Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 25 January 2013

Technik und Kultur – from Marx to Weber: A Tribute to Aaron Swartz

Traditional social theory begins with “the individual” taken from an ontogenetic standpoint – almost as if that “in-dividual” could exist independently of the species and indeed of the environment with which the species interacts. It is understandable, then, why the passage from individual to society is so fraught with antinomies and antitheses and contradictions – and why theories aimed at filling this hiatus must necessarily be “transcendentalist” because they must posit a “social contract” that is the pro-duct of an idealistic interest – a “reason” or a “spirit” or a “freedom” – that is shared by all “in-dividuals” and that allows them to co-exist. Social contract theories and rationalist theories of “society” start from the building bloc of in-dividuum. Yet this notion of in-dividuum is itself a concept that depends on a division of social labour so extensive, so “specialized”, that it is possible to think and conceive of the “individual” as independent of “society”! It is the very “a-tomisation” of social life operated by Christian-bourgeois society that permits the ab-straction of human beings from their “being human”! All previous social theory begins with the “in-dividuum” and conveniently forgets that it is a pure fiction created by a particular type of society – and specifically by Christian-bourgeois society with its religious notion of “soul” and its related socio-economic one of “property rights” that then extend to “political and human rights”. What we are seeking to do here is to develop an “immanentist” approach to social theory that takes a phylogenetic approach to society and its “members” – an approach that treats “human beings” as “aspects of being human”. We are trying to reset the building blocs of social analysis starting not from the in-dividuum but rather from the “fact” of “species-being” – just as great theoreticians did, albeit inconsistently, like Marx with the concept of Gattungswesen, Nietzsche with the “ontogeny of thought,” and Hegel with the dialectic of self-consciousness”.

This lengthy quotation from Werner Jaeger’s Paideia (Vol.3) contains many of the themes that we have discussed over the role of the Logos between poiesis and techne’ in connection with Nietzsche.

More than any other sphere of life, the art of oratory resists
the effort of systematic reason to reduce all individual facts to a
number of established schemata, basic forms. In the realm of
logic Plato calls these basic forms the Ideas. As we have seen,
he took this three-dimensional mode of describing them from
contemporary medical science, and applied it to the analysis of
Being. In rhetoric we can see the same process in operation at
the same time, though we cannot definitely say that it was
directly influenced by Plato's use of the term idea. Medicine and
rhetoric were by their very nature the spheres in which this conception
of basic forms or Ideas could be developed—for medicine
reduces a number of apparently different physiological
events to a few fundamental types; and rhetoric likewise simplifies
what seem to be separate and distinct political or legal
situations. The essence of both skills is to analyse the individual
case into its general aspects, so as to make it easier to treat
in practice. The comparison of these general patterns to the
letters of the alphabet here, and later in Plato—was obvious enough.
The act of reading is just the same as that of political or forensic or
medical diagnosis: a large number of variously assembled shapes
are reduced to a limited number of basic 'elements', and thus
the meaning of each of the apparently manifold shapes is recognized.
59 In science too, the 'elements' which make up physical
nature were first called by that name in the same period, and
the same analogy, drawn from language and the letters of the
alphabet, lies behind it.60

Isocrates of course does not by any means reject the doctrine of a
rhetorical system of Ideas. In fact, his writings show that he largely
adopted that doctrine, and that he took as the foundation of his own
teaching the mastery of the basic forms of oratory. But oratory which
knew no more than these forms would be as sounding brass and a
tinkling cymbal. The letters of the alphabet, immovable and
unchangeable, are the most complete contrast to the fluid and
manifold situations of human life, whose full and rich complexity
can be brought under no rigid rule.61 Perfect eloquence must be
the individual expression of a single critical moment, a kairos,
and its highest law is that it should be wholly appropriate. Only
by observing these two rules can it succeed in being new and
In a word, oratory is imaginative literary creation. Though
it dare not dispense with technical skill, it must not stop short
at that.63 Just as the sophists had believed themselves to be the
true successors of the poets, whose special art they had transferred
into prose, so Isocrates too feels that he is continuing
the poets' work, and taking over the function which until a
short time before him they had fulfilled in the life of his nation.
His comparison between rhetoric and poetry is far more than a
passing epigram. Throughout his speeches the influence of this
point of view can be traced. The panegyric on a great man is
adapted from the hymn, while the hortative speech follows the
model of the protreptic elegy and the didactic epic. And, in
these types, Isocrates copies even the order of his ideas from
the well-established traditional order which was a rule in each
of the corresponding poetic genera. More than that: the position
and prestige of the orator are determined by this parallel with
the poet. The new vocation must support itself on an old and
firmly-established one, and take its standards therefrom. The
less Isocrates hopes or wishes to succeed as a practical statesman,
the more he needs the prestige of poetry to set off his
spiritual aims; and even in the educational spirit by which his
rhetoric is inspired, he is deliberately emulating what the Greeks
conceived to be the educational function of the poets of old.

