Karl Marx on Technology, Economy and Society


This is the seventh of a set of twelve course notes written in 1993 and revised across 1994 and 1995 for Technology and Human Existence, a half-semester first year option on the philosophy of technology.

The structure and much of the substance of these notes have been adapted from lectures notes prepared by C.A. Hooker and J.N. Wright for the course “Technology and Human Values,” offered in 1991 by the Department of Philosophy at the University of Newcastle. Indeed, although he would disagree with my assessment of, e.g., Ellul, the general idea of a course on the philosophy of technology is one of several I owe to Hooker.

Marx’s Conception of Technological Capacity and Economic Organisation as Constraining the Development and Implementation of Ideas and Values

There can be no doubt that in modern society technological change is the order of the day, that it has become an endemic feature of modern life. This fact is actually quite extraordinary; it is indeed one of several features which make contemporary society quite different from all previous human societies. Previous societies have tended to be rather static affairs where technological change has been slow and sporadic.1 But in our society one new technology follows another, and we have come to accept this as about as inevitable as sunrise and sunset. So it is clearly important for an understanding of how our society functions that we should be able to give some account of the nature of technological change in our society. In particular, we need to know what causes technological change in our society and what effects such change causes in turn. As one might expect, all sorts of different people have various accounts of the nature of technological change. In this and the next set of notes, I want to start looking at one thinker whose views on the relations between technology, economy and society have been very influential. This thinker is Karl Marx.

But before I turn to Marx specifically, let me make some quite general observations. There are at least two questions one can raise about technological change:-

  1. What in general causes technological change?

  2. What causes technological change to be so rapid and so endemic in modern society?

These are clearly different questions, so we need to distinguish them clearly. It seems to me that there can only be a very simple answer, or rather answers, to the first question. When we ask what causes technological change, we can be asking one of two things. Either we are asking where new technologies come from. Or we are asking what causes new technologies to become widely accepted and used in a society. Evidently, before we can answer either of these questions, we need to know what is meant by technology. As we have seen, Mesthene defines technology as “the organisation of knowledge for practical purposes.”2 This very abstract but surely in and of itself acceptable definition seems to imply that any particular technology is a certain kind of process that consists of a series of actions performed by some person or persons, which series is designed and structured around achieving a distinct practical goal and involves this person or persons using machines, tools, utensils and/or instruments in certain skilled and knowledgeable ways. Thus, if we take the first question as asking where new technologies come from, then we get a very simple answer: persons or groups of persons cause technological change, since it is people or groups of people who invent new technologies. And if we take the first question as asking how new technologies come to be accepted and widely used in society, then surely here, too, we get a simple answer: new technologies come to be accepted and widely-used in a society as more and more of those who have the power to introduce the new technology come to see that introducing this new technology will help them to solve certain practical problems.

These answers are so simple that they show the first question to be rather uninteresting. The second question is actually much more meaty, and it is the one I want to address here. Now to this second question two kinds of “commonsense” answer tend to be given:-

Answer 1: Technological change is so rapid and so endemic in modern society because in modern society people are fascinated by new technology.

Answer 2: Technological change is so rapid and so endemic in modern society because it is a market society.

