Critical Theory for the 21st Century: Alf Hornborg’s The Power of the Machine

Published online on 13 December 2007.

This is a review of Alf Hornborg’s The Power of the Machine, a book by a professional anthropologist offering a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary critique of our global society.

The review is in four parts: the first part is an introduction to critical theory, the second part will detail Hornborg’s main concern, which is that we are trapped in a “fetish” of economic “machines,” and that this is why we keep offering “technological” and “capitalist” solutions to problems like abrupt climate change.  The third part is a short critique of his central concept, “machine fetishism,” and the conclusion will summarize the book chapter by chapter.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

Part One: Hornborg as Critical Theorist

When I was in graduate school, I encountered a professor who wasn’t in any program in which I was enrolled, but who nevertheless gave me a recommendation which landed me in a doctoral program.  This professor taught courses in which the historical foundation of what is now called “critical theory”-– we read Fourier, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Feuerbach, Stirner, Lukacs, Gramsci, Adorno, Horkheimer, Kolakowski, Habermas, Bertell Ollman, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and others.  I received no credit but the classes I took were really invigorating, and they gave me an idea of what I wanted to study for my Ph. D.

The point of all of the learning I did in this class was to understand critical theory, a field of study largely pioneered by German philosophers but encompassing practically all of the social sciences and humanities.  The earliest paragon of critical theory, however, is the 19th century philosopher Karl Marx.  In Marx’s voluminous writings one can see a series of inquiries, uncovering the deceptions of the received wisdom of his time, which dared to question the essential categories of the society in which he lived.

Critical theory as seen in Marx can be said to comprise a number of elaborate answers to “why” questions, each of which questions an essential social category.  So, for instance, we could ask “why history?” and look at The German Ideology for a framework, or we could ask “why the economy?” and look at Capital.  We could ask “why politics?” and look at The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, or we could ask “why culture?” and the preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy would give us an answer.

Later critical theory incorporated other questions, in the same mode of questioning essentials: Sigmund Freud, for instance, asked “why the human mind?” and Michel Foucault went up a meta-level and asked “why knowledge?” and “why power?”  The post-structuralists in departments of English, borrowing from the later Wittgenstein, are asking, “why language?”

The various and disparate essays which comprise Alf Hornborg’s The Power of the Machine are in the cutting edge of critical theory, and they have an interdisciplinary scope which reminds me of those classes.  In fact, The Power of the Machine generates so many loose ends, and has so many profound understandings within its pages, that this book review will barely do justice to the wealth tucked between its covers.

In general, however, Hornborg is trying to understand the problem which I started to look at when I wrote the diary on Wilk and Cliggett: how is it that “making a living” has come so far afoul of our natural environment?  And what’s to be done about the situation?

In my current understanding, the notion of “making a living” was made problematic from the Enlightenment onward.  In the 19th century, in an era flush with the philosophies of Enlightenment, Marx was the first critic of political economy to “anthropologize” economic affairs, through the concept of “commodity fetishism.”  So by reading about Marx, we can see how the critique of economics contains an important moment of economic anthropology.  We should use that moment, today, to clear up the relationship between the economy and the natural environment.

Now, what economists call “goods and services” may properly be classified under the heading of “commodities,” and so the idea of “commodity fetishism” is connected to the worship of money, or more properly the worship of the things money can buy.  Considered as an endemic state, commodity fetishism brings us a world in which everyone and everything “has its price.”  Commodity fetishism is, then, the world seen one-dimensionally from the perspective of an accountant filling out a balance sheet.  The commodity fetishist sees the world as containing assets, liabilities, and investors.

Now, Marx’s critique of all this was that commodity fetishism was like a slavery of people to things.  The environmental consequences of universal commodity fetishism should be clear from a cursory reading of Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” essay.  To wit:

Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

  1. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly + 1.
  1. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision­making herdsman is only a fraction of – 1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit — in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

The “herdsmen” in this illustration of the “tragedy of the commons” view the world from the “balance-sheet” perspective.  He’s a commodity fetishist, too: he wants more sheep because more sheep means more wealth.  This, it seems, is the perspective Hornborg depicts as inappropriate to the environmental concerns of our times.

