Productive Technique and Natural Science

Productive Technique and Natural Science

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The development of the human knowledge of Nature provides humanity, potentially at least, with a greater control over the impact of the forces of Nature on its life. And, of course, this knowledge can also serve to intervene in Nature in order to ‘save’ Nature from the impact of human activities and thereby establish a more nurturing and, ecologically, more ‘sustaining’ or ‘sustainable’ relationship with Nature as a whole. Human activity is knowledge-mediated and knowledge arises out of this activity.

The knowledge-mediated evolution of the labour process continuously alters humanity’s relationship to Nature, giving rise to incremental and revolutionary changes in social relations. The stage of development of this ‘power of knowledge objectified’ indicates the degree to which ‘general social knowledge has become a direct force of production’.

Marx, pointing to technical developments in the nineteenth century, observed that…

‘Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, no railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules, etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process’

[Marx. Grundrisse. Penguin, 1993. Notebook VII, p.706.]

(In this regard, see Chapter 4 of Bonfire of the Certainties by Cliff Slaughter on Marx’s concept of the ‘social brain’ found in the Grundrisse)

Mankind, in the course of its activity, unearths a knowledge of those forces of Nature which formerly dominated it and to the power of which mankind was subjected. This enables the articulation of a social control of these forces which can become chanelled and deployed for humanity’s and Nature’s own use.

However, the technical and social implications of advances in human knowledge are not always obvious or explicit. Developments in scientific theory can profoundly influence the course of technique and social development. For example, when Maxwell formulated his equations of electromagnetism he could not have foreseen that his discoveries were to become the point of departure for a revolution in technique that would lead to the development of the mass telecommunications technology which we see and use today.

The artificial production of electromagnetic waves by Hertz demonstrated the relative truth of Maxwell’s equations which later formed the technical basis for the development of telecommunications. This, with the emergence of the internet, has made communication easier and quicker and provided a more convenient means and medium for the dissemination and exchange of ideas and information.

These advances in communications technology have profoundly altered (and are continuing to alter) the character of social relations and, for us as communists, afford a now indispensable means and medium for furthering the struggle against the global capitalist order itself.

The interfacing of telecommunications, computers and production (expressed specifically in the increasing role of automation and robotics in production) has formed, potentially at least, the foundation upon which a social revolution in the actual labour process itself is entirely possible. But this revolution can only take place beyond capitalist relations of production. The ‘globalisation’ of capital is the ‘globalisation’ of technique and this, in its turn, globalises ideas and movements, altering and transforming human consciousness worldwide in the process.

In the ancestral evolution of humankind, the origination of language and consciousness are both intrinsically connected to the development of the labour process. Of course, Engels grasped this in his Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. The mediating relation here is the emergence and necessary growth of social co-operation in the course of this transition. The production and use of tools actually required the development of co-operation and this, in its turn, gave rise to the need for language and consciousness.

Co-operation in the production and use of tools involves the co-ordination of activities by means of the medium of language through its specific vocal articulation in speech. In Linguistics, we have the important distinction between langue and parole which are intimately connected but not absolutely identical in that parole (speech) is the vocalised manifestation of langue (language) in an individual or ‘speech community’. For example, the countless speech communities of the English language.

The origination and evolution of language therefore, accordingly, asserts itself as a social necessity as both an outcome of, and as becoming and being intrinsic to, the development of the labour process. The need of man’s ancestors to co-operate necessitates speech which is associated with the development of language and rise of consciousness itself. Speech – even in an emergent or rudimentary form – implies language and thought i.e. consciousness or its beginnings. The notion that language and consciousness is simply the product of the brain – sometimes found in Evolutionary Psychology (successor of Sociobiology) – analogous to acid really being the outpouring of the walls of the Stomach is a thought not worth a modicum of entertainment. The author will not waste his and readers’ time by wading into the quagmire of a critique. (Although it could readily be done by many)

Speech is therefore externalised, vocalised thought mediated by the relations and system of language. This distinction between language and speech may seem somewhat pedantic to some but it is important in the sense that language is the mediating link between thinking and speaking. Speech is language and yet it is not language, parole is langue and yet not langue. Accordingly, we can understand thought as a form of internalised language.

In the begining was the deed. Activity necessarily gives rise to word and concept and the relation between the two as an identity of opposites mediate each other’s development in the history of social relations. Activity-language-consciousness becoming constituted historically as a dialectical unity.

Labour, as a co-operative social process, is therefore intrinsic to the whole historical process. The production and use of tools was a fundamental social process which not only enabled humankind and its hominid ancestors to alter their conditions of life. This process itself simultaneously served to alter humanity’s ancestors up to and inclusive of the first human revolution which Chris Knight describes in his book Blood Relations. Humanity and its ancestors, in constantly changing or striving to alter their conditions of life simultaneously changed themselves and, in this way, humanity’s hominid ancestors became progressively more human in the course of the hominisation process.

