Friday, 10 August 2018

Postcard From Hokkaido: Truth, Science, History - and Capitalism.


The Earth is burning and dying. Capitalism is killing it. Contra Nietzsche, planeti-cide, not dei-cide, is the secular catastrophe, the most horrid crime for human civilisation. I have sought refuge from the unbearable heat of the norther hemisphere (36 Celsius in Taipei, 40 in Tokyo) as far north as I could go - in Hokkaido. Refuge, not just shelter, nor sanctuary, that’s for saints or rare species - because it is more than heat that I seek relief from. I wish also to take a break from the madness engulfing the world. The gaping divide between profitability (ever-growing accumulation of control over living labour by means of dead labour) and the sustainability of life on earth is easily gauged by the incalculable and irretrievable damage that this capitalist social system is inflicting on our lonely planet. Small wonder that the bourgeoisie should try to appease us with pathetic pie-in-the-sky lures of future interplanetary travel and settlement! That is without counting all the garbage about “artificial intelligence” when supposedly it will be robots that will relieve us of all suffering and toil! In reality, of course, capitalism is “the civilization of labour” because it is founded on the accumulation of command over surplus living labour – which means, of course, that the survival of the bourgeoisie and its accumulation of capital depends on the perpetuation and expansion of necessary living labour!

The global bourgeoisie is palpably hell-bent on erasing not just biodiversity, not just the ecosphere, but also - and consequentially - the only thing that could protect the Earth from devastation, the very fabric of anything resembling a rational society guided by humane and progressive values. Capitalist accumulation engenders (in the sense that it enables and requires) overpopulation, and therefore uncontrolled consumption and destruction of natural resources. At the same time, the global bourgeoisie promotes anti-democratic lumpen-proletarian ideologues and propagates misinformation that make any type of rational government and lawful order utterly impossible. The one deplorable phenomenon feeds into the other in a diabolically spiraling, pernicious conflagration that is simultaneously suffocating our atmosphere and asphyxiating our minds. Here in the verdant cool of Hokkaido it is easy to picture oneself in the robes of those mediaeval monks who retreated to the wintry fields of Ireland, seeking shelter from the howling wind inside a rudimentary church or monastery built with rough-hewn stone – just as Marguerite Yourcenar imagined in one of her most beautiful essays – Le Temps, Ce Grand Sculpteur. It is to such remote places that gentler spirits flee to escape the ravages of their crumbling civilization, braving the inclement elements and the harsh environment, warmed by a feeble fire burning in the somber hearth and by the fickle hope of preserving for posterity the last remnants of the ancient wisdom that has lit their grim lives. Yourcenar likens the experience of the monks to that of a fledgling bird that flies into their cavernous building from a lantern in the ceiling, traverses the vault from side to side, comforted by the brief glow of warmth rising from the log-fire below, before exiting through a crack in the opposite wall to face the dark cold night once more.  

The bourgeoisie thrives on the “proletariat” - on the “proles” that supply the human fodder to feed capitalist factories. Except that this proliferation - the overpopulation and excess labour force on which capital accumulates - is now threatening the very survival of the Earth. Ruling classes have always loved the mob: - after all, rulers need a mob to be able to rule; only the existence of a mob can make possible the complementary endurance of a ruling class. And free spirits have always wished to remove themselves from the blandishments and the menace of rulers and mob alike. “Segui il tuo corso e lascia dir le genti”, Virgil admonishes Dante at the entrance of the Inferno, just as Socrates fought valiantly against the doxa that turned stultified souls away from episteme. Even Kant, profound believer in the Enlightenment, had to conclude late in his life that “just as never a straight house was erected from crooked wood” so humanity would never meet with a happy destiny. And did not Heidegger, the epigone of Western prima philosophia, lament that “oblivion of Being” that had led to the “obscuration of the world” (l’obscurcissement du monde) in his Einfuhrung zur Metaphysik lectures held in Paris shortly before the last World War?