But what makes people adopt this perspective?  A real, cultural answer would involve deep inquiry into cultural motivations; this, indeed, is the payoff of The Power of the Machine, an anthropological work which deals (albeit on a very, VERY high theoretical level) with the central economic and ecological concerns of our time.

Part Two: The Power of the Machine and its Core Concerns

The Power of the Machine suggests a whole history of capitalist exploitation, occurring from “peripheries” to “cores.”  Its central concept is as follows:

This work could perhaps be viewed as an additional chapter in the critical, cultural analysis of capitalism inaugurated by Karl Marx.  Throughout part 1, I try to show that the most central “fetish” of capitalism is nothing less than the industrial machine.  (3)

From this bold statement, we might expect this book to be about machines – but it isn’t; it’s about fetishes, and the “machine” part of it is a pretext for a thermodynamic analysis of global, capitalist, civilization.  In this thermodynamic analysis, machines are a sort of glue that keeps the peripheries chained to the cores:

The ecological and socioeconomic impoverishments of the periphery are two sides of the same coin, for both nature and human labor are underpaid sources of high-quality energy for the industrial “technomass.” (11)

So it is this technomass, this accumulation of work-doing energy or “exergy,” which is the beneficiary of machine fetishism, and which is the central topic of the book.  The Power of the Machine thus builds upon the thermodynamic analysis of society that was once popularized in eminently readable form in Jeremy Rifkin’s (1989) book Entropy.

To summarize Entropy’s argument in a nutshell: throughout history, each civilization has had to draw upon the stored energy of its environmental surroundings to make it do civilization-building work.  At some point, each civilization has had to overcome problems of depletion, wherein most civilizations usually crumble, having turned their local environments into wastelands.  Industrial civilization, however, has tended to find new energy sources to power its activities after having exhausted old sources.  When the industrialists chopped down all the usable trees for wood-burning, they converted their industries to coal-burning, for instance.  Later, coal gave way to oil.

The problem with such an approach is that it does not eliminate the problem of entropy, to wit: doing work with energy results in a dissipation of that energy’s ability to do work.  In doing so much work, then, global civilization depletes its energy sources: oil, most obviously, but also soil health (due to overzealous farming), fresh water, and so on.

Rifkin’s concern with our global civilization connects to the problem of “entropy” as follows: with our civilization’s energy basis in oil, there may be no way to raise the stakes, no alternative source of energy that is as cheap, as plentiful as oil, while not producing the raging greenhouse effect that burning 85 million barrels of oil every day has gotten us.  In the book, he lodges further concerns about the direction our agriculture, our medicine, and so on, are taking us with our civilization’s voracious consumption of environmental sources of energy, at the cost of the degradation of both the system and its environmental substrate.

The question then becomes one of “where do we go from here?”  Rifkin’s solution, in his revised edition, is to suggest solar power as the energy of the future – not necessarily as cheap as oil, and necessitating a drastic overhaul of the way we do business, but relatively environmentally safer than oil-burning.  Behind this, he recommends “a new infrastructure for the solar age” (218-229).  At any rate, when civilizations exhaust their energy bases, they need to find new ones.

This is, of course, the most important political topic of the 21st century; a new source of energy to replace crude oil, and a new civilization to replace the wasteful one in which we are currently living.  As the idea of a new civilization appears to be beyond the imaginative ken of our academic systems, however, there is a significant search to find new sources of energy to keep the old one well-powered.  Typically, alternative energy schemes offer us “huge” quantities of energy without taking into account the voraciousness of the current economic system (will the new source substitute for the current diet of 85 million barrels of crude oil per day, with a 2% yearly uptick?) the cheapness of energy (is it as cheap as oil to produce?), or the environmental effects of energy production (what exactly are the drawbacks?).  I have yet to see an alternative energy study promising an energy source that will make fossil fuels obsolete in exactly those terms.

