Rage Against the Machine!

One of the more vulgar expressions of the age is “human capital.” That the descriptor is often cited in good company, I suggest, makes it no less vulgar. What does the phrase mean? Taken literally it suggests human beings are capital, essentially an instrument for producing other goods and services for sale at market. Man thereby becomes an ancillary function serving the reproduction of a society primarily driven by profit.  That conception of the self could also be found in the so called socialist states such as the former Soviet Union. There too one could discern a picture of man serving a functional role, a type of capital, for the reproduction of a society no less of his making.

In both cases the conception of human beings as serving ancillary functions strikes against one of, I would suggest the most, important aspect of enlightenment thought. Critical to the enlightenment is the view that you are not a machine. This is not how we usually picture the enlightenment. If anything lies at the core of enlightenment thinking it is reason, and the power of reason to make our world for the better.

There’s surely an element of truth to that, but we should, as always, dig a little bit deeper. Take, say, the slave boy argument of Plato in The Meno. Plato depicts a slave boy, whose experience in the world is meagre and impoverished, demonstrating a knowledge and understanding of Euclidean geometry, with Socrates facilitating the demonstration only through prodding questions, which culminates in a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, the Riemann Hypothesis of the day. What we see here, of course, is a rationalist argument, from the poverty of the stimulus, for innate knowledge and ideas.

The story is one of the grandest in all philosophy, but we have, through the ages, missed its other significant and unintended implication. The status of the slave boy as a slave, a mere tool or instrument or function at the disposal of the slave master, is a grave sin. The slave boy is a being endowed with a faculty of reason so his subordinate place in society as an ancillary function, rather than a free creative being, is at once rendered problematical. One is a slave to the extent that one serves as a function for the fulfilment of the preferences of another at pain of consequence. Education plays an important role in The Meno. What we see in action is a very Aristotelian conception of education, for Socrates does not directly instruct the slave boy but rather acts as a facilitator. Any training the slave boy would have received hitherto would have been vocational, that necessary for the fulfilment of his functional role, and most likely based on direct instruction. It is not hard to see how that idea of education is little different to the enlightenment conception of education, what we might refer to as a liberal education, which is concerned with cultivating the self and the virtues through the free, albeit facilitated, use of reason. When education becomes concerned with the production and reproduction of functional roles, of machines, then it becomes based on habit, direct instruction of curriculum and rote learning to test. The implication we draw here from The Meno goes against what we take from The Republic and the tension between the two is emblematic of the tension between democratic and elite theory.

Just through the one example of education we can establish a link between the enlightenment and the view that humans are not machines. To the extent that our universities and our schools have become more focused on curriculum compliance and competitive teaching to test through direct instruction, as they have in a society increasingly based on the precept that profit comes before people, then we must recognise we have taken a step back from the enlightenment.  We see here an instance, there are many, of how what is called neoliberalism is at variance with classical enlightenment values.

It is said that the concept mind first, in a prominent way, came with Descartes. Prior to Descartes thinking about essential human, indeed organic, qualities was developed with reference to ideas about the soul. For Descartes and his fellow exponents of the early scientific revolution nature was conceived as a machine. In the mechanical philosophy the world was taken to be a machine operating through the interaction of its moving parts via direct contact by means of gears, levers, pumps, and the like. Our understanding of a mechanical device, furthermore, is based on the idea that its moving parts interact in a way that fulfils a function. The mechanical philosophy was developed to provide a naturalistic world view not reliant on mystical or magical properties of natural kinds possessing what David Hume in another context might have referred to as “passions” to explain natural phenomena. Mystical ideas were the dominant way of thinking about the world in the scholastic period, and the affinity with Aristotelian metaphysics, hence church so state doctrine, is easy to see. The mechanical philosophy also contained an epistemological position namely that to know the world is to develop a theory of the world in mechanical terms. When Descartes sought to develop a foundation for knowledge in The Meditations he was not so much engaged in an intellectual exercise. Rather, his foundationalism was a form of propaganda to address the revival of ancient scepticism which was being used by those threatened by the new science, that is the mechanical philosophy including its assertions of knowability, to attack its epistemological basis. The foundationalism of Descartes is not a philosophical doctrine, but rather a political act.

