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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

As poor as a machine: from the economic philosophical manuscripts

“And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”.

“Während die Teilung der Arbeit die produktive Kraft der Arbeit, den Reichtum und die Verfeinerung der Gesellschaft erhöht, verarmt sie den Arbeiter bis zur Maschine. Während die Arbeit die Häufung der Kapitalien und damit den zunehmenden Wohlstand der Gesellschaft hervorruft, macht sie den Arbeiter immer abhängiger vom Kapitalisten, bringt ihn in eine größere Konkurrenz, treibt ihn in die Hetzjagd der Überproduktion, der eine ebensolche Erschlaffung folgt.”- Marx

“While the division of labor increases the productive power of labor, and the wealth and refinement of society, it leads to the impoverishment of the laborer until he sinks to the level of the machine. While labor incites the accumulation of capitals and thus the increasing well being of society, it makes the laborer ever more dependent on the capitalist, thrusts him into a greater competition, drives him into a rush of overproduction, from which follows an equivalent slump.”

Kolakowski has correctly written that Marx, unlike the socialists of the 40s, had a firmer grasp of the fact that capitalism was rooted in de-humanization. His economic analysis does not marginalize this insight, but builds upon it – which is why Marx never puts the market at the center of economic analysis, even as he is able to represent the reasons that mainstream economists do so.

In the Economic-Philosophical manuscripts, the figure for that de-humanization is the machine.

Not, I notice, an animal. Traditionally, the poor were compared to animals. I’ve done a number of posts on this already – see the posts beginning with this one, on animals and personhood - the conclusion of which was that Sergio della Bernardina was correct to see that the concept of the person, outside of philosophy, is a matter of degrees and situations, and not an absolute. Which means that how personhood intervenes in social practice can’t necessarily be predicted from our definition of personhood – in the cases Bernardina examines, the tormenting of a bear or a bull before it is killed does not happen because its tormenters lack a sense of the animals personhood, but precisely because they want to provoke aggression on the part of the animal to which they can respond, shifting the blame for the animal’s death to the animal itself as a person responsible for lashing out, for acting badly.

In the Christian tradition, it is only recently that environmental historians have pursued the thesis that Christianity, by entrusting nature to man, devalued the environment. I think, again, that this is a mistake. Christianity, in the broad ancient tradition, certainly did not ascribe property to animals. They owned nothing. Yet they did have holes and nests. They had families. Christian iconography is actually replete with peaceful animals, with the redeemed sheep, with the dove, etc.

The animal might not have a property relationship with the world – they could be hunted, they could be sacrificed, they could be eaten – but they were, of course, God’s creation.

Not the machine. The machine not only has not property claim on the world – it has no home. It has no family. The son of man would not say, the chariots have sheds, the hammers have a box – although he’d know it, being a carpenters son. In the double logic of the dissolution of the human limit, when Descartes and the early modern natural philosophers compare the animal to the machine – and man, too – they both advance a new claim about the human relationship to the world (dissolving any limit to its use) while advancing a new and unrecognizable form of human – the man machine, the Other – as the human subject.

The poverty of the worker, who sinks to the state of a machine, is the flip side of the glory of the proletariat, the Other who is the subject of universal history. What does the poverty consist in? Marx sees it, of course, in terms of wealth – but also refinement – the “Verfeinerung der Gesellschaft.” I would call this poverty an imprisonment in routines. It is hard to resist jumping ahead to Freudian terms, having to do with obsessive behavior and neurosis, which, after all, is the mechanical coming to the surface – the arm or leg that doesn’t work, that has returned to dead matter.


p.s. I should say a little more about the machine. It is easy to forget that the Descartes or Le Mettrie’s machine was an automaton, an entertainment. Court societies love F/X, whether it is Versailles, Hollywood or D.C. – but in real material terms, the automata did nothing more than demonstrate the uses of a winding mechanism. What Marx is talking about is not that kind of machine.

As Schivelbusch nicely puts it at the beginning of The Railway Journey, the Europe of the eighteenth century, which was still the Europe of wood and woods, of energy supplied by streams and forests, was losing its woods. He quotes Sombart – and I am going to give some elbow room here to exaggeration and the blind eye turned to the forests in America. Still, wood was becoming more expensive, and in this way an opportunity opens up for other means of energy and structure – notably, coal and iron. To which one must add that water, too, but in a new form – as steam – is part of the complex. In one of the historical ironies that the economic historian scrupulously skirts, even the Corn laws, decried for two centuries, actually contributed to the industrial revolution, for, by raising the price of grain and thus of keeping horses, they “helped replace horsepower by mechanical power in much the same way shortage of wood in 18th century Europe had accelerated the development of coal production.”

So, the older elements of life – that obsession of the romantics in perhaps the last final bloom of eotechnical Europe – were being reconfigured before Marx’s eyes. When Marx was expelled from Paris in 1845, he took the messagerie – the stagecoach – to the Belgian border. In 1848, when he was kicked out of Belgium, he took the train back to Paris.

So, the machine like worker is not, here, the automaton, but rather the new machines which incorporated an unheard of precision and standardization.

Schivelbusch, interested in how the consciousness caught the phenomenological changes being wrought by the machine, quotes a wonderful passage from an advocate of steam engine powered transport in 1825, who describes the imperfect movement of the horse: ‘the animal advances not with a continual progressive motion, but with a sort of irregular hobbling, which raises and sinks its body at every alternate motion of its limbs.”[12] Similarly, Schivelbusch notes that the steam boat was admired at first because it did not tack – it could move against the current and the wind.

A culture picks up in its proprio-phenomenological net such major changes to its habits, but often doesn’t express their novelty, because the vocabulary to express it is lacking. Marx is a monument of the modern moment because, among other things, he understood that the vastness of the changes taking place around him called for the deployment of an entirely different understanding of the world.

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