One aspect of logic and science as “languages” or systems of symbols is that they make possible “the social synthesis” – that is to say, they allow human beings to co-ordinate their actions and to fulfil their human potential as members of the species. This is the “technical” side of the Logos. The other aspect is the “poetic” one that elevates communication from the realm of technique to that of creation or innovation or decision-making authority. Poiesis itself can exist only for the in-dividual – because poiesis as such, ea ipsa, is by definition in-communicable, in-effable. From the viewpoint of the social synthesis, therefore - which is all that does and can matter for our being human -, only the technical aspects of communication can be the subject of political analysis and action. These aspects correspond to the “executive” or administrative and bureaucratic side of social life, whilst the poetic role is invariably invoked to describe and rationalise the decisional and initiating, “creative” or “authoritative” (from the Latin auctor, initiator, author, creator) side of the social synthesis. The former role tends to the “need-necessities” of social life, and the latter serves the artistic needs. The very fact that the Sophists reduced the dialectical method that long pre-dates the Platonic dialogues (themselves a written version of spoken Socratic dialectics) from a dia-logue (thesis and anti-thesis) over a specific theoretical topic aimed at “the truth” to a “public address” aimed at swaying “public opinion” is testimony to the changing political role of techne’ and poiesis in the life of the Greek city-states, where political orators were now called on to persuade assembled crowds rather than individual debaters, and then even by means of prepared written public addresses and manifestoes (appropriately called “propaganda”) rather than by verbal extemporizing (see on all this, Giorgio Colli, La Nascita della Filosofia).

Nietzsche’s quarrel with the “scientific” and dialectical Socrates (and Platonism, and Christianity as “Platonism for the masses”) starts with this “formulation” of life, with the “idealization” of existence and its being a “copy” of the world of Ideas – in short, with the reduction of individual experience to “technique” by means of the “crystallization and coagulation” of human communication to achieve this social synthesis. By contrast, his elevation of the Sophists is based on their preference for the “earthly” and the “real”, for the apparent and the tragic, for the kairos of seizing the moment to sway the audience. In other words, Nietzsche seeks to overcome the very cleavage between poiesis and techne’ that had been introduced by the Logos, yet he does so by simply denigrating techne’, by reducing the social synthesis as such (tout court) to reification as against the “authenticity” of poiesis - and therefore in effect, by treating the two as opposites, he clearly ends up “reifying” or hypostatizing all human communication and the social synthesis, just as Weber’s Rationalisierung and Kalkulation will do years later. By failing to identify the exact political forces that have led to and constitute this “rationalization”, both Nietzsche and Weber commit the mistake of asserting that “things” have power over human beings, however much they may end up denouncing this “rationalization and disenchantment of the world”. (Lowith, too, is wrong to claim that for Marx also there is a “self-alienation of man” through the “reification” of commodities – because if “alienation” is simply the “self-alienation of [abstract] Man”, then clearly it is only “things” or commodities and not some men and women that can “govern” this supposed self-alienation and impose it over other human beings.)  Because both Nietzsche and Weber start with language as mere symbolic “exchange between in-dividuals”, the former, and “socialization” as the rational settlement of conflict again “between in-dividuals”, neither of them manages to realise that both communication and the division of social labour begin not with “in-dividuals” (the sociological equivalent of a-toms in chemistry), but rather with the phylogenetic unity of human being.

For Isocrates, it is the very committal of ideas to the written form that “democratizes” them – which is why he must then insist on “imaginative” literature to preserve the poetic “aura” of the rhetorician, and why for him as for Plato the rhetorician and the philosopher take “poetical” precedence to the “practical man” or “technician” or “specialist” or “statesman” – in all cases, a bureaucrat. (Cicero’s De Oratore offers a similar elevation of the mystique of oratory in Romano-Hellenic society.) Similarly, in Weber, for whom bureaucracy was paramount in understanding all developed societies (not just capitalist ones), the Sozialisierung is a product of “the iron cage”, the conflict of individual needs, and runs parallel to the Demokratisierung: the more that the division of social labour reduces the provision of human needs to techne’ or routine – to “bureaucracy” -, the greater becomes the accessibility of information required for the reproduction of society (the Kalkulation). Yet just as for Isocrates, for him this only leads to the dependence of the decision-making hierarchy on a few charismatic leaders that can sway “the masses” with their extraordinary “poetic” or “charismatic” powers.

