Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Capitalism & Christianity - Part 9



The Power of the Machine - Hornborg's Thesis on "Machine Fetishism"

Earlier we read:
Industrialism is understood only vaguely now as the necessary production system to ensure we have the confusing mass of things we own and use.  It was once widely understood by William Blake, among others, as a "Satanic Mill."  Charles Dickens wrote melodramatically about this period, when London was literally wrapped in an industrial pall.


We also read, from Polanyi:

But how shall this Revolution itself be defined? What was its basic characteristic? Was it the rise of the factory towns, the emergence of slums, the long working hours of children, the low wages of certain categories of workers, the rise in the rate of population increase, or the concentration of industries? We submit that all these were merely incidental to one basic change, the establishment of market economy, and that the nature of this institution cannot be fully grasped unless the impact of the machine on a commercial society is realized. We do not intend to assert that the machine caused that which happened, but we insist that once elaborate machines and plant were used for production in a commercial society, the idea of a self-regulating market was bound to take shape.  [emphasis added]

It is time now to look at the machine as a species of power.



A common idea shared by the right and the left of the familiar contemporary political scene is the idea that (a) technology is essential, (b) that technology itself, i.e., "the machine," has no inhering ethical content - it takes its ethical character only from how it is employed by actual people, (c) and that it... what's that?... seems to have appeared as if by magic (fetishism, again).

Certainly, there is a separate argument, for example, that a nuclear weapon as one form of technology (one machine), is inherently evil, if only because there is no way to employ it except by accepting very evil consequences.  But that's a question of scale.

The common idea expressed above is that - by and large - machines, these complex and intentionally designed instruments - can be used for good or evil, but that they inhere with no social problems, specifically no inequality.

Alf Hornborg, in his book, The Power of the Machine, proved that wrong.  Whether you are looking at the material dynamics of machines, from a thermodynamic perspective, or at the normative side of things - does the machine itself represent a social relation that is characterized by the domination of one by the other - the machine is absolutely not neutral.


Machines, in order to be made and in order to operate, require inputs from peripheries into cores, and the core-periphery dynamic, as we saw, is inherently unequal.

Industrialism not only articulates particular forms of social class relations, its instruments generate, reproduce, and exacerbate social inequalities predicated on domination.  This is as true of a car, that consumes low-entropy energy and spits our high-entropy exhaust (and carbon for the atmosphere - an externality), and that creates a dependency on its user, as it is true of a modern city as a vast complex of interacting technomass, which siphons off enormous quantities of low-entropy (from around the world), externalizes it as high-entropy, and stimulates social conflicts up to and including energy-war involving dependent populations and polities.

In a single office in a single office building, there is a person tied to some cybernetic system, reams of paper, heat or air-conditioning (in a building that will not function on natural air flow from the outside) being pumped through; nearby are webs and bundles of wiring to direct electricity, furniture, cleaning materials, vacuum cleaners, brooms, mops, bathrooms with paper and soap, security cameras, parking space outside, food that enters and leaves as trash and sewage, and an untold number of other minor consumables.  The built environment itself - a machinic complex - is materially an energy sink, socially a site of domination and machinic dependency, and part of a core-periphery dynamic of domination by its very existence.

Out back, there is a giant dumpster.  Further away, somewhere out of sight, there is a landfill.  Underground, there are sewers, leading to a water treatment plant, or in some cases in some places, leading onto the ground - usually away from the rich and nearer to the poor.



A big city (high technomass) is lit at night, so much so that it skews the navigation of birds.  Somewhere in a poor county in West Virginia, mountaintops are removed and dumped as slag into valleys, so the coal will keep coming to light the city.  Los Angeles drains the Colorado River before it reaches the sea.  We have o begin to look at things not based on whether or not the "work," that is, whether hey do something that simply makes things more convenient for us here and now, and begin to look at every built thing, especially machines, as converters of order to disorder, then figure out who benefits from the order and who suffers the disorder.  This is surely a basic Christian responsibility - love your neighbor, even that weird Samaritan guy who doesn't live in the same culture as me.


