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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

AN INTERESTING QUESTION

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.

3 comments:

Mike said...

Professor,

As fascinating as this internecine dispute may be, I wish you’d press on with the earlier capitalism vs. socialism discussion. I’m still not clear on what it is about capitalism that you find objectionable. It would help me greatly, I think, if we could begin by examining a very simple case, such as the one below:

Fred and John wash up on a desert island. They are the island’s only inhabitants. Fred manages to build a rather impressive coconut retrieval system. John asks Fred for some coconuts. Fred responds that he’d be happy to give John some coconuts in exchange for John’s labor. John agrees, and Fred puts John to work fixing the retrieval system, building irrigation canals, and so on. He pays John in coconuts.

Let’s suppose also that if Fred were now to drown in the ocean, John would be better off in terms of coconuts since he could keep them all for himself. But if Fred had never existed, John would be much worse off because John would never have been able to build the coconut retrieval system. Their arrangement, then, is mutually beneficial in relation to how each would have fared had the other never existed.

So I’m curious what you make of the justice of their arrangement. That seems like a good place to start. Let’s see if we can agree at least about this simple case.

GTChristie said...

Thank you Professor. I'm sure we'll both be clarifying our statements. I should confess to you and your readers that I usually edit as much after I post, as in the drafting. The last line as it stands does need improvement and there's more to say. To accommodate the fact that you're responding in particular to that statement, when I replace/edit it, I'll just cross through so everyone can see what you're responding to.

The point in a post to come will be how science has influenced Western thought. I knew I shouldn't have used the "T" word there. More later.

Thank you for visiting my pages. Look at the August index to see previous posts about your conversation. However much we might differ, I do admire your work.

adamvs said...

Dear Professor,

Doesn't technology reflect the culture that produces it? That is to say, although there are physical limitations- a neo-lithic society produces flint chips not silicon chips- the technology produced reflects the desires of the culture that originates it? Similarly, the practice of science reflects the culture from which it arises?
I am trying to clarify in my mind the point you are making, without sliding into the solipsism of some theories that eliminate an underlying physical reality, as potentially unknowable as it may be to people.

In other words, some technical revolutions arose from a capitalist approach, because capitalist cultures wanted them. Bronze age cultures wanted bronze swords because that was a technology they could both physically produce and actively desire.

Sorry if I have put this too simply, but Henri Lefebvre and Michel De Certeau have written on this at length, and without the length limitations of a blog comment!