To remove himself from the hurly-burly of urban life and affairs of state, the genial Florentine Secretary, Niccolo’ Machiavelli, would retreat to his manor in the hills outside Florence to seek sanctuary from the petty rapacity of his fellow citizens consumed by self-interest and wholly oblivious of the interests of their polity. The discrepancy between these two realities - private affluence and public interest – has finally caught up with the social system of which he was an early witness and now can be measured in the degradation of our planet and its living conditions. (Alec Pigou, in The Economics of Welfare, designated the degradation of the environment caused by the pursuit of profits with the word “externalities” - almost in a sheepish attempt to deflect the obvious conclusion that these are indeed “internalities” of the capitalist mode of production!) Away from the frenzied scheming of the popolo grasso and the blind ferocity of the popolo minuto, the author of Il Principe would retire to his study where he could then consult his extensive library and commune with the antiqui auctores - from Plato and Aristotle to Cicero and Seneca – and reflect upon the “barbe et peripetie” (barbs and vicissitudes) of human historical experience, concluding that human life is a mix of virtus et fortuna (virtue and fortune).

The task of reflection is always arduous and fatidic. The thinker looks back upon the past so as to divine the future - much as the Etruscan haruspices inspected the entrails of cattle in search of omens and auspices. But the process of reflection is also one of removal from the cacophony of the present - it is the A-skesis, the strenuous ascent of the pilgrim or the visionary (Nietzsche’s ‘Uber-mensch’, Zarathustra, retreats to the mountains) to the vantage point from which to survey reality and peer into the horizon where the land and the sky collide. A metaphoric ascent that can also become a descent - into Hades (Odysseus, Aeneas) or Hell (Dante). Reflection relies much more on the intellect than on the will - which is why prophecies are more often dark than uplifting: ”Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect”, was the motto launched by Gramsci and Rolland. Dark prophecies can serve opposing causes: one is to invite us to surrender to the inevitability of doom, and the other is to stir us to strenuous resistance against it: “It is only for the sake of those who have lost hope that hope is given to us”. Ironic, then, if compatible, that the artificers of dark prophecies and the idealist seekers of a brighter future should turn to philosopher kings (Plato) or to a Leviathan (Hobbes) or a Principe Nuovo (Gramsci again) to lead us out of the darkness of Lethe (forgetfulness) into the light of Mnemosyne (memory). Machiavelli turned to “the Prince”.


Gratias agamus Machiavello...qui nobis aperte et indissimulanter proferet quid homines facere soleant non quid debeant.

With this sonorous praise, one of the first proponents of bourgeois science, Francis Bacon, anointed Machiavelli as one of the founders of political science rather than ethics. For Aristotle - and certainly for Plato - politics, far from being a “science”, was only a chapter, published separately, of the Nicomachean Ethics. But now Bacon proposes a clean-cut distinction between the realms of fact and values, between science and morals or ethics. The task of science, writes Bacon in The Advancement of Learning (De Augmentis Scientiarum), is not to preach or to exhort or even less to inspire “values”. Even in matters concerning human affairs, the task of science is neither autopsia - the retrospective analysis (dissection) of foregone events, nor even anamnesis (their recollection). The task of science is mere empeiria - naked empirical observation of facts. It is neither the Ought (Sollen) of ethics nor the Must (Mussen) of religious commandments: it is rather the Is (Sein) of reality described without fear or favour, sine ira et studio - “openly and without dissimulation” (aperte et indissimulanter). The sole end of science is Truth, the ordo et connexio rerum et idearum: every Ought, every ethical value or moral goal, indeed, every meta-physics is just that, “beyond physics”, and therefore beyond the scope of scientific research.

Yet, contrary to Bacon’s obvious implication, what people actually do is still tied to ideas and values that point them to what they “ought” or “should” do. It is obvious therefore that the purely empirical role of science that Bacon advocates is based on a fundamental fallacy. And that not just in the sense (emphasised by Friedrich Hayek in The Counter-Revolution of Science) that all sociological observation aiming to be “objective” must also - by definition! - take into account the “subjective” views of the “subjects” (or is that, “objects”?) it purports to observe! - But also above all because all scientific research and observation must account for the “values” that led the scientists themselves to research a specific area of human endeavour or of “objective reality”, of “matter” - a point central to Max Weber’s entire methodology of science. Not only: what Bacon also is unable to see, right at the dawn of the bourgeois era, is the unquestionable fact that “science” is not a neutral-objective undertaking but rather it is a specific human activity – a praxis! - in all and for all identical to technological fabrication and invention. For all the mythology of “science and progress”, homo sapiens has always and everywhere been co-generate with homo faber! The fallacious distinction between science and technology owes its unimpeded survival and propagation to the need of sprawling capitalist industry to present its new techniques of production as innovations based solely and entirely on “scientific truth” - and not on the class antagonism of the wage relation.

