Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 15 October 2018

Science, Technology and Capitalist Reification

Before moving to the final parts of our study of the origins of science and technology as the chief productive ideology of the bourgeoisie, I wished to propose this introduction to the problematic that we are seeking to confront in our examination of the work of Descartes, Bacon and Hobbes. This type of reflection is utterly essential at a time when the bourgeoisie is attempting – but only attempting, because the attempt will fail and is already floundering – to undermine political freedom through the contemptible utopia of “artificial intelligence “. Each and every day we are finding out, with growing alarm, how idiotic is this ambition, and how despotic is its intention! Cheers.

The original sin of Western reflection is the oblivion of being. From its inception in pre-Socratic Greece, philosophy abandons its unique focus on attaining knowledge as wisdom (whence the equation of the two notions in the Greek word sophia and the literal meaning of philo-sophia as “love of knowledge-wisdom”) and con-fuses it instead with the empirical discovery of the make-up and functioning of the physical universe. Hence, philosophy relinquishes its most sublime task – that of exploring and championing the role of human conscience and action in the cosmos or life-world – and then traduces this quest by defining itself as the handmaiden of scientific enterprise. In other words, the oblivion of being – the reification of being into the world of inert objects and perennial entities - leads to the acceptance of what is called “science” as “the continuation of philosophy by experimental means” (to paraphrase von Clausewitz) – implying thereby that “science” possesses an epistemological status, a methodological identity and solidity – to be sure, a “scientific objectivity”! - that it quite simply does not possess.

The mischievous misapprehension is that philosophy and the instrumental activity universally known as “science” are merely different stages of a single process known as the acquisition of knowledge or, in the title of Francis Bacon’s magnum opus, “the advancement of learning”, where knowledge and learning are understood as power and dominion over an indomitable nature extrinsic and alien to humans. In this perspective, science and philosophy have the same homogeneous object: - that is, the pursuit of knowledge as power and domination by human beings over the life-world and, per extenso, over one another. Yet what we call “science” is not an independent sphere or dimension of human knowledge understood as an innate intellectual and cerebral faculty – the way logico-mathematics or music and art are. Instead, as we are demonstrating here, science is simply “technique” (techne’ as against episteme or indeed poiesis). Nor is science a “technical-neutral” dimension of human action whose “truth” is independent of human social relations and practical goals. Rather, it is a practical pursuit of historically specific goals by instrumental means – through induction and manipulation or experimentation where the creation of an artificial environment goes hand in hand with establishing the “validity” or “success” of “scientific experiments and discoveries”! In sum, “science” is a non-entity; scientific methodology is a mirage pure and simple.

It is thus that philosophy confuses and traduces its scope and unique role of comprehending the human experience of the life-world for the utilitarian advantage of subjecting the environment, the life-world, into an instrument for human gratification. Rather than concentrate on the being of beings, philosophy reduces and therefore traduces the experience of life with its objectification. It also perniciously allows the ascription to “science” of an epistemological and methodological status that, again, is quite simply fictitious. Given that human existence inevitably entails objectification – we cannot but do and act as we live – such a reduction would be politically harmless were it not for the fact that under capitalist social relations of production the specific historical form of objectification is the alienation of human living activity and its reification in terms of dead objectified labour (“goods” or “commodities”). The task of philosophy – its indispensable and ineluctable attribute – is to remind human beings of the reality that they exist within the life-world (the cosmos), and therefore can never observe it “from without” – wherein consists the irrefragable human faculty to initiate action and, as a corollary, to be free. The unique mission of philosophy is to remind human beings of their freedom, of the reality of their existence. The oblivion of being is tantamount to the relinquishment of human freedom.

Already, human living activity has a tendency to become reified and crystallised into its extrinsic inert products: thus, the quest for knowledge understood as wisdom turns into the relentless pursuit of knowledge as power and domination over nature and, through nature, over human beings. This fundamental reduction of the question of being to the observation of particular beings and their instrumental utilization (a utensil is an instrument, a tool), this reification of human thinking activity, this crystallization and freezing of being into static substance or essence or presence and the consequent confinement of human action to mere instrumental exploitation of the world – this is the process whereby being (Etre, Sein) is reduced to beings (etants, Seiende) and philosophy is turned into the handmaiden of “science and technolog”. The reification of human life – this is the true sense and ultimate outcome of “the oblivion of being” claimed by Heidegger but in truth originally seized upon by Nietzsche as the “end [Voll-endung] of metaphysics” and the beginning of European nihilism.

