Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 23 November 2017

Chronicles of A Crisis Foretold - 2

Perhaps the greatest service that Friedrich Nietzsche rendered to humanity was his genial enucleation of the Western notion of Truth, not just in its ethical-moral dimension as “the Good” (summum bonum, in Latin); but also and above all in its logico-mathematical and scientific dimensions. This great discovery, however, is one that is comprehensively ignored by the entire multitude of commentators and scholars who have hitherto pored over Niezsche’s copious but lamentably aphoristic, “unsystematic” writings (recall “I detest all systematisers”, in Twilight of the Idols). The perversion of this concept of Truth - the perverse uses to which Western philosophy, religion and science have put it - is what Nietzsche sought to expose with every fibre of his intellect. This Will to Truth (Wille zum Wahrheit) is something that he denounced and destructed with tremendous clear-minded analytical incisiveness - matched in the social studies only perhaps by Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism. Yet, this is the least researched and understood aspect of the philosopher of Roken’s work!

What does Nietzsche tell us about the notion of Truth? With regard to ethico-moral values, he tells us that they are all relative and mostly anthropomorphised rationalisations of instinctive behaviour observable in the rest of the animal kingdom. The far more interesting aspect of the concept of Truth uncovered by Nietzsche concerns the logico-mathematical sphere, first, and the scientific one, second. Logical and mathematical equivalences are not “true”: they are mere tautologies, empty identities of the type A=A; they tell us nothing. When logico-mathematical identities tell us something, when they are not pure identities, when they are “useful tools”, then they are simply not “true” in the sense that they present a particular, empirical version or representation of reality. And because logico-mathematical identities, when useful, are so because they are “partial”, not “absolute” - because of their “partiality” logic-mathematical operations have to be analysed closely for their intrinsic bias. The early practitioners of the mathesis of “nature” - from Leonardo to Galileo to Kepler, even Newton - thought that the mathematical regularities they were discovering in experimental observation were part of a divine plan (in the case of Newton, even the black arts of magic applied - see JM Keynes’s superb essay in Essays in Biography). But as we have found out since, they were very disingenuous in failing to perceive that more often than not this divine plan “turned a blessing into a curse” (to invoke Sting in “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You”). 

Thus, it is not that that the world has contracted thus - there is absolutely no ordo et ratio rerum et ideorum, no order and reason of things and ideas in the life world: rather, the reality is that human beings seek to order the world in a manner that makes it exploitable by them! There are no mathematically formulable events “in” the life world that constitute an “objective reality”. Instead, mathematical “laws” are established by human beings so as to exploit the life world in a determinate specific direction. Far from being an intrinsic attribute of the physical world, physical-mathematical “laws” constitute a specific human “practice” that needs to be guided consciously by humans. Mathematical physics reifies this conscious human activity and transfers and projects it onto a mythical “objective reality” or “physical world” - “the world out there”.  This instrumentalisation of Reason and Nature is brought to a cataclysmic climax by the capitalist social system that has been with us since the Industrial Revolution.

The foremost and paramount bias exerted by logic-mathematics lies precisely in its facilitation of the equiparation or homologation of heterogeneous and sui generis realities or phenomena. The second bias is that of the irrelevance of quantities - that is, the neglect of the simple reality that quantities are invariably “qualities”, or “values” that must be perceived as such. The third bias is that whatever can be measured and predicted or controlled - whatever is “repeatable” - is “true”, or “good” in the sense of “certain” and therefore “exploitable”. The central credo of Western science is that whatever is measurable and predictable is “true” in the sense that it is “objectively real”. Yet the very “objective reality” that science seeks to discover is not “objective” at all - for the very reason that the activity of discovery itself changes the behaviour of the scientist and of all of us to the point where it establishes a novel, entirely different “reality”! An “experiment” is not something that can be reproduced infinitely - because such reproduction would destroy, erase and annihilate the very conditions that led to the experiment. Every experiment is indeed an “experience” and must be treated as such. Every experiment does not “dis-cover”; it is actually an “in-vention”, a human activity with a determinate “purpose”.

By seeking to distinguish between “value-rationality” and “purposive rationality”, Max Weber neglected the reality that every purpose has an implicit value and that therefore no “rationality” is possible as a neutral-technical tool or activity. Every human activity has a purpose and a meaning, and thence a value that makes the notion of “rationality” wholly devoid of substantive content and, indeed, of any “formal validity” or “objective truth”! Although Weber never stated an explicit belief in rationality as an absolute measure, he certainly believed that it was possible to devise rational parameters linking available means with proposed goals (see the essay “On the ‘Objectivity’ of the Social Sciences”). That is why Weber could aim to theorise the Rationalisierung of social life perpetrated by capitalist industry as a process independent of capitalism itself. This is perhaps the biggest flaw in Weber’s otherwise imponent and enlightening sociological oeuvre.

At the centre of Weber’s concept of Rationalisierung lies the notion of “the iron cage” (stahlharte Gebaude) which, in its proper interpretation, refers to the secularisation of irrepressible self-interested wants. It is this Ent-seelung - this “soul-lessness” - that drives the Rationalisierung in capitalist society. In this key, Weber’s sociological account of capitalist industry runs the risk of being co-opted, as it regrettably has, by late-romantic critiques of bourgeois society and culture, starting with Lukacs’s extrapolation of Marx’s concept of alienation and reification derived from his politico-economic critique of “the commodity” (see the very first chapter of Das Kapital). Despite this, it is possible to rescue Weber’s own analysis of capitalism to a neo-Marxist critique by focussing on his splendid intuition of the foundation of capitalist profit on the exakte Kalkulation (exact calculation) of “disciplined labour power in capitalist factory production”. By insisting on the social basis of profit as the ability of the capitalist employer to impose competitive labour discipline on factory workers, Weber genially and correctly identified the whole crux of capitalist industry and the real kernel of “the iron cage” (consumerism) on which the entirety of bourgeois society is built.

It is on this tension between the dictatorship of the factory (the “exact calculation” of the intensity of disciplined labour or labour-power for the production of commodities) and the “democracy of the market” (rampant consumerism) that capitalist production and bourgeois society teeter on the brink of self-annihilation. The capitalist system of production and the bourgeois society of consumption are - to ape Donald Trump - on a suicide mission because their survival depends, on the supply side, on relative overpopulation to discipline workers (the “exact calculation’) and on the demand side they depend on the endless grasp for the gratification of false needs and wants leading to the mass alienation of popular constituencies from “democratic” institutions (Weber’s Entseelung or Ent-zauberung, literally soul-lessness and dis-illusionment, dis-enchantment).

From this perspective, it is easy to descry the twin symptoms of what is called widely in the bourgeois mass media “populism”: on one side, revulsion at falling living standards due to the massive expansion of the global labour force (this is the basis of “globalisation”) even through immigration (labour mobility); and then, on the other side, disenchantment with “democratic institutions” that promise heaven on earth only to deliver catastrophic hell, first and foremost the consumerist destruction of the ecosphere.

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