Continuing on the theme of two days ago, in today’s post I delve a little more deeply into the astonishing peculiarity of the labour contract: the contract between employer and employee. Readers who have not read the earlier post (click here) may find it hard to follow. Hope you enjoy. (The text below is based on the second part of Chapter 4 of MODERN POLITICAL ECONOMICS: Making sense of the post-2008 world, to be published shortly by Routledge (authors: myself, Jospeh Halevi and Nicholas Theocarakis)
A most peculiar contract
Let us now return to our mundane world of human workers employed by capitalist employers to produce goods and services for sale to humans. Consider the employer’s conundrum: Like any other buyer she wants to buy something from the seller: the product of their labour. The only problem is that this is, usually, impossible. Workers cannot sell the product of their labour. For if they could, they would not be workers but enterprising suppliers. At best they can hire out their labour services for specified periods of time. So, the employer does the best she can and hires labour time in the hope that, during that time, enough products will be created by the hired workers in order to make the enterprise worth its while.
Paul Samuelson, a celebrated economist on whom we shall be saying more in later chapters, once suggested that who hires whom does not matter.[i] The employer brings to the table capital goods (machinery and other factors of production) and the worker brings her human labour. Like any buyer and seller they trade and, hey presto, output oozes off the production line. That’s true if the work involved is of the sort where the link between input and output is as transparent and straightforward as in the case of the electricity generator. For example, the worker is a weaver weaving in isolation producing an output which is both observable and strictly analogous to the hours spent on the job. Or a truck driver whose ‘output’ is a direct function of the hours spent behind the wheel.
In these examples, the employer offers the worker capital goods that she lacks, e.g. weaving equipment, sewing machines or the truck, and the worker offers labour in return. What Samuelson seems to be saying is that it makes no analytical difference whether we conceptualise this transaction as (a) one in which the capitalist lays out capital for the worker’s labour or (b) as one where the worker lays out her labour in exchange for the employer’s capital. However, there is a catch here: If there is the slightest uncertainty about the level of demand for the final product, or when there are costs involved in supervising workers and organising their work, the capitalists would have a strong preference for scenario (b) above: they would rather hire out their capital goods to the workers and then buy from them their output.
For example, instead of employing them for a wage, why not charge weavers and truck drivers for the weaving equipment and the truck per week, and then, at the end of each week, purchase the textile weaved or pay for the delivery of goods on a per mile basis? As global experience has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, whenever possible capitalists cease being employers. They, instead, fire their workers and subsequently contract out the work (often to former employees)! Capitalists loathe hiring labour time because it is not something they want to pay for, if they can help it. Indeed, they stop at nothing in search of ways to buy the products of labour directly. Just like whole nations may yearn for the migrants’ work, while baulking at the idea of hosting migrants, so too capitalists would love to buy labour’s input (or output) without having to manage labour.
So, why do they keep hiring workers? Why do they not fire everyone and subcontract all work? The answer, of course, is that more often than not the work involved is not of the sort where the link between input and output is as transparent and straightforward as in the case of the electricity generator. In fact, the production processes which produce genuine value require collaborative work, division of labour and, even, brainstorming. When workers cannot produce output by labouring autonomously, unlike stacks of electricity generators churning away independently of one another, and when the output is collectively, as opposed to individually, determined, it is impossible to single out one worker’s output from that of another. Thus, it is impossible to pay them piece rates and the capitalist accepts the inevitable, offering the worker a labour contract.
Notice however that labour contracts are very peculiar indeed. Contracts usually specify that the buyer promises to pay price p at time t per unit of good X and the seller promises, in return, to deliver a certain quantity of good X at time t’ (where t is usually prior to t’ ). When this arrangement takes the form of a labour contract, one would expect p to be the wage rate and X an amount of labour L. Now, by the above argument, the capitalist will only be interested in a labour contract, if there exists no well defined function linking labour input units L to its output Q. The reason, we claimed above, is that, if such a function were well defined, capitalists would be able to work out, using that function, the precise amount of output Q that this worker is producing given how much L they are buying from her. If so, capitalists would rather they fired her and immediately, and re-contract with her not as a labourer but as an independent contractor selling Q units of output for price p per unit.
Digression 1: Of generators and humans
The oil fired electricity generator: The input L that it needs to work, oil, is both measurable and corresponds (given the generator’s technical specifications) to specific levels of electricity output Q. A well defined function Q=f(L) is, in this case, imaginable. Whether the firm pays for L units of input plus a rental charge to cover for the cost of producing the generator or for Q, there is no analytical difference.
Jill, the worker: Her input into production is labour L. With the help of capital goods K (machines, tools, raw materials etc.), Jill’s L produces output Q. Suppose that, just like in the case of the generator, L is measurable and that there is a well defined function Q=f(L) that assigns to each level of L a level of output Q. Again, there would be no analytical difference between a situation in which the firm pays Jill wage w for each of her L units of input (while providing her the necessary K for free) or renting her the K units of capital goods, for a given rental price r, and then purchasing Q directly from her at a pre-agreed price p. [In short, wL = pQ-rK]
Suppose now that (a) the firm cannot observe L directly and (b) there exists no well defined function linking Q and L because Jill’s labour input is not observable, the output depends not only on her work but on the combination of the labour input of many workers and, lastly, because in the context of social (as opposed to atomistic) production the productivity of human workers depends crucially on social norms and psychological factors that differ ontologically from the inner workings of an electricity generator and, thus, cannot be adequately captured by some mathematical function linking individual labour input to individual output.[ii] In this case, there is no equivalence whatsoever between (a) a situation in which the firm pays Jill wage w for each of her L units of input (while providing her the necessary K for free) or (b) renting her the K units of capital goods, for a given rental price r, and then purchasing Q directly from her at a pre-agreed price p. In this case, the capitalist has no alternative than to be an employer and to offer Jill a labour contract.
In conclusion, the quantity L that the worker promises to exchange with the employer, as part of this labour contract, cannot be the factor of production that the employer wants to purchase! The units of L that the employer hires from the worker are not units that can be technically linked, by means of a simple function (like that in the case of the electricity generator) to the firm’s output. For if such a mapping, or function, existed, no labour contract would have been offered to the worker in the first place. Workers would be entrepreneurs and capitalists purveyors of capital services, not dissimilar to firms renting trucks and do-it-yourself tools.