A prominent example of this type of study would be the “deep hot rock” geothermal energy which was promoted in a recent MIT study.  From the looks of it, there is plenty to be said for the amount of energy to be gotten from this method, and the environmental costs could be low, yet the matter of how “cheap” this energy turns out to be may not survive the capitalist market, as one can see in the analysis on Gristmill.

Now, if we did in fact find some sort of cheap, plentiful (as a substitute for 85 million bbls./day), and environmentally-friendly energy source to replace (and not just supplement) oil combustion, that might make Hornborg’s book (and his theses) seem a lot less relevant.  (Not that it’s likely to happen, but what if it did.)  On the other hand, abrupt climate change isn’t the only environmental problem caused by capitalist society, not by a long shot, and so we would still have to confront problems such as overfishing and species extinction.  Our environmentalists, in short, would do better to consider the possibility of radical social change, and the social theory that must underly any such project, rather than confining their horizons to technical analyses of energy sources and harmful side-effects while imagining action solely within the realm of small-scale alterations to the existing system.

What is conceded in most of these studies, then, is the existing social system – without, of course, any deep analysis of how the existing social system got world-society into the present-day energy bind.  Thus what we see from them is the notion that, with a bit of research and some development money acquired through grants, some sort of technological solution can be applied to the energy problem, thus saving us from the coming disaster threatened by the IPCC and ignored by the politicians.  The result of it all is a general underappreciation of the social dimension of the ecological crisis.  A different social set-up wouldn’t have our problems; why do we spend neither time nor energy trying to understand what that social set-up would be, or how to get there?

In light of the situation I’ve described above, books like Hornborg’s The Power of the Machine ought to be essential reading for environmentalists.  Hornborg’s book suggests that the solution to environmental problems might be in reaching beyond our current social set-up.  On p. 16, he argues:

Perhaps we need not be as worried about the depletion of natural resources in absolute terms as about the inherent social limitations in the whole industrial arrangement.  (16)

Two pages later, he then directs this concern toward a critique of the whole “green taxes” solution to environmental hazards:

Unless we are prepared to reorganize society in a much more fundamental way, it seems that any “green taxes” or other brakes on the system substantial enough to have a real impact on consumption would lead to economic decline, the most obvious sign of which would be rising unemployment rates, in the face of which any government would very quickly retract its “green taxes.”  More likely, the “green taxes” would never reach the magnitude at which such effects would follow, in which case they would remain symbolic and pointless. (18)

This is the fallacy of the “true-cost pricing” pseudo-solution; no price we are willing to pay under current economic conditions, all else remaining the same, will save the Earth.  As about the growth imperative of capitalist economy, Hornborg inveighs:

Not only is the growth recipe in a global perspective politically naïve, but it also disregards the fundamental objection that processes of resource depletion and environmental destruction will increase with wealth, after all, even if they are shifted to other locations and thus vanish from sight.  (31)

Such logic should have made mincemeat of the notion of “ecological modernization” as it is promoted in elite First World nations without regard to such nations’ participation in the world-economy.  We can regard Norway, for instance, as an eco-friendly place only if we ignore the ecosystem costs of Norway’s oil reserves as burnt elsewhere.

To summarize: Hornborg’s overall contribution to environmentalism, to the matter of “what is to be done,” is vast, but in the end it is only “social-scientific.  He argues in this light:

Capital accumulation is a blind, self-reinforcing process.  Instead of just continuing to monitor its ecological effects, we urgently need to grasp its fundamental dynamics.  (63)

One of the things I can’t understand about environmentalists is that I can tell them stuff like this, and yet it doesn’t seem to be well-heeded advice.  Perhaps as things get worse, listening skills will develop.

