Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Matias Vernengo — Economic and technological determinism

If you are interested in Marx.

Speaking as a philosopher commenting on Marx as a philosopher more than he was an economist, I think that Matias Vernengo gets is about right. He is in agreement with John Kenneth Galbraith on it.

Marx was a materialist ontologically. He had written his doctoral dissertation on Greek materialism.  He looked forward to occupying a chair in philosophy at a university as a career. His political activism obviated this, and he was forced to go into exile to more liberal Britain. Instead of becoming a professor, he spent his days doing research and writing, supplementing the funds that Engels, his close friend and collaborator, provided for his support by working as newspaper columnist.

In addition to ontological materialism, Marx also assumed naturalism as a methodological framework, in keeping with the 19th century science that had become intellectually predominant. 19th century scientific  naturalism was essentially a deterministic framework, since quantum theory had not yet been discovered.

Both methodological naturalism and ontological materialism are essentially deterministic in that they assuming that the motion of matter is regular rather than random and there are no non-material forces operating on the material system that we called "the universe" or "cosmos." Cosmos (kosmos) means "ordered" (regular) in Greek in contrast to chaos (xaos), or lacking order.

This determinism doesn't imply that all the laws of matter (nature) are known or even can be known, but rather assumes that the universe is material and that the motion (change) of matter is neither purely random, that is, un-ordered, nor subject to supernatural influences. Nature operates in accordance with "rules" such that that regularities can be discovered.

Strict materialism holds that "mind" is an aspect of matter, e.g., an "epiphenomenon of matter." Naturalism assumes that mind is unable to directly act on matter so as to change its motion. But it is possible to be a hard of soft materialist. The question is what kind of materialist Marx was.

This question is somewhat complicated by the fact that Marx was an "economic determinist" in the sense that the mode of production establishes a framework that serves as a foundation (infrastructure) of a social and political system (superstructure), delimiting the scope and scale of the overall system by "the mode of production."However, he was not a strict determinist historically in that he acknowledged an interdependence and mutual influence of the infrastructure and superstructure of a socio-economic and political system as a society.

In his assumption of economic determinism, Marx held that particular modes of production exhibited regularities that could be discerned and expressed as "laws of motion." The fundamental law of capital motion is accumulation. He did not think the same of history, in which contingency apparently predominates, making the unfolding of events in time uncertain. History doesn't necessarily repeat, although it may rhyme, to paraphrase Mark Twain.

As a philosopher, Marx was responding chiefly to Hegel and to some degree to Kant and the philosophers between Kant and Hegel, all of which he was quite familiar with. These predecessors of Marx were all idealists to one degree or another and viewed ideas as primary influencers rather than material conditions. Marx took the opposite position, holding that material conditions were the chief influencers of history.

The debate over the role of technology as an influence takes place within this context. Marx acknowledged the importance of technology for the mode of production.
Economic categories are only the theoretical expressions, the abstractions of the social relations of production. M. Proudhon, holding this upside down like a true philosopher, sees in actual relations nothing but the incarnation of the principles, of these categories, which were slumbering — so M. Proudhon the philosopher tells us — in the bosom of the "impersonal reason of humanity".
M. Proudhon the economist understands very well that men make cloth, linen, or silk materials in definite relations of production. But what he has not understood is that these definite social relations are just as much produced by men as linen, flax, etc. Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.
The same men who establish their social relations in conformity with the material productivity, produce also principles, ideas, and categories, in conformity with their social relations.
Thus the ideas, these categories, are as little eternal as the relations they express. They are historical and transitory products. —Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, Ch. 2
And what is technology if not the application of knowledge and skill to material conditions?

But how and why did technology arise and become scaled at a particular time? This post seeks to answer that. It's short, but if the subject is of interest, link are provided for those that wish to follow up.