Bacon confused Machiavelli’s enucleation of the concept of raison d’Etat  in his magnum opus, The Prince, with the outline of a truly “mechanistic” political theory. (On this specific concept and its salience in the political theory of the late Renaissance with the statolaters [Grotius, Pufendorf to Spinoza], see F. Meinecke, Die Idee der Staatsrason.) Whilst there is certainly a mechanistic bias in Machiavelli’s exposition of Realpolitik, the overriding aim of his studies was to outline a clear deontological guide to ensure the triumph of virtus over fortuna. It is undeniable that Machiavelli considered that in statecraft “the ends justify the means”. But the insistence on this realism was beyond the scope of a serious effort at a scientific political theory. For the Florentine Secretary, human actions, far from being equiparable or capable of being homologated with physical events, are of an entirely different nature. Indeed, it is arguable that Machiavelli was a precursor of Vico’s “Scienza Nuova” in that truth can only be predicated of human actions, not of physical events, because it is only human actions (“facts” from the Latin facere, to do) that are truly knowable by humans – for the reason that both the historical agents and the scholars studying their actions share a common insight in the reasons that led the agents to follow a given course of action! And this “knowledge” or science of human activity extends to scientific research in the “natural sciences” and to technological invention! It is this realization that led Vico to label his theory of human history and activity “Scienza Nuova”. Not only is there not a distinction between physical observation and historical action, but there is also no distinction between “appearance” and “reality”: - because the very fact that a human activity has taken place – that it is a “factum” – means immediately that it is also “true” (verum) by virtue of its having been “done”, of its having taken place as res gestae: - whence the famous Vichian dictum, “Verum ipsum factum” (the truth is the doing itself).

What Bacon and his contemporary scientistic ideologues of the nascent and triumphant bourgeoisie failed to detect, let alone acknowledge, was the very simple reality that “science” itself has a history - and that therefore it changes over time in entirely contingent ways. And history tells us that all scientific “discoveries” are human inventions absolutely indistinguishable from technological applications. There is no “scientific way” of doing science: every form of scientific research is sui generis – absolutely unique – and therefore cannot be distinguished from other forms of human action – all of which constitute the substance and record of “history”. (On the utter fictitiousness of “scientific methodology”, the peremptory reference is T.S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.) Once we look at “science”, not as the involucre of  “Truth”, but rather as the generalisation of technical practices, we can then see much more clearly, again, how “science” is not the repository of any “Truth” or truths but is instead the chronicle of the standardization, the homogenization of human activity, of “techniques” or “technologies” or “practices". (We “technologies” or “techniques” so as to avoid the word “technology” because, like “science”, it tends to reify as an absolute reality what is instead a human, all-too-human activity.)

It is clear from the foregoing that Bacon was blind to the fundamental insight introduced by Vico that “verum ipsum factum” - that “the truth” and “science” are nothing more than the historical epitome of human activity – one that, far from encapsulating the ultimate account of “reality” or “the Truth, is only an incoherent and often inconsistent set of temporary and contingent – historical! - conventional rationalisations of human activity. – A set of conventions as fallible and aleatory as any other human activity. The only “truth” is to be found in human activity with all its errors and dissimulations – precisely those “dissimulations” that Bacon wished to eliminate from scientific research and that form instead the very core and essence of Machiavelli’s political theory in Il Principe! What “normal science” (Kuhn) dismisses as error or appearance (Bacon’s “dissimulation”) is in fact part of reality – of human reality with its contingent and imperfect structure – which is why no amount of scientific effort and research will ever be able to establish the definitive “Truth”. (On these themes, see Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lies (Uber Wahrheit und Luge), and Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind.) In Karl Popper’s words, science must be falsifiable to be scientific – and therefore it is a complex welter of “conjectures and refutations”. Indeed, far from being elements of “Truth”, the mathematical relations or formulae decreed by normal science are mere empirical approximations of data or facts or events that can be correlated practically or even statistically but whose ultimate causal connection is conceptually impossible to establish – indeed, “meta-physical” in Bacon’s own terms. (This conceptual impossibility was the great insight in David Hume’s scepticism, and then in Nietzsche’s phenomenalism.)