Thus for Weber, surprisingly, it is the very “specialization” that requires the centralization of decision-making power, as in the American mass parties (cf. Politik als Beruf). This is befuddling because it is quite obvious that the more “technical” and “specialized” a process becomes, the more open to democratic control it grows precisely because, as Weber himself (and even Isocrates!) would most certainly agree, (a) the “decision” is never and can never be a “technical” matter, and (b) decisions based on more complex “technicalities” become more, not less, open to democratic scrutiny because the “decisive” aspect recedes. Yet both Isocrates and Weber attempt to turn even decision-making that is assisted by acute technical skill and information, not into a truly participatory democratic process, but rather into its opposite - into a matter of “feeling” or aesthesis, as Jaeger insightfully explains in connection with the Greek medical “profession”:

The real doctor is recognized by his power to estimate what is
appropriate for each individual case.38 He is the man who has the
sure judgment to pick the right quantity for everyone. There
is no standard of weight or measure by which one could fix
quantities on a general basis. That must be done wholly by
feeling (aisthesis) which is the only thing that can compensate
for the lack of such a rational standard.39 That is where practising
physicians make most of their mistakes, and he who makes
only a small one now and then is indeed a master of his calling.
Most doctors are like bad pilots. As long as the weather is all
right their inexpertness is not noticeable, but in a bad storm
everyone sees that they are useless. (p.18)

The pilot of a ship sailing in good weather requires only techne’; but in bad
weather he needs to rise up to poiesis or virtue (arete’). This categorization 
rhymes with Nietzsche’s dualism of “the rational man” and “the intuitive man”,
of science and art, of false necessity and freedom, of reification and expression or
authenticity (Heidegger, Sartre). Once again, Nietzsche’s political orientation is
exquisitely “aristocratic”, erecting a barrier between the Ubermensch and “the
herd”. Equally, in Weber the dualism is between the “soullessness” of the
bureaucratic and administered individual who belongs to “the masses”, and the
Individualitat of the charismatic leader or “hero” with his leitender Geist.
Nietzsche’s own “intuitive man” or “aesthetic man” – the individual who
possesses this “aesthesis” or “feeling”, or even the Ubermensch – is clearly the
precursor of Weber’s “charismatic leader”. This aspect of demotic elitism is a
central feature of middle-European social theory from Weber to Schumpeter
(although it was first theorized by Pareto and Mosca). It is in a “crisis”, the
political equivalent of this medical “storm”, that the Weberian leitender Geist and
its “charisma”, the politics of “responsibility”, emerge prepotently. Similarly, it is
Schumpeter’s Unternehmer-geist  (entrepreneurial spirit) that not only inter-venes
in a capitalist “crisis” by means of “Innovation”, but actually and actively causes
one! There is an element of “initiation” or mysticism leading to authoritarianism
in all this that Jaeger also identifies with truly astounding acumen when he
describes the process whereby the Greek medical “profession” and its
demiourgoi sought to turn itself into a select dictatorship of quasi-religious
or charismatic leaders distinct from the demotai or idiotes:

Our word 'layman', originating in the mediaeval church, first
meant a person not in holy orders, and thence a person not initiated
into professional secrets; but the Greek word idiotes carries a social
and political connotation. It means a man who pays no attention
to the state and the community, but simply attends to his private
affairs. In contrast with him, the doctor is a demiourgos, a
'public worker'—as indeed every artisan was called who made
shoes or utensils for the public. Often laymen are distinguished
from the doctor, viewed in this light, by being called 'the people'
(demotai). The name demiourgos vividly brings together the two
sides of the doctor's profession—its social and its technical
aspects—while the difficult Ionic word cheironas (which is used
as a synonym for it) signifies only the latter aspect.21 There is
no word to distinguish the Greek doctor with his higher skill
from what we should consider as an ordinary artisan; and the
same holds for the sculptor and the painter. However, there is
something in Greek medicine which resembles our use of the
word 'layman', with its implication 'uninitiated'. That is the
beautiful close22 of the Hippocratic Law: 'Secret things are
revealed only to initiates. It is forbidden to reveal them to
profane persons before they are initiated into the mysteries of
knowledge.' Here we have mankind divided, as if by a religious
rite, into two classes, one of which is severely debarred from an
arcane knowledge. This line of thought raises the doctor's
importance above that of a mere artisan, both technically and

