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Karl Marx was right. Or no, wait, are we all libertarians now?

by on September 29, 2011

Here we are in the 21st century, living in societies with tremendous production capacity. Did we achieve man-computer symbiosis (pdf), like described by J.C.R. Licklider in 1960? We’re not there yet, except maybe in some advanced military applications, and our smartphones and tablets are surely moving into that direction.

Licklider was one of the two major thinkers we discussed during week 3 of our Digital Awakening course #nmfs_f11, the other  being Norbert Wiener –  more specifically we studied his text Men, Machines and the World About (pdf). In that text – in 1954 – he mentioned the upcoming automatic factory and the automatic assembly line. Also, he claimed that machines can learn. “Gentlemen, when we get into trouble with the machine, we cannot talk the machine back into the bottle”, so he warned referring to the tale of the fisherman and the genie.

All of which could lead easily to the left of the political spectrum. Is a society based on paid labor and the accumulation of means of productions by big corporations suited for these technological developments? The economist Tyler Cowen – not exactly a Marxist – warns in The Great Stagnation that even though we have the internet revolution, there is no job creation like during the Industrial Revolution or during the emergence of the mass production and mass consumption society.

But at the other side of the spectrum, libertarian thinkers can derive seemingly different conclusions from the technological disruption: state intervention can be minimal, as the economy becomes a kind of cybernetic system. It’s the kind of technological optimism which characterized Alan Greenspan (former chairman of the Federal Reserve) during a number of years.

We should not be too surprised by this meeting of seemingly opposed political philosophies: Marxism did not see the importance of the state and politics in the happy end state of the technological and political evolution, when every person will be able to get what she needs and contribute what she can. There is no celebration of the state as such in the thinking of Marx.

For me personally, this will be an important point to focus on while reading these texts about technological disruption: what is the implicit or explicit political thinking of these technologists? Or rather: what are the political conclusions about the organization of society and the economy people derived from these developments?

Roland Legrand

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One Comment
  1. lizdorland permalink

    Yes, our different assumptions about politics and the way the world works lead us to very different conclusions about “truth” and how we should proceed economically and politically. It’s the same in education reform. What you believe can or should be done depends on what you believe is the fundamental purpose of education. And that is very political. It also depends on your assumptions of how we learn and what is important to be learned.

    I need to read The Great Stagnation. It fascinates me how differently those of us in the USA were brought up to regard Marxism as opposed to how (I think) it is presented and discussed in other countries. It was not until I started to look more deeply at the philosophy of education and read some of the Marxist thinkers and theorists in that area that I even realized Marxism is a philosophy, and not a political system or movement. The study of philosophy is something that was sadly lacking in both my education at all levels and of my kids as well. The belief in right or wrong answers, in black and white, leads us to look for “truth” where there is none.

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