But how adequate are these answers? Consider the first one. There can be no doubt that people in modern society are fascinated by the latest gadgets, so much so that they cannot wait to get their hands on them. It is also true that people by and large believe that new technology gives them, as Buckminster-Fuller put it, “… more-and-more for less-and-less … .”3 Clearly, if this is the true, the very psychology of people in modern society will constitute a powerful force for technological innovation and change. But just what is this powerful psychological force? Is it perhaps just the innate human fascination for new and better ways of attaining the kinds of goal they regard as important? That there is such a fascination can be seen from the accounts of first encounters between Europeans and other peoples. Almost without exception, these peoples were impressed by the Europeans’ greater technological power. But is this more or less universal human trait sufficient to generate rapid technological change? Surely not. For it is one thing to be impressed or even fascinated by something, it is quite another to be so impressed, so fascinated that one will oneself do anything to have it. Clearly, only an unrestrained fascination of the latter kind would generate rapid and endemic technological change—as is shown precisely by the fact that the peoples whom the Europeans encountered and impressed with their technology were technologically less powerful and were not so impressed that they immediately sought to adopt European technology. Surely, if the universal human interest in new and better ways of doing things were sufficient to generate rapid technological progress, then it would have done so not just in Europe, but elsewhere, too. And if it were sufficient to generate such progress, then surely less technologically powerful peoples would have fallen over themselves trying to copy the Europeans.4 So it looks as though the fascination with technology which generates rapid technological change in modern society must be distinctively modern in its obsessiveness. It must itself be a feature of modern society. And this means that while it must certainly exacerbate our society’s tendency to permanent technological revolution, it is not itself the ultimate cause of this tendency, but rather just another and related effect of what really causes this tendency.

So how about the second answer? This answer can be understood in two ways. Firstly, it can be understood as the claim that the free market and competition as such make technological improvement rapid and endemic. Now this does not seem to be right. There would not seem to be anything about the market or economic competition as such which makes it somehow imperative for players in the marketplace to continually be on the lookout for new technologies. This is shown by the fact that in earlier civilisations there have been quite extensive markets and quite extensive economic competition, yet in these societies there was no pronounced drive or tendency toward technological improvement. The market and economic competition as such would not seem to predispose a society to technological change. Of course, if a firm or company should see an opportunity to improve its economic position by investing in new technology, and if it has the necessary capital, then it will presumably invest in new technology. Indeed, firms may sometimes find themselves forced to invest in new technology simply in order to maintain themselves. But there is no reason why market forces should not just as often make it advisable or even imperative for firms to resist or avoid technological change. After all, investing in new technology is often an expensive commitment which often brings no return for quite some years; to this extent, it can actually make firms more vulnerable, especially if they are mistaken about the advantages the new technology will bring. Of course, if one firm should introduce new technology which gives it a competitive edge, other firms will eventually follow suit; this process will eventually result in an overall rise in the level of technological sophistication within the relevant sectors of the economy. The classic example of this is, at least in recent times, the use of the computer; once a few firms had them, they all had to have them. But clearly, the logic of this process does not imply any ceaseless search for new technologies.

But secondly, this answer can be understood as saying that rapid increases in, or an intense level of, free-market competition tends to make technological improvement a recurring imperative for players in the market-place. That is, it can be understood as claiming that when competition greatly increases or intensifies, the pressure to improve technology will also increase and intensify. For example, at the moment firms all round the world are experiencing increased competition as a result of the widening and internationalisation of the market place, a development which technological advance has itself made possible. More firms than ever before are competing for the same customers, and some of them have great advantages because they are located in countries where they can pay low wages, are not required to meet high standards of work safety and have a workforce which is prepared to work very hard for low wages. Consequently, those firms which are located in countries where wage cuts and reduction of work safety are not possible can only remain competitive by their improving productivity through technological change. This example shows how economic competition can allow technological innovation to become so rapid and endemic.

