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Economic and Technological Determinism

By Professor Matias Vernengo

A while ago now I discussed technological determinism, and the existence of economic laws, even if not in the same sense that in the so-called hard sciences. This semester I’m teaching a class for first year students (non Econ majors, to clarify for those outside the US) titled somewhat facetiously ‘From Fire to Uber.’ In fact, the first reading is Heilbroner’s 1967 paper discussed in the first link provided above, on whether machines make history.

Bob was on the side of technological determinism. The epigraph was Marx’s famous dictum according to which: “the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” And he essentially argued that the computer (he also discussed atomic energy technology, but not biotechnology. The computer, the bomb, and DNA were all part of the immediate techno-scientific developments of the post-war period) would essentially gives us the society with the technician. In fact, reading recently David Graeber’s new book (original discussion here), on bullshit jobs, I was reminded of Bob’s prediction. Bullshit jobs are essentially the result of the ‘computer mill,’ that gives society with the bureaucrat.*

Heilbroner and almost anybody else that uses that particular citation of Marx seems to suggest that historical materialism, or Marx’s conception of history, requires technological determinism. While it is clear that the idea that the economic structure determines the cultural, political and social superstructure of society is a type of economic determinism, it is less clear to me that Marx accepted technological determinism. And as I noted in a previous post, Marx’s conception of history, even if permeated by some economicism (I seem to recall that John Kenneth Galbraith suggested that he agreed on that point with Marx, the prominence of economics, but cannot find the quote anywhere), does not imply historical determinism. Not only he has very little to say about the future of society (including communism), but also all his laws of tendency allowed for countervailing forces that could reverse the original course of events.

In that sense, Marx’s economic determinism is a sort of soft determinism, which allows for sociopolitical factors to affect economic developments. Here I’m echoing Nathan Rosenberg (pp. 61-62) who suggested long ago that “Marx’s position… cannot be reduced to a crude technological determinism.” So one may very well ask why I think that Marx’s (or Heilbroner’s) soft economic determinism does not imply technological determinism. Ultimately the reply hinges on what drives technology, which is a component of the supply side of the economy, and what drives the economy, supply side forces or demand side factors.

In my view, as stated too many times in this blog, the process of growth is demand driven. The adoption of machines (investment) in general results from the needs to adapt productive capacity to demand. In that sense, the computer and the society with the bureaucrat that it created are the result of growing economy and for the most part, as much as in the case of the society with the steam-mill, the one with the computer has been heavily dependent on the role of the state. In fact, there are few sectors in which the role of the state in the development of a technology are more evident than in the case of the computer (see here, for example), the internet and the derived technologies. Sure, I’m probably, like Bob a soft determinist, but with reverse causality.

Probably population growth (which was the main, or only, source of growing demand in pre-modern societies) and the State, and more importantly inter-State warfare, have been the driving forces for socioeconomic change, and technological developments have been the result. Of course, if the Military-Industrial Complex gives you the computer, then the computer may require the bureaucrat. So there are feedback mechanisms. It’s the proverbial chicken and egg story. But in my view, demand driven stories of growth break with the technological determinism of the mainstream (neoclassical) and certain Marxist interpretations of history.

* In Graeber’s view is not really information technology though. Bullshitization is a development of financialized or neoliberal capitalism (I’ll discuss my views on that in another post). I should add that Graeber thinks that the computer has led to a new economic mode of production that he refers to as Managerial Feudalism.

Matias Vernengo is Professor of Economics, Bucknell University, USA. This write-up was originally published on his blogroll -NAKED KEYNESIANISM. To read the original article click Here.

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