The gist of the argument here is that all labour contracts are equally peculiar in the sense that one of the contracting parties, the capitalists, are hiring something that they do not care for in the hope of wrestling from the seller something else, actual labour input, which is not specified in the contract (simply because it cannot be specified). At the end of a successful interview, the new employee shakes hands with the firm’s personnel manager and signs her labour contract. What is she promising to offer the firm? A number of hours per week of her time during which her skills and potential effort will be present within the firm’s premises and a vague promise to work diligently. But since no diligence-o-metre can ever be devised (so long as the labourer is human), the only quantifiable part of her promise concerns the hours she will be spending on the premises.
Now, employers care not one iota for these hours. What they care for is the unquantifiable diligence bit which, unfortunately, cannot be specified. They care for Jill’s unquantifiable, immeasurable, actual labour input. This they hope to extract during the hours that Jill will be spending at work. Unlike other contracts which, at the moment of signing, conclude the relationship between buyer and seller,[iii] the labour contract is the beginning of a wonderful non-market relationship. Once Jill enters the firm, as an employee, she exits the market and enters a purely social relationship with other workers and with her employers. In this sense, the employer-employee relationship is one of the last vestiges of the ancien regime which the market, despite its complete triumph everywhere else, cannot penetrate. No mathematical function can capture this complex non-market relationship and the way it transforms human inputs into the firm’s output.[iv]
The peculiarity of the labour contract results, therefore, from the peculiarity of human labour and its resistance to becoming machine-like. If humans could consent to becoming more like electricity generators, no doubt they would and then the labour contract would be no different from any other contract. But, then again, if labour could consent to becoming another species of machinery, it would lose its capacity to produce value. It is a delightful paradox that human labourers cannot consent to turn into machines, even if they want nothing more than the sweet oblivion offered by unconsciousness (or, equivalently, the blue pill in The Matrix). For it is this ‘incapacity’ to abdicate freedom that makes value possible and the task facing economists so different from that facing engineers.
The rise of the machines
Machines have acquired the governing power over human labour and its products.
This sounds like a snippet from some other science fiction movie in which the machines have, yet again, enslaved us and turned us into a productive resource for their benefit. But it is no such thing. It is, rather, a slightly paraphrased version of something Karl Marx wrote in 1844 (in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts) about the world of his own time. Marx’s point was that, even back then, humanity had already fallen under the spell of the machines’ capacity to generate purchasing power that developed a life of its own. Instead of serving humans get what they want, it ended up enslaving them, telling them what to want. Thus, indirectly, machines that were initially developed as mechanical slaves for the betterment of men’s and women’s lives turned into masters. By now the reader will have gathered that Marx’s fleeting appearance was not incidental. Where Adam Smith and David Ricardo had only alluded to the important role capital goods play in industrial society, Marx was the first political economist fully to incorporate machinery into economic analysis. Moreover, in his usual poetic flourish, he told a story about a machine takeover well before the cinema was invented and Matrix-like plots became all the rage.
Of course, Marx did not blame the machines. He never advocated a science fiction scenario in which the machines developed thoughts of their own and, suddenly, turned against us. Even though he was familiar with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where the artefact developed an alien intellect that eventually haunted its creator, Marx thought that something more prosaic, and more menacing, happened to us: First we built machines to use as elaborate tools. They remained lifeless and dim-witted, mere assortments of nuts, bolts and silicon chips. But then we did something extraordinarily stupid: We organised social production around them in a way that made us their willing slaves. In the Communist Manifesto he, along with his lifelong collaborator Friedrich Engels, asserts (using somewhat different words) that we:
… conjured up machinery with gigantic productive powers but, like a sorcerer who has lost control of the powers of the nether world he has called up by his spells, we have become their slaves. Instead of capital goods serving humanity, humanity has ended up as a cog in capital’s machinery.[v]
His point is that, in a world in which entrepreneurs hire human labour and find themselves in the clutches of the most inhumanly aggressive competition against one another (so eloquently described by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations), they have no alternative but to accumulate capital: To use bigger and better machines (or, in our days, smaller and better ones) in order to lower costs and thus prevent their competitors from undercutting them. No rest for the wicked! Profit is ploughed back into the manufacture of more machines leaving the entrepreneur no alternative but to espouse the life of a miser; to turn into an archetypal Ebenezer Scrooge who not only squeezes the life out of his workers but also desists from anything other than subsistence consumption for himself and his family.
So, on the one hand the capitalist lives to serve the propagation of the rows of machines in his factory while, on the other, his workers, wretched, bored and disheartened, attend to them around the clock, making sure that they want for nothing. Capital, in this sense, becomes a “… force we must submit to… It develops a cosmopolitan, universal energy which breaks through every limit and every bond and posts itself as the only policy, the only universality the only limit and the only bond.” (Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844)
Like the human Will, which thrives on its own substance, capital too has a self-referential momentum; one that, eventually, makes a mockery of our Will. While inanimate and mindless, capital quickly evolved as if it were in business for itself, using human actors (capitalists and workers alike) as pawns in its own game. Not unlike the human Will, capital also instils in our minds the illusion that, in serving it, we are worthy, exceptional, potent. We take pride in our relationship with it (either as capitalists who ‘own’ it or as labourers who work it), turning a blind eye to the tragic fact that it is capital which, effectively, owns us all and it is we who serve it.
The German philosopher Schopenhauer castigates as deception the human conviction that our beliefs and acts are subject to our consciousness. Marx castigates us for ignoring the reality that our thoughts have become hijacked by capital and ‘its’ drive to accumulate. He asks of us to swallow the red pill and wake up to the fact that capital is the source of our illusions and that their name is ideology. But not all news is bad. Indeed, Marx was a master tragedian who saw capitalism as an unfolding drama in which humanity has a chance to awake from a nightmare that is its own doing. We can offer ourselves the option of taking the red pill and, when the circumstances are right, we shall not be able to resist the lure of the naked truth; however hard it may be to stare it in the face.
Authentic radical thinking defers to tradition. Intellectually, Marx was of a Greco-German origin; a child of Ancient Greek philosophy, with Aristotle playing a prominent role, and of the German idealism that struggled to grow in the long shadow cast by his teacher G.W.F. Hegel.[vi] From the Stagirite he inherited a commitment to seeing humanity’s purpose, or telos, in terms of virtue, as opposed to satisfaction, wealth or power. He also derived the idea of the human animal as one that can only achieve individuality while confronted by a wall of ‘others’ within the polis. The notion of the human as a living contradiction, between the ‘self’ and the ‘others’, acquired greater significance in young Marx’s eyes under the influence of Hegel. For it was Hegel who taught Marx that human freedom is not just about the absence of constraints.