Contrary to the mythology made ubiquitous in bourgeois society, science is not the objective observation of reality but it is rather a precise project whose purpose (Zweck) must be recognized and rendered explicit as a political social goal that involves intervention and manipulation, not neutral observation, of the life-world. The very survival of the human species depends entirely on us acting on this realization. Our principal aim here is to trace this transformation and ultimate reification of practical scientific enterprise at the hands of the bourgeoisie, its corruption and degradation of European thought and society from the original goal, however distorted by Judaeo-Christian religion, of pursuing knowledge as wisdom to the instrumental utilitarian acquisition of knowledge as power (over the life-world, over other humans) and its reduction to a productive technique under the guise of “the advancement of learning” or “science and technology” as the handmaiden of capitalist industry – the aim is to evince this nihilistic process whereby the birth and global expansion of capitalist industry and the social relations of production has come to underlie all of human society nowadays, and to this pursuit of “science” as a “will to truth” that is the thinnest disguise for the will to power of the bourgeoisie right from its origins at the end of the Middle Ages in the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

The Reification of Science

The process of production, therefore, is seen as “technology”, as an ob-ject – that is, as a “neutral scientific process” that is “external” or “exogenous” to economic “science” - rather than as a pro-duct, as the very embodiment of political antagonism over the production and satisfaction of human needs. At a broader level, the capitalistic domination of living labour by means of dead labour (productive materials, machinery and produced goods) is reified as “science and technology” in such a manner that (a) they are mistaken for “objects” or “tools” when in fact they are mere extensions of human activities, they are “techniques”; and (b) they are seen as the result of “scientific and technological” – that is to say, “politically neutral” - research and development or “discovery” independently of capitalist domination over living activity!

As a result, “science and technology” are seen not as specific capitalist strategies that contain antagonism but rather as “autonomous” and “separate” – indeed, “scientific and technical”! – entities that are in themselves “politically neutral”! Yet just as there is no such thing as “science” or “technology” but only human productive activities mediated by tools, so there is and there can be no “neutrality” in the tools employed by humans for their activities! “Science and technology” are not neutral because they are always activities in which human beings engage with a purpose in mind, even when that purpose is “multiple”: hence, tools are not distinguishable from human activities because they are extensions of the human body! (Cf. H. Arendt’s Prologue to The Human Condition in which the automobile is seen as an “extension” of or appurtenance to the human body.) It is not the case that a tool can be used for good or for bad purposes - because the tool and the purpose cannot ever be distinguished – they are part of the one human “activity”; they go “hand-in-hand”, as it were!

The political danger in the hypostatization of “science and technology” lies in the epochal transformation of their socio-political role from the Renaissance, when societies were still emerging from feudalism and Absolutist rule, to the Industrial Revolution when the capitalist bourgeoisie had finally erected its liberal nation-State regimes and begun to subsume the entire reproduction of human societies under the rule of capitalist production. Effectively, capital has succeeded in presenting both the State – the Political – and civil society – the Economy – as “techno-scientific mechanisms” that are politically neutral – securing thereby the apparent depoliticization of capitalist production.

This danger was first exposed with exceptional acuity by Carl Schmitt (in the related essay cited above) by confuting the neutrality of “technology” from two opposing sides, as the respective quotations below evince. From the side of “technology” intended as “tools”, as objects, Schmitt rightly points out in the first quotation that tools are “tools” to the extent that they are util-ized by human beings: but in that case they can never be “neutral” for the exact reason that human actions, by definition, cannot be “neutral” and are always “motivated” instead. In the second quotation, which approaches the reified concept of “technology” (and “science”) from the side of human motives, Schmitt shows that these motives are never obliterated or neutralized by the “tools”, even when human agents believe that they are simply applying a “neutral technology”!

Technology appeared to be a domain of peace, understanding, and reconciliation. The otherwise inexplicable link between pacifist and technical belief is explained by this turn toward neutralization which the European mind took in the seventeenth century and which, as if by fate, has been pursued into the twentieth century. But the neutrality of technology is something other than the neutrality of all former domains. Technology is always only an instrument and weapon; precisely because it serves all, it is not neutral. No single decision can be derived from the immanence of technology, least of all for neutrality. Every type of culture, every people and religion, every war and peace can use technology as a weapon. Given that instruments and weapons become ever more useful, the probability of their being used becomes that much greater. Technical progress need not be either metaphysical or moral and not particularly economic to be progress. If humanitarian-moral progress is still expected by many today from the [92] perfection of technology, it is because technology is magically linked to morality on the somewhat naive assumption that the splendid array of contemporary technology will be used only as intended, i.e., sociologically, and that they themselves will control these frightful weapons and wield this monstrous power. But technology itself remains culturally blind. Consequently, no conclusions which usually can be drawn from the central domains of spiritual life can be derived from pure technology as nothing but technology - neither a concept of cultural progress, nor a type of clerc or spiritual leader, nor a specific political system. (Schmitt, CoP, pp.91-2)