In my view, the major influencers were not the productive technologies one ordinarily thinks of, like mechanisms and the harnessing of energy, but rather information technology. First came the invention of language, then the invention of writing, then the invention of paper that could be inexpensively scaled, then the printing press, and now digital technology that is ushering in the "information age." As result, the flow ideas have been transformative, along with the exponentially increasing stock of knowledge.

Naked Keynesianism
Economic and technological determinism
Matias Vernengo | Associate Professor of Economics, Bucknell University


Konrad said...

“Marx was a materialist ontologically.”

I say he was a materialist politically. Marx opposed organized religion’s alliance with the rich against the lower classes. For Marx, organized religions prevent people from seeing the class structure and oppression around them. (“Religion is the opiate of the people.”)

The Mexican Revolution was an uprising against feudal Mexico. When the rich oligarchs lost, their allies, the Catholic Church, made war on the revolutionaries (the Cristero War 1926-29) but lost. The Catholic Church’s agents claimed that they slaughtered people in the name of “religious freedom.”

In a film titled “The Fugitive” (1947) Henry Fonda played a Catholic priest in Mexico who is persecuted for his religious beliefs. All lies. The film was made during “Red Scare” era (Joe McCarthy et. al.) in which oppressive churches were called saintly, and freedom fighters were called Satanic. This sh*t continues today.

As for materialism itself, my own personal belief is that the distinction between matter and energy is an illusion. There is nothing in the universe except energy or mind or spirit or God.

One time in my childhood a religious fanatic tried to convert me to his version of Christianity. I told him thanks, but I was a pantheist, i.e. everything is a manifestation of God.

He thought I was insane. Literally.

Tom Hickey said...

As for materialism itself, my own personal belief is that the distinction between matter and energy is an illusion. There is nothing in the universe except energy or mind or spirit or God.

Form the viewpoint of materialisms aka physicalism/, only matter exists. Physical energy is a from of matter, and the equation that explains the relation of energy and mass is E=mc^2. In terms of the Big Bang, fixed stock of matter as physical energy broke its symmetry and began to expand. Everything that happened from that point was the working of the law of least action governing the flows of that fixed stock iaw conservation laws. Mind is "reduced" to matter.

From the point of view of idealisms, only spirit, mind, or consciousness exists and everything is a projection of spirit, mind or awareness. Matter as physicality is "reduced" to consciousness, which is bipolar, consisting of the subject pole and object pole of a single reality in which the poles interact through experience and relfection.

Materialism and idealism are monisms, that is, there is one basic "stuff." Since learning that matter is reducible to energy, the multiplicity of atomism not longer tenable as an ontological option.

Dualisms posit the ontological difference of mind and matter. For instance, naive realism or common sense assumes dualism of mind and matter, or subject and object. Most people are naive realists until they start reflecting on this, which most never do.

Skepticism posits the impossibility to know anything on the basis of ontology. This is sometimes called anti-foundationalism.

Philosophies as frameworks for constructing world views can be organized on this bare-bones matrix. Each of the four has many possibilities, and different thinkers have explored them.

I am convinced that some form of idealism and monism is the only tenable option, and I am also convinced that perennial wisdom provides the best conceptual models, along with praxis for engaging them in order to begin to grasp there full range. Actually, there is a "neutral monism," e.g., where the foundation lies beyond. The interpretation of PW to which I subscribe is a neutral monism.

Anonymous said...

Simplicity - whoever says only matter~energy exists, has never gone inside ...!

Matt Franko said...

The problem with you guys with your dialectic training you are always trying to combine/synthesize the material with the non-material....

Imo it’s best to think of these concepts separately...

Matt Franko said...

You guys at core are more materialistic than the “neoliberals!” you are always trying to demonize... who rigorously train for and seek material excellence as a separate issue from how they approach purely social or non material concepts ...

You guys are always trying to combine these concepts.... your approach hence contains a materialistic element... it has to...

Matt Franko said...

Hey Tom see Bill’s blogpost today to see an expose of the Platonic dialectic methodology that is operating in Christendom...