Digression 2: Adam Smith on human nature
“This division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual consequence of a certain propensity in human nature which has in view no such extensive utility; the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” Wealth of Nations, Book I, Ch. 2 (our emphasis)
The Greco-German alliance led by Aristotle and Hegel instructed Marx in the fundamental difference between humans and machines; a difference that lies in the deep contradictions lurking within our being. It is these irreducible, yet evolving, contradictions which set us apart and bestow upon us the dubious privilege of a unique capacity to create value. Isaac Newtown informed us that all matter is subject to contradictory forces which somehow cancel out each other in the process of creating equilibrium. The main condition for a satellite to break loose from the planet’s gravity is that its vectorial speed exceeds a certain threshold, so that the centrifugal force defeats its centripetal antagonist: either the satellite’s speed exceeds the threshold or it does not. Though we may say that the satellite has been set ‘free’ if it does, we must be careful not to mistake the metaphorical resemblance between this freedom and the freedom of human agents which the intelligent machines in The Matrix are missing, thus rendering the production of value within a fully automated society impossible.
Hegel’s objection to the loose use of the term freedom to describe satellites and humans alike was that the human actor is the only ‘object’ where the telling contradictions lie within. Unlike projectiles and robots, human freedom is bound up inextricably with an inner turbulence that demands expression. And human expression comes in the form of body language, speech, writing, art, song, lifestyle choices, and creative spurts, even in the manifestations of the inner tussle that draws us sometimes to conformism and at other times to subversive acts. However, to be capable of genuine freedom of expression, we must have something meaningful to express; we must be able to achieve increasing degrees of consciousness as our passage through life progresses.
Aristotle thought that we become persons within political society. But not all humans can be part of that socialising process. The ones who constitutionally cannot must be kept in chains: for their sake (since, like children, they are better off under the guidance of superior intellects) as well as for the sake of those capable of genuine freedom. ‘Natural slaves’, very much like the humans in the Matrix, ought to provide the material goods and motive power for the socialising process among the superior beings inhabiting the Polis. Hegel agreed that freedom was a process but poured tons of scorn over the idea of underpinning the freedom of some with the slavery of others. Our consciousness, he argued, is achieved through reflecting into other people’s eyes in the hope of catching a glimpse of who we truly are: “Self-consciousness attains satisfaction only in another self-consciousness”, he wrote.[vii] The moment we reflect into the eyes of a person whose Will we command as we like, we stare into a void of unfreedom that consumes us. The fear that we may become like the bonded Other impedes our rational thought and sets off a chain of actions whose purpose is to strengthen the Other’s chains lest we trade places. But the more we shore up the Other’s unfreedom, the more immersed we become in our own fears, the harder it becomes for our consciousness creatively to reflect in that of an Other and, tragically, the further away we get from the possibility of attaining freedom for ourselves. It is in this sense that, for Hegel, the history of human progress is the history of the negation of slavery.
And here lies the grand difference between his take on capitalism and that of Adam Smith. Adam Smith’s account, as we have seen, was confined to the universal benefits from the division of labour, from commerce, and from liberty defined as freedom from interference. Human nature was seen as time-invariant and driven by a constant propensity to truck, barter and exchange (see Box 4.9).[viii] For centuries we lived in societies in which our crypto-merchant propensities were suppressed, waiting it out for the coming of the Age of Commerce. When it did come, in Smith’s own time, our true and constant nature could at last emerge and fill the planet with gadgets, bargains and all the benefits of unimpeded trade. In that Smithian mindframe, history cannot really teach us anything about ourselves. In his own teacher’s words, “Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular”.[ix]
But Hegel had other ideas. While also welcoming the coming of the Age of Commerce, he placed it in the context of an incessantly unfolding history in which progress in material production was in constant dialogue with progress in human self-consciousness. The miracle of the market was not, for Hegel, so much its capacity to coordinate economic activity but, more importantly, it occurred through the creation of a ‘place’ where the human Will can meet the Other in perfect equality and freedom from all bonds and hierarchies. As buyers and sellers humans reflect into each other liberated from any compulsion and united only by the prospect of mutual gain. Mutual recognition had found its locus in the marketplace.
Progress is, thus, not just a case of more and better iPods, new market niches, greater opportunities for overseas travel and, generally, better access to more material possessions. More importantly, progress is synonymous with the March of Consciousness. Whereas Adam Smith focussed on market society’s capacity to deliver affluence, Hegel concentrated on its ability to help make self consciousness the universal property of humankind. In his own triumphant words: “Essence must appear.”[x]
Karl Marx, a truly recalcitrant student, took great pleasure in castigating the unbearable idealism of old Hegel and, often, to rub his face in Adam Smith’s political economy. He rejected Hegel’s lofty narrative on the March of the Idea and the Progress of Spirit towards its Absolute End, preferring to study reports on wage rates in Scottish mines and wool prices in East India. For a while, he turned his back to German idealist philosophy, feverishly immersing himself into the texts of Smith and Ricardo which he saw as gateways to understanding the subterranean forces that were brutally commodifying the world. But tried as he did, young Karl could not shake off Hegel’s dialectic: the concept of progress-through-contradiction that unfolds both within and without our minds (see Box 4.10). The more he studied British political economy, the more of Hegel he recognised in the world around him.
Marx was fascinated by the invasion of the market in every nook and every cranny. By its insatiable restlessness that led to the commodification of everything. By its tendency to globalise. “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away”, he wrote. The market’s global and local expansion means that “all new formed [relations] become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…” Behind the market’s drive to conquer, to liberate, and to profane, was a particular social class: the Bourgeoisie. They started as merchants, money lenders and ship owners before becoming what we today refer to as capitalists. After the momentous events that helped commodify land and labour (see Chapter 2), they were responsible for populating the emergent industrial society’s workshops and farms with waged labour and with newly invented machines. But instead of retaining the role of masters, they soon were to be chased around by the forces they had unleashed, just like the sorcerers’ apprentices in Harry Potter movies: “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe”,[xi] Marx surmised.
