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Friday, November 21, 2014

Marx and the machine man

“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.”.

“ “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.”  - Marx

Leszek Kolakowski has 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. Animals themselves occupy an ambiguous status in the popular mindset. Sergio della Bernardina, who did an ethnographic study of various rituals of cruelty to animals, from bear baiting to hunting, found that the concept of the person, outside of philosophy, is a matter of degrees and situations, not an absolute.  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.

Since the sixties, it has been a popular theme among some  environmental historians have pursued that Christianity, by entrusting nature to man, devalued the environment. I think this is a misinterpretation of the Church’s larger history, which put it in the broad ancient tradition which, while it certainly did not ascribe property to animals, did understand them as dwelling things - 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.


A note more here onthe 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.

For Marx, the machine like worker is not, here, the automaton, but rather one of 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.


1 comment:

Ray Davis said...

A very minor addendum to the note on stability: seasickness (and typically futile declarations of never-again) occurs as a reliable refrain across the volumes of Henry Adams's letters until his first crossing on a steam-powered ocean liner. Anything capable of silencing Adams's kvetch can only be experienced as miracle.