it belongs rather to the “ideas” produced by the Subject to describe and explain the events!

The very attempt to segregate the “discovery” of “relations” between observable events from the “practical interest” of the scientific observer – what Mach calls “vulgar” and “scientific” interests – con-veniently removes the “political” interest of the owner of the means of production, the capitalist, from the operation of the process of production that subsumes to itself, dominates and subordinates from the very inception of the bourgeois era the experimental activities of “natural philosophers”.

The attempt to overcome these obvious deficiencies of Cartesian dualism and Newtonian physics begins with Berkeley’s idealism whereby what “seems” or “appears” to be “external” is in “reality” ultimately re(con)ducible to the “internal perceptions” or “ideas” formed in the psyche. There is therefore a “picto-grahic” notion of the re-presentation of physical events as “ideas” akin to “images” that are impossible to con-nect with one another. Leibniz will overcome the difficulty with the “windowless monads” connected in a “pre-established harmony” by a Deus absconditus. David Hume, instead, will engage in a systematic skepticism that denies both the necessary connection of images, and therefore of cause and effect between events, and also, more devastatingly, the very “presence” of an “image” or idea corresponding to the “subject”, the “ego”, that is supposed to be the repository of these images and perceptions!

Kant’s epistemology will seek to address this Humean skepticism – but it will still operate within the framework of Newtonian space and time. And the same can be said for Berkeley. In his attempt “to divorce” the scientific mathematical application of “laws” to physical events that clearly “originated” independently of human perception, Schopenhauer will adopt the Berkeleyan idealism of “esse est percipi”, but at the same time will locate the “laws” not, as with Kant, in a Pure Reason (Vernunft) that is “necessitated” by the very human ability “to con-nect” events in a predictable manner by “applying” mathematical reasoning, but rather by relegating human mathematical faculties to an intra-temporal Understanding (Verstand) that “simultaneously” perceives and “orders” the phenomena that form its “representations”. Schopenhauer therefore is able to jettison the need to postulate the “intervention” of a Kantian Pure Reason as a qualitas occulta or causa sui at the very “end” of the chain of causation! For Schopenhauer the “chain of causation” is based simply and entirely on “the principle of sufficient reason” – there are “con-nections” be-tween e-vents be-cause we are able to con-nect e-vents in our very “act” of perceiving! That is their “actu-ality” (Wirklichkeit). In other words, what we perceive are not raw “phenomena” that e-manate from “noumena” or things-in-themselves and that are subsequently “ordered rationally” by a Pure Reason that is not intuited but “necessitated” by the very “logic” of the mathematical “judgements” that we make – the Kantian synthetic a priori judgements. Schopenhauer does not deny the validity of mathematical “laws” but relegates them to the level of “understanding”, to an “intuitive” level from which Kant had sought to remove them through the “transcendental aesthetic” ascending from pure intuition of “internal” time and “external” space, to the sphere of the imagination with its Schematismus of the Understanding, and then finally to the empyrean of Pure Reason as the “necessary pre-supposition” of the very possibility of a priori knowledge made possible by experience and yet independent of it (against Humean inductivism).

Schopenhauer adopts Kantian “transcendental idealism” but refutes the positing of a “Thing” in itself from which mere phenomena (bloss Erscheinungen) emanate. Instead, he posits the co-incidence, the congruence of perception and mathematical synthesis in the principle of sufficient reason – so that our perceptions become “representations” (Vorstellungen) simultaneously ordered by an intuitive Understanding (Verstand). The e-limination of the “Thing-in-itself”, impossible to penetrate, inscrutable and unknowable, thus allows Schopenhauer to posit the ob-verse of the “Thing”, of Kant’s “physical” world: in its stead, Schopenhauer substitutes the most “interior” thing conceivable for us in the World – the Will, the one thing that we know best, even though, precisely because it is the qualitas occulta, the causa sui, the Weltprincip, it too is inscrutable and unknowable – it is only intuitable. But because it is inscrutable and unknowable, just like Kant’s Ding an sich, Schopenahuer conceives of the Will as a non-descript, yet “unitary” entity that “acts” through the body which is the “objectification” of the Will. So once more we have – and this is the entire basis of Nietzsche’s objection to both Schopenhauer and Kant, as well as all their predecessors back to Descartes – the “dualism” of the Will as “esse” or “intelligible freedom” in that it is not “conditioned” by any prior cause, and the body which represents the “operari” which is entirely determined like any other physical body, as Kant himself conceded. This “intelligible freedom” of the Will is what Nietzsche attacks fiercely and rejects disdainfully as a “lie”, a trick, a ruse, a mask – an Eskamotage,a Verstellungskunst (see quotation below). Leibniz had already objected to this dualism and proposed the mechanical pre-established harmony of the monads by the Divinity.

The truly revolutionary aspect of Nietzsche’s Entwurf is the blunt challenge to Newtonian space-time that even Mach (or Berkeley and Hume or Kant and Schopenhauer) had not dared to contemplate. Let us see how.

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