As one after the other the realms of human activity surrendered to commodification, under the heavy bombardment of the market’s artillery, one bastion of the older, pre-market, regime remained standing: the human labourer. However hard capitalists try to turn her into a machine, and to extract from her ‘work’ in the same way that they extract effort from a horse or electricity from a generator, it is an impossible task. The worker cannot discard her innate freedom even if she wishes passionately to be liberated from it; to swallow the blue bill so that the weight of consciousness may be lifted from her weary shoulders. The result of freedom’s stubborn perseverance is the continued prevalence of the labour contract.
Hegel famously pronounced that no one can be free in a society which keeps slaves. Marx took this further: No one can be free as long as industrial production is organised around machines that are ‘owned’ by one group, a minority of capitalists, and ‘worked’ by another, the majority. If the rationality that allows us to build the machines is the product of history, as Hegel would claim, then capitalism sets limits within which our freedom cannot breathe. The owner-capitalists and non-owner workers are equally at the mercy of the machines which they must both serve. All the world’s amazing wealth, every smidgeon of the ever expanding surplus made possible by the labour contract, under which ‘free workers’ labour side-by-side with incredible mechanical slaves, instead of liberating us from want and deprivation seems to deepen our sense of unfreedom and to heighten the feeling of a certain indefinable lack.
This is the first aspect of Modernity’s Grand Irony. The second aspect is that, as long as human work resists full commodification, society can produce value; but only under circumstances that also produce crises, like that of 1929 or indeed of 2008. The next chapter tells the story of how these crises are nothing more than a reflection of the unquenchable contradictions within our psyche or reasoning caused by the dominant logic of capital. They are also glimpses of hope of a different world in which we become rulers of our destiny, masters of the machines that we brought into the world, and designers of a world where a crisis like the Crash of 2008 will no longer be possible.
Digression 3: The Dialectic
Modernism and science share a penchant for dualism. Isaac Newton thought that every action causes a reaction and that the interplay between these opposite forces determines the state of things (from planets to molecules). Sigmund Freud believed that our soul was fraught by a perennial conflict between opposite forces like Eros and Thanatos, Reason and Unreason, Ego and Id etc. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Adam Smith were all convinced, despite their many differences, of the opposition between the individual and the state. In contrast, Hegel and Marx took a different view on binary oppositions. Rejecting dualism for the so-called dialectic, they criticise dualist accounts for running out of explanatory steam once the opposites are described. In Hegel’s dialectical view, the opposites are transient and the conflict between them creative in that it gives rise to something radically new. The opposites appear to him as a necessary aspect of a larger (historical) process that renders their original opposition obsolete. The contradiction itself is, therefore, the determinant of both (a) the outcome and (b) the process that fundamentally alters the constituent opposites of the contradiction.
Consider, for instance, the following riddle: Jill announces that she will mail Jack a present in the next ten days. But, to keep this a surprise, she stipulates that he will not be receiving the present on a day when he has solid logical reasons for thinking that he will receive it on that day.[xii] Jack’s analytical Reason tells him that he will not be receiving the present after all! “If we have not received the present by the last post on the 9th day”, his analytical Reason muses, “we will then expect it for certain on the 10th, in which case she cannot mail it on the 10th. Ergo, if we have not received it on the 8th day’s last mailing, we will then expect it for certain on the 9th (since the 10th day has been ruled out), in which case she cannot mail it on the 9th. And so on. Jill will be sending us no present Jack”, concludes Jack’s analytical Reason pessimistically. But then, Hegel might say, analytical Reason’s opposite, let’s call it Jack’s subversive Reason, enters the fray (like Newton’s reaction to analytical Reason‘s action) with the.. opposite counsel. “Don’t be silly Jack”, smirks his subversive Reason. “Of course we will be getting the present. If your analytical Reason is right, and you believe it as a truly rational person, she knows that you are not expecting a present any day. But then she can mail it on whichever day takes her fancy!” Poor Jack! Convinced by subversive Reason that a present is on its way, he wonders on which day it might arrive. Analytical Reason goes back into the driving seat and concludes, for the same reasons as above, that no present will be had. At which point subversive Reason returns etc. etc. Hegel’s point here would have been that this binary opposition will either be preserved, in which case Jack will go mad, or that it will dissolve giving rise to a more nuanced type of reasoning, one that respects the fact that both analytical Reason and subversive Reason are right and that they are both wrong and in need of a third type of reason that synthesises the two. In short, having encountered this genuine paradox of reason, Jack has become a smarter boy who understands the pure logic cannot tell him when Jill’s present will arrive. Learning to embrace indeterminacy is part and parcel of attaining a higher order of rationality. In the words of French social anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss,
“… dialectical reason thus covers the perpetual efforts analytical reason must make to reform itself if it aspires to account for language, society and thought; and the distinction between the two forms of reason in my view rests only on the temporary gap separating analytical reason from the understanding of life. Sartre calls analytical reason reason in repose; I call the same reason dialectical when it is roused into action, tensed by the effort to transcend itself.”[xiii]
For Hegel, the dialectic is at work whenever one human looks into the eyes of another. The idea is not that of an infinite self-reflection, like the one we would end up with if we pointed a camera toward a mirror. The machine’s eye may reflect infinitely into itself but its image will not change one iota. In contrast, a human eye, attached to a free mind, distorts and reinterprets the original image when reflecting into another person’s eyes; the see-er sees something beyond the original image of herself. She begins to recognise something about herself that would not be seen in a mirror or camera. And when one has social power over the other, as in Hegel’s celebrated master-slave paradox, the dialectic of recognition turns on a more vicious contradiction: Assuming that the master craves the slave’s recognition, but that the slave is programmed (through fear) to provide anything that the master demands, the offered recognition is worthless to the master and only a reminder of that which, because he is so powerful, he can never have.
Marx borrowed the dialectic from Hegel and, from a young age, pressed it into the service of political economics. Consider, for example, the concept of the individual which we now take for granted. Marx claims that it could not have existed prior to the emergence of market societies, before the conflict between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie was intensified, and the latter began to eradicate the institutions of feudalism. As feudalism was subsiding, suddenly it became intelligible as a system and its death roar furnished thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith the newfangled concept of the individual, of individual rights, of freedom from interference. The bitter opposition between landlord and merchant thus gave birth to a radically new way of defining persons just at the time when it was being negated by history; i.e. as the landlords were losing the battle and this particular conflict was becoming a thing of the past.
