Karl Marx: Prelude to the Automatic Society

 

In machinery, knowledge appears as alien, external to him; and living labour [as] subsumed under self-activating objectified labour.

—Karl Marx, Grundrisse 

Karl Marx in the Grundrisse would offer us a vision of the machinic society, a vision in which self-motivated intelligent machines would come to realize the actual and real movement of capital itself. He would speak of the incorporation of labor into the process of capital whose ultimate “culmination is the machine”*, or – as he’d put it: an automatic system of machinery (system of machinery: the automatic one is merely its most complete, most adequate form, and alone transforms machinery into a system), set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages. He would see a point in time when human labor would be superseded by the automatic machines driven by their own mechanical laws. He would describe this automated world of intelligent machines saying,

Not as with the instrument, which the worker animates and makes into his organ with his skill and strength, and whose handling therefore depends on his virtuosity. Rather, it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it…

 In an evolutionary insight he would see the replacement of human labor in the workplace as a momentary aspect of a longer and more evolving system of machinic capital, and as the outcome of the capital process which was tending in ever accelerating modalities toward Autonomization:

The transformation of the means of labour into machinery, and of living labour into a mere living accessory of this machinery, as the means of its action, also posits the absorption of the labour process in its material character as a mere moment of the realization process of capital.

He would already envision the technoscientific community under the guidance of capital investment and control as underwriting this fully automated intelligent society that capital was evolving toward:

The science which compels the inanimate limbs of the machinery, by their construction, to act purposefully, as an automaton, does not exist in the worker’s consciousness, but rather acts upon him through the machine as an alien power, as the power of the machine itself.

This sense that the machine was an alien and alienating power fully autonomous and outside the human, and in fact already acting upon humanity and transforming and shaping it into its own ends rather than those of humanity itself is at the core of his diagnosis. This inhuman turn toward capital autonomy in a machinic society fully automated in which humans were mere agents and parasitic hosts to be used by capital toward its own ends comes out clearly in this passage:

Machinery appears, then, as the most adequate form of fixed capital, and fixed capital, in so far as capital’s relations with itself are concerned, appears as the most adequate form of capital as such.


* Linking the full passage from the Grundrisse:

As long as the means of labour remains a means of labour in the proper sense of the term, such as it is directly, historically, adopted by capital and included in its realization process, it undergoes a merely formal modification, by appearing now as a means of labour not only in regard to its material side, but also at the same time as a particular mode of the presence of capital, determined by its total process – as fixed capital. But, once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labour passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery (system of machinery: the automatic one is merely its most complete, most adequate form, and alone transforms machinery into a system), set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages. In the machine, and even more in machinery as an automatic system, the use value, i.e. the material quality of the means of labour, is transformed into an existence adequate to fixed capital and to capital as such; and the form in which it was adopted into the production process of capital, the direct means of labour, is superseded by a form posited by capital itself and corresponding to it. In no way does the machine appear as the individual worker’s means of labour. Its distinguishing characteristic is not in the least, as with the means of labour, to transmit the worker’s activity to the object; this activity, rather, is posited in such a way that it merely transmits the machine’s work, the machine’s action, on to the raw material – supervises it and guards against interruptions. Not as with the instrument, which the worker animates and makes into his organ with his skill and strength, and whose handling therefore depends on his virtuosity. Rather, it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it; and it consumes coal, oil etc. (matières instrumentales), just as the worker consumes food, to keep up its perpetual motion. The worker’s activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite. The science which compels the inanimate limbs of the machinery, by their construction, to act purposefully, as an automaton, does not exist in the worker’s consciousness, but rather acts upon him through the machine as an alien power, as the power of the machine itself. The appropriation of living labour by objectified labour – of the power or activity which creates value by value existing for-itself – which lies in the concept of capital, is posited, in production resting on machinery, as the character of the production process itself, including its material elements and its material motion. The production process has ceased to be a labour process in the sense of a process dominated by labour as its governing unity. Labour appears, rather, merely as a conscious organ, scattered among the individual living workers at numerous points of the mechanical system; subsumed under the total process of the machinery itself, as itself only a link of the system, whose unity exists not in the living workers, but rather in the living (active) machinery, which confronts his individual, insignificant doings as a mighty organism. In machinery, objectified labour confronts living labour within the labour process itself as the power which rules it; a power which, as the appropriation of living labour, is the form of capital. The transformation of the means of labour into machinery, and of living labour into a mere living accessory of this machinery, as the means of its action, also posits the absorption of the labour process in its material character as a mere moment of the realization process of capital. The increase of the productive force of labour and the greatest possible negation of necessary labour is the necessary tendency of capital, as we have seen. The transformation of the means of labour into machinery is the realization of this tendency. In machinery, objectified labour materially confronts living labour as a ruling power and as an active subsumption of the latter under itself, not only by appropriating it, but in the real production process itself; the relation of capital as value which appropriates value-creating activity is, in fixed capital existing as machinery, posited at the same time as the relation of the use value of capital to the use value of labour capacity; further, the value objectified in machinery appears as a presupposition against which the value-creating power of the individual labour capacity is an infinitesimal, vanishing magnitude; the production in enormous mass quantities which is posited with machinery destroys every connection of the product with the direct need of the producer, and hence with direct use value; it is already posited in the form of the product’s production and in the relations in which it is produced that it is produced only as a conveyor of value, and its use value only as condition to that end. In machinery, objectified labour itself appears not only in the form of product or of the product employed as means of labour, but in the form of the force of production itself. The development of the means of labour into machinery is not an accidental moment of capital, but is rather the historical reshaping of the traditional, inherited means of labour into a form adequate to capital. The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital, in so far as it enters into the production process as a means of production proper. Machinery appears, then, as the most adequate form of fixed capital, and fixed capital, in so far as capital’s relations with itself are concerned, appears as the most adequate form of capital as such. In another respect, however, in so far as fixed capital is condemned to an existence within the confines of a specific use value, it does not correspond to the concept of capital, which, as value, is indifferent to every specific form of use value, and can adopt or shed any of them as equivalent incarnations. In this respect, as regards capital’s external relations, it is circulating capital which appears as the adequate form of capital, and not fixed capital.


