Marx: An Evolutionary Critique of Technology

A critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of the 18th century are the work of a single individual. Hitherto there is no such book. Darwin has interested us in the history of Nature’s Technology, i.e., in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of organs that are the material basis of all social organisation, deserve equal attention? And would not such a history be easier to compile, since, as Vico says, human history differs from natural history in this, that we have made the former, but not the latter? Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them. (Capital Vol.1, Chpt. 15, footnote 4)

In David Harvey’s close-reading of Capital, he elucidates not only Marx’s thought and method, but highlights much of the connective between Marx and Deleuze and Guattari. Marx is often overlooked, yet implicit in their writing. In his lecture on the chapter entitled ‘Machinery and Large-Scale Industry’, however, Harvey unearths a brief, but vital footnote regarding Marx’s admiration of Darwin’s evolutionary theories and how technology ‘discloses’ our social relations and relations to nature. Here, Marx proposes a critical history of technology, an extension of Darwin’s own thought on evolution. Evolution, in essence, is a natural technology that equips animals with tools in order to sustain and reproduce life, which Marx had earlier examined in his theory of species-life. Through this footnote we get an insight into Marx’s method and how he views technology as part of the human evolutionary process. He relates specialisations of function to the division of labour in the workplace and the coercive laws of competition in the market to the survival of the fittest. He also finds analogy in the fluid dynamics of the capitalist process to the evolutionary model. Capitalism evolves through various earlier, less penetrating forms, such as market capitalism through usury capitalism, to industrial capitalism and finally to present-day finance capitalism; the form that disciplines all others. It does so organically, driven by the search for profit (extraction of surplus value).

In his analysis of the chapter Harvey places an emphasis on relations between ‘moments’ in capitalism: Technology is expressive of a relation to Nature and to the process of production, in turn related to the reproduction of daily-life. This then connects to social relations and ‘mental conceptions’; capitalism not only creates value, but also ‘values’. Harvey then looks at how these forces are connected in a dynamic process and whether this makes Marx a technological determinist, ultimately concluding that he’s not. For Marx, technology (particularly the machine) ‘discloses’ and ‘reveals’ the other categories of the dynamic and importantly uncovers the social relations behind the machine (that were ‘hitherto’ discrete). And as we have seen earlier in the German Ideology, whilst discussing his theory of species-life, Marx tells us that ‘man now reproduces the whole of nature’. This is currently most evident in genetics, biotech and GM technologies. As technology changes, so does daily-life and social relations, which in turn effects our mental conceptions. Marx also demonstrates to us how machines and our use of machines can lock us into mental conceptions through their daily usage. The way in which technology changes our mental conceptions is most visible in science, which literally extends what we can see, through technological innovation. In its best examples, technological dynamism is a social necessity of capital, as the need to innovate is derived from market competition and the need to gain advantage in order to maximise the extraction of surplus value.

In effect, Marx seeks to understand the dynamics of relations between the aforementioned forces:

– Technology
– Nature
– The Process of Production
– The Reproduction of Daily Life
– Social Relations
– Mental Conceptions

If Marx were a determinist he would only concentrate on one particular category or force. The idealist (technologist, workerist, environmentalist, feminist) is only capable of seeing one force as determining all others. Indeed, the failure of Soviet Communism and certain varieties of marxist thought has been to ignore particular categories, whilst placing an emphasis on one force alone. Marx refutes a model in which one force acts above all others through an external causal relation. Nor is this dynamic a Hegelian totality, an alienated development; it is more a set of autonomous moments or instances, that leaves open the possibilities of all sorts of other transformations to occur. When Marx mentions technology, he is talking about the about the concrete, productive forces taken by the labour process in a given instance; he makes visible, beneath the surface of appearances, the way in which particular use values are produced and the way in which underlying forces are expressed.