Humanity as a virus
In another scene of The Matrix the hero, Neo, is being detained by Agent Smith, the chief algorithm responsible for capturing escaped humans and returning them to the power plant as electricity generators. In an almost human moment, Agent Smith seems compelled to justify to its captive why the machines had no alternative but to take over the planet and treat humans like a renewable resource:
I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species.I ‘veI realized that you are not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment. But you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague. And we are … the cure. [Wachowski, 1998, #144, pp. 97-98]
The problem with the machine’s use of the virus analogy is that it resonates powerfully with our worst fears about ourselves. Humanity’s first and second Great Leaps Forward turned us from just another nervous species struggling for survival into the Earth’s undisputed ruler. After some mindless evolutionary accident endowed us with language (around one hundred thousand years ago) came the first Leap (recall Chapter 2) which bestowed upon our ancestors the power to compel the land to yield plants for our consumption and for the consumption of the animals we enslaved for their milk and flesh. Nature’s free hand to select its species was now joined by humanity’s methodical breeding of plants, animals and germs. It was our first move in a game of planetary take over. Surplus production took hold and grew until artefacts of our Empires, like the Great Wall of China, became visible from space.
The second Leap was much more recent and required the liberation of labour from its feudal bonds and its attachment, by means of the labour contract, to the newfangled machinery that spread itself and its products across the high seas, the ragged mountains and the endless plains; even into the expanses of space and the minutiae of our own genome. Our collective planetary footprint grew exponentially from almost nothing to that of an enormous Leviathan. While many of our species remain in the clutches of desperate need and in circumstances often worse than those humans suffered a thousand years ago, collectively we are producing a great deal more foodstuff, gadgets and machines than we need. Mountains of food and rivers of wine are either binned or stockpiled daily; cars remain unsold; clothes unworn, ships floating idly on the fringes of our great ports. Human labour itself is either too scarce or terribly abundant, impeded from reaching the parts of the global economy where it could be usefully employed. Ever expanding walls obstruct much needed movement in an era that celebrates something it refers to as globalisation. And, meanwhile, the land turns brittle, the rivers reek of poison, the corals are dying and the atmosphere is filling up with noxious gasses.
So, our two Leaps helped us take over the planet in a brief ten thousand years. Not perhaps in a manner of our own conscious choosing, but surely and brutally nevertheless. Were we to weigh the total human population plus our livestock and domesticated animals around ten thousand years ago, i.e. before the first Leap, we would find that this aggregate weight accounted for around a tenth of a percent of all the planet’s land animals. What do you think the figure is today? It is a stupendous 98%! Paul McCready, the engineer who computed this astonishing figure, has this to say on the matter:[xiv]
“Over billions of years, on a unique sphere, chance has painted a thin covering of life – , complex, improbable, wonderful and fragile. Suddenly we humans … have grown in population, technology, and intelligence to a position of terrible power. We now wield the paint brush.” [xv]
The question is what we do with it. Will we confirm the machine’s prophetic powers by behaving like a suicidal virus threatening the very biosphere which supports its own life systems? Or will we collectively design our way out of the conundrum? Political economics will, inevitably, play a significant role in determining the answer. However, our economic understanding cannot help much unless it grasps the dialectical nature of our species (see Box 4.10): namely that, at the same time, (a) we possess the properties and display the behavioural codes of a particularly stupid virus, and (b) we have a capacity to act as intelligent designers of a rational life on Earth. How this antithesis will play out, and what the future holds for us, depends crucially on securing a firm grasp on the extraordinary human capacity to be both a virus and a god. We have a moral, but also a practical, duty to succeed. Put simply, as a species, we have become too big to fail – much like the banks but only at an even larger scale.
For now, the omens are not encouraging. Our age is one in which two major crises seem to have converged, threatening us, as a species, with the perfect storm. 2008 was the year of the economic meltdown but also a time when the environmental crisis, caused by our unchecked economic exuberance, has reached something of an apotheosis. And how did we respond? Pathetically, is the honest answer. In the economic sphere, the bailouts and massive government intervention that propped banks up has made it possible for the elites, and the media, to hide their heads in the sand; to pretend that we are back to business-as-usual, give or take a little extra regulation of the financial sphere. 2009 also marked the sorry failure of the Copenhagen Conference whose purpose was, supposedly, to strike a global covenant on how to deal with climate change. We seem to be working hard to vindicate the verdict on our species that the machine bleakly outlined at the beginning of this section.
On a brighter note, every genuine crisis is packed with potential for new pathways to enlightenment and reason. As authors, we stand convinced that 2008 is such a crisis. And that in the new era that began in 2008 it will be possible to prove that, though we often exhibit viral properties, we can be more than a virus. That we can be our own cure. But first we must come to terms with the way our societal structure produces crises as if by design. Thus, the next chapter extends the present diagnosis into the first serious account of why crises are endemic to market societies. Of why contemporary capitalism sets limits within which humanity cannot preserve, let alone develop, its most endearing capacities.
The rise of the machines was not planned by anyone. Indeed, nor was music, language, art, arithmetic, money. Every constituent of our culture evolved. This chapter concentrated on the evolutionary pressures on our freedom and our problematic relationship with the technology that both liberated and enslaved us over the past few centuries. It concluded with a query about our viral properties. The trouble with humans, we surmised, is that, at one level, we surrender unthinkingly to machines and to viral behaviours alike while, at a deeper level, we instinctively resist the loss of freedom that these tendencies entail. This contradiction, as the next chapter argues, offers a powerful explanation of contemporary societal and economic crises.
With the rise of the machines we arrived at the brink of dehumanisation, as Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times so eloquently depicted. Rather than inventing our mechanical slaves, we seem to have created our mechanical masters. Our new found aggregate wealth was purchased at the price of new forms of depravity. Workers and employers alike became appendages to material forces beyond their control. Later on, our minds invented digitisation which, despite its wondrous capacities to free up our imagination and expand surplus further and further, brought us face to face with the spectre of the mother of all false consciousnesses: a virtual reality, as in The Matrix, that can potentially lead to the ultimate loss of human liberty; a symbolic reminder of the disconnection between our desires and our capacities that has enriched real estate agents, elevated marketing to a fine art, fuelled financialisation, and brought us, eventually, the Crash of 2008.