 [94] The spirit of technicity, which has led to the mass belief in an anti-religious activism, is still spirit; perhaps an evil and demonic spirit, but not one which can be dismissed as mechanistic and attributed to technology. It is perhaps something gruesome, but not itself technical and mechanical. It is the belief in an activistic metaphysics - the belief in unlimited power and the domination of man over nature, even over human nature; the belief in the unlimited "receding of natural boundaries," in the unlimited possibilities for change and prosperity. Such a belief can be called fantastic and satanic, but not simply dead, spiritless, or mechanized soullessness.

Again, taken jointly, Schmitt’s objections to the reification of “science and technology” as a thing, show clearly that in reality they are nothing more than human pro-ductive activity or praxis. Yet, although Schmitt’s approach quite correctly leaves this reified concept of “science and technology” with no “separate existence”, with no “neutrality” whatsoever, and therefore correctly stresses its relation to human action and interests, still he refers to “technology” as if such a thing really existed independently of human action.  Of course, the validity of Schmitt’s critique becomes pellucid once we replace the reified phrase “science and technology” with its true equivalent of “techniques” because – as the term itself obviously implies – a “technique” is an actual human activity or skill whereas “science and technology” are quite easily mistaken for and hypostatized as the “methodology” and “tools” (the laboratories, the institutions, the objects, the machines, the equipment, the instruments) that constitute their social embodiment. (This last insight is in Heidegger’s essay on Aristotle’s Physis cited above. This crucial fallacy of treating “science and technology” as “independent realities” – as objects, really - can be found even in the most insightful reviews of the social role of “science and technology” such as Habermas’s review of Marcuse [“Science and Technology as ‘Ideology’” in Toward A Rational Society, which we shall review later] or Arendt’s notion of “human action” in The Human Condition.)

The final part of Schmitt’s second quotation above is a mordant and trenchant riposte to the various late-romantic ideologies denouncing the “reification” and “dis-enchantment” that capitalist “rationalization” imposes on living labour which is now seen as reducing human interests to the mere materialistic pursuit of “prosperity” or “economic value” (whether as utility or as labour-value) or “profits” or “consumerism” – with the consequent loss of “meaning” and of “totality” in this “science and technology” which no longer seek “reason” or “freedom” but serve only to chain humanity to the Promethean wheel of production for its own sake, profit for its own sake, quantity against quality, having against being – the Weberian and Lukacsian Rationalisierung. The locus classicus of this critique of “the crisis of European sciences” is to be found in Husserl’s famous address with the same title:

The exclusiveness with which [6] the total world-view of modern man, in the second half of the nineteenth century, let itself be determined by the positive sciences and be blinded by the "prosperity"2 they produced, meant an indifferent turning-away from the questions which are decisive for a genuine humanity.3 Merely fact-minded sciences make merely fact-minded people. The change in public evaluation was unavoidable, especially after the war, and we know that it has gradually become a feeling of hostility among the younger generation. In our vital need—so we are told—this science has nothing to say to us. It excludes in principle precisely the questions which man, given over in our unhappy times to the most portentous upheavals, finds the most burning: questions of the meaning or meaninglessness of the whole of this human existence. (E. Husserl’s The Crisis of European Sciences, pp.5-6).

This pining for the loss of “totality” [Totalitat] (a central concept in Lukacs) and the consequent alienation of human beings from their living activity (Marx) through the fragmentation and reification of social reality (Lukacs, Heidegger) or “dis-enchantment” (Weber’s Entzauberung) engendered by the instrumental and positivist abuse of “science and technology” is a constant theme running through all social theory – bourgeois, socialist and Marxist - from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present day. Despite the obvious pertinence of many of the critical analyses of Technik and the Rationalisierung central to the German phenomenological tradition from Nietzsche to Weber and Heidegger (which includes figures such as Husserl, Arendt, Lukacs and the Frankfurt School), their incisiveness stops right at the point at which human conflict and the techno-scientific practices that it pro-duces – the Rationalisierung - are misconstrued as ontological or epistemological or ontogenetic categories that are quite independent of social relations of production, and therefore as ineluctable or immutable categories of human activity. Indeed, once more, they are foisted upon us as the evil by-products of “science and technology”(!), which reintroduces by the back door the very reification and hypostasis that the critique of “science and technology” was meant to expose!