But Descartes, as we know, held to a dualist theory of the world. We have body, or matter, which works on mechanical principles and which is extended in space, res extensa, and we have a second substance, a thinking substance, known as mind, res cogitans, which cannot be reduced to body because it is not extended in space.  It is mind as a thinking substance that is the core of human nature, on Descartes’ reckoning. We are not, thereby, machines. Descartes came to this position because cognition, that is thinking and other qualities of mind, could not be rendered in mechanical terms so falling outside notions of knowability that came with the mechanical philosophy. Whatever we might think of Cartesian dualism the move was obviously a reasoned one given the “explanatory gap” faced by the mechanical philosophers of the day. The most well known argument for this in Descartes is the language test argument, in Descartes own words

“For one can readily conceive that a machine might be made in such a way that it produces words, and even that it produces some words relevant to the corporeal actions that effect some change in its organs, e.g., that if one touches it in a certain place, it will ask what one wishes to say to it; and that if one touches it in another place, it will exclaim that one is hurting it, and the like. But one cannot conceive that the machine could arrange words so diversely as to respond to the meaning of all that might be said in its presence, as even the most stupid human beings can do.”

Human beings are thinking beings, which is to say they are creative beings. The free creative use of language, which “even the most stupid human beings can do,” demonstrates that we are not machines. Although we are often “incited and inclined” by our natures to act in certain ways under certain circumstances we are nevertheless not determined to do so. There always exists an element of free will and free choice to our actions, unlike with a machine.  Humans possess agency in ways machines do not. Many, such as Paul Churchland, suppose that Leibniz, another of the classical rationalists, held to a conception of mind, or reason, as a computational instrument based on universal laws of thinking so thereby to a mechanical picture of mind and human nature. But there’s a leap of logic at play here, for to see the workings of cognition in computational terms does not suggest that our actions are determined by computations as they would if we were mere machines. Essential to creativity is the existence of rules and principles for otherwise we would have randomness, and we should interpret Leibniz in such terms. The language test of Descartes presupposes the existence of rules and principles of a grammar through which we creatively develop sentences of a language, and there’s nothing here that is contradictory with Leibniz (although Leibniz was not a dualist. I shall leave the metaphysics for another day).

This conception of human beings as something other than machines can be found in Kant. We all know of Kant’s opening declaration in What is Enlightenment

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.”

But how many of us know of Kant’s concluding remarks (my emphasis)?

“At last free thought acts even on the fundamentals of government and the state finds it agreeable to treat man, who is now more than a machine, in accord with his dignity.”

One is in possession of human rights, the recognition and protection of the dignity of the person, precisely because one is not a machine. We would ascribe to a machine duty, but by no means could we ascribe them rights. That is precisely what we do to slaves, we give them duties but no rights. Such ideas can be found in the writings of Wilhelm von Humboldt, a significant enlightenment figure, where he states “whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being, but remains alien to his true nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness.” He goes on, “we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is.” The ideas of the romantic period, which ascribe to the enlightenment a machine view of nature and of human beings, is as false as anything can be. The machine view of nature is not of the enlightenment because Newton destroyed the mechanical philosophy, but that too I leave for another time.

Consider the slave boy. Perhaps the slave boy, through instruction and guidance but also through his own creative energies, came to be a skilful barista capable of weaving the most intricate shapes on his master’s morning coffee. In that case we may admire what the slave boy does, but we despise what he is for we know that he did not develop those aesthetic shapes with truly human energies but merely with mechanical exactness. This also is to be found in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty where he states, “Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.”

Such conceptions of our species being are crucial to the early, enlightenment, Marx especially in his writings on alienation and emancipation. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 Marx observes, “The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labour produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.” We see here that man becomes a function, a machine, a commodity (Marx’s rendering thereof) bought and sold in a capital market known as the labour market. Human capital, we might say. Marx also observed of alienated labour in capitalist society

“…labour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labour is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it.”

