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Excerpt from Welcome to the Machine

Marx and Engels (p. 92)

From chapter "Fear"

Jeremy Bentham had a nightmare of the perfect prison. Michel Foucault showed that the nightmare wasn’t a building, but an administrative function that operated in schools, hospitals, and other institutions, indeed in the culture at large.

Early analysts of the industrial state, such as Karl Marx and Max Weber, described parts of this nightmare, and before we go too much further with our own exploration, it might be useful to survey their contributions.

More than a century and a half ago Marx and his coauthor Friedrich Engels described the evils and misery—the systematic dehumanization—that the industrial system causes. They saw that the bourgeoisie—that is, those whose primary concerns are commercial and industrial—have “converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers. The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation.”

Marx and Engels recognized that within this system, workers are only another commodity, another resource: “Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine. . . . Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army, they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois state; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker.”

Marx and Engels described, not entirely disapprovingly (and at this remove in language that is shockingly ethnocentric), the inevitable expansion of the machine: “In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature. The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”

Something ignored in this passage is that most often the “heavy artillery” of cheap commodities can only do its dirty work after honest-to-goodness heavy artillery has pounded a people into submission; after the target culture has been destroyed, most often at the point of a gun, and its members given the choice between Christianity (or Capitalism, or Science—Nulla salus extra scientiam—or Consumerism) and death; and after their landbase has been taken from them, its nonhuman members (and often its human members) converted to resources, and these resources stripped away.

Finally (for our analysis) Marx and Engels also saw that a fundamental imperative of our culture is the centralization of power, and they described the centralizing effects of industrialization: “The bourgeoisie keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has agglomerated population, centralized the means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralization. Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class interest, one frontier, and one customs tariff.”

All of this is what we see around us: globalization of the industrial system, of the machine.

Much of what Marx and Engels called for in The Communist Manifesto has come to pass, with no need for their much-vaunted Proletarian Revolution. They called for the abolition of inheritance and the abolition of child labor in factories, which haven’t happened, but also for a graduated income tax; a central bank; centralized communication and transport; free public education; and the end of property in land. Now, before you private property patriots insist that the end of property in land has not taken place, and will take place only after the commies pry your second-amendment-guaranteed guns from your cold dead hands (not that I have a problem with gun ownership: as the bumper sticker says, “When automatic weapons are outlawed, only the FBI will have automatic weapons”), consider their next words, and realize not only that you’re too late, that private property has already been done away with, not by godless commies but by capitalists who are overseen by providence, but more importantly that you’ve been snookered yet again by those in power: “You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths.”

Marx and Engels anticipated much of what the industrial system would accomplish, and though they also described the soot and grime of the factories, they did not have real ecological understanding. This is not surprising, since almost nobody in our culture, even a century later, even environmentalists, has anything remotely approaching true ecological understanding. In fact we avoid it—rationalize it away—whenever possible. The Communist Manifesto called for factories owned by the state; bringing “waste lands” into cultivation; the establishment of industrial armies especially for agriculture; the combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; the gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country through a more equable distribution of the populace over the country; and the combination of education with industrial production (most of which has also come to pass, damn it all). Marx and Engels believed that technology and “progress” were good, and that the proletariat would soon seize the means of production and abolish the class system so that everyone could enjoy the industrial fruits. To Marx and Engels, all relations were determined by the relations of production. All of history was only the story of class struggle, and once the workers had taken hold of the levers of the machines, class struggle (and history) would magically end. They did not understand that instead of the workers taking hold of the machines, the machines had already taken hold of the workers.