Means of Production

In classical economics, “Means of production” are the necessary conditions for producing things that do not include financial capital or human beings– together, all three elements are termed “factors of production.” Interestingly, Marx apparently used factors of production interchangeably with productive force (paralleling List’s use of political force). Because Marx and Engels proposed that economics were primary, concern over production was central to their technological theories.

Marxist theory is substantially an instrumental theory in that factors of production include instruments of labor and subjects of labor (raw materials). Encountering this usage, I find myself wondering if it’s actually possible to sort instruments into these niche categories. Recall that Engels had argued that instruments of violence  were the source of all political power; a hammer can be used to produce a house, or to bash in someone’s skull. Given that, are such these terms useable in a coherent manner?

It bears noticing that List’s National System  fed directly into National Socialism as it nationalized industry in the name of the Fatherland, seizing not only the factories but also the raw materials to produce a war machine in the name of political force. Mao and Stalin used Marxist theory to justify deploying their workforce in camps and cooperative farms in the name of national economic force. These developments are part of the reason why by the time Hannah Arendt was approaching her terminology in “On Violence” she chose to avoid the term force to describe this type of means, because force had become synonymous with violence.

Arendt’s vocabulary is attractive because it makes it possible to argue from definitions, which does not seem possible with loose categories like instruments of production and instruments of violence. For example, if we define power as separate from strength then it isn’t possible to talk of the “strength” of a nation-state, because strength is defined as an individual characteristic. Power, on the other hand, could be attributed to the confluence of people working together in the nation-state. Her move to distance violence from either of these categories (by definition) contributes a lot to our understanding of it. However, making the claim that violence is instrumental in nature without clearly differentiating it from instrumental production is a dangerous oversight. I’m discovering that Marx has quite a bit to contribute in this area, if not through a clear frame of reference, through demonstrating just how fraught the terminology is.

Force vacillates between productive and destructive impulses that aren’t teased apart easily. Another aspect is deciding if it is singular (like strength) or plural (like power). Questions for another day.

Infant Industries

I wasn’t expecting the evolution of the notion of “force” to lead me to Alexander Hamilton, nor was I expecting it to lead to a deeper understanding of protectionism, which seems to be all the rage with the US government at the present moment. Why?

By the 1960s, UNESCO had begun to argue for a more level playing field for information. The thought was that better informed people made better decisions, and increased innovation through improved technologies. In a strong sense, it was a net neutrality argument before the internet existed. The AT discussions of the 1960s and 1970s were also about unequal access to technologies, and in some ways can be divided between large scale, centralized models like R. Buckminster Fuller and decentralized, individualist models like EF Shumacher. In essence, these approaches were developed to promote equality in technological development by disparate means.

It seems as if Alexander Hamilton’s 1790 Report on Manufactures is the nexus of a lot the centralist side. Hamilton’s infant industry argument is remarkably forward thinking regarding economies of scale. Simply put, Hamilton suggested that moderate tariffs coupled with industry subsidies would allow emergent nations, such as the US, to develop a strong technological and industrial base. Otherwise, more developed nations would simply “undersell” local industries and leave the nation stunted and exploited. The approach is controversial at best, with free trade advocates arguing that economic and technological growth proceeds faster without such measures.

Fuller’s Earth Inc. concept owe much to the ideas suggested by Hamilton. Of course Fuller attempted to side-step the issue by suggesting that we’re one planet, not a cluster of nations– centrist approaches might lead to a more prosperous planet, not simply more prosperous nations. What gets missed in the oversimplified centralist/decentralist framing of the problem is the question of where power, in the sense of potential for action, can possibly be found. Hamilton believed that the power of a nation to act in its interests was key; Fuller’s planetary power simply doesn’t exist as of yet.

After Hamilton, the argument developed in interesting ways through Friedrich List. List was a dual citizen of the US and Germany, owning major property in Pennsylvania. His was the theory of political force that Eugen Duhring deployed, that Engels railed against. Recall that Adam Smith had argued that “rational self-interest,” that is to say individualism,  was the best way to promote economic growth. List, in contrast suggested that the health of the nation depended more on the political force of its citizens to marshal development for the common good: “Canals and railroads may do great good to a nation, but all waggoners will complain of this improvement. Every new invention has some inconvenience for a number of individuals, and is nevertheless a public blessing.” List’s National System, and the related American System, guided technological development that created the modern US.

Engels took exception with the idea that “political force” might function as primary with economic force being a secondary manifestation. Marxist theory might point out that canals and railroads are controlled by bourgeois interests, and industrial development benefits the few rather than the many. Marx conflates under the term “labor” both the instruments of production and the raw material/labor involved. However, the idea that the development and control of instruments of production is key to both the capitalist and communist approaches.

So, in essence it’s technological theories (or turtles) all the way down.