[OPE-L:7172] Re: Marx on solving human problems

From: gerald_a_levy (gerald_a_levy@msn.com)
Date: Wed May 15 2002 - 09:52:33 EDT

Re [7l66]:

Thanks for your reply.  Your comments  make me realize how  far apart
we are in terms of comprehending these issues.

> To repeat, Marx says only that our species only
>  sets itself problems which it CAN (is able to) solve, not necessarily
> that  it WILL solve them.

There are several things wrong with this statement:

a) Marx's belief that humanity inevitably only sets itself problems which it
can  solve is nothing more than an  unsubstantiated assertion.

b) if it is a statement based on empirical observation, it contains the
fallacy that past trends will necessarily -- inevitably -- continue into the

c) it is a *trans-historical generalization* that does not consider the
issue from a *class* perspective in terms of how "issues", "problems",
and  "solutions" ("i, p, & s")  are determined where the capitalist mode of
production is dominant.  Under capitalism, there can be a systematic
separation between "i, p, & s"  because production is dominated by the
capital-form.  The "issue" as  conceived by individual capitalists is how to
obtain the maximum rate of  profit (or if you prefer, rate of return on
investment).  Towards this end,  they are generally indifferent to the
particular use-value that a commodity  fulfills.   Thus, the focus of
capital  from the very beginning is not on  "problems"  or "solutions" that
don't _directly_ concern profitability.  Nor  can we assume that the
scientists and engineers who work for those capitalists have (or are
capable of having) a comprehension of the problems and possible
solutions from a holistic perspective.  Indeed, the requirements of the
labor process for these intellectual workers generally mandates that
such issues be put off to the side and not be considered systematically.
This is because "i, p, & s" would also typically  have to be 'produced'
by  capital (through R&D staffs),  yet there is no reason -- given the
domination  of the value-, commodity-, money-, and capital-forms --
to believe that these results (i.e. the identification of "i, p, and s")
would  be manufactured.  Nor is there any necessary reason -- given
*who* is  making these decisions  -- to believe that the "i, p, and s"
_can_ be  identified.

Looking at this from a different angle,  decisions about new technologies
are made by capital and the state.  Whether done by capital or the state,
there is no necessary reason to believe that "we" have the information
necessary  with which to even conceive of the "i, p, and s".  Let us recall
the proprietary  form that corporate knowledge often takes. Let us recall
the fact that the state  has "state secrets".  Let us even suppose that
there are some corporate and state secrets that remain secret.  Under
these circumstances, to believe that  "humanity"  has the -- inevitable --
ability to  envision solutions is illusory and idealistic.  Or,   do you
think  _necessarily_  that scientists who work for the Pentagon or
corporations -- who are focused _only_ on the development  of
[cost-effective  and  efficient] military technologies and/or what is good
for the  corporate "bottom line" --  are even _thinking_  about
"i, p, and s"?

>  I consider Marx's concept that possible solutions are already present in
>  material reality before they are even grasped correctly in human
>  consciousness a key tenet of Marx's materialist and dialectical
>  of history. It has nothing to do with Victorian teleology or bourgeois
>  technological optimism, it is an empirically testable, scientific claim
>  only testable in retrospect - "Minerva's owl flies at dusk", as Hegel
>  said).

How has the claim been 'tested'?  If it hasn't been tested, what type of
'test' would you propose?

As for your claim about it being a "key tenet ....", I have several

a) as far as I can determine *nothing* of significance in terms of Marx's
conception of history rides on this particular conception.  Perhaps that
is the reason why he only made that claim  only once?

b) in so far as it is held to be a "tenet" then it is a *metaphysical* since
there is no material mechanism to ensure that at the time when "problems"
for humankind occur solutions must be present or in the process of

c) this assumes that  "humanity" knows about and has recognized a
problem as a problem.  This assumes, in effect, that the problem in
material reality will make itself known in human consciousness incrementally
rather than all at once when it is too late.

>  That is what I would defend against the irrationalism and cultural
>  pessimism of some Greens and doomsayers.

I think that Greens would say -- with a lot of justification -- that many
Marxists have an irrational cultural optimism about the future.

>  Marx writes elsewhere (paraphrasing from memory, I think the Grundrisse),
>  "there comes a time in the development of the productive forces when they
>  cause only harm, turning from productive forces into forces of
>  destruction".

Does anyone know the exact citation for this paraphrase?

>  But the only way in which Marx is "optimistic" is in implying that it is
>  POSSIBLE to solve the problems humanity has created for itself, and has
>  become aware of (be it with a certain time-lag). It is possible, because
>  we look more closely into it, we find that where humanity is capable of
>  framing the problem, possible solutions are already to hand.