There is, thankfully, a silver lining in all this. Unlike in The Matrix, a distinctly human kernel remains at the heart of all our economic activities. And it is this indestructible kernel that is responsible, at once, for the continued production of value, for the penchant of our economies for crises, but also for the preservation of a chance for genuine freedom and substantive rationality. It seems to us, as authors, that to confront the challenges of the post-2008 world, humanity needs to find ways of placing value creation under its conscious, rational control. The demeanour of the United States government in the aftermath of both World War 2 and, more recently, the Crash of 2008, suggests that our perspective is not without historical precedence. After all, in the late 1940s (as Chapter XX will argue) United States officials set themselves the task of designing, from scratch, a global social economy that works. Similarly, after 2008 the US Federal Reserve, along with the US Treasury, took it upon themselves to save world capitalism from itself by means of a top-down intervention of a scale never seen before, at least during peacetime.
At this stage it matters not one iota whether one agrees with US policy in the 1940s or in the post-2008 period. Our simple point is that, even the staunchest advocate of free markets, the government of the United States of America, is constantly attempting to design a more rational world economy, to which it devotes vast resources. In this book we shall be arguing for interventions, plans and designs that are both bolder and more ambitious. Later chapters will argue in favour of top-down design in areas that transcend the financial sphere and touch upon the nexus linking humans and machines, capital and labour, centre and periphery. But before we get more entangled in these intricate discussions, it is important to state our idea simply.
Value, we argued in this chapter, remains relevant as a concept as long as a kernel of freedom remains untouched inside each one of us. The greatest contradiction of our times is that capital accumulation and growth both depend on the preservation of this kernel and work inexorably toward its annihilation. The Crash of 2008 is, to a large extent, but a macro-manifestation of this antinomy. We cannot go on, we argue, like this. If the next economic meltdown due to the irrationality of the global economic system does not bring us down, our incapacity to manage our environment, our population movements, our human and natural resources, will. So, if humanity is to be saved from itself, to overcome its tendency to act like an irresponsible virus that destroys its habitat, and to realise its potential as an intelligent designer, our collective task is simple: It is to reach into our deepest recesses, where that stubborn kernel of freedom and reason is hiding, bring it out in the open and use it as the primary raw material with which to fashion a collectively rational design in which the world’s machines are well and truly the slaves of the human spirit and their products help us traverse landscapes of the finer pleasures that only creative exertion can yield. Put differently, the time has come to shed our virus-like demeanour and take control of our inventions.
Upon readings these lines, and given the prejudices of our era, one might rightly ask whether it is wise to seek solutions to our species’ problems on the basis of some top-down grand design. Is it not the case, one may well ask, that such ambition fuelled the world’s greatest authoritarianisms, leading not only to ruined economies and environmental wastelands but also to the gulag? Indeed, this is very much so. However, we do not hear anyone argue that genetic engineering aimed at eradicating muscular dystrophy is either immoral or pie-in-the-sky because the Nazis embraced (at huge human cost) a combination of Darwinism and genetics (without any tangible scientific success).
Another objection takes the form of the frequently posed question: Are unfettered markets not more efficient than any centrally planned system in delivering solutions for a modern world in which freedom loving people want to live? Not in the slightest. Any half serious investigation of capitalism will reveal that markets were brought about by direct state action and cannot work outside the context of some grand political design enforced and supervised by state power. The dilemma between state intervention and markets is just as false as a claim that we must choose between natural selection and genetic engineering. Granted that a genetic engineer would be criminally negligent were she to ignore the manner in which her designer organisms would interact with other organisms in the context of natural selection,[xvi] it would be absurd to suggest that humanity must choose between natural selection and genetic engineering. So, the question is not if we want a grand top-down design, both in the realm of genetics and of political economics, but which one is best suited to our species interests.
We end this chapter on the human predicament with a diagnosis for the 21st century drawn from two great 19th century figures that, in one way or another, featured prominently in the preceding pages: Marx and Darwin. No one designed capitalism. It simply evolved, liberating us in the process from more primitive forms of social and economic organisation. It gave rise to machines and methods that allowed us to take over the planet. It empowered us to imagine a future without poverty where our life is no longer at the mercy of a hostile Nature. Yet, at the same time, just like Nature spawned Mozart and HIV using the same indiscriminate mechanism, capitalism also produced catastrophic forces of discord, alienation, and environmental degradation. It generated acute crises (as the next chapter will illustrate) and produced, in the same stride, new forms of wealth and of deprivation.
In evolutionary terms, capitalism, and in particular the way it hinges production onto the labour contract, is too primitive a system. As the next chapter will argue, calamities like the Crash of 2008 and the collapse of the 2009 Copenhagen Conference on climate change are the tip of the melting iceberg. Less well seen is capitalism’s wastefulness of human and natural resources, as well as its encroachments on genuine liberty. The main reason? Because capitalism is one evolutionary stage behind the productive capacity of the amazing ‘machinery’ that it, itself, brings into being. Humanity’s current task is, thus, to do that which a virus cannot: To design our continued evolution and steer its path in a direction of our choosing, if only for the planet’s sake.
Digression 4: Of viruses and humans
This chapter has argued that the origin of all value, as well as the cause of all our woes, is the ontological difference between electricity generators and human labourers; between, on the one hand, the ants and the bees and, on the other, the human architect – see Box 4.7. On one side we have mindless, albeit immensely productive, creations while, on the other, we have quirky but purposefully intelligent creators. This is yet another binary opposition that has caused us much confusion. Charles Darwin’s brilliant insight was that this opposition, while real, is not cast in stone; that it can also be dialectically transcended, just like the binary oppositions discussed in Box 4.10.