But is this account adequate? A number of things suggest that it is not as adequate or as evidently true as it first seems. Firstly, the example given to confirm this account does not in all strictness show what it is meant to. It does not show that increases in competition of themselves create a pressure for technological improvement. Rather, it only shows that such increases create pressure for technological improvement if external factors permit no other response but technological improvement. In the example, for instance, it was claimed that under conditions of intense competition firms would attempt to improve their technology if they could not cut wages and conditions. But it is almost never the case that external factors so constrain a firm that technological improvement is the only option available to it. Generally, there are all sorts of ways in which firms can respond to increased competition; they do not just have the choice of cutting wages and conditions or improving technology. They can, for example, do what Australian business did for many years, namely, pressure the government into introducing tariffs. Or they can do what some Australian businesses are threatening to do today, namely, move off-shore. Or they can merge to form larger, more economically powerful and internationally effective organisations, as when Campbells took over Arnotts. Or they can cooperate with their employees to improve the overall efficiency of their existing techniques, a strategy currently being employed by many Australian firms, e.g., Dulux paints. Or they can diversify into new fields, as BHP has done in response to decline in the steel industry.5 In fact, if in response to increased or intensified competition a firm could not embark upon one of these or some other alternatives, then it would surely not be able to respond to this increased or intensified competition by engaging in technological improvement. For of all possible responses, technological change is surely one of the slowest and most costly. And it is presumably also one of the least effective because if a given firm can adopt new technology in response to new competitors, then presumably so, too, can one of these new competitors themselves—in which case the problem simply returns.

Secondly, this argument does not show how technological change could become endemic to modern society, and thus it does not explain how technological change could be an all-pervasive and inevitable fact of life in modern society. For on this account, once competition decreases or slackens, the pressure to improve technologically should slacken off, too. But the pace of technological change need not falter even if in the economy the level of competition dropped off for a considerable period of time. Indeed, World War Two brought with it an accelerated rate of technological change which continued on after the war had ended yet this surge of technological innovation had little to do with high or accelerating levels of competition in the economy either during or after the war.6

These considerations show that it is not quite so easy to explain as one might first think where the apparently chronic thirst of modern society for new technologies comes from. In my fourth set of notes I gave a simplified account of Jacques Ellul’s conviction that this thirst arises as a structural feature of technological society itself once this latter has reached a certain critical mass of complexity. Basically, the idea was that in the highly complex, technological environments which the large-scale technological systems of modern society have themselves generated, the individual systems intermesh with one another better, and thus survive better, if they are continually mindful of their current performance and always on the lookout for ways of improving their performance. Clearly, if this is true, then they will be chronically predisposed to embrace technological improvement, just as they will be chronically disposed to improve the efficiency of their existing techniques. We have here a theory according to which it is not capitalist economic relations themselves which cause modern society’s thirst for new technology; rather, it is the tightly interwoven web of large-scale, complex technological systems itself which has resulted out of the development of these economic relations.

In this set of notes and the next I want to reflect a little on this idea that capitalism is not directly responsible for modern society’s incessant demand for technological expansion and improvement, yet, given the way it actually developed, led to something which does generate this demand. I want to begin by looking at some ideas from a person whose influence on this century can hardly be doubted, namely, Karl Marx. Marx was born in Trier, Germany, in 1818 and died in London in 1883. Marx and his friend Friedrich Engels, who lived from 1820 to 1895, were the founding fathers of Marxism and Communism. All their doctrines were of course mobilised around the goal of social and political revolution; these doctrines were to provide the intellectual tools which the working classes would need in order to recognise and exploit the opportunities for radical change presented by crises within the existing capitalist system. But it is possible to abstract central Marxist doctrines from their political and ideological framework and to treat them as theories of society and social change in their own right. This is what I want to do here.

One of Marx’s central concerns was to give an account of what made societies tick, and in particular, of what led to the revolutionary overthrow of one society and its replacement by another. This account went by the name of historical materialism, and its basic ideas are presented in extremely compressed form in the reading from Marx that I have given you. This reading is one of Marx’s most well-known texts, namely, the Preface to his Critique of Political Economy, written in London in 1859. The Preface is in part biographical; it not only sketches Marx’s account of society and social change, it also indicates very briefly how he came to it, namely, through a critical rethink of his previous philosophical and political positions. In particular, Marx mentions his critical revision of something called the Hegelian philosophy of right. Marx is referring to a work by the German philosopher Hegel entitled the Philosophy of Right. So who is Hegel?