  1. Karl Marx. Grundrisse. Penguin Classics; Reprint edition (November 7, 1993)

3 thoughts on “Karl Marx: Prelude to the Automatic Society

  1. For me the exterior alien power that is autonomous and a self-moving motion is the activity of tertiary retention that shapes me as far as I allow this to happen when I am not caught in the rebellion to this activity constituted by fetishistic desires for idols. I know my interest in fetishes works against my real interests but it is part of who I am. I supposed it is that part of me of who is an aspiring capitalist or an egocentric narcissistic consumerist. It is a problem of attention as Stiegler points out where my own motion caught in the fetish (the desire for what the exchange value of money can get me as primary idol) gets in the way of the tertiary retentions of the automaton that I listen to. I have often repeated this to myself and others in various ways which helps since repetition is the only activity that forms a counter-habit to that which I would prefer to call rebellion since the absence of attentive listening to my external force of tertiary technical formation is a kind of faithlessness or lack of commitment. It also helps that a counter-repetition that breaks an establish automation is simple since after all when it comes to serious attention we are dealing with something like an Spinozian third form of knowledge which is not information or the construction of an intellectual idea that make me think about something. If it was an idea it would get in the way of simply letting oneself be formed by an exterior organizational activity always rich in its variety of ways of appearing.

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    • The big point for Stiegler is not that humans and technics/technology have co-evolved in reciprocal formation of each other, but that certain social systems have enforced entropic rather than negentropic forms of command and control arbitrarily over their populaces. For Stiegler – after Heidegger – we must create a negentropic caring society that can obviate the dire consequences of our own techno-economic successes. A part of it is to take such tertiary systems such as the corporate Big Data, Cloud, and Algorithmic governmentality that is arising within the command and control centralized systems of Google, Face Book, etc. and begin decentralizing and re-distributing them into a more equitable socio-cultural matrix of possibility rather than control. Idealist? Perhaps… Wrongheaded? Not really, just another aspect of the struggle against power that usually goes unacknowledged for its simplicity. One issue of such thinkers as Stiegler is his elitism in the sense of couching his message in the garb of postmodern linguistic and deconstructionist languages that are beyond most average citizens to comprehend without the aids of intermediary journalists and writers who can take his postmodern crapology and simplify it for the masses of readers who might actually benefit from it.

