On Robots and Sheep

A short introduction to historical materialism and its significance for the understanding of contemporary capitalism.

Today we are living in times of rupture. The ecological crisis poses a threat to the survival of many communities and animal species; immense inequalities increase economic and social instability that could explode with various forms of social destruction at any time. Ten years after one economic crisis we are facing another. This time, the economic downturn is caused by the difficult-to-control coronavirus. One could only speculate about the scale of the recession, but it is already being predicted that the crisis of 2020 and its consequences will be dramatic indeed. It will affect the most vulnerable members of society – women, children, single parents, disabled persons, the old, workers, and small business owners. 

Critically-minded analysts agree that a new financial crisis, if its scope is similar to the one of 2009, will put an impossible burden on public finances. Corrupted banks that went bankrupt in 2008 were bailed out with taxpayers’ money. Although some were nationalized, eventually these banks were given back to private owners. The fundamental reforms of financial institutions – including robust bank controls, let alone the nationalization of at least some of them – were never carried out. On the contrary, the illegal symbiosis of governments and banks in 2009 was a massive blow to public finances, while the economic failure of the whole financial system and its private actors was socialised. The weakest were turned into scapegoats: the workers, pensioners, the sick, and children. They suffered the most from austerity policies that called for dramatic cuts in public services and public funding.

Today, the biggest challenges of technological development are brought by artificial intelligence (AI) and rapid automation. Of course, technological change and the development of tools into sophisticated machines have always been part of the capitalist mode of production. In the first volume of Capital, Karl Marx analyses the strategies to increase the relative surplus value and convincingly proves what has already become a commonplace truth: that the competitive advantage of firms is increased by investments in the technological advancement of their means of production. Thus, improvement in tools and the growth of productive forces are inevitable under capitalism. But until now, automation has been developing in the form of improved means of production that liberate from physical labour. And it still is. However, the speed of automation and the development of artificial intelligence are so rapid that today even many of the so-called white-collar jobs (various jobs in offices) will be replaced by the AI and robots of cognitive automation. This will create – and is already creating – massive political and economic challenges. It is true that technological change and the opportunities it brings do not necessarily mean that automation will be rapidly applied and made use of in today’s capitalism. On the contrary, diminishing collective bargaining power of workers and wage stagnation reveal that investments in the technological development of the means of production by capital owners are not inevitable if capitalists can compete by lowering the costs of labour. In the last ten years, private investments in the means of production have been incredibly low. Furthermore, in the pre-Covid-19 context of open borders and economic globalization we can observe the opposite tendency – decrease in automation, as some services that were previously automated are now being provided by cheap immigrant labour.

It is against this background that the methodological research paradigm developed by Marx becomes important. An analysis of social processes must be grounded in the understanding of the forces of production and the relations of production. Without understanding and without perceiving social reality from the point of view of production, without any reference to economic context and the contradictions of capitalism, we will be unable to understand the forms of consciousness of our societies. This thesis is best illustrated by Marx’s witty analogy that, just as we are not judging a man by what he thinks of himself, so we cannot judge the changes and the most fundamental events in society by simply focusing on the forms of consciousness of that society. According to Marx, we need to follow the opposite course: it is the social forms of consciousness – ideology in the widest sense – that must be understood in the context of contradictions and conflicts of the material life.

What kind of contradictions did Marx have in mind? First of all, The German Ideology, but also other Marx’s (and Engels’) works, emphasise that social research must start from the basic fact that people exist in the world; that they must produce the means of subsistence to meet their needs; and that production requires the intercourse with nature and cooperation with other people. People, in this way, do not simply produce their means of subsistence, they also produce their “material life”. Labour, as the production of the means of subsistence, interjects between humanity and nature. Production in this sense is what specifically defines humanity; production – as creation of the conditions of material life – is also the condition of consciousness. Only by creating our world which goes above and beyond the natural environment undisturbed by wilful interaction, people develop consciousness. In this sense, Marx improves on (but does not negate) Aristotle’s claim that human being is a political animal having a rational principle (logos): human consciousness, reason, and language develop by the way of collective production and creation of the human environment; at the centre of this collective process is the entirety of tools. Thus, with the development of the production of the conditions of life, society (and its collective consciousness) also develops; with it, the division of labour grows. With the development of tools, our productive capacity also increases, and, in turn, the relations of production become more complex.  