The machine incorporates all of these categories simultaneously and internally, which begins to give you some idea as to why the machine is adopted by Deleuze and Guattari in their schema of desire. It is the connectivity that the machine embodies that makes it so crucial; it is confirmed as the very intersection of these forces. Any radical change would require dealing with ALL of these categories simultaneously, this complete world of dynamic transformations. Guattari would say this is why it requires the development of an ‘ecology’ of thought, directly addressing Marx’s postulation that ‘ideas are the material force of history’. Mental conceptions form part of this material basis of the world in a two-fold fashion, not only expressed as objects, but also realised as production processes. As Marx states: ‘…what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality’ (Capital, vol. 2, p. 178). Here he confers that ideas are part of the material foundation upon which the social superstructure is ‘erected’ .

Deleuze and Guattari’s desiring-machines (assemblages), which they credit as being derived Lefebvre’s ‘ensembles’ in his Critique of Everyday Life, clearly relates back to this technological/evolutionary dynamic that Marx hints at, with its instances and opening of possibilities. In Anti-Oedipus they directly discuss the flow of desire, the hyle, as if it was steel being extruded from the furnace and plugged into another machine, much as Marx discusses the continuous flow of capital as a fluid dynamic. D&G then open up the concept of production to include everything, not just the production of commodities; it becomes a form of social-production. Libido is conjoined with labour-power as ‘distinct instances of production-in-general’, a series of machinic processes capable of a multiplicity of interconnectivity. Value does not inhere in objects, but is invested in them by subjective activity, parallel to Marx’s theory of surplus value. Change is then reliant on finding a politics adequate to desires of the collective subjectivity and productive forces of society. The factory, an automaton composed of various mechanical organs, is then used to describe wider social relations, the Body without Organs. Society therefore develops, or should I say evolves, in the form of a co-evolutionary model, through the dynamism between categories (forces), a machine of values.

About andrewosborne

Andrew Osborne has recently completed his MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmith's.
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3 Responses to Marx: An Evolutionary Critique of Technology

  1. Inigo says:

    Hi Andrew,
    I really liked your article on machinic Marx, it introduces some important ideas I’ve also been interested in recently. However I don’t think you go far enough in deconstructing the striated and reified concepts of technology, evolution, etc. For example, you say ‘Evolution, in essence, is a natural technology that equips animals with tools in order to sustain and reproduce life’ – this appears to espouse an anthropocentric perspective where natural technology is qualitatively different from human technology, perhaps due to a perceived lack of agency in the former, and an assumption of free action in the latter. Rigorously speaking, all technology is natural, and all nature is technological.
    The use of the word ‘tool’ is critical in this regard, as it normally presupposes both a formed subject (with intentions) and object. Engels had already noted a dialectic between the tool and the hand, such that there was at least partial reciprocal determination in their co-evolution. Bernard Stiegler argues, further, that the tool is engaged not only in the radical transformation of the subject and the object, but also in the production of new and distinct temporalities. He points out that the birth of classical philosophy coincides with the forced separation of technology and knowledge. Socrates sets his out his true Idea only against the linguistic techniques (or simulacra) of rhetoricians. Enlightenment philosophy is the jubilant reuniting of episteme and tekhne. Language already contains these pre-suppositions, these exclusions and inclusions. This is why I think it is better to couch this whole enquiry in terms of assemblage theory, since rather than starting with the organism (as Darwin does) or the subject (as Freud and Marx do), it is anti-essentialist and non-hierarchal, beginning instead ‘in the middle’ with iterative populations in environments of diverse determining forces.
    Later on you talk about the material reality of thought, I think this is very interesting but also confusing, and better understood using the terms ‘content’ and ‘expression’ D+G hijacked from Hjelmslev (D+G 1987 p.43-45) to explain the double articulation of strata. Every strata – idea/machine/body – has a material content (the organisation of it’s components), and an expressive form (the way in which these components function together in the wider system of strata in which they are embedded). Of course the technology of language is not merely composed of strata, or molar aggregates, but is also replete with an infinite quantity of fundamentally deterritorializing molecular desiring-machines. This is true to varying degrees in other striated systems, such as the factory, the state and the person.
    You say that ‘Marx refutes a model in which one force acts above all others through an external causal relation. . .When Marx mentions technology, he is talking about the concrete, productive forces taken by the labour process in a given instance’ – isn’t this material determinism, what about the expressive forces of technology? Technology deterritorializes along two axes – new technology enables the formation of new assemblages (most of which are quickly, or already, reterritorialised by corporate organisations) – old technology, rather than becoming obsolete, is, to some extent, liberated from the forces of coercion and control that are invested in the latest apparatus. The same form of matter has a different form of expression through time and space.
    Assemblage theory itself is a deterritorializing machine, enabling the formation of novel rhizomes such as the couple ‘fluid dynamics-capitalism’ or ‘technology-evolution’, however we must not lose sight of the specificity of assemblages in the fog of generalisation. The stratified system of human communication (which we call language) cannot be understood separately from the population of pre-linguistic modes of communication that precede and coexist with it. Although it is thereby on a continuum with gesture it is also fundamentally different from it, or singular, much in the same way that the colours red and blue are, despite inhabiting a continuum that differs only in degree along one axes. The same must be said of the evolution of technology, as I say in my article on technology and repetition:

    ‘The analogy of biological evolution has long been applied to technology, and is so commonplace today in adverts for the latest razor or family hatchback, that one would be forgiven for assuming that technological change is a natural process of amelioration and not in the least affected by political and economic forces, or the strategic planning of industrial super-organisms. Whether big business likes it or not, however, technology is a complex adaptive system, like biology and language, that is determined by its own dynamic processes, and that transforms in a way peculiar to itself. Fleming and Sorenson draw on the findings of Kauffman to demonstrate that technological invention differs from biological evolution in that it proceeds more by revolutionary recombinations than by incremental adaptations leading to thresholds of transformation. ( fleming /RP2001.pdf) Language evolves at a much higher rate than biology or technology. Since the free recombination potential of words is accumulative and practically infinite, language functions, as Burroughs famously claimed, like a virus.’ (

    This is directly relevant to the fact that ‘Marx relates specialisations of function to the division of labour in the workplace and the coercive laws of competition in the market to the survival of the fittest’ – there is certainly an analogy here, but the divergence of species has specific emergent properties, such as reproductive isolation, that are different in the case of the division of labour, which is effected only through a pre-existing hierarchy of relations, and predicated on the existence of the company structure. Social evolutionists claim that market economies reflect the natural state of competition that is inherent in Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’, and use this as an argument for the continuing exploitation of the weak/poor. The survival of the fittest was never intended by Darwin to be a totalizing theory, and though it is true, it is so in a very complex way, and only on one level. The wolf must be put back in its pack. The pack must be put back on the steppe. Technological dynamism and the need to innovate pre-date and are causal of market competition, not the reverse.
    Michel Serres argues that before use value and exchange value there is abuse value. Relationships are always parasitic. The polysemia of the parasite must be pointed out here, as in French it not only means the one that takes without giving, but also it denotes static, or noise. It is surplus. It interrupts the message. Above all the parasite is nothing but a relation; between the organism and the product of its labour (food); between the sender and the receiver. It is the third man, it is technology, the material expression of ideas, the production of distinct temporalities, the noise of machines that produce surplus value. No one would deny the contemporary acute acceleration in communication. Of course the more talk the more noise. You say that ‘Value does not inhere in objects, but is invested in them by subjective activity’ – this is better explained by Serres’ concept of the quasi-object. He gives the example of a football, the material content of which is merely a spherical plastic polyhedron casing containing air at a certain pressure. It’s expressive content is the way in which it determines the movement of humans as servo-mechanisms of its distinct phase-space/temporality.
    McLuhan uses the myth of Narcissus as a central device in his articulation of media. He argues that the adoption of prosthetics, and the reproduction of the image, entails a loss wholeness, the etymology of narcissus being linked to narcosis or numbness. This is an essentialist position which clearly presupposes transcendent origins, however technology does tend to displace and disrupt the set of tendencies one refers to as a self. The hermit crab, in gaining stronger defences, becomes softer itself. Humanity is in some ways encasing itself in a bio-technical shell, without which it is increasingly disenabled. This is why Epithemius (afterthought/forgetting) is as salient as Prometheus (forethought/anticipation) in Stiegler’s foray into the mythical representation of technology.
    Of course, any discussion of technology must include not only its fabulous past, but also its anticipated future. Time is both linear, in that it follows a line of irreversibility, and non-linear, in that the past (in the form of memory and mnemo-technologies such as language) and the future (in the form of anticipation and experimental research) constantly feed back into the present, creating the particular temporality/duration that is the milieu of the now. Time can also be seen in terms of fluid dynamics, such that at critical thresholds (e.g.WWII) a phase change occurs and a new pattern of turbulence emerges. Neo-futurists such as Ray Kurzweil assert that the evolution of technology is heading ineluctably towards ‘the singularity’ – this must be differentiated from Deleuzian singularities which are based more on the mathematical model, rather than the astronomical one which defines a point beyond the event horizon of a black hole. The neo-futurist singularity is the event horizon of truly intelligent machines, or the point at which computational power exceeds human thought.