Some Marxist intellectuals have criticised these notions as a rear-guard attempt by the German workers’ movement to preserve the “artisanal” work practices of skilled workers (die Gelernte) against the massification of labour introduced by Taylorist and Fordist industrial processes (cf. M. Cacciari, Pensiero Negativo e Razionalizzazione and the studies by G. Marramao on the German workers’ movement.)

All the critics of “the technocratic society” (even down to our days - Jacques Ellul, Alvin Toffler, or Theodore Roszak) and “one-dimensional man” (Marcuse) forget that the ideological use of this reified concept - “science and technology” -, far from actually embodying the political antagonism of the society of capital, and farther still from being able to disguise it, and much farther still from being able to resolve it (!), is instead the actual direct product and manifestation of this antagonism - and not a mere “ideology” (Marcuse) or a “necessary illusion” (Lukacs), or an “objective appearance” (Marx) -, an antagonism that increasingly calls into question the sustainability of the capitalist economic system based on domination over living activity, and indeed also poses ever-growing systemic risks to the very survival of “the society” on which capitalist social relations of production must be founded. Thus, far from hiding or disguising or “reifying” it, these techno-scientific practices actually embody and reveal – they exhibit - the utter incompatibility of human needs with the capitalist command of living labour based on the wage relation.

Habermas, in S&T as “Ideology”, whilst agreeing with Marcuse that perhaps a New Science and New Technology can come to view humanity as “the Other”, rather than humans regarding “nature” as “the Other” (a pious suggestion at best), concedes the possibility of human pacification, yet insists on this notion of “Science and Technology” and goes along with Arnold Gehlen’s wild generalizations about the “universality” of “technological progress” (from mechanical functions involving limbs to cerebral functions)! Once again, Habermas and Gehlen conveniently forget that human “mechanical” functions are indeed as “intellectual” or “cerebral” as any other functions, as Gramsci amply and ably showed in the Prison Notebooks (sections on “Intellectuals”). The reason for this misapprehension is that Habermas falls into the same old habit of seeking to draw an invalid dichotomy between “labour” (mechanical activity) and “interaction” (symbolic communication) – a pathetic humanist and late-romantic distinction that we have criticized in our “Habermas’s Meta-Critique of Marx” and in our critical review of Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s Intellectual and Manual Labor (both on Apart from this, Habermas validly challenges Marx’s facile distinction between “forces” and “relations” of production as well as Marcuse’s even more questionable reduction of “Science and Technology” – an abstraction – to “ideology”, contra Weber, which only tends to reaffirm Weber’s hypostatization of “rationality” as synonymous with capitalism whether in reality or as “ideology”.

A further hypostasis is pointed out by Heidegger, “On the Content and Essence of ‘Physis’ in Aristotle”, in Pathmarks, at p.211. Heidegger insists repeatedly on the absurdity of the attempt in Western civilisation to define physis, the coming-into-being of our surrounding world (Um-welt), as techne, a pre-conceived human project [see especially p.197], and revives instead the notion of “pro-duction” as metabole [especially at p.221]. His vice, as always in these matters, is to identify this fallacious praxis philosophisch, as if it were merely an ontological confusion rather than the historical product of existing political antagonism over the satisfaction and creation of human needs. Heidegger centres this notion of physis and metabole on the contingency or being-toward-death of human Dasein [being there], on its “thrown-ness” or “freedom-unto-death”, and therefore on its mortality. Perhaps the best, albeit abstruse, critique of this “ontologism” is in T. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, esp. Part One on “The Ontological Need”, and the shorter Lectures on Negative Dialectics, esp. Lecture 2, pp.13ff. See also A.Gramsci, Il Materialismo Storico, cited by Bobbio in Gramsci for a critique of the undialectical notion of “evolution” in social theory. Much preferable and more uplifting is Hannah Arendt’s reinterpretation– in The Human Condition - of physis and metabole as “birth” (genesis) and therefore as the inescapable condition of human beings to initiate action as political beings – as beings whose very “being alive” is “to be alive among other human beings” (inter homines esse – whence the notion of “human inter-est”).

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