It is entirely obvious here that both Isocrates and Weber elevate the poiesis of the leader well above the techne’ of the artisan (or demotai or idiotes) on two specific premises: - one is that public or political decisions to be made on the basis of the available information are “conflictual” because (for Weber at any rate) decisions  always involve conflictual and contro-versial matters, including the interpretation of “available information” on which the decisions are to be made; and the other is that the taking of decisions involves a demos (the public intended as “spectators”, as “mass”) that plays only a passive role in that it needs to be “led” and “persuaded” by a dictatorship of “initiates”. This second point is strengthened by the spread of public addresses or rallies as against “dia-logues” between two dialecticians (in the Socratic sense), and by the fact that both public addresses and even dia-logues are committed to writing (even by Plato, of course, who still qualified himself as a philo-sopher, a “lover” of wisdom, but not as a “sophist” or wise sage like Socrates or Heraclitus or Anaxagoras) so they may be “propagated” to a wide “public”. (Again, see G. Colli’s brilliant short study on La Nascita della Filosofia. The equivalent “structural change of the public sphere” in the capitalist era was the focus of Jurgen Habermas’s homonymous masterful early study.)

There is an obvious apory in Weber’s reasoning between the Demokratisierung (occasioned by the spread and rise of the working class in capitalist industrial nations in his time) that requires both the extension of “markets” and the spread of the bureaucratic apparatus to regulate this process at a distance, as it were, so as to give the impression that the social synthesis operates independently of political control through “economic laws”: this is the Sozialisierung, on one hand. And then on the other hand there is the need for this bureaucratic machinery to be “guided” by the “leading Spirit” of the “charismatic hero”. This apory is why Marx instead reasons in the exact opposite direction to Weber (in the Grundrisse at any rate, because elsewhere he seems to justify Lukacs’s “artisanal totality”): democratization and consequent socialization require higher concentration of power so as to preserve the power of those already in control (the capitalist managers) – which serves only to intensify the antagonism of the existing social relations. (Benjamin Constant will describe this as the rise of the “private rights” as against the “public freedom” of Antiquity – and so will Hannah Arendt.)

Here is the polar opposition of “forces” and “relations” of production – which certainly does not mean, as Weber wrongly took it to mean, a mechanical relation between the wind mill and feudalism and the steam-mill and capitalism (cf. Marx: "The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist", The Poverty of Philosophy, ch.2). Indeed, the notion of “force” of production could never be intended by Marx in a “mechanical” sense (though often in his more scientistic moments he does give that impression), but simply to distinguish the direct relations of production from their “legal” aspects, that is, the social claim to “distribution” of what he called “surplus value”. There is no great merit, then, in Weber’s attempt to reduce the Marxian metonymy to the crude distinction of “base and superstructure” and then suggest instead the Sombartian analysis based on the mixture of “Technik und Kultur”:

Es ist selbstverständlich an sich etwas Willkürliches und sehr Zweifelhaftes, was man unter dem Begriff »Technik« verstehen will. Marx gibt eine Definition des Begriffs Technik meines Wissens nicht. Es steht aber bei Marx, bei dem sehr Vieles steht, was, wenn man genau und pedantisch, wie wir es tun müssen, analysiert, nicht nur widerspruchsvoll scheint, sondern wirklich widerspruchsvoll ist, unter anderem eine oft zitierte Stelle des Inhalts: Handmühle bedingt Feudalismus, Dampfmühle bedingt Kapitalismus. Das nun ist eine nicht ökonomische, sondern technologische Geschichtskonstruktion, – und von der Behauptung selbst ist einwandsfrei zu konstatieren, daß sie einfach falsch ist. (in,+Max/Schriften+zur+Soziologie+und+Sozialpolitik/Gesch%C3%A4ftsbericht+und+Diskussionsreden+auf+dem+ersten+Deutschen+Soziologentage+in+Frankfurt+1910/Diskussionsrede+zu+W.+Sombarts+Vortrag+%C3%BCber+Technik+und+Kultur)
(This is Weber’s discussion of W.Sombart’s lecture on „Technik und Kultur“.)