In the abstract for his article for Anthropology Today (Oct 2008), entitled "Machine fetishism and the consumer's burden," Hornborg writes:
The prospect of peaking oil extraction prompts us to rethink processes of development and decline in the world system. Rather than simply revive Malthusian concerns over the dismal destiny of humankind as a whole, we need to approach the notion of “cheap energy” as an experience situated in societal space as well as in historical time. Energy has been perceived as “cheap” only within core segments of world society, whose ideology of progress and development has tended to construe contemporary global inequalities as representing different stages in time. Draught-animals and wood fuel are here often perceived as elements of the past, yet remain an everyday reality for significant parts of the world's population. Conversely, fossil-fuel technology is conceived as a “now” rather than a “here.” For many post-Soviet farmers, the age of the machine is already a thing of the past. The machine is an index of purchasing power and a specific form of capital accumulation that is as mystified and fetishized as any other power strategy in history. As we begin to anticipate its demise, we might reflect on the fact that the war in Iraq and global climate change are opposite sides of the same coin. The structural problem of fossil-fuelled capitalism is to maintain imports of energy and exports of entropy, two imperatives of “development” that are both increasingly difficult to sustain.


Development is not a linear progression a which various societies plug in and advance along the same path.

Exposing the myth of progress is the focus of a subsequent installment, but Hornborg is describing exactly why it is a myth - in generally-empirical terms.

Here is another extended quote, this one from Chapter 7 of The Power of the Machine:

...I have suggested that the accumulation of machinery at certain points or within certain sectors of the world system is in a sense analogous to the organic growth of biomass. Indeed, our talk of economic “growth” is a revealing metaphor, for the Old English growan referred to biological processes such as “to produce by cultivation; to raise; to develop naturally.”  To “accumulate” (from Latin ad cumulus, “to heap) means “to grow into a mass,” and the word “mass” means “the quantity of matter in a body.” Both biological and industrial “growth,” it seems, are processes of accumulation. We are used to thinking of that which is accumulated as “mass” or “matter,” but Schrodinger and Georgescu-Roegan have demonstrated that is is really a question of orderliness — that is, negative entropy.

To clarify how organic and economic growth differ, we must consider by which means these two kinds of “orderliness” (structure, organization) incorporate negentropy from their environments. For organic growth, the point of departure is the highly organized flow of energy that reaches the earth in the form of solar radiation. Life is the process by which the negentropy of sunlight further “informs” and animates Earth’s thin surface layer of congealed matter-as-informed-energy. As the sun winds down by by reconverting its own stock of matter-as-informed-energy into radiation, a very small fraction of this radiation transmitted in all directions is received by Earth and temporarily reconverted into structure before being refracted into space in the degraded form of heat. This structure is the biosphere, a momentary, whirlpool-like by-product of the irreversible dissipation of the sun. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics (the Entropy Law), any such accretion of order can occur only only at the expense of the total sum of order in the universe. The quality of energy in the universe continually deteriorates, and local processes of growth or “refinement” always involve expenditures of negentropy in excess of that represented by the outcome of such processes. As far as terrestrial plant life is concerned, this simply means that the price for maintaining photosynthetic structure is that sunlight is degraded to heat in the process.

Because we can consider the input of sunlight available to the biosphere as a practically unlimited starting point, the closest thing to genuine “production” is photosynthesis, and plants are appropriately called “primary producers.” From this point, each human act of energy conversion (from pasture and other crops through meat, human labor, and technology to manufactured products) entails a net degradation of negentropy. Thus it will be seen that any theories of economic value based on land or labor, for example (not to mention “utility” or “demand”), are cultural constructions, but that from the vantage point of human life in general, the assignment of generative properties to specific moments of the economic process has a relatively higher validity the closer they are to the input of radiation.