It is not 'humanity in general'  that is capable of framing "the" problem.
Rather,  humankind in *a specific time and place in history* are either
capable or incapable of grasping a problem and possible solutions.

> There are plenty
>  of examples of e.g. inventions which were only put to best use, centuries
>  after they were thought of. In this sense, history is a virtually
>  inexhaustible store of solutions.

[Capitalist] history is also full of examples of how capitalist production
proceeded before solutions were comprehended.  Consider the question of
the 'safe' storage of waste from nuclear power plants.  There are also
examples  of how the "solutions" that were implemented by capitalists and
the  state had  a very poor grasp of the nature of the problem: e.g.
consider  the "Green Revolution" [in addition to leading to a greater
disparity between poor peasants and wealthy peasants and agro-business
-- an intended result]  which under  the guise of "science"  devastated
agricultural production in many less developed capitalist nations.

>  The way many Greens like to portray humanity however is like a kid
>  with matches. In other words, human beings blindly blunder around in the
>  biosphere, destroying many delicate natural balances without realizing
>  they are doing, the fact that they are destroying the basis of life. They
>  are playing with forces much bigger than themselves, which go out of
>  control and lead to destruction.

To a large extent, I think this is an accurate picture.  However, the issue
has to be posed in terms of  not "humanity in general" but  classes within
capitalist  society (and I think some Left Greens recognize this.)

> This trend of thought forms the basis of
>  cultural pessimism and a negative view of human nature: humanity will not
>  be able to solve the problems it has set itself, because it is to stupid,
>  too ignorant, too selfish, too narrowminded, too greedy, too shortsighted
>  and so on. It is incapable of collectively taking appropriate action
>  it is too late.

The political premise of the Greens is that the above conception is *false*.
This is why Greens are *political activists*.

> All we can do is huddle together a bit in communes and so on.

As a claim about Green beliefs, this is manifestly false.

>  Well, I could make a few simple observations about this cultural
> (1) The very fact that there is today e.g. a high level of concern about
>  the environment is precisely proof of the fact that human beings ARE
> becoming aware of these problems, and are looking for solutions.

Again, there is no causal, material mechanism that will ensure that we
will become aware of a problem before it is too late.

> (2) If you deny even the possibility that humanity can solve the problems
>  it sets for itself, because e.g. it supposedly has set in motion an
>  uncontrollable chain of events leading to destruction, you are not
>  well-placed to FIND solutions using good scientific practice or engage in
>  political action to implement them.

Humankind doesn't set problems for itself.   Within a class society,
problems  and possible solutions are 'set'  by  particular classes.  Thus,
the very way you pose the issue is misleading.

> (3) The very fact that we are able to recognise the "bad side" of human
>  beings implies precisely the existence of the "good side" of human

"Bad" and "good" sides of human beings ???

> (4) Cultural pessimism disregards the incredible things that human beings
>  are capable of, and by postulating that we are victims of forces beyond
>  control, prevents us from doing the things that would help us gain
>  In reality we do not even know yet fully what humanity is capable of in a
>  positive sense, why restrict the possibilities in advance ?

Ah, yes, we're only using what % of our brains?   Well, we may never know
what humans are capable of  unless we enter into more of a dialogue and
alliance with Greens rather than dismiss and caricature their concerns.

>  But what good does it do somebody to pander to cultural pessimism anyway
>  It is not constructive, it doesn't help you to enjoy life, it doesn't
>  you to fight for a better world and it doesn't help you to alert you to
> solutions which do exist.

>From what I can see, Greens enjoy life -- indeed, if you have been to Green
social events you might say that their zest for life is at least equal to
the enjoyment  of life by Marxists.   In any event, they would dispute the
claim that they are  "cultural pessimists".  Moreover,  that claim is
refuted by the political history of the Greens internationally.

>  Incidentally, have you noticed how American people reacted to the anthrax
>  scare ? Do you really think that they would tolerate the large-scale use
>  biological weapons ?

Difficult question.  I can envision circumstances where the US working
class,   whipped up in a xenophobic nationalist hysteria by the state, might
support the "limited" use of biological weapons.  I can also envision
circumstances in which there might be massive resistance to such an effort.
It is entirely possible,  however, that first the US military would use the
biological weapons that it has  developed and then it would deny using them
and perhaps blame the "other  side".   In other words, the first the
citizens of  this country might know about  a large-scale deployment of
biological  (or chemical) weapons is after the fact when Genie is out of the

In solidarity, Jerry

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