Part Three: “Economic Fetishism” examined critically:

I do have one major quibble with Hornborg’s analysis: it’s hard for me to accept “machine fetishism” as the label for the phenomenon that Hornborg is discussing.  There’s no discussion of the machines themselves, no recommendation that to get away from machine fetishism we must retreat to a pre-machinery way of life.  Hornborg presents this “machine fetishism” notion in a short argument about the Soviet Union in Chapter 1, that:

Karl Marx visualized an egalitarian society based on advanced, industrial technology.  The collapse of the Soviet Union ultimately reflects the failure of Marxist thought to escape the illusions of what I refer to in this book as “machine fetishism.” (13)

This reads to me as a sort of insufficient gloss upon the great contributions to ecological thought made by Marx, Engels, and other marxists, summarized at great length in John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology.  Of course, the “communist” project as envisioned by Marx was premature at best; true believers in that project might beg to differ with the authoritarian “socialism in one country” that was Stalin’s project, and with the “Cold War” which placed the Soviet Union in a de facto capitalist competition with the capitalist world (especially after the USSR went into debt to entities of capitalist finance in the late 1970s).

In short, we are not talking about “machine fetishism” per se, with Hornborg, but rather an obsession with industrial production that has become unhealthy mainly because the energy sources it uses are not ecologically sustainable.  There is, then, an amplified echo of the concern made by Rifkin (and dozens of other authors, of which Rifkin is one of the most accessible) throughout Hornborg’s book.

Textual summary and conclusion

At any rate, here is a short summary of the book: chapter 1 is an explanation of technological fetishism; chapter 2 is a discussion of the ecological misunderstandings of “cornucopianism,” the rationale that the natural world will always have enough to satisfy human needs.  Chapter 3 is a thermodynamic discussion of imperialism in the same “core-periphery” language as used by the world-systems theorists.  Chapter 4 hopes to explain how accumulation strategies create privileges; accumulation, then, is the reason why there is a “wealthy” First World and an “impoverished” Third World.  Hornborg’s discussion of accumulation here is a great improvement over that of Marx.

In Chapter 5, Hornborg “goes anthropological” and discusses ancient Andean civilization in terms of accumulation, core, and periphery. Chapter 6 is a detailed discussion of “the transformation of energy in an hunting-and-gathering society” and of “the transformation of energy in an industrial society” in which Hornborg sharpens his critique of Marx:

Industry’s demand for profit is not, as Marx saw it, a specifically “capitalist” problem that can be neutralized by altering the system of ownership and distribution, but a symptom of the thermodynamic inefficiency of industrial production.  Whereas hunter-gatherers even in areas such as the Kalahari Desert may retrieve 9.6 times the energy they spend on hunting and gathering, industrial agriculture generally yields only a fraction of the total, human-orchestrated energy input (cf. Ellen 1982: 123-153).  Such a wasteful form of production can continue only as long as it is “subsidized” by an asymmetric world trade in energy.  (104)

Regardless of the truthfulness of Hornborg’s characterization of Marx, the above argument makes a whole lot more sense to me than the argument on p. 13.  To answer the question I asked about Hardin’s “herdsmen”: what makes industry desire profit, and what makes the herdsman desire more sheep, is the need to stake out a place within the (unsustainable) system of production.  This, in turn, makes sense of Hornborg’s thesis that the central fetish of capitalism is the machine.  If we see “the machine” broadly enough, in the sense that the whole process of commodity production is itself a machine, then it all makes sense.

Chapter 7 is about language issues, and chapter 8 is about “fetishism” as a concept used in Marx.  Chapter 9 is about the semiotics of money.  This is a very important topic in an era when “money” can be nothing more in actual substance than pixels on a screen.  Chapter 10 is about ecological economics.  Hornborg sees that the field of ecological economics is not aware that “money” is not a physical thing so much as a relationship between people, and so the ecological economists try to put “monetary values” on the environment.  Chapter 11 is about what “the self” means in the industrial age.  In Hornborg’s concluding chapter, chapter 12, he “goes anthropological” once again, discussing the Mi’kmaq people of Nova Scotia and their adoption of “environmentalist” tactics as an indigenous group fighting industrial development.

Hornborg’s afterword serves as a reiteration of his main observed conclusions, and as a defense of his interdisciplinary approach.  However, his book can serve us as much more than this, if we are willing to think creatively with what it offers.


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