Following Darwin, we now know that, from the Big Bang onwards, marvellous complexity evolved in the absence of any agent capable of intelligence or comprehension. Life emerged on Earth shortly after the planet stabilised and bubbled along in the form of single prokaryotic cells for a billion years before its first momentous transformation; the fusion of two prokaryotic cells into one brand new eukaryotic one. With the birth of multi-cell life not only was death ‘invented’ but also the path that led to our evolution was cleared. Eukaryotes were the beginning of the division of labour between cells that later developed into muscle, blood, livers, and, of course, brains. Two and a half billion years later, we emerged; a mere six million years after our branch in the Tree of Life diverged from that our immediate cousins (the chimpanzees). While our extended family developed no language, and thus no capacity to grasp the ways of Nature so as to produce surplus, we did. The rest, as they say, is history.[xvii]
But how did this unique human capacity for comprehension, reason and, ultimately, freedom, emerge? What was the impetus of the amazing complexity typifying the structure of our brains which made language, culture, algebra, and reality TV possible? Darwin’s radical idea was that our intelligence evolved accidentally out of primordial idiocy. That we were the first intelligent designers and that we were ourselves produced, without a blueprint, as a result of a mindless process involving the basic agents of evolution: replicators which are no more than biological or data entities with an attitude; [xviii] i.e. with an ability to copy themselves; to adapt in response to the environmental circumstances and, of course, to mutate.
This simple idea of the unplanned genesis of order and brilliance out of a prehistoric soup of stupid genes has a longstanding symbiotic relationship with political economics. Darwin himself famously admitted that he borrowed the idea of natural selection from Thomas Robert Malthus’s argument that death from famine and pestilence played an important role in keeping the number of humans within the limits of the planet’s capacity to feed them and that this ‘Struggle for Existence’ ensured that the behaviours, inventions and ideas that helped men and women survive would be favoured over time, while those which did not would become extinct.[xix] But even before Malthus’ dismal theories, Adam Smith’s radical idea that markets produce virtue in the absence of a benevolent planner (recall Chapter 2) resonated beautifully with Darwin’s most basic tenet. From the late 19th century to our days, political economists who took it upon themselves to defend capitalism from those who purported to regulate, restrain and even overthrow it embraced the Smith-Malthus-Darwin mindframe, portraying any critic of capitalism as a form of creationist audacious enough to question natural selection.
To this very date, most mainstream economists assume that their defence of the unfettered market system is on a par with biologists’ defence of Darwin against the attacks of fundamentalists, creationists and assorted crackpots. This is, of course, a flight of fancy. Darwin himself, in the Origin‘s first chapter, discusses the methodical selection of species that generations of human agriculturalists and breeders utilised to interfere with Nature. Since then we took things one step further in developing genetic engineering. No one claims that our capacity to engineer DNA and create new designer organisms in the lab negates natural selection. The difference between us and viruses is that, unlike the latter, we have both a capacity to grasp the laws that rule over our evolution and to affect them directly. The towering question at the present historical juncture is whether we can do something of the sort at a planetary scale before our CO2 emissions and out toxic wastes destroy our own habitat in a manner that will make a mockery of our claim to be superior to viruses. But this is a political question that evolutionary biology has precious little to say about.
[i] “in a perfectly competitive market, it really doesn’t matter who hires whom: so have labor hire ‘capital’”, P.A. Samuelson (1957), “Wages and Interest: a Modern Dissection of Marxian Economic Models”, American Economic Review, 47, (6): 884-912 at p. 894
[ii] Note that if such a function existed, then by observing output Q the firm would also be observing L. In most cases of social production, mere observation cannot help measure either a worker’s labour input L or her output Q. Labour input is hardly ever measurable (How would you quantify Jill’s productive effort? Would you plug her into some ergo-metre?) and, also, it is often impossible to tell which part of a collectively produced output is due to Jill’s labour and which is due to Jack’s, Tom’s, Dick’s or Harriet’s.
[iii] When one agrees to buy apples or generators for a given price, the moment this agreement is concluded signals the end of the economic relation between buyer and seller. In the case of the labour contract, its signing signals the very beginning of the economic relation between employer and employee.
[iv] Speaking of complex mathematical functions, there is no dearth of explanations in which “effort”, “diligence” or “performance” has been attempted to be determined as a result of a complicated mathematical formula. Once the mainstream economic theory decided to extend its scope to the black box of the labour process and allow for asymmetry of information and uncertainty in its assumptions, it proposed the so-called agency model in which the employer, as the principal, and the employee, as the agent, attempt to enter into a mutually acceptable contract in which the employer will pay the wage in a specific manner that it would be rational for the worker to apply the specified level of effort, thus escaping the dreaded indeterminacy. This research program has created a veritable sub-industry in modern labor economics with dumbfounding mathematical sophistication (see for an advanced textbook treatment Pierre Cahuc and André Zylberberg, Labor Economics, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004, Chapter 6. For a survey of the literature see James M. Malcomson, “Individual employment contracts” in Orley C. Ashenfelter and David Card (eds.), Handbook of Labor Economics, Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1999, pp. 2291-2372.) The new branch of “personnel economics” has been extremely fruitful (see Edward P. Lazear, (1999) “Personnel economics: Past lessons and future directions”, Journal of Labor Economics, 17 (2): 199-236 and Edward P. Lazear and Robert McNabb (eds) (2004) Personnel Economics, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, 2 vols.). The Human Resources literature is naturally even more voluminous. The problem with such attempts is that they insist in an asocial model in the determination of effort. On the contrary what the industrial relations and the industrial sociology literature has demonstrated time and again is that of work literature which shows that the determination of effort is either hard to quantify (e.g., Wilhelm Baldamus, Efficiency and Effort, London: Tavistock, 1961) or that workers react strategically to attempts by management to set rules by which the latter try to control them. This literature goes way back in time (See e.g., Carter Goodrich, The Frontier of Control: A Study in British Workshop Politics, London: Pluto Press, 1975 (originally published 1920), Stanley B. Mathewson, Restriction of Output among Unorganized Workers, New York: Viking, 1931, Donald Roy (1952) “Quota Restriction and Goldbricking in a Machine Shop”, American Journal of Sociology, 67 (2): 427-42, Tom Lupton, On the Shop Floor: Two Studies of Workshop Organization and Output, Oxford: Pergamon Press 1963, Michael Burawoy, Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism, Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press. Arthur Marsh (Concise Encyclopedia of Industrial Relations, Hants.: Gower, 1979 at p. 37) offers a litany of names for restricting output: “ca’canny, go-slow, slow-gear strikes, lazy strike, folded arms strike, stay-in strike, working without enthusiasm, restrictive practices, protective practices, craft control, quota restriction, gold bricking”. Geoff Brown in his Sabotage (Nottingham: Spokesman,1977) studied the conscious attempts by workers to disrupt production even if there was no rational reason to do it. For a more plausible view of managing remuneration and productivity see especially the work of William A. Brown (“Social Determinants of Pay”, in G.M. Stephenson and C.J. Brotherton (eds.), Industrial Relations: A Social Psychological Approach, Chichester: Wiley, 1979, pp. 115-130; “Managing remuneration”, in Keith Sisson (ed.), Personnel Management in Britain, Oxford: Blackwell, 1989, pp. 249-70; W.A. Brown and Peter Nolan (1988) “Wages and Labour Productivity: The Contribution of Industrial Relations Research to the Understanding of Pay Determination”, British Journal of Industrial Relations, 26 (3): 339-361). Moreover, issues of trust, not contractually achievable become paramount (Alan Fox, Beyond Contract: Work, Power and Trust Relations, London: Faber, 1974). In the industrial relations literature it is a commonplace that the motivation of workers is not achieved through the labour contract, however skilfully managed. Notions of fairness, unrelated to the rational opportunistic worker, are important in the process of motivation (Richard Hyman and Ian Brough, Social Values and Industrial Relations: A Study of Fairness and Inequality, Oxford: Blackwell, 1975). Job evaluation schemes, for example, are less linked to the external labour market and more aimed at creating a wage and salary structure that respects norms of fairness of the employees (Peter B. Doeringer and Michael J. Piore, Internal Labor Markets and Manpower Analysis, Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1971, Nicholas J. Theocarakis,: An Investigation of the Relationship between Responsibility and Pay, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge, 1991, ch. 5). Research from experimental economics demonstrates that in labour contexts notions of instrumental rationality do not apply (Ernst Fehr and Simon Gächter (2000) “Fairness and Retaliation: The Economics of Reciprocity”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14 (3): 159-181). Ideologies at large in society serve to bolster the authority relationship (see Reinhard Bendix, Work and Authority in Industry: Ideologies of Management in the Course of Industrialization, Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1956).