    There is plenty more to be said on this, but perhaps I have already talked too much. . .
    ‘Now let the machines talk’ – William Burroughs

  2. andrewosborne says:

    Hi Inigo,

    Thanks for your long an thoughtful reply. I found it very stimulating and expansive, especially your comments on ‘content’ and ‘expression’, which are well taken. I am broadly in agreement with your reminder to start in the middle, which is actually very pertinent to thinking on machines, in that their connectivity embodies ‘inter-being’ and brings forth a certain inhuman enunciation. I do believe that what Marx is hinting at is a dynamic system of forces, without specific origin, when he speaks on machines. Whilst his principle concern is the use of machines within the capitalist system, he seems to gesture towards an deeper inquiry into technologies and principally their relation to nature (the force through which technology co-evolves reciprocally, then impelling the further categories into dynamic change; a world in-flux). This surely demonstrates his perhaps intuitive grasp of the machine’s capacity to produce dynamic transformation — tyrannous or liberatory — by internalising all of these forces simultaneously. Reality, therefore, is an expression and consequence of interactions between different forces; the net result of this web. This introduces new possibilities that the interplay of forces brings about in different instances of technological application. This is why D&G take up the ‘productive’ emphasis in Marx, which IMO is correct, over and above the more traditional privileging of the commodity by the School of Frankfurt. This somewhat liberates Marx’s critique, but only through combining it with Nietzsche’s conception of forces and The Will to Power and D&G’s own critique of psychoanalysis.

    So production — and the generative primacy ascribed to the agency of desire — is the point at which D&G are most aligned with Marx . This is also where the ‘proper’ emphasis of Marxist analysis lies, although D&G would say that Marx is limited to describing the axioms that govern the field of capitalism, making it in some degree compliant with it. Where they would drastically differ is when they propose that the amalgam of specific desires (desiring production) somehow dictates the mode of production, not vice versa, making technology an expression of desire with certain ontological repercussions. This obviously has consequences for our view of technological machines — beyond the specific form of technological dynamism found within the singularity of capitalist society — perhaps capable of unleashing the realisation of ‘universal history’ and the elimination of capital itself….Big Claims!

    You say: Bernard Stiegler argues, further, that the tool is engaged not only in the radical transformation of the subject and the object, but also in the production of new and distinct temporalities.

    I’d have to look into this more, but on the face of this merely seems to reflect Marx’s own thinking on machines, particularly the discrete social relations behind use of machinery and the intensification of the working-day that machines allow. The worker becomes an appendage of the machine, rather than being liberated by it. Obviously there is much more to it, but this has interesting consequences, especially in terms of the creation of the subjectivity of the mass industrial worker.

    I thought that Serres’ ‘parasite’ seemed especially apt to this discussion, particularly as he finds a way of escaping the intended use of technologies. This is a much more exciting prospect for the creation of emergent subjectivities or ‘inter-subjectivity’. I’m partial to the idea of the parasite as pure relation. ‘Abuse Value’ seems like a natural expansion of the concept of use value and perhaps supercedes it given that culture is both the ‘most frivolous and most important’ of activities. There is definitely a creative and experimental dimension here that bears examination; it got me thinking about hacking and phone phreaking as obvious ‘parasitic’ cultural instances of abuse value. Noise and surplus also seem related to difference and rupture as understood by Varela and the two-fold qualities autopoietic machines (function and the interuptive breakdown of function). Serres is obviously something I should look into.

    Cheers Andrew

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