Tuesday, 26 March 2019

The Dialectics of Nature - Part 2: Darwin

Our Parts 2 and (later) 3 of The Dialectics of Nature are intended as a tribute to Simone Weil. Enjoy!


Marx n'explique jamais pourquoi les forces productives tendraient à s'accroître ; en admettant sans preuve cette tendance mystérieuse, il s'apparente non pas à Darwin, comme il aimait à le croire, mais à Lamarck, qui fondait pareillement tout son système biologique sur une tendance inexplicable des êtres vivants à l'adaptation. De même pourquoi est-ce que, lorsque les institutions sociales s'opposent au développement des forces productives, la victoire devrait appartenir d'avance à celles-ci plutôt qu'à celles-là ? [p.15]
….
La grande idée de Marx, c'est que dans la société aussi bien que dans la nature rien ne s'effectue autrement que par des transformations matérielles. « Les hommes font leur propre histoire, mais dans des conditions déterminées. » Désirer n'est rien, il faut connaître les conditions matérielles qui déterminent nos possibilités d'action ; et dans le domaine social, ces conditions sont définies par la manière dont l'homme obéit aux nécessités matérielles en subvenant à ses propres besoins, autrement dit par le mode de production. (Weil, Reflections, p.17.)

Simone Weil erects a barrier between social relations of production and forces of production that in Marx does not exist. In Marx, as Weil correctly perceives stressing the Hegelian derivation of his worldview, the social relations of production are already intrinsic part and parcel of what he calls “the forces of production”. The famous Marxian distinction between “base” and “superstructure” is meant to refer to the “dialectical contradiction”, in Hegelian parlance, that Marx believed to exist between the forces of production, which include the social relations of production, and those social relations that are not “productive” but are rather “ideological”. The historical materialism propounded by Marx is a direct excrescence of the Hegelian dialectic according to which “human beings make their own history”. But “they do so in determinate conditions” not because, as Weil believes, Marx is erecting a barrier – ontological or epistemological – between objective natural forces of production and subjective historical social relations: - because for Marx no such barrier or hiatus can exist between Nature and History. Rather, the “determinate conditions” to which Marx is referring are those self-same “social relations of production” that ultimately prevail over the ideological superstructure whenever the two come into conflict.
For Marx, all human reproduction, simple or expanded, all “forces of production” relate purely and solely to relations between human beings inter se! Nature quite simply plays no autonomous role – again, ontological or epistemological – in determining social relations of production. Indeed, Hegel and Marx have this in common – that there is no separation or schism or hiatus between Nature and History because Nature does not and cannot play an autonomous role in the course of human history. In this respect, it may be argued that ultimately Hegel’s and Marx’s systems share a historicist Vichian foundation and a Judaeo-Christian eschatological teleology. Nowhere in Marx’s entire oeuvre is there any hint of preoccupation with the effect that “the development of the forces of production”, dictated by humans, can have on the natural environment that humans share with all other living things. As Weil herself points out, Marx believed firmly in the unlimited development of human forces of production. Perhaps the only area in which Marx comes close to setting a lower limit to human production is in the notion of “socially necessary labour time”, which seems to refer to the labour time needed for the reproduction of human populations in line with the most basic human needs. – Although even in this regard Marx is quick to note that this “necessity” and these “needs” are more of a historical than of a biological nature. And the unlimited “growth” or “development” of the forces of production in Marx can be construed only in relation to a notion of “growth” or “development” that indicated a linear qualitative progress in these forces of production – something that Weil is clearly going to contest.
Enfin pourquoi [Marx] pose-t-il sans démonstration, et comme une vérité évidente, que les forces productives sont susceptibles d'un développement illimité ? Toute cette doctrine, sur laquelle repose entièrement la conception marxiste de la révolution, est absolument dépourvue de tout caractère scientifique. Pour la comprendre, il faut se souvenir des origines hégéliennes de la pensée marxiste. Hegel croyait en un esprit caché à l'œuvre dans l'univers, et que l'histoire du monde est simplement l'histoire de cet esprit du monde, lequel, comme tout ce qui est spirituel, tend indéfiniment à la perfection. Marx a prétendu « remettre sur ses pieds » la dialectique hégélienne, qu'il accusait d'être « sens dessus dessous » ; il a substitué la matière à l'esprit comme moteur de l'histoire ; mais par un paradoxe extraordinaire, il a conçu l'histoire, à partir de cette rectification, comme s'il attribuait à la matière ce qui est l'essence même de l'esprit, une perpétuelle aspiration au mieux. Par là il s'accordait d'ailleurs profondément avec le courant général de la pensée capitaliste ; transférer le principe du progrès de l'esprit aux choses, c'est donner une expression philosophique à ce « renversement du rapport entre le sujet et l'objet » dans lequel Marx voyait l'essence même du capitalisme. L'essor de la grande industrie a fait des forces productives la divinité d'une sorte de religion dont Marx a subi malgré lui l'influence en élaborant sa conception de l'histoire. Le terme de religion peut surprendre quand il s'agit de Marx ; mais croire que notre volonté converge avec une volonté mystérieuse qui serait à l'œuvre dans le monde et nous aiderait à vaincre, c'est penser religieusement, c'est croire à la Providence. (P.16.)