[v] Again, we have paraphrased. His own words are: “Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” (The Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848)
[vi] Lenin wrote in 1913 that the “Marxist doctrine … is the legitimate successor to the best that man produced in the nineteenth century, as represented by German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism.” [“The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism” in Collected Works, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977, Volume 19, p. 21-28.] We believe that the influence of Ancient Greek philosophy was as important.
[vii] See G.W.F. Hegel Phenomenologie des Geistes, 1807. The Phenomenology of Mind, transl. by J.B. Baillie, London: Macmillan,1931, p. 103). Ten years later he expanded on the theme thus: “The concrete return of me into me in the externality is that I, the infinite self-relation, am as a person the repulsion of me from myself and have the existence of my personality in the being of other persons in my relation to them and my recognition of them which is mutual.” Hegel Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften: III. Philosophie des Geistes ( (1817, 2nd 1827, 3rd 1830) Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind: Translated from the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, transl. by W. Wallace, . Oxford: Clarendon, 1894, §490.
[viii] To be fair to Smith, he did not suggest that human nature was immune to all experiences. For example, he was worried that his cherished division of labour might turn human labourers into automata. To combat this danger Smith prescribed education as an antidote to such alienation. Nevertheless, along with David Hume, Smith held to the belief that, systematically adverse situations notwithstanding, human nature was more or less fixed and only the social norms governing behaviour changed in response to changing circumstances.
[ix] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in Enquiries concerning the human understanding and concerning the principles of morals, edited byL. A. Selby-Bigge, Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1902 2nd ed, Section VIII, Part1, §65 (First published 1748)
[x] Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences: I. The Logic, §131
[xi] All the quotations in this paragraph are from The Manifesto of the Communist Party, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published in 1848. In the same passage Marx and Engels extol the bourgeoisie’s contribution to the demise of the old, anachronistic ways; of the stagnation that typified the Middle Ages: “The bourgeoisie”, they wrote, “cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois era from all other ones.”
[xii] For simplicity assume that the post office is extra efficient and same day delivery is guaranteed.
[xiii] Claude Levi-Straus (1966). The Savage Mind, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson
[xiv] Paul MacCready was, amongst other things, the inventor of the solar powered airplane. A committed environmentalist, he argued vehemently about the unsustainable imbalance between the biomass under our control and the biomass in the ‘wild’. The figure reported here is part of that argument. MacCready’s figure concerns the mass of land animals; that is, of terrestrial vertebrates. He did not include insects, worms or the fish in the sea. What he found was that humans plus their livestock overtook wild animals (in weight) at the beginning of the 20th century. Humans alone (without livestock) began out-weighing wild animals only after World War II. In the past decades the combined footprint of humans and cattle has all but eclipsed all other land based animals.
[xv] Paul B. MacReady, “Aerodynamics and Other Efficiencies in Transporting Goods”, in Rose McCallen, Fred Browand and James Ross (eds.), The Aerodynamics of Heavy Vehicles: Trucks, Buses, and Trains, Berlin and Heidelberg, Springer Verlag, 2004, pp. 3-8, at p. 8 [original emphasis]
[xvi] In this context, it is possible to argue that 20th century communism committed precisely this type of fundamental error: It concentrated on the top-down Central Plan while ignoring the ways in which bottom-up ‘natural selection’ (i.e. decentralised activity by individuals) would alter, affect and, eventually, undermine the Plan. They behaved like genetic engineers who unleash their designer organisms in the ecosystem on the assumption that they will neither mutate nor interact unpredictably with existing organisms.
[xvii] For more on the extent to which history, especially that of capitalism, can be explained by evolutionary theory, see Yanis Varoufakis, 2007, ‘Capitalism according to Evolutionary Game Theory: The impossibility of a sufficiently evolutionary account of historical change’, Science and Society, 2008, 72(1), 63-94.
[xviii] Daniell Dennett, a philosopher who trained in neuroscience in order to understand the biological processes underpinning human thought, defines viruses as strings of nucleic acid with attitude – see his ‘In Darwin’s Wake, Where Am I?” APA Presidential Address, Proceedings and Addresses of The American Philosophical Association, 75:2, November 2001, 13-30; reprinted in The Cambridge Companion to Darwin, J. Hodge and G. Radick (eds), Cambridge University Press, 357-376, 2003.
[xix] In the introduction to his celebrated The Origin of Species (1860) Darwin wrote: ”In the next chapter the Struggle for Existence amongst all organic beings throughout the world, which inevitably follows from the high geometrical ratio of their increase, will be treated of. This is the doctrine of Malthus applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms” (pp. 4-5).