I was idly Googling myself this morning [all right, all right. Let he who is without sin snark the first snark!], and I came upon the blog of GTChristie, who has often commented on this blog. His url is http://hypermoxie.blogspot.com. He has a long discussion of, and disagreement with, some things I said about Marx. I advise you to visit the blog site to get the full detail of what he said, but the heart of it is his assertion that it is technology, not capitalism, that has been [and continues to be] the driving force in producing dramatic socio-economic change. Readers of this blog will recall that I expressed my agreement with Marx that capitalism was the most revolutionary force the world has ever seen.
He is of course right about the importance of technological innovation in the transformations of the last several centuries, and I am not sure how much is to be gained by debating the relative importance of capitalist social relations as opposed to technology in those transformations, but I do actually believe that I am right [or rather that Marx is right], so let me take a moment to explain why. If this seems a bit too much like inside baseball, just view it as a private conversation between GTChristie and myself, carried on in cyberspace rather than in a livingroom.
By technology, I mean, and I assume GT means, scientific discoveries and engineering innovations that change the way in which goods are produced and distributed. The steam engine, the railroad, electricity, the internal combustion engine, the telephone, the assembly line, the computer, and so forth. There is no question that the introduction of these innovations has revolutionized the world's economies, and with that, the lives of virtually all of the people on earth. Why then do I disagree with GT that this technology has been the driving revolutionizing force.
Well, to answer the question as simply as I can [and taking into account my very limited historical and technological knowledge], because there have been a number of societies in which major technological discoveries were made, but in which these discoveries did not trigger the sort of revolutionary change we are talking about. The principle of the steam engine was known to the ancient Romans, but was viewed by them as a curiosity, a toy. In an economy powered by slave labor, there was no driving impetus leading entrepreneurs to invest capital for profit and to seize upon technological innovations as a way to get a competitive edge in a free market. The same is true for Chinese society, in which a great many astonishing scientific and technological discoveries were made [paper, gunpowder, etc] without producing the transformative change characteristic of eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century Europe and then America.
the great nineteenth century sociologists puzzled over this a good deal, trying to figure out what it was about European society that brought capitalism into being. Max Weber, the greatest of them all, famously identified the secularization of the Protestant Ethic as the key differentia.
Furthermore, in the early stages of capitalist development, the explosion in production was facilitated less by technological innovation than by changes in the social organization of production. Technology played a role, to be sure, but even when there were no special technological changes, the introduction of capitalist social relations had an explosive effect.
Well, there is a vast amount more to say, and I welcome a response from GT, if he is so moved. But that in an nutshell is why I stand by my celebration of capitalism as the driving force in the transformation of the modern world.