There are at least three distinct implications in Weil’s trenchant critique of Marx’s own critique of political economy. The first is that, as we pointed out above, all economic activity, whether analysed from the bourgeois viewpoint or from his own “critical” standpoint, is seen by Marx as involving purely and solely relations between human beings and not also between human beings and their environment. Even in the charitable hypothesis that Marx regards “social relations of production “ as also involving the natural environment to the extent that they satisfy “human needs”, there can be no doubt whatsoever that Marx regards “nature” as a wholly passive entity, as an object open entirely to human use and abuse. The second corollary implication is that Marx sees the development of the forces of production purely and solely in quantitative terms – in terms, that is, of the “socially necessary labour time” needed for the reproduction of human society. And the third implication is that Marx sees this growth or development as a totally unlimited, unstoppable process of technological progress in the human exploitation of the environment both in qualitative and in quantitative terms!
The notion of progress indeed contains within itself by implication the linearity of the changing forces of production in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense – a growing perfection of these forces (a defecto ad perfectionem). And in turn, this linear perfectibility of the forces of production implies the univocal ability of human beings to adapt to their environment and to transform it in a suitable manner. Yet, this Marxian “scientific” belief in the progress of the forces of production – a belief in what he considered a scientific discovery of Darwinian proportions - is precisely what Weil calls into question, and with justifiable reason! For not only does the human transformation of the environment inevitably raise the possibility of its irreparable degradation, but also, and consequentially, this degradation calls into question the linearity of human adaptation both in terms of conscious human agency and in terms of perfectibility in the sense that this adaptation cannot be determined, judged or least of all measured ex ante, but can only be determined, if at all, ex post facto! This is why Weil insists on disabusing Marx about the “Darwinian” basis of his social theory: as Weil rightly points out, Marx’s social theory is in truth “Lamarckian” in that it relies on the principle that “the function shapes the organ”. But Lamarck’s functionalist, or better, interventionist theory of evolution runs directly counter to, where it does not contradict, Darwin’s genetic theory of evolution! For Lamarck, just as for Marx, it is the positive activity of a species that leads to the physiological development of organs that are most fitted to its surviving the existing environment. This interventionist or functionalist theory is founded on the twin premises that (a) a species pursues actively a function to which it is pre-disposed, and (b) this active pursuit then brings about the organs or instruments that will lead to the function’s fulfilment. Quite to the contrary, for Darwin, “the survival of the fittest” occurs not through active physiological adaptation by a species, but rather through its genetic pre-disposition to adapt to a changing environment!
The difference between the two theories could not be starker. Whereas for Lamarck’s theory, the survival of a species is due – in line with what Marx theorized for the human species - to a process of active and, in the human case even conscious, adaptation, for Darwin instead this process is entirely passive in the sense that survival of a species or of some of its members is due entirely (a) to changes in the environment, and (b) to reproductive competition between its members! In neither case, however, can a species change its genetic make-up actively to ensure its eventual survival – because both conditions are constraints external to the collective activity of the species. In other words, for Darwin, and contrary to Marx’s thesis, no species can ensure its survival ex ante: for Darwin, and again contrary to Marx, “survival of the fittest” is an attribute that can be assigned only ex post facto – after the event, not beforehand!
The epistemological and, above all, deontological and therefore practico-political repercussions of this fundamental reversal of our understanding of our relation to our natural environment are quite earth-shattering because, forcefully put, they invert the order of our understanding of how human action affects the natural environment and, consequently, also our understanding of how human beings should conduct themselves with regard to that environment. The universal attitude or orientation of humans toward the environment is that it is a passive “tool” or inert “recipient” of human activity. But seen from this novel perspective, it turns out that “nature”, far from being a passive or inert receptacle and quarry for human activities, is in fact a very active or at the very least “reactive” agent in our complex interaction with the world.
