In 1863, the great novelist Jules Verne undertook perhaps his most ambitious project. He wrote a prophetic novel, called Paris in the Twentieth Century, in which he applied the full power of his enormous talents to fore-cast the coming century. His biographers have noted that, although Verne was not a scientist himself, he constantly sought out scientists, peppering them with questions about their visions of the future. He amassed a vast archive summarizing the great scientiﬁc discoveries of his time. Verne, more than others, realized that science was the engine shaking the foundations of civilization, propelling it into a new century with unexpected marvels and miracles. The key to Verne’s vision and profound insights was his grasp of the power of science to revolutionize society.1
Science as the engine of progress and development, of modernity as it has come down to us is central to the underlying myths of speed and accelerationism. Jules Verne could be considered the father of Accelerationism. Frank Borman an astronaut on Apollo 8 would comment: “In a very real sense, Jules Verne is one of the pioneers of the space age”. Books like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, From the Earth to the Moon, The Adventures of Captain Hatteras and An Antarctic Mystery, Mathias Sandorf, Journey to the Center of the Earth would each inspire scientists like pioneering submarine designer Simon Lake, and other maritime scientists: William Beebe, Sir Ernest Shackleton, and Robert Ballard, and Jacques Cousteau; rocketry innovators Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert Goddard, and Hermann Oberth; explorer Richard E. Byrd, after a flight to the South Pole; Edwin Hubble, the American astronomer; the preeminent speleologist Édouard-Alfred Martel; and others like Fridtjof Nansen, Wernher von Braun, Guglielmo Marconi, and Yuri Gagarin.
Even Marx himself would understand that science is the engine of production and progress:
“…the entire production process appears not subsumed under the direct skillfulness of the worker, but rather as the technological application of science. [It is] hence, the tendency of capital to give production a scientific character; direct labour is reduced to a mere moment in this process. As with the transformation of value into capital, so does it appear in the further development of capital that it presupposes a certain given historical development of productive forces on one side – science too is among these productive forces – and, on the other, drives and forces them further onwards.”2
This notion that the cycle of the production process is driven by applied science as a productive force, and that it is a continuous force driving it in a progressive form of continuous process is key to Marx’s understanding. Instead of capital as the driver of production as many assume, Marx would describe a combination of social labour and the “technological application of natural sciences, on the one side, and to the general productive force arising from social combination of total production on the other side” (ibid). These two forces would ultimately lead capital to “its own dissolution as the form of dominating production” (ibid).
Marx as he begins to diagnose the power of science and machines tells us that at first the power of machines to take over human labour was martialed not by the machines, but by mechanizing the worker, but as he says the rise of machines in industry arose by “dissection – through the division of labour, which gradually transforms the workers’ operations into more and more mechanical ones, so that at a certain point a mechanism can step into their places. Thus, the specific mode of working here appears directly as becoming transferred from the worker to capital in the form of the machine, and his own labour capacity devalued thereby” (ibid).
Even now we hear many workers in the labour force worried that robots and intelligent systems will make them obsolete. In From Watson to Siri we discover that as in early Fordist era machine takeovers we’re facing it again:
“…in the infancy of the 21st century, a new revolution is reshaping the American economy, what we might call the “A.I. revolution.” … machines employing natural language processors, voice recognition software and other tools of artificial intelligence are proliferating, just as textile mills and, later, assembly lines proliferated and fundamentally altered the American economy in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then, American workers won the race against machines by using advances in technology to usher in a new era of consumerism and mass production. This time … we must learn to co-exist with machines, rather than race against them.” (PBS/Need to Know)
It is also interesting, continuing with Marx’s essay, that real wealth creation depends less “on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of agencies set in motion during labour time, whose ‘powerful effectiveness’ is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology or the application of this science to production” (ibid). Again the engine of science and knowledge applied is the driver and engine of wealth creation in which the human worker become more of a “watcher and regulator” of the production process done for the most part by machines. What Marx is ultimately driving at is that humans as scientists and knowledge workers whose “understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence in the social body – it is, in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and wealth” (ibid, 62).