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      • Hi ho,

        Sure I can agree that that is the “big point”, that is, creatively bringing into being the dream I have of a “negantropic caring society” probably, even while deferring to his guidance since after all he is way more knowledgeable on the process than I am, in a different manner that he would experience and let that process-event flesh itself out since after all the material reality of my concrete situation is different than his like it is different than yours. Since you mentioned Heidegger a big issue too is not that an NCS is the proper name for a noun or some kind of fixed, reified, static entity that just sits out there so I can look at it, describe it, explain it and such but the future possibility of fulfilling a dream by being open to “its” activity today, right now. It is more like the verb of a phrase without a noun and whatever texture if folded and unfolded with these processes. Somewhere in “Automatic Society” he makes reference to Whitehead. I was shocked by the generous reference to an American thinker but it seems this is as it should be because he, sorry I can’t be bothered to open the book right now and give you page numbers, because he says that the transformative process of an NCS involves shock, actually it is most accurate to say a series of shocks and tremors and therefore trauma. This is why the process involves the deployment of the pharmacology of an economy of care, transitional objects if you will, to calm the nerves as the fire of new creation begins to emerge in my future. I don’t know about you but I need the transindividuating funds or endowment of tertiary retentions that come from the outside to provide me with soothers to stay together and to remain firm as my primary and secondary retentions (memory, imagination, desire) are shaken and transformed by the new reality of an emergent dream of a new me made possible thanks to my obedient and docile reading of the tertiary retentions of a my kinship collective. I can’t do this on my own and hey I am not trying to be smart aleck here and use smug irony while referring to my experience as a weak thinker or simple attentive listener of (…) as if it is a question of thinking of oneself as some sort idiot savant and really stroking oneself with the idea of being really intelligent. I am trying to get over my use of irony and sarcasm which is something I never liked from my higher education. I see this use of irony as a resistance to really feeling the pain of a lack of education so characteristic of a concrete situation of proletarization not to mention the addictions and abuse… and it is a resistance to really acknowledging interpretive and expressive powerlessness and so the need to let oneself be formed by the true exterior virtuoso which is the endowment of the ancestors transmitted by caring mothers, fathers, teachers, coaches, etc. and not my intellectual property. Nothing fixed for all time is communicated though since process and not a noun is an issue says that tertiary retentions are dynamic bringing into being ever renewing organizational forms of collective transindividuating funds.

        I was thinking about your last thoughts. I have to admit that not the jargon and arrogance attracts me but the idea that he defends, and I think he is fairly explicit, of a new nobility is kind of attractive as having to do with the dignity* of unemployment and the difficult enjoyment of otium, or the enjoyment of philanthropic work with free time. There is something to be said for the importance of the feeling of dignity in an experience which is normally taken to be shameful. He is in the privileged situation of blurring his own distinction between work and employment. As I read him otium is to some extent the product of the industrial revolution and he is living off of that for which he could express more thanks I suppose just like all of us who are lucky to be in a developed country relatively free of widespread violence. Our exchanges are a product of otium no? They help me to clarify things and feed the new creation that I am becoming. Thank you for responding…

        We are talking about pretty esoteric stuff. I don’t know about you I feel like I am part of a social network but it is a dream and peerless lacking the connectivity of peer to peer so to speak. It is weird for me it is like I have this sense of kinship with a collective, of being part of and relatively united with a people but they are like, to use a French word, revenants, ancestral spirits haunting me…. but giving me the old fire to keep moving towards the exit… that is the breath of spirits. They give give me a sense of being alive. Spirit takes me out of a state of death and nihilism and gives me life and a mode of enjoyment.

        The truth is that Facebook is not a truly socializing social network. Stiegler writes as I read him that this is because it is not mature and adult enough. Perhaps one can speak of the “signs” of a mature social network where peers have a strong sense of being united. That would be one sign a sense of unity expressed by the willingness to care and contribute to the network but this results as Stiegler would say from a process of apprenticeship, a patient and long emancipatory process that changes people in a significant manner whose stages of individuation each person can perhaps analyze. One comes to have a healthy and secure attachment to the tertiary retentions that are cared for by the contributors or transmitted to new peers. Another sign would be a strong sense of obedience or loyalty to dynamic tertiary retentions that are not dogmas but ever renewing and mutating possibilities of expression of the true virtuoso or self moving automaton who/that is all process and activity bringing continuous life or inspiring to peers that moves them to contribute and care.

        I have to get back to real work or employment but one more comment on elitist jargonology is that the ability of some journalists and writers to simplify, due to their real life experience of the process, is without a doubt true mastery. It is not easy to do. Stiegler in his early writings is way more tortured in his expression than in say Automatic Society. I see progress which I find at once too simplistic and combining a lot of different future orientations which seem like an important breakthrough for those of us looking for genuinely mature digital social networks. He is having a moment of inspiration that I find inspiring but it lacks functionality or strong emancipatory potential due to its linguistic elitism.

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