Technology and Liberation
Critics of capitalism have traditionally considered technological development as subject to the control of dominant interests and thus as one aspect, albeit crucial, of a broader strategy aimed at reproducing existing social relations. In opposition to technological determinists (who hold material progress to be dependent on the number of individuals there happen to be of sufficiently inventive and practical bent to provide the means of rationalizing the production process) they have stressed the ultimately political direction taken by scientific research. Further, the unprecedented control of the environment facilitated by a high-level technology, thus the possibility of eliminating toil and poverty, has been assumed to be the necessary prerequisite for overcoming the struggle between men themselves. Marx wrote in the Paris Manuscripts:
The rich human being is simultaneously the human being in need of a totality of human life-activities – the man in whom his own realization exists as an inner necessity, as need.
The actualization of this value of abundance, the creation of a non-alienated communal form in which each, possessed of a highly refined sensorium, fully appropriates the historical attainments of the species, presupposes a material basis engendered by the development of a machine technology.
Of late, however, it has been argued that the recent institutionalization of technological innovation as a means of avoiding threatening crises of over-production through the maintenance of a high rate of consumption, has brought about a condition of material abundance which now stands as the major obstacle to the release of the socialist potential inherent within capitalism. Twentieth century men and women may well be deformed by atomistic experiences in which selfhood becomes equivalent to commodity consumption. Yet seduced into a sense of ennervated affluence, they are divested of any felt need to precipitate the transition to an alternative communal form. Bewitched by the dazzling achievements of capitalism, they all too easily fall prey to an ideology in which the technical values of instrumental rationality and efficiency are significant elements. Thus it is said that technology per se, in some sense abstracted from the social framework in which it is embedded or, perhaps, as determining that very framework, inhibits a drastic structural upheaval and renders the usual Marxist analysis anachronistic.
I suggest that this non-dynamic analysis of contemporary capitalism, which conceals its essential fragility by reifying technology (and in this respect is little improvement on the bourgeois economists who similarly disguised the internal momentum of capitalism by their assertion of immutable economic laws), is to a large extent the result of displacing the concept of labour from the significance it held for Marx as a central ontological category. The consequence is a mixture of nihilism, in which an alternative society is projected not because it is perceived as a potential to be attained by the Aufhebung of existinq structures but because it provides a mentally satisfying construct for the despairing intellect, and a peculiarly subjectivist conception of human freedom, a solipsistic affirmation of the inner life. Alienation is thus effectively ontologized. Apparently impotent before the increasingly hostile forces of corporate capitalism, the unhappy consciousness seeks refuge in mystical flights of fancy or, what amounts to the same thing, contents itself with constructing the blueprint of a non-attainable utopia.