The hierarchical stratification and differentiation of society into a definite class structure in capitalism makes alienated labour possible, and what renders man as a machine, as a function, as capital.

It is surely no accident that the 1968 uprisings in Belgrade and Prague occurred under the rubric of calls for a “socialism with a human face.” In both capitals workers, students and dissident intellectuals were motivated by a humanist Marxism which sought a return to the early Marx. As can be seen the early Marx was heavily influenced by enlightenment conceptions that share a rich philosophical tradition with crucial aspects of classical liberal thinking. Returning to the early Marx was a way of returning to an authentic socialism without being accused of being anti Marxist, a hope soon dashed of course.

Such ideas form the core of libertarian strands of socialism that arose from Charles Fourier and which have found their modern expression in anarchism, for instance in anarchist communism, and strands of left Marxism such as council communism. Fourier’s ideas were counterposed to those of Saint Simon, a contemporary, and the schism between the two is the original and most significant in socialist thought. Libertarian socialism stresses the democratic ownership and management of production, and it is only when the means of production are democratically owned and managed that we come to live and work in a world of our own free and creative making. Human beings do not become mere machines playing out an externally coerced functional role. The authoritarian strands of socialism, which trace back to Saint Simon, conceive of society as operating according to its own laws, Saint Simon was an early follower of the positivism of Comte, so social transformation becomes social engineering by an advanced cadre who possess sufficient knowledge and understanding to bring it about. Most, especially workers, are to play a subordinate functional role in this process.

Similar ideas developed elsewhere in the 1960s. The mood was well captured by Mario Savio in his famous 1964 speech at University of California, Berkeley

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!!”

Such notions were expressed by the students and workers of Paris in 1968, a movement for greater freedom and control over one’s life that first found expression in the revival of ideas of workers’ councils lost after the crushing of the 1918-1920 revolutions in Europe and the triumph of the Bolsheviks’ authoritarian socialism in 1917. Although social dislocations and injustices were important to the ferment of the 1960s, it did occur in a period of relative affluence what was called “post scarcity” conditions. Modern economic growth had dispensed with the traditional problems of hunger, subsistence, housing, premature mortality and the like yet still there was an eruption. This is seen as somewhat paradoxical, but that can only be for those who subscribe to a mechanical conception of human beings. There is more to the meaning of a human life than material subsistence, and the thinking so played an important role in the uprisings of the 1960s. Today amongst various intellectual figures, like then, there exists a certain pessimism about the revolutionary potential of the working class. These views can still be found, for example, in one and another variety of what’s called “Western Marxism.” That idea is congenial to those who think of workers as machines, for it is based on the supposition that the proletariat does not have sufficient cultivation and virtue to recreate the world for the better. I should say that this view is sadly prevalent amongst the left intelligentsia in particular, even though the most cursory examination of working class history would show the red flag “it shrouded oft our martyred dead.”

We find ourselves today in a not dissimilar situation. There exists a generalised rage in our societies based on a widespread distrust of economic institutions, political systems, education, media, the whole box and dice. We are raging against the machine. We increasingly can see that our lives are empty shells whose purpose is to serve the capitalist machine. The operation of the machine is becoming odious, making us sick at heart. Just like the African-American sanitation workers of New Orleans we assert; I Am a Man! The capitalist system, the modern system of economic growth, is a machine whose purpose is to serve itself. Despite all the economic growth and all the technological advances of the post war era we are not any freer. We are not leading more creative and fulfilling lives. Just look at Facebook and Instagram, their algorithms are fuckin’ with your head. As Jaron Lanier, the inventor of virtual reality, put it “you are not a gadget!”Most of the economic growth that has occurred in human history happened after 1950, and that growth has been transferred not into more leisure time, more time for free creative purposes, but into greater consumption and more working hours. Our capitalist societies feed off this consumption and so we are caught in a type of hedonic treadmill. This is intrinsic to capitalism because capitalism is a system of production for profit not use. The profits need to keep coming, so we need to keep growing but not in a way that increases our free time but in a way that keeps us topping up on consumption of goods and services we neither want nor need. We are raging against the machine because we can increasingly see that despite increases in labour productivity we are working more not less hours, and so it comes to our consciousness that we truly are cogs in a machine. We have an intrinsic, enlightenment based, view that economic growth is supposed to make us free, yet it is doing the exact opposite. We are becoming veritable Stakhanovites, although to be fair to Stakhanov he thought his exertions were for a higher altogether more noble purpose than mechanical reproduction. The increase in labour productivity has seen a decline in the wages share of national incomes, with a marked, record breaking, shift toward profits. The rage against the machine comes accompanied with the realisation that we are being screwed by the machine.

Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom is one of history’s more apt titles. Indeed, the book is the title. The contents can be forgotten. The title does not warn us of a dark future to come should we continue our, more enlightened and socially just, ways but rather a prescription for the desired future. Neoliberalism, according to the latter day exponents of the vile maxim of the masters of mankind, traces back to Adam Smith. This is patently false. Neoliberalism traces back to Malthus and Ricardo and the attitudes and opinions they exhibited during the 19th century debates on the poor and corn laws. For Malthus and Ricardo you are, to the extent you’re not a rich capitalist, a mere instrument, a mere function, possessing of no rights and when you stop being a useful function you can fuck off. Just ask the Irish, they’ll tell you. The problem for the neoliberals was that in the meantime the working class made itself and won its rights, and it was the taking away of those rights some like Hayek dedicated their life to hence The Road to Serfdom with the crucial word Back redacted. Just stop and think of the depravity of the man. The object of the neoliberal assault on the concept social justice was to take away the social and economic rights, based on a positive conception of the dignity of the person, won by the working class movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. By taking away rights one is left with duties, that is one is rendered a machine serving the making of profit.

I would suggest that the rage against the machine has more than a little to do with the rightward turn of our politics to nationalism, neofascism and other communitarian forms. To be sure elements of racism, white supremacism, and traditional European chauvinism are crucial here but when one scratches the surface, like with the fascism of old, one finds an attempt at seduction through appeal to a life beyond the machine. For example, immigration is seen as a good because it leads to higher economic growth. Yet the nationalists argue immigration comes at a cost, one that impinges on the overall quality of life. When the nationalists make appeals to supposed overpopulation, higher crime, loss of social cohesion and social bonds based on a shared ethnicity and so on they are asserting that there is more to life than the material alone. The fascists of yesteryear made similar claims, hence “the triumph of the will.” The left has failed to pick up on all this, and in failing to do so the rage against the machine can be more readily channelled into communitarian directions.  The nationalists, neofascists, and religious rightists (of varying faiths) have no answers to the problems of the modern world. Their “solutions” will make our problems worse, are demagogic appeals to the disaffected in the interests of the machine given the rage and will lead to a highly hierarchical and authoritarian order whose purpose is to put everybody in their proper, functional, place. Those who serve no function, or worse are a dysfunction, in the social order will simply be eliminated through one or another means, which is the correct way of interpreting the concentration camps of the Nazi era.

The awarding of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Economics to Paul Romer put “new” or “endogenous” growth theory back in the spotlight. Some argued that endogenous growth theory is a natural reflection of enlightenment thinking about economic growth. That is because it is based on the view that innovation and knowledge are the key drivers of growth, so growth is based on the human capacity to arrange and rearrange the resources of the world in more rational or efficient ways, is moreover endogenous to the market system and its incentives, and especially that growth can continue in perpetuity.  But I should hope that my reader can see this has little to do with the enlightenment. The purpose of enlightened economic growth is to cultivate the self and to make us more free and creative beings. Capitalism has hit up against a wall for it cannot refine the self nor make us more free, which is another way of saying that capitalism has exhausted its productive potential. That is not to say that growth will collapse. That is not to say that capitalism will stall. That is not say that capitalism will lead to the immiseration of the working class any time soon. But it is to say that it cannot to any greater degree achieve the fundamental purpose of any economic system so far as enlightenment thinking conceives of that purpose. There is some irony here given that for Marxists, at least the real ones, capitalism ends when it exhausts its productive capacity. What is said here is a very different way of thinking about what that entails.