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel lived from 1770 to 1831 and was one of the truly great philosophers; his impact upon European and indeed world culture cannot be underestimated. One of the many ways in which his thought has shaped modern thought is precisely through Marxism. Hegel believed amongst many other things that social institutions and practices had an inherent tendency to base or ground themselves less and less on contingent, irrational myths and religious beliefs and more and more on rational phenomena, specifically, the rights and duties which necessarily accrue to any being capable of self-conscious thought. These rights included, of course, those things which today we call human rights: freedom of religion, freedom to choose one’s own occupation, freedom of speech and opinion. And the duties included such things as participation in society in ways appropriate to one’s abilities, respect for the fundamentally rational character of social institutions and thus a responsible use of the freedoms one had as a self-conscious, thinking being. Now clearly, if you believe this, then you can also interpret the successive forms of human society, e.g., the societies of antiquity, medieval society, early modern society and finally modern industrial society, as progressively more rational forms of social order; each form of society will seem to you to represent a particular level in “a … universal development of the human mind”7, to borrow a phrase from Marx’s preface (p.389). In general, you will see human history and social change as a progression of successively more rational social orders, whereby the motor of this progression is an intrinsic tendency on the part of social institutions and social practices themselves to become more rational. As social institutions and practices move towards greater rationality, they initiate processes of social change which destroy old social orders and replace them by new and more rational ones, until finally the process ends in a social order whose basic principles satisfy reason. To see things this way is evidently to see history itself as a fundamentally rational process.

Marx came to disagree with this very fundamentally. He rejected any suggestion that the social institutions and practices had an inherent tendency to ground themselves more and more on the idea that their fundamental task was to protect the rights of free, self-conscious individuals, and to secure the fulfilment of their duties. And he rejected the idea that the different societies and their institutions could be seen as different stages in “a … development of the human spirit.” But this is not to say that he thought there were no forces underlying social change which tended to push human history in a certain direction. Where Hegel thought that history and fundamental social change were driven by the underlying goal of a society organised on principles of reason, Marx thought that they were driven by conflicts arising between a society’s forces of production (Produktivkräfte) and its relations of production (Produktionsverhältnisse).

By a society’s forces of production Marx meant the technological means, land and natural resources available to humans for securing their material existence at a given stage in their history. By a society’s relations of production Marx in fact meant the property relations within which individuals must secure their material existence. It would, however, be more accurate to say that by the relations of production Marx primarily meant the relations of control over the established means of production, i.e., over the various institutions and activities through which humans drew the necessities and luxuries of life from nature. But because Marx always assumed that ultimately, control of the means of production was a function of ownership, he could simply identify the two: if you own, you control, and if you control in any non-derivative sense, you own. Ultimately, only the owners on the means of production could ultimately determine such things as what they were used to produce, to what end they were employed, where they were set up, who benefited from their operation and in what way, and so on. Given this assumption, the relations of production in a society must indeed be its property relations. Marx is thus only being consistent when he says that the expression “property relations” is just a legal term for the relations of production (see p.389, Preface).

Different forms of society are distinguished by different kinds of property relation, that is, by differences in the kind of property which is essential to the society’s functioning properly. Thus, where a society is essentially based on slave-ownership, you have a slave society. Where it is based on a system of serfdom, you have a feudal society. And where it is based of some people selling their labour power, you have a capitalist society. These three kinds of society, which were the only ones which in Marx’s day had actually existed, are all different kinds of class society. This is because in these societies there are differential property relations. That is, in these societies, some own, hence control, while others do not own, hence do not control, the productive forces.

Now according to Marx, the most basic level of a society was its productive process, that is, the sum total of the activities through which members secure their material survival, and thus the survival of the society as a whole. Crudely put, a society’s productive process, its social process of production, is simply its forces of production plus its relations of production. That is to say, in any society certain relations of production or property relations organise or order the forces of production into a social process of producing, distributing and consuming goods. Against Hegel Marx insisted that the social and political relations of a society, nor its religion, science and culture, alone determined the identity and character of a society. Rather, the particular social process of production which was dominant within it set limits to what could be thought and meaningfully acted upon, i.e., implemented.