If “Progress” there has been in human history, this is due not to “scientific Truth” but rather to the adaptation of specific social practices and conventions of which “science” is only an adventitious epiphenomenon. In other words, advances in civilization – if advances they can be called – are due not to “science” as an objective process of discovery that has led to “progress”, but rather to a set of exquisitely political practices and values a component of which we categorise as “science” as a convenient label. To understand “science” we must go beyond its self-understanding – which is the reification of human reality as “objective Truth” – and look at it as a “praxis”, as a social project subsumed by those social relations of production that have sustained the scientific myth from Galileo and Newton to Stephen Hawking. In the words of Max Weber, “Science” is merely a “Belief”, a “Calling”, a “Praxis” – and not the encapsulation or distillation of “Truth” (see the appositely titled Munich lecture by Weber, Wissenschaft als Beruf [Science as Belief, or Calling]). (Though laced with excessive neo-Kantianism, Jurgen Habermas’s Erkenntnis und Interesse goes some way toward the approach we are outlining here.)


Furthermore, the universal goal of science is to place all disparate data in a mathematical relation to one another so as to establish not just their exact calculability but also their equivalence, that is to say, the homologation and equiparation of all knowledge in exact, precise, mathematical translation and proportion. In short, the task of science since Galileo – whose thought Bacon faithfully endorses – is to erect a mathesis universalis in line with the divine design of nature – indeed, of the uni-verse - opposed to the multi-versality of the life-world. For Bacon – and his contemporaries Galileo and Descartes as for Mach two centuries later - philosophical reflection begins where scientific discovery has reached its present limits. That is why “we owe thanks to Machiavelli for showing us openly and without deceit [aperte et indissimulanter] what human beings are wont to do and not what they should do”.

The most advanced, extensive and elaborate effort to establish such a “science” is to be found in Descartes’s Discours sur la Methode, in terms of methodological exposition, and in his Meditationes, in terms of the inspiration, of the afflatus, behind it. It is Descartes who articulated for the entire bourgeoisie what became the scientistic credo of the capitalist era – the mathesis universalis, that is, the infinite (i) calculability, (ii) reproducibility and (iii) equivalence of all reality, human and physical. For Descartes, no knowledge can claim the status of science unless and until it is exactly calculable (in mathematical proportions), unless and until it is indefinitely reproducible (as a scientific experiment), and therefore unless it can be connected or trans-lated or trans-posed precisely into all other reality. Descartes’s own methodological conclusions are quite inseparable from his philosophical modus operandi. In the Meditations, Descartes describes in careful detail how he came to excogitate his “Cartesian doubt” as the fundamental method for scientific certainty. Having established that the very awareness of thought is an inconfutable proof of existence (cogito ergo sum), Descartes concludes that only those findings that have the certainty of logic and mathematics can be treated as scientific. Yet it is precisely the formalism of this method, its immateriality – its morbid attempt to abstract thought from matter (the res cogitans from the res extensa) – that ultimately condemns Cartesian methodology to irrelevance.

In his fallacious confusion of “truth” with “certainty” and perverse attempt to transmute human and physical reality into mathematical equations, Descartes ends up not with science (as even he understood it) but with empty and sterile logic! Ultimately, the immateriality of his “method” – the transcendental requirement that all science achieve the “certainty” of logico-mathematics – led to the unbridgeable chasm (Fichte’s hiatus irrationale) between the res cogitans (the “I” behind “I think”) and the res extensa (the physical, material ec-sistence in space and in time of the “I” in “I am”). Descartes’s Ego is unfounded, both in its physical existence and in its subjective identity or self-consciousness. (This unbridgeable chasm prompted E. Husserl’s later contorted Cartesian Meditations.  The confusion of truth with certainty is a fallacy most devastatingly exposed by Heidegger in his The End of Philosophy – a work extracted from his voluminous Nietzsche. It was Nietzsche, however, who first challenged Descartes’s cogito as part of his thoroughgoing aversion to the French philosopher.)