Refinement and degradation always go hand in hand, but biological and idustrial growth differ in three important respects in terms of the implications of this thermodynamic regularity. grasslands always risk being overgrazed by expanding populations of herbivores, but as long as a unit of biomass is directly dependent on its local niche for survival, there will tend to be constraints on overexploitation and a long term (if oscillating) balance. Industrial growth, however, entails a supra-local appropriation of negentropy. The Western industrial “technomass” feeds on distant ecosystems by means of world trade, and by shifting its tentacles, it can afford to remain insensitive to their degradation, leaving large surfaces of the earth increasingly degraded. Second, in order to reproduce this technomass, industry subsists on depletable stocks of mineral negentropy [e.g., fossil fuel -SG], which means that whichever time perspective we choose, it is not a sustainable structure. Finally, and this is the main point I have been trying to make... industry is not only circumstantially but also inherently parasitic on other, non-industrial sectors of world society.

Marxist theories of imperialism, although acutely aware of global exploitation, have strangely circumambulated its own implications for our understanding of industrial technology itself. A factory does not grow out of subterranean ore deposits like a mushroom; it can reproduce itself only by exchanging substances like fuels and raw materials.
Soviet Industrial Pollution

The intent of this series is not to say the same things over and over again, but some of these points need reiteration in order to integrate them with one another as a way of getting our heads around the fact that we live in a historically unique and relatively new form of society that is fundamentally driven by this metaphor of "growth," validated by a myth called "progress," and which both undermines is own material basis and creates new forms of social inequality on a scale never before imagined prior to having seven billion of us alive on the planet at the same time.  In this form of society, market relations have come to dominate and even eradicate other forms of economy, as well as prioritize market calculations foremost in our collective consciousness.

This blog-book, or series of connected thinkpieces, aims to look at this society from several of the perspectives that are deliberately excluded from market-talk and from the necessarily self-referential "science" of economics, and from the perspective of a Christian who takes seriously the core teachings of the Gospels.

Economics does not stand up well to cultural-contextual examinations of its totalizing assertions, even though its practice under the protection of the nation-state has proven very totalizing in its effects, with the whole world now under the lash of one economic power, with that power mediated, as Polanyi showed, by a network of powerful economic institutions and rules.

And the United States has exclusive veto power in the IMF.

Cultural contexts include cognitive, discursive, behavioral, structural, and material components (this is not a complete list, lest anyone accuse me of totalizing).  We can't pretend we are following some natural law through growth economics, unless it is construed as Malthusian misanthropy or Spencerian ego-war - and I, for one, can subscribe to neither as a Christian.  Culture produces and reproduces social systems, and when they are self-organized, those systems are stable beyond the power of mere individuals, and often even beyond leaders, to substantially change them.  Power has inertia, and great power has great inertia.

Dallas Willard (RIP)


The late Dallas Willard, in a brilliant lecture on skepticism, made a point about truth... from the Bible, the truth will set you free, but moreover, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."  That doesn't mean "you shall" become transformed by a beam of light into a new being; it is a directive.  "You shall know the truth."  Your job is to seek truth, and where you find it, you shall be set free.  The reason Dr. Willard emphasized that is that he was making the argument that worldly power depends on evasion and falsehood.  When you are not bewildered by falsehood and evasion, you are closer to the truth, as you are closer to your freedom.  Very political stuff, the Gospels.

Willard begins by saying, "Claims to knowledge are not the same as knowledge."  He is referring to the experts who serve as the stenographers of power.  Targeted skepticism aimed as specific aspects of ostensible knowledge means, first of all, we conduct inquiries.  Those inquiries seek evidence to test the validity of an existing belief or norm.  Because power requires evasion and falsehood, the greater the degree of valid knowledge among the governed, the more free they are likely to become.

We see the gun and the dollar as species of power.  They are the most visible and direct species of power.


Understanding the machine by what it actually does, thermodynamically and socially, is to understand it as an engine of entropy and social inequality.  It cannot be understood fully when only two aspects of its being are under view - price and local efficacy (How much does it cost?  How well does it work?).


Can Christians in good conscience limit their understanding to this?

The general ethical point of view that limits one's understanding to only those two questions might be, "I don't have to care where it came from, or what it does beyond the task for which it is designed.  I am exercising my right to buy as I please, and there is nothing wrong with that."

That is the point of view we will put under review in the next installment.

*****

1 comment:

  1. Outstanding series, an overview like no other.

    ReplyDelete