Of course, abstracted from its specific socio-historical context, both the wind mill and the steam-mill are “technological” and not “economic” entities. Here yet again we see how sterile and “pedantic” Weber’s neo-Kantian formalism becomes the minute one seeks to dissect human reality into separate “scientific” categories. Doubtless, what Marx meant is that the steam-mill represents the application of scientific practice to the production of commodities for a “market” (steam allows the constant capital invested on its machinery to be used round-the-clock and decreases its time of circulation), rather than the application of traditional methods for local subsistence production (the wind mill is subject to the vagaries of the weather)! There is an obvious dif-ference between the two “machines” – and curiously this is a process that Weber himself identified also (apart from Marx) in “Science as a Vocation” and generally in his writings on capitalism as “the regulation of free labour under the discipline of the factory” – a “regulation” meant to secure the pro-duction of excess labour force or excess population (the unemployed) so as to maintain the “discipline” of those who are employed.

The problem for capitalism and its “regulated discipline” of wage labour is that it is getting increasingly harder for this “excess” labour force to be kept in too large numbers (rates of unemployment are shrinking relative to previous historical “crises”) and too disenfranchised in terms of their dependence on actual employment for their social reproduction (the living standards of even the unemployed are generally rising, again, relative to previous crises). The old distinction between “intellectual” and “manual” labour is fading away because most labour processes now are technical or intellectual in kind. As we have established in our study of Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s Intellectual and Manual Labour (and in our critique of Cacciari’s distinction of poiesis as against techne’ in ‘El Hacer del Canto’), no distinction is possible between intellectual and manual labour for the simple reason that all human activity involves mental and physical aspects that are impossible to separate let alone distinguish! And with the fading of this notion and reality of “labour as toil”, the related parallel notion that “knowledge is power” no longer applies because with growing specialization and ease of communication it is not the actual “knowledge” that individuals possess that determines their position in capitalist industry and society - and therefore their “power”. Rather, it is “access to information” that becomes vital to determining this political power.

The only distinction possible is one based on specific “skills” required for certain tasks. But these “skills” are de-fined by complex social “rules”, by the “regimentation” of a society in a given manner. Now, it is precisely this “regimentation” that is giving way because the skewed distribution of knowledge is incompatible with its immediate accessibility as “information” – except for legal-proprietary “barriers” erected by capital! In other words, the “distance” between skilled and unskilled labour is reduced greatly by the facility of “bridging” this distance through easier and faster means of communication. This is what the incessant Demokratisierung has achieved since at least the age of Gutenberg – something that Nietzsche and Weber understood perfectly well. As did Kierkegaard:

»Kaiser, Könige, Päpste, Jesuiten, Generäle,
Diplomaten haben bisher in einem entscheidenden
Augenblick die Welt regieren können; aber
von der Zeit an, da der vierte Stand eingesetzt
wird, wird es sich zeigen, daß nur Märtyrer die
Welt regieren können.«
Das Eine, was not tut
(Emperors, kings, popes, Jesuits, generals, diplomats have hitherto been able to govern the world without batting an eyelid. But since the time of the rise of the Fourth Estate [the working class], it has become evident that only Martyrs can rule the world.)

The repercussions of this realization are far-reaching and indeed revolutionary. The fact is that it is becoming much harder for capital to reintroduce “pain” (or “brawn”) and “brain” into the rationale of the wage relation and indeed of its control over the allocation of “resources” or capital. However much its distribution may be affected by “effort” or “skill”, the growing identification of  capital with “resources” evinces its growing “socialization” as a productive force as against the “private” nature of its allocation, in that the process of “allocation” involves virtually no “effort” on the part of the decision-maker except for the “naked reality” of his “proprietary right” to make such decisions (made increasingly political rather than technical by the very spread of knowledge-as-information!). The information revolution brings prepotently to the fore the sheer brutality and naked violence – the real terrorism! – of the capitalist command over living labour. Not “effort”, not “skill”, determines the rule of capital over our living labour any longer – but rather the sheer naked and violent “fact” of the imposition of capitalist command over the allocation and distribution of social resources.

It is indeed extremely hard to justify both ownership of capital and the income derived from it on the ground of “managerial ability” or “innovational genius” or even of something as vague as “leadership”. The vacuity of Weber’s concept of charisma and of Schumpeter’s “entrepreneurial spirit” (these are the great bourgeois exponents of “democratic elitism” with Pareto and Mosca), was already obvious to the latter scholar by the time he wrote Capitalism, Socialism & Democracy which can be considered as the apotheosis and the coda of this particular stage of capitalism that came to an end with the collapse of the Bretton Woods Gold-Dollar Exchange Standard in 1971. It is on this next phase of capitalist development that we shall concentrate next.

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