Eventually, contradictions and conflicts between the forces of production and the relations of production grow. Then, Marx argues, begins an era of social instability and social revolution. The forces of production are the totality of all existing and collectively created tools, technologies, and productive capacities conditioned by them. If I have a spade and you have an excavator, then your force of production for digging holes is higher than mine by hundreds of times. It is important that, when we conceive the forces of production – as the basis of social existence – in this way, then historical development should be understood in progressive terms. New generations find already-existing forces of production and all the material culture that was created by previous generations. We do not need to invent the bicycle because it has already been invented, and our generation can make use of this technological achievement. Tools are developed and technological innovations are accumulated and passed on through generations. At the same time, the whole material basis of social existence is accumulated and passed on: real estate and other forms of wealth that do not rapidly deteriorate. Thus, from the perspective of material culture, it is not only that humanity’s forces of production increase progressively, but so does wealth. Yet, this does not mean that their development in the historical process does not suffer decline due to natural disasters, wars, crises, or other radical changes. However, the increasing forces of production, wealth, and the benefits it gives are not distributed evenly and equally within a given society. Their distribution depends on the existing relations of production: these are politically and legally established property relations.

The relations of production are the established social relations in producing the means of subsistence. The forces of production – the entirety of tools and technologies – eventually determine and structure the relations of production. Of course, this does not mean that there are unchanging historical laws which determine the historical and social development. In this respect, Karl Popper’s thesis about the poverty of our ability to see regularities and predict the future in the face of the unpredictability of the development of sciences and technological advancement together with their impact of societal development is correct, and yet it should not be the reason to reject historical materialism thus understood. The dependence of the relations of production on the forces of production can be best understood retrospectively: looking back at history, not by modelling the future. Nevertheless, the general tendency can be formulated in the following way: the improvement of tools and technologies and the increase in the forces of production provide the material conditions for (but do not guarantee) the human emancipation from despotic natural and productive social relations.

Generally speaking, the relations of production determine who is doing what in the process of production; how it is organized; who and by what form of ownership controls the means of production, and who gets the surplus value created in the process of production. For example, if I control, by a certain form of ownership, a huge part of my country’s means of production, then that allows me to command the process of production, to employ (in one way or another) labour power or to use it in other ways, and to appropriate the product produced. In this way, the ownership of the means of production (land, capital, tools, knowledge, and money) gives immense power to the owner. It creates structural inequality between social groups – between those who control the means of production and the production itself, and those who work by using these means to create the product that they ultimately will not own. In this way, the social classes of the rulers and the ruled are formed: the class that controls the means of production establishes its domination by legal and political means, that is, by using political power to establish its interests.

The totality of the forces of production and the relations of production determined by them form the mode of production. It is more than just an established order of the relations of production; it is also a way of life. A mode of production for Marx is in some ways similar to what Aristotle called political constitution (politeia): an institutional arrangement of a given society, a politically embodied way of life. People, coming to this world, do not choose when and where to be born, nor what socially established relations they enter – these relations are independent of their wills. On the contrary, economic and political organization (a mode of production) is that social context under whose influence the consciousness of the newly born individual is shaped. This is what Marx meant when he said that the base – the economic background of society – determines the manifestations of individual consciousness, which is formed by the established ideological superstructure of a particular society. Thus, it is not consciousness that determines life, rather it is life itself that determines consciousness, as it is argued in The German Ideology.

Leaving aside different modes of production and their respective forms of ownership that were discussed by Marx – communal-tribal, slavery-ancient, feudal-estate and capitalist-private – the conflict between the forces of production and the relations of production can be sufficiently illustrated by the transformation from feudalism to capitalism. This transformation – the best example of social revolution – was the paradigmatic case for Marx. It allowed, as many Marxist interpreters and critics have argued, to form the conception of historical materialism. This conflict and the transformation it called forth can be briefly described in the following way: estate property, characteristic of feudalism, had to be and was superseded by the private form of property because the former eventually started to fetter the rapidly developing forces of production. At the end of the 16th century in Europe, especially in the Netherlands that broke free from Habsburg rule, with the expansion of trade, textile manufacture flourished. This increased the demand for cotton, which in turn caused the process of enclosures in England that started in the 15th century and accelerated in the 16th. Enclosures became one of the first processes of illegal privatization.