First to be subjected to critical reappraisal is the ubiquitous notion that human beings are masters of their own destiny, that indeed human beings can shape the external world or “nature” in conformity with the demands of their needs and the ideality of their spirit or minds. This pervasive ideology of human sovereignty over the lifeworld is something that can be traced from the myth of Prometheus all the way to German Idealism, Marxist theory and the most recent capitalist ideologies of political and social transformation through the development of “the forces of production”, a process figuratively known as “progress” or “civilisation”.
Even if we agree, against Weil, that Marx intended “the forces of production” (“the base” as distinct from “the superstructure”)) to constitute a socially-defined historical and dialectical force and not a mechanical one, still Weil is entirely right to expose the fallacy of Marxist thought in terms of the “passivity” or at best the “neutrality” or inertness of “nature” with regard to human action (cf. in this regard, as a corrective, Hannah Arendt’s homonymous work, Human Action. We shall address the oblique link between Arendt and Weil presently). We could identify Marx’s original mistake highlighted by Weil in his insistent use of the dialectic as a “positive” tool of historical analysis. For the question then arises of why the development of the forces of production should result, at a determinate point in history, in the elimination of social oppression:
La réflexion sur cet échec retentissant, qui était venu couronner tous les autres, amena enfin Marx à comprendre qu'on ne peut supprimer l'oppression tant que subsistent les causes qui la rendent inévi-
Simone Weil,  Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 30
table, et que ces causes résident dans les conditions objectives, c'est-à-dire matérielles, de l'organisation sociale. Il élabora ainsi une conception de l'oppression tout à fait neuve, non plus en tant qu'usurpation d'un privilège, mais en tant qu'organe d'une fonction sociale. Cette fonction, c'est celle même qui consiste à développer les forces productives, dans la mesure où ce développement exige de durs efforts et de lourdes privations ; et, entre ce développement et l'oppression sociale, Marx et Engels ont aperçu des rapports réciproques. Tout d'abord, selon eux, l'oppression s'établit seulement quand les progrès de la production ont suscité une division du travail assez poussée pour que l'échange, le commandement militaire et le gouvernement constituent des fonctions distinctes ; d'autre part l'oppression, une fois établie, provoque le développement ultérieur des forces productives, et change de forme à mesure que l'exige ce développement, jusqu'au jour où, devenue pour lui une entrave et non une aide, elle disparaît purement et simplement. Quelque brillantes que soient les analyses concrètes par lesquelles les marxistes ont illustré ce schéma, et bien qu'il constitue un progrès sur les naïves indignations qu'il a remplacées, on ne peut dire qu'il mette en lumière le mécanisme de l'oppression. Il n'en décrit que partiellement la naissance ; car pourquoi la division du travail se tournerait-elle nécessairement en oppression ? Il ne permet nullement d'en attendre raisonnablement la fin ; car, si Marx a cru montrer comment le régime capitaliste finit par entraver la production, il n'a même pas essayé de prouver que, de nos jours, tout autre régime oppressif l'entraverait pareillement ; et de plus on ignore pourquoi l'oppression ne pourrait pas réussir à se maintenir, même une fois devenue un facteur de régression économique. Surtout Marx omet d'expliquer pourquoi l'oppression est invincible aussi longtemps qu'elle est utile, pourquoi les opprimés en révolte n'ont jamais réussi à fonder une société non oppressive, soit sur la base des forces productives de leur époque, soit même au prix d'une régression économique qui pouvait difficilement accroître leur misère ; et enfin il laisse tout à fait dans l'ombre les principes généraux du mécanisme par lequel une forme déterminée d'oppression est remplacée par une autre.
Simone Weil,  Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 31

For it is undeniable that Marx regarded “progress” in a linear as well as functionalist dimension, in terms of socially necessary labour time: for him, the specific “exploitation” of the worker by the capitalist consists crucially in “the theft of labour time”, that is, in the quantitative difference between the labour time that is “socially necessary” to ensure the reproduction of a society and the “surplus labour time” enforced by the capitalist to realise a monetary profit. Clearly, then, as Weil argues above in opposition to Marx, the origin of social oppression and its final elimination cannot be found and sought solely in the relation between humanity and “nature” through “socially necessary labour time” or “human needs” – that is to say, through an unavoidably mechanical “social function” that pre-destines human beings to subjugate “nature” actively – consciously and intentionally. Rather, the origins and eventual elimination of oppression bear an essential and fundamental relation to the objective “conditions of existence” that constrain how and to what extent humans can actively “exploit” this (presumably passive) “nature”. The vice or error of Marx’s critique of capitalism is that it locates its oppression and its eventual supersession in a purely functional dimension whereby human beings in the historical semblance of the working class or proletariat are “destined” to overcome the “historical dialectical contradictions” that this oppression expresses.
