Democratic Theory and Technological Society

By Richard B. Day; Ronald Beiner et al. | Go to book overview

FIRE ALARM: WALTER BENJAMIN'S CRITIQUE OF TECHNOLOGY

Michael Löwy

The uncritical approach to technical progress has been the dominant trend in Marxism since the end of the nineteenth century. Marx's own views were less one-sided: one can find in his writing an attempt towards a dialectical understanding of the antinomies of progress.

It is true that in some of his works the main emphasis is on the historically progressive role of industrial capitalism. For instance, in the Communist Manifesto one can find an enthusiastic celebration of bourgeois technological progress: "The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature's forces to man, machinery ... steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs ... what earlier century had even a presentiment that such production forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?" But even here there are some clear references to the negative consequences of industrial technology: owing to the extensive use of machinery, the work "has lost all individual character, and consequently, all charm for the workman"; the proletarian becomes "an appendage of the machine" and his work becomes increasingly "repulsive" (a term Marx borrows from Fourier).1

These two aspects are dealt with extensively in Marx's main economic writings. For instance, in the Grundrisse he insists on the "great civilizing influence of capital," but nevertheless recognizes that the machine robs labor "of all independence and attractive character" (another Fourierist category - travail attrayant). He has no doubt that capitalist technology means a degradation and intensification of labor: "The most developed machinery thus forces the worker to work longer than the savage does, or than he himself did with the simplest, crudest tools."2

In Capital the dark side of industrial technology comes very forcefully to the forefront: because of machinery, work in the capitalist factory becomes

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