Estate property in feudalism was partly shared in common. Land was used not only by the feudal lord but also by peasants “attached” to that land. Furthermore, land was not a commodity, lords received it as a reward for loyalty and service for the crown, or it was inherited. Similarly, a part of the land which was controlled by the lord was given to peasants who, in return for the right to work “their” plots, also cultivated the lord’s land, to whose hands went the biggest part of the produce. Thus, land under the feudal form of ownership was shared not in the sense that everyone had an equal right to the use of it and its products, but in the sense that land was not a private property of a landlord. When winter came, peasants could collect wood from the lord’s land without constraints or punishment. Enclosures, which started in England in the 15th century and continued for the next few centuries, was the process of seizing the communal land. As British historian E. P. Thomson claimed in The Making of the English Working Class, enclosure was a plain case of class robbery. The consequence was that peasants were driven from their land, thus they gradually became the proletarians with no independent source of income; it also created the big private landlords – the first capitalists, who proclaimed that the land they seized was their private property and who started to rear sheep instead of peasants. Thus, to paraphrase Marx who quotes Thomas More, the development of capitalism was the process in which sheep ate people. It created the institution of private property that is essential for the capitalist mode of production.

Here it is worth returning to the social revolution mentioned by Marx. Revolution cannot be a coup d’état – violent overthrow of state power – that merely changes one government for another. Revolution starts at the economic base: the existing relations of production start to restrict the development of the forces of production, then the newly formed social group starts resisting the old stagnant relations of production, and social struggle for hegemony begins, which ends when the new social class establishes its dominance by political means. In the case of the transformation from feudalism to capitalism, it was the economic and political victory of the bourgeoisie – the owners of private capital – against the land controlling aristocracy. The so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England gives the best example of how one class establishes its power politically. In this case, French-like absolutism was resisted with the creation of constitutional monarchy and, which is more important, it furthered the political and legal recognition and establishment of bourgeois private property rights. Thus, it was the final legal recognition of land robbery, the seizure of land that was previously under common ownership. As a consequence, in the 18th century, Adam Smith could argue in his Wealth of Nations about “the sanctity of private property” and that it is essential for the development of market capitalism.

Why is this analytical point of view important today? Before answering this question, it is worth mentioning an important criticism of historical materialism that was raised both by fierce critics of Marx and by his followers alike. The critique of the latter is, of course, more important. A version of this critique can be articulated in the following way: essentially, historical materialism – as a theoretic-methodological approach that points to the social revolution caused by the forces of production that eventually blow up the previous stagnant relations of productions and ownership – can be applied first and maybe only to the transformation from feudalism to capitalism. Cornelius Castoriadis, as well as others, observed that the transformation from the ancient world to the early feudalism was a different process, when the much more developed Roman empire was defeated by the less developed (in terms of means and forces of production) gothic tribes. It is true that in The German Ideology Marx and Engels mention this particular decline of the forces of production too. Nevertheless, this objection is valid only as long as historical materialism presumes the hard-core determinism whereby the material forces of production grow out of the existing legal form of society and then cause all of the most fundamental changes in it. Such a dogmatic standpoint would only inhibit our research.

Capitalism today is in an enormous crisis. The neoliberal project and the form of capitalism of the last 50 years failed in many respects. It has not been able to generate such economic growth as was expected by its heralds, it has created enormous inequalities and stagnant wages; under it, the speculative financial sector, which has long ceased to finance production, has flourished and the level of private investments has remained at a record low in the last ten years. There exists a vast surplus of capital that is not liberated in the form of investments in new technologies of production. Thus, the essential questions which we – a collective of critically-minded people who refuse to interpret the signs of our times according to the ideological masquerade flickering on the surface of our society – must answer are not easy. Is it really that the forces of production – the rapid digitalization that replaces a bigger part of production by the digital code, artificial intelligence, and automation – have already exhausted the capitalist relations of production founded on private property? If yes, as a growing number of critics of capitalism think, what is this newly born social class (and where is it?) that will take over and control these technologies? These and similar questions need to be answered…

Originally published at:
Lūžis 1/2020, the magazine of
DEMOS Institute of Critical Thought  (full version)