Thus, in Weil’s justified critique, the Marxian theory of social oppression and exploitation fails to confront the specific ways in which oppressive social relations of production have a deleterious destructive, even cataclysmic effect on the human “exploitation” of nature itself – and therefore Marx also neglects the reality that at least part of this “social oppression” may be due to the inalterable limits and constraints that this “nature” imposes on humanity! In this Marxian functionalist perspective, the relation between human beings and “nature” is mediated by the forces of production and obstructed by the social relations of production in such a manner that “nature” appears irrevocably as a “tool” open to human evolutionary manipulation. This functionalist and intentionalist perspective vitiates the entire Marxist exegesis of the phenomenon of oppression.
Bien plus, non seulement les marxistes n'ont résolu aucun de ces problèmes, mais ils n'ont même pas cru devoir les formuler. Il leur a semblé avoir suffisamment rendu compte de l'oppression sociale en posant qu'elle correspond à une fonction dans la lutte contre la nature. Au reste ils n'ont vraiment mis cette correspondance en lumière que pour le régime capitaliste ; mais de toute manière, supposer qu'une telle correspondance constitue une explication du phénomène, c'est appliquer inconsciemment aux organismes sociaux le fameux principe de Lamarck, aussi inintelligible que commode, « la fonction crée l'organe ».
Consequently, for Marx and Marxism, the elimination of social oppression is simply the inevitable future outcome of humanity’s functional and progressive domination of “nature”.
Furthermore, and perhaps even more erroneously, Darwin’s theory of evolution itself(!) is turned upside down – by Marx and by all evolutionary science after Darwin - and misconstrued as a Lamarckian process of conscious (for humans) and wilful or intentional (for all animals) “adaptation”! As Weil impetuously yet quite correctly stresses in the passage below, all science after Darwin has misconstrued his theory of evolution as an internal “adaptation” by species to their external environment that ensures “the survival of the fittest”. But the “adaptation” and “fitness” that Darwin meant is an attribute that is determined entirely by factors external to the actions and intentions of species – as something that can be attributed only after and not before the eventual “survival” of a species! In other words, evolution is an objective process quite independent of the actions and intentions of species.
La biologie n'a commencé d'être une science que le jour où Darwin a substitué à ce principe [i.e. le fonctionnalisme de Lamarck] la notion des conditions d'existence. Le progrès consiste en ce que la fonction n'est plus considérée comme la cause, mais comme l'effet de l'organe, seul ordre intelligible ; le rôle de cause n'est dès lors attribué qu'à un mécanisme aveugle, celui de l'hérédité combiné avec les variations accidentelles. Par lui-même, à vrai dire, ce mécanisme aveugle ne peut que produire au hasard n'importe quoi ; l'adaptation de l'organe à la fonction rentre ici en jeu de manière à limiter le hasard en éliminant les structures non viables, non plus à titre de tendance mystérieuse, mais à titre de condition d'existence ; et cette condition se définit par le rapport de l'organisme considéré au milieu pour une part inerte et pour une part vivant qui l'entoure, et tout particulièrement aux organismes semblables qui lui font concurrence. L'adaptation est dès lors conçue par rapport aux êtres vivants comme une nécessité extérieure et non plus intérieure. Il est clair que cette méthode lumineuse n'est pas valable seulement en biologie, mais partout où l'on se trouve en présence de structures organisées qui n'ont été organisées par personne. Pour pouvoir se réclamer de la science en matière sociale, il faudrait avoir accompli par rapport au marxisme un progrès analogue à celui que Darwin a accompli par rapport à Lamarck.