And, therefore, of course, it follows that in the production and reproduction of the conditions for human life…

Not only do the objective conditions change in the act of production, e.g. the village becomes a town, the wilderness a cleared field, etc, but the producers change too, in that they bring out new qualities in themselves, develop themselves in production, transform themselves, develop new powers and ideas, new modes of intercourse, new needs and new language.

[Marx. Grundrisse. Notebook V, p.494]

In the course of this activity (active relationship in and with Nature) humanity applies a constantly developing knowledge of Nature so that our changing relationship with Nature is always mediated by a deepening application and re-application in varying contexts of our knowledge of it. Mankind, in changing its conditions of life in its relationship with Nature, constantly changes itself. Engels analyses the character of this relationship in reference to Natural Science and Philosophy in that..

Natural science, like philosophy, has hitherto entirely neglected the influence of men’s activity on their thought; both know only nature on the one hand and thought on the other. But it is precisely the alteration of nature by men and not solely nature as such, which is the most essential and immediate basis of human thought, and it is in the measure that man has learned to change nature that his intelligence has increased. The naturalistic conception of history […….] as if nature exclusively reacts on man, and natural conditions everywhere exclusively determined his historical development is therefore one-sided and forgets that man also reacts on nature, changing it and creating new conditions of existence for himself.

[Engels. Dialectics of Nature. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol 25. Lawrence & Wishart, London. 1987. p.511]

Where the needs of production directly impress themselves in their immediate requirements, the development of human knowledge becomes bound up with the evolution of the labour process. However, this is not to deny that leaps forward in knowledge – not immediately connected with production – cannot profoundly alter the actual course of productive technique. We have observed this with the development of telecommunications and computerisation. Moreover, the growth of the biotechnology industry would have been impossible without all the “pure” research that took place over many decades in the areas of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Even at a time when its applications in biotechnology were, at best, a remote possibility. Engels remarks that..

From the very beginning the origin and development of the sciences has been determined by production

[Engels. Dialectics of Nature. Ibid., p.465]

“Determined” is perhaps a rather positivistic and “deterministic” word here but undoubtedly the development of production and its changing requirements and the evolution of the sciences are not separable from each other. If only insofar as research techniques in the sciences are themselves furnished with the products of humanity’s manufacturing and industrial technique. Furthermore, since the development of the productive forces and alterations in social relations are interconnected, this implies that we cannot separate developments in scientific thought and theory from this relation as a vital and intrinsic mediating aspect of it. No matter how remote this may appear to be, since today what are mere potentialities turn, with changing conditions, into the realisation of actualities. If, as Engels notes, our knowledge is ‘limited in its actuality’ yet ‘unlimited in its disposition’, this implies that all scientific discovery contains embryonically, the possibility – of which we are not necessarily, as yet, conscious – of technical developments for the future which could profoundly alter the course of the production process. This means that those areas of scientific research which are considered to be “pure” (and not immediately “applicable” to and for the interests of capital) may contain (‘locked-up’ in embryo) within them the greatest of “application” for the future course of technique.

This knowledge of Nature is, of course, historically relative and therefore a historically conditioned understanding of Nature. The alterations in scientific technique mean that what we discover today could not have been discovered yesterday and what we discover tomorrow will require further innovations in technique. But that does not mean that we fall into a kind of historicistic relativism in our understanding of the development of knowledge in the natural sciences. Every relative conception contains within it an approach to the absolute which is asymptotic and, in this sense, every conception in science embraces within itself this dialectical unity of the relative and the absolute. This dialectical relation in our understanding of “the atom” is clearly illustrated in the development of atomic theory from the “solid ball” atom theory of the Greeks to the most recent atomic theories in contemporary Physics.

The emergence of the natural sciences – roughly corresponding to the rise and dominance of the capitalist mode of production – provides an incredible impetus to the development of production. The discoveries in this epoch often become directly applicable to the development of production. We observe this in Newtonian Physics and the emergence of modern Chemistry from the 18th century onwards. The onset of this capitalist period of development marks a tremendous step forward in the history of technique.

The advance of scientific thought does not necessarily mitigate the direct psychological impact of the capitalist system on and in the life of the individual. If anything, this impact is aggravated by the sharpening contradictions between technical development and the social relations of the capitalist system. The personal problems of living for the individual under capitalism tend to become compounded, accentuated, aggravated. As the crisis of capital unfolds in the 21st century, we will see and perceive, increasingly, the dynamic of its sharpening contradictions becoming concentrated, intensified and expressed in all manner of forms in the psychosocial life of the suffering individual.

Shaun May

November 2013

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