The point that Marx is making in contradistinction to many labour theorists is that wealth is produced by promoting less labour time and more free time for social individuals who thereby become artistic, scientific, educated in free time:
“The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head. With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of its penury and antithesis. The free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created.” (ibid, 63)
By this of course surplus labour is the labour performed in excess of the labour necessary to produce the means of livelihood of the worker (“necessary labour”). So that the exploitation of surplus labour or making individuals work more than is needed for their basic needs should be put to an end, and the input of wealth distributed to the mass of workers to further their education so that through their artistic and scientific creativity and inventions industry would benefit greatly. As Marx will pointedly tells us the capitalists have no clue, that instead of opening up free time for the workers and giving them an opportunity to further their artistic and scientific education, they force them to work longer hours than is necessary to survive:
“Capital itself is the moving contradiction, in that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form: hence it posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question life or death – for the necessary.” (ibid, 63)
But remember Marx had previously told us that the development of the social individual is the “great foundation-stone of production and wealth”, not surplus labour nor labour time as the source of wealth. The point of the contradiction comes into play in that the capitalists use the powers of science, and the resources of nature as the engine of wealth creation in collusion with the social combination and social intercourse independent of labour time employed on it (ibid, 63). Yet, on the other hand they play the blind-man’s card and have us believe that labour time is the measuring rod for the social forces created, and limit it as the created value of value (ibid, 63).
Yet, Marx will almost surprised by his own analyses remind us that it is the human brain freed up to produce knowledge for the society that is the lynchpin of wealth, and that the “creation of a large quantity of disposable time apart from necessary labour time for society generally” which leads to people being able to pursue artistic and scientific education etc. Yet, the capitalists in contradistinction to their own practices, invert this logic and take hold of the surplus labour to force workers not into free time for education, but to produce excessive material products for the market and as Marx suggests, if it succeeds too well it “suffers from surplus production, and then necessary labour is interrupted, because no surplus labour can be realized by capital” (ibid, 64). The point here is that the capitalist is his own worst enemy, and the cycles of bust and depression, inflation, etc. are brought about by the fantasia of the capitalists.
Ultimately Marx’s diagnosis would be that as the contradiction continues to produce these same cycles of boom and bust over and over and over again, it is up to the workers, not the entrepreneurs and bankers (Capital), to appropriate their own surplus labour (free time): Once they have done so- and disposable time thereby ceases to have an antithetical existence – then, on one side, necessary labour time will be measured by the needs of the social individual, and, on the other, the development of power of social production will grow so rapidly that, even though production is now calculated for the wealth of all, disposable time will grow for all. (ibid, 65) This will lead Marx to his final point, that real wealth is the combined or total productive power of all workers, and the measure of wealth is not labour time but “disposable time”. Instead of the capitalist who bases wealth on labour time, on the exploitation of the worker beyond his necessary time he needs to support himself and his family, he is force to “work longer than the savage does, or than he himself did with the simplest, crudest tools” (ibid. 65).
Instead as Marx will tell us what should occur is the saving of labour time, of turning it into free time, of education and productive time for family and life thereby allowing workers to ultimately accumulate knowledge for society: “this process is then both a discipline, as regards the human being in the process of becoming, and, at the same time, practice, experimental science, materially creative and objectifying science, as regards the human being who has become, in whose head exists the accumulation of knowledge of society” (ibid, 66).
As we move into an era of artificial intelligence, smart cities, technocapitalism the need for creativity and higher performance and inventiveness has come more and more into play, and as Luis Suarez-Villa will tell us this is becoming a era in which creativity itself is becoming the greatest commodity: “The commodification of this most intangible and elusive human quality has characteristics separating it from the commodification of other resources in previous stages of capitalism.”3
In my next post I’ll introduce some of where Luis Suarez-Villa sees our brave new world of technocapitalism is taking us. All of this as lead in to Kaku and others as to the direction of capital, acceleration, and science as they merge and form the new worlds ahead.
1. Michio Kaku. Physics of the Future. (Random House, 2012)
2. Fragment on Machines. #Accelerate# the accelerationist reader. editors Robin Makay and Armen Avanessian (Urbanomic, 2014)
3. Technocapitalism: A Critical Perspective on Technological Innovation and Corporatism (Kindle Locations 357-359). Kindle Edition.