Marxism and the Technosphere

The problem of agency in the technosphere has much in common with Marx’s treatment of agency in capitalism. In capitalism agency is endogenous to the system: Capitalists are not the bad guys who expropriate workers with sinister intentions, but the forces of ‘capital’ subject them to this type of behavioural governance. The system drives their actions, and that’s why we need to change the system, not just improve what people think and aim at: turning capitalists into philantropists would not be enough (or even possible). Marx’s theory of revolution is about workers regaining agency, via emancipating themselves from the system, understanding how it works, and then build countervailing power on collective agency as a class. Yet, Marx believed that this is only possible when a certain stage of technological development would be reached that creates certain material conditions in terms of the concentration of the economy and levels of productivity.

Marx’s ‘capital’ is a financial category, in simplest terms, ‘money’, as epitomized in his famous M-C-M’ formula depicting the circuit of generating surplus value. However, he approached money just as neoclassical economists today do, as a mere medium in which capital is transformed: In Marxist theory, money is not value. He followed the classical labour theory of value, which means that in the generation of surplus, complex calculations of labour inputs, socially necessary labour etc. were needed. This is the point where modern economics does not follow Marx: Value is rooted in subjective preferences.

Obviously, Marx is relevant for understanding the technosphere, in terms of the systemic perspective, the ideas about endogenous agency, and the emphasis on technology (‘productive forces’). I suggest two ways in which we can turn Marx from head to feet.

The first is to take money seriously. Money is a technological artefact, as is modern finance. We have very substantial research that shows how money transforms human agency, beginning with the work of the sociologist Georg Simmel at the turn to the 20th century. Money is the central artefact in organizing markets, which are the prominent medium in which technosphere evolution is proceeding. In my work, I approach money as a social technology that makes us performing the economy in a specific way, that Marx called ‘capitalism’ (see my Journal of Economic Methodology paper here, which summarizes the state of our knowledge). Money is one of the crucial causal connectors between technosphere and the human domain, down to the level of causation of individual action.

The second track is offered by thermodynamics. Despite his focus on technology, Marx analysed capitalism as a social system, epitomized in his labour theory of value. He overlooked the role of energy in the industrialization process (as far as I know). The work of the physicist Reiner Kümmel helps to correct this view (here). As it was also shown by Ayres and others, in modern economics neglecting energy in the analysis of economic growth partly results from misjudging its marginal productivity, based on national income accounts (factor shares). If alternative production functions are employed, and energy is explicitly included, the marginal productivity of energy is higher than that of labour and capital. As Kümmel argues, this means that ‘energy slaves’ are exploited by humans, they are paid less than the value that they generate. That sounds very Marxian, indeed!

Following Kümmel, I suggest that Marx could not anticipate the failure of proletarian revolution because labour and capital could find an arrangement in which labour could increase its income position (higher wages, less working time, more redistribution) without jeopardizing capitalist profits because the two could shift the burden to the third party: energy (or, more generally, ‘Mother Earth’). In that sense, the neglect of energy in modern economics is an ideological construct that hides a quasi-political structure of exploitation. Energy cannot regain agency, however, so it is an almost safe political deal. Yet, we could say that Marxian analysis of expropriation still applies, mutatis mutandis (which might point towards an energetic theory of value that many tried to create, but never succeeded: A task for technosphere science of the future?).

That implies a different justification why energy prices need to be adjusted than internalization of externalities (across the board, not just in terms of CO2 taxes): Energy must be compensated according to its true marginal productivity. Such a general adjustment of factor prices would have very substantial effects on the evolution of economic structure, with labour getting relatively cheaper. I always refer to the Chinese economy in late Imperial times as an example how an economy operates in such a regime.

In the end, however, Marx gets his right. Who owns energy resources and who grabs the profits? Well, the capitalists and the ‘state-capitalists’. The global energy system is embedded in a truly sinister network of economic and political power that shapes governance and social conditions in many countries, often creating catastrophic conditions for the population (for a sobering account, see Wenar’s book ‘Blood Oil’ here). These are not exactly the same types of actors that Marx was observing in his times. But the need for a political revolution is as urgent as he felt it.

4 Replies to “Marxism and the Technosphere”

  1. Stimulating as ever Carsten. I found this particularly interesting:

    “Yet, we could say that Marxian analysis of expropriation still applies, mutatis mutandis (which might point towards an energetic theory of value that many tried to create, but never succeeded: A task for technosphere science of the future?).”

    I take this to related to the project that Tim Garrett has been undertaking for some time now. I think some of Tim’s work has been interpreted as nothing more than a physicists quibble about dimensionality and lack of rigour in classical economics, but it is much more profound. There’s something here about seizing the means of production with regards economics methodologies. Reformulating or reimagining economics seems to be a revolutionary act given the symbiotic relationship econonics has with policy and power. It’s perhaps a classic example of ‘if the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts’ in that the ‘facts’ are existing social structures and the theory is mainstream economics. Theories of wealth based on thermodynamics or at least physical units as well as notions of value seems to be required in order for sustainable economic systems (let alone growth). But my understanding of this is very patchy!

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    1. Energetic theories of value have been tried many times, but I think that they suffer from a fundamental flaw: They try to connect energy and value directly. How did Lotka introduce his Maximum Power Principle? In taking evolutionary theory as the relevant theoretical frame. Accordingly, conceptually linking energy and value must be done in evolutionary terms. What is the correspondence to ‘value’ in evolutionary biology? Fitness. Indeed, this is how Evolutionary Ecologists approach energy: Energy is the most universal resource that constrains survival and reproduction of living systems, and that’s why it is valued. But that means, you cannot measure value in terms of physical measures of energy. Now, the really fascinating point is that ‘fitness’ can be interpreted as formal homology to ‘subjective value’ in modern economics. There is no ‘objective’ measure of fitness, fitness is always relative to the ecological niche and to the organism living in that niche, and eventually fitness is only manifest in relative reproductive success. Hence, if we want to connect thermodynamics and economics, we first need to connect biology and economics, and substitute ‘subjective value’ for an alternative that is based on evolutionary theory. There are already many proposals in this direction, such as Peter Corning’s seminal work on integrating evolutionary theory across disciplines. This would also apply, mutatis mutandis, for Marxism: Marx and Engels may have recognized ecological aspects, but the theory of value certainly is limited to the social domain.

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  2. I’m not an expert on this, but the debate that Marx and Engels had with Sergei Podolinsky is important here. My simple version of this is that Podolinsky argued that the labour theory of value could be given more scientific validity by describing it in terms of energy, and Marx and Engels disagreed. But I know the reality was more complex – see contributions by John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burkett and Joan Martinez-Alier.

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