Thus, there are two orders of objections that Weil moves against Marx, and indeed against nearly all Western political and economic theories of social oppression, as well as against the ubiquitous misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution as a theory of (conscious and intentional) “adaptation”.  The first order is that Marx’s theory seeks to establish a mechanical, functionalist link between human needs, forces of production and oppressive social relations of production. The second order is that this functionalist link, unlike and contrary to Darwin’s genetic theory of evolution, has a deterministic or even teleological bias in that human beings are deemed to be capable of dominating consciously and intentionally their environment or “nature” in accordance with their “ideation” or planned intentions. Marx himself, in one of the most deservedly renowned passages in the first Book of Das Kapital, refers to this “ideal” ability of the human species to plan beforehand in its mind its intended projects in the external world. Marx calls this Gattungs-Wesen (“species-conscious being”). By contrast and in total opposition to this erroneous belief, Darwin establishes that the survival of species is due entirely to factors wholly external to the actions and intentions of existing species – factors such as genetic heredity and competition within and between species, on one side, and environmental factors, on the other. Adaptation is therefore seen by Darwin as “an external necessity”, that is, a necessity independent of the will, actions and intentions of a species. That explains the overriding role and weight that Darwin attributes to “chance” or “hazard” in the survival and evolution of species! In the Grundrisse, Marx fails to understand his own theory of overpopulation engendered by capitalist accumulation as an external barrier in terms of the unsustainable human demands this places on the ecosphere. Instead, throughout his writings, Marx always believed, in line with the Hegelian dialectics of nature, that “the barrier to capital is capital itself” – in other words, an “internal barrier”!
But this “hazard” or “chance” is not pure fortuitousness, sheer contingency: it is rather itself constrained by the objective “conditions of existence” of a species which, although they do not indicate the evolutionary process in a particular or specific direction, nevertheless delimit or constrain the evolutionary outcomes for that species.
Les causes de l'évolution sociale ne doivent plus être cherchées ailleurs que dans les efforts quotidiens des hommes considérés comme individus. Ces efforts ne se dirigent certes pas n'importe où ; ils dépendent, pour chacun, du tempérament, de l'éducation, des routines, des coutumes, des préjugés, des besoins naturels ou acquis, de l'entourage, et surtout, d'une manière générale, de la na-
Simone Weil,  Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 32
ture humaine, terme qui, pour être malaisé à définir, n'est probablement pas vide de sens. Mais étant donné la diversité presque indéfinie des individus, étant donné surtout que la nature humaine comporte entre autres choses le pouvoir d'innover, de créer, de se dépasser soi-même, ce tissu d'efforts incohérents produirait n'importe quoi en fait d'organisation sociale, si le hasard ne se trouvait en ce domaine limité par les conditions d'existence auxquelles toute société doit se conformer sous peine d'être ou subjuguée ou anéantie. Ces conditions d'existence sont le plus souvent ignorées des hommes qui s'y soumettent ; elles agissent non pas en imposant aux efforts de chacun une direction déterminée, mais en condamnant à être inefficaces tous les efforts dirigés dans les voies qu'elles interdisent.
[Bacon] In this optic, in this per-spective, from this a-spect, “nature” cannot be seen as mere ob-ject, as passive op-position, as Gegen-stand, but rather as an active containment - indeed, says Weil, as an inter-diction (!), a prohibitive dictation or in-junction that limits human action by con-straining and re-straining it! It is, if you please, a barrier in guise of “un-intended con-sequences”. Human beings illude themselves to be demi-gods who can actively determine the direction of life and the world – to mould the cosmos in our likeness; when in fact we find that we are in the cosmos and that we must therefore be conscious of the unintended consequences of our actions due to the restraint and constraint – the containment – of these actions by our environ-ment, our sur-rounds, our Um-welt, ambience – “the natural milieu,” says Weil -  that con-ditions, hence erects conditions, to our activity. We pro-pose but nature dis-poses, like a divinity. Nature is the Epi-metheus (hind-sight) to our Pro-metheus (presumed fore-sight). Nature is both a hostel for us and hostile to us: it is both hospitable and hostile, it is our host yet we are its hostages! It both entertains and constrains us.
These are, precisely, the “conditions of existence” – ec-sistence, Da-sein – our being “thrown” and de-jected in the world, in the cosmos, to which Weil refers repeatedly. And great part of these conditions of ec-sistence is also our own human nature – by means of con-flict (a mutual in-fliction of pain) and com-petition (a mutual craving) between and even within so-called in-dividual (indivisible) humans.
Ces conditions d'existence sont déterminées tout d'abord, comme pour les êtres vivants, d'une part par le milieu naturel, d'autre part par l'existence, par l'activité et particulièrement par la concurrence des autres organismes de même espèce, c'est-à-dire en l'occurrence des autres groupements sociaux.

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