One can even see this in Keynes. In his 1930 essay, Economic Possibilities, Keynes argued that by 2030 leisure time, that is free creative work, would characterise society. He based his reasoning on the supposition that productivity growth would average 2% per year. That reasoning has been realised, yet economic freedom has not followed. The explanation for this, I suggest, is that capitalism works as an end in itself and so it cannot do what Keynes supposed it could. The situation is rendered worse by the neoliberal order, the purpose of which is to return us back to a condition of serfdom by crushing our hard won rights and the working class movements that brought them about and which threatened to extend them in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This also occurred in the East, so the Belgrade and Prague uprisings also became a situation where workers and students started to pose the question of power and thereby the extension of working class rights to the expense of “the red bourgeoisie.”

But today, again, we rage against the machine.

Certain strands of ecological thinking argue that we must recognise that there are limits to growth imposed upon us by nature, and that we should engage in a process of degrowth and deindustrialisation toward a more local, agrarian, type of society. One of the values of ecological thought is the way it conceives of Western state capitalism and Soviet state socialism as industrial societies where most play a functional and subordinate role as if a cog in the machine. Furthermore, the emphasis on a transformation of the self through self actualisation is an especially powerful aspect of ecological thought. That said, appeals to a putative ecological constraint to growth, and a tight one at that, leave me cold. This is because it strikes at the enlightenment idea that growth can and ought to make us free. A federation of small, and austere, ecological communes is a society that must beat down the natural human urge to create and innovate lest it spoil nature. That cannot be done other than through the exercise of power. Ecologism is not an emancipatory vision. Furthermore, it is based on a misconception of economic growth which sees it as growth in the use of throughput (natural resources at the front end and physical waste and pollution at the back end) whereas growth refers to the value of goods and services produced within a given time period. Should technological innovation keep up with throughput it is possible in principle to grow in an ecologically sustainable manner. Additionally, what matters is what type of growth we have and how we measure it. Alternative measurements to GDP exist, and the failure to recognise that different types of growth have different outcomes is a failure of imagination. Ecologism is a type of romanticism masquerading as a hard headed quantitative empirical analysis of the limits to growth, in which case ecologists are engaged in a type of deception. They want you to accept the romantic vision for supposedly scientific reasons. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, the degrowth ecologists are not too far off from Malthus for they also say most of you can fuck off.

But as stated ecologism is at its most insightful when speaking of self actualisation, for it is there where it most explicitly rages against the machine. Self actualisation is best achieved in a society based on the democratic ownership and management of the means of production, and the very purpose of a libertarian socialist revolution is not so much to transform the mode of production as it would be to help us achieve self actualisation. A socialist mode of production, unlike a capitalist one, has an end higher than itself. The, libertarian, socialist mode of production strives to assist in self actualisation understood as a conception of the self as an autonomous creative being rather than a cog in the machine. It is an essential precondition for an enlightened society.

We can see the stirrings of the rage against the machine. The stirrings exist everywhere, even in North Korea when workers mutter against their brand of Stakhanovism. Calls for a universal basic income, which have the same support amongst the general population as the legalisation of Marijuana did when first put on the California state ballot, are indicative of this as it presages a significant shift in our attitudes toward work. We will reach an enlightened age when we become more than just a machine, and such an enlightened age must come after the working class, through dint of its own autonomous effort, seizes the means of production and thereupon proceeds to abolish itself as production becomes organised on a direct democratic basis.

The enlightenment view is that economic growth comes with freedom. This is true, so long as we refer to a growth that serves a higher end other than its own perpetuation and such growth comes with the democratic socialisation of the means of production, distribution, allocation and exchange. We see here one small example of how it is that libertarian socialism is not only the true form of socialism but is also the true heir to the enlightenment.

Dare to know is to dare rage against the machine. Sapere aude! Ira contra machina!