Like Galileo before him, Descartes failed to realise that what makes physical-mathematics possible is not the “connection” or adequation of thing (body) and idea (soul) – the Scholastic adaequatio rei et mentis, of matter and mathematics – because no such connection exists or is possible -, but rather the reduction of all reality to empirical data capable of being calculated mathematically under set experimental conditions. (To illustrate, F=ma links mathematically concepts such as force and mass and acceleration that are entirely metaphysical! The formula links our observations as a convenient rule of thumb, but it does not prove that any such entities exist – least of all that there is a causal link between them, as the Newtonian formula suggests.) The calculability of these relations is subject to strict conditions that in fact reverse the onus of proof from the perfect formula to our imperfect observations. Furthermore, no physical experiment is indefinitely reproducible – without disturbing the experimental conditions under which it is carried out! Finally, far from being scientifically ascertainable, the equivalence of scientific units is entirely dependent on empirical observation because otherwise, from pure conceptual analysis, it is impossible by definition! (To exemplify, it is impossible to equiparate the energy needed to boil water with the destructive effect of the energy released by an explosion: the two events, boiling and exploding are entirely different in their effects!) [Reification]

Yet, at the dawn of the bourgeois era, it was still possible for Bacon to advocate and hypothesise the eventual scientization, not just of physical events, but also of social reality. That is why, in the words of Bacon, at least for what concerns human sciences, “we owe thanks to Machiavelli for showing us openly and without deceit [aperte et indissimulanter] what human beings are wont to do and not what they should do”. In reality, however, Machiavelli’s own stance regarding the epistemological and moral status of political analysis was far removed from what Bacon implies in his fulsome praise of the Florentine Secretary. The author of the Discorsi was too steeped in the Italian Humanist and Classical Hellenistic historical tradition to reduce and confine his political studies to a mechanical understanding of human affairs. The equiparation of politics and physics – and specifically, of mechanics – along Cartesian lines was a task attempted with great genius and acumen by Thomas Hobbes – certainly not by Machiavelli. (See C. Schmitt, “The State as Mechanism in Hobbes and Descartes” in his The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes.)

We can now summarise the importance of Bacon’s novel emphasis on “observation” rather than “exhortation” as the spring for “the advancement of learning” as being that the obliteration of ethical-political values in scientific research (a) leads inevitably to the observation of “individuals” bereft of all social bonds, in particular with regard to their behaviour as “consumers” of produced goods; and (b) this isolation turns the individual worker into a “commodity” available for purchase by the capitalist on the labour market “freed” from all other social bonds that may protect the worker from capitalist exploitation. The emphasis on the “scientific” nature of technological innovation in production serves to disguise its effective “cheapening” of labour power in favour of the expanded reproduction of the labour force for further exploitation - and therefore the accumulation of capital as command over living labour through its “exchange” for dead labour (products). (On the real subsumption of the labour process by capital see, of course, Volume One of Marx’s Capital and, more recently, H. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital.) Hence, the introduction of new productive technologies for mass consumption can be disguised as a “natural” outgrowth or by-product of “neutral-scientific” research. In reality, once all forms of social activity are subsumed by capital, it stands to reason that all technological innovation is oriented solely toward the accumulation of capital – toward profitability.

The need of capitalist production is to create a “proletarian” society - one that simply reproduces “proles” available to be exploited as “labour power”. To do this, the bourgeoisie needs to introduce ever more productive technologies that lower the amount of living labour needed to reproduce the proletariat - which in turn facilitates the excessive procreation of proletarians the world over. To be sure, these technologies are a by-product of the antagonism between workers and capitalist “employers” or “givers of labour” (Arbeit-Geber): capital adopts only those technologies that (a) advance its power over workers, (b) lower the reproductive costs of the labour force, and (c) as a result are most “profitable”. Profitability is the measure of the power of capital to exchange dead labour (products) for living labour (the living activity of workers).

Of course, at the beginning of the bourgeois era, scientific research still could claim some autonomy from capital. But the real subsumption of the labour process by capital - once it extended to the reproduction of the entire society - meant that technologies and their “scientific” legitimation was completely placed in the service of capitalist enterprise and industry (cf. Weber’s “Wissenschaft als Beruf” - one of the earliest and most powerful articulations of this complex phenomenon). Yet the real conceptual and practical connection between early “scientific research” and commercial or productive technologies is utterly inconfutable and undeniable.

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