Thus, in order to understand what a given society is and why it is as it is, one should not look to its social and political structures or to its previous religious, scientific and cultural development, but rather to its economic process of production and how this has developed and unfolded. For the most basic level of any society is that at which it is a system of activities through which members of society secure the material means of their survival. In fact, this social process of production is so basic that in one of his writings Marx describes it as the “metabolism” of society. All other levels of society are dependent on this economic process, while this most basic level is, at least “… in the last instance …”,8 independent of the others. A society’s legal and political system, for instance, will be a function of what kind of system it is economically. But its economic system will not be a function of its legal and political system. If the relations of production or property relations which structure a society’s productive process are feudal, then its laws and political system will reflect this fact. Certain kinds of law and certain kinds of political organisation would appear to be appropriate, others inappropriate, for feudal property relations, and if you have feudal property relations, then you are restricted to legal and political systems which are compatible with it. This is what Marx means when he says that the totality of the relations of production, which form the economic structure of society, are “… the real foundation on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.” (p.389, Preface) According to Marx, the way a society’s production is organised by its property relations “… determines the entire social, political and intellectual process of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being …”, that is, how they exist, “… but, on the contrary, their being which determines their consciousness.” (p.389, Preface) People are constrained and influenced not merely in their actions, but also in their very thinking, by the kinds of productive process and property relation into which they are borne and which are independent of their will.

In Marx’s opinion, social change and indeed social revolution come about not simply when sufficiently many people agree that a change would a good thing, but only when the forces of production come into conflict with the relations of production, i.e., with the existing ways of organising and conducting production and exchange, in other words with existing property relations. What Marx means here is that as technological improvements and inventions are taken up into the process of production, the entire productive apparatus so expands and develops that the existing property relations within which production takes place become increasingly inappropriate. Thus, the development of technologies such as double entry bookkeeping and bills of exchange led to the rise of cities in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance; a prosperous and powerful class of mercantile capitalists arose for which there was no defined place in feudal society. By the end of the sixteenth century these technologies had allowed this class to become so large and powerful that its members were competing with the old feudal aristocracy for political influence9 and the old feudal order was in severe decline, especially in Italy and England. Increasingly, as their power increased, members of this class began to demand the abolition of feudal privileges and to promulgate ideas that not blood, but property acquired through diligent labour made a person worthy of a say in political affairs. Then, in the eighteenth century, the invention of mechanical looms and steam engines transformed vast numbers of dispossessed peasants into the first industrial workers and created the first industrial middle class. This sealed the final victory of those property relations upon which modern, industrial capitalism rests. The victory of these property relations found political expression in the French Revolution, which eliminated the last remnants of feudalism and proclaimed the liberty and equality of all human beings; an entire new social and political culture had arisen. This whole development represents in Marx’s opinion a classic case of how improvements in the forces of production create a new kind of property relation within the womb of existing property relations which, as the forces of production continue to expand, eventually asserts itself over the existing property relations. As Marx puts it,

At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or—what is but a legal expression for the same thing—with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundations the entire immense superstructre (sic.) is more or less rapidly transformed. (p.389, Preface)

Here you can see clearly that according to Marx human ideas and ideals do not autonomously bring about historical change, but rather only insofar as the extension and development of the productive apparatus, amongst other things, through technological innovation, permits them to. The gradual spread of new technologies brings with it new property relations; eventually a point is reached where further expansion and application of the new technologies constitutes the total replacement of the old property relations by the new. Human ideas and ideals are not independent drivers of historical and social change but are rather the forms in which humans make sense of their social relations. Note that this is not necessarily to deny that ideas and ideals are and must be involved in the process of social revolution. The battle of ideas and ideals is the form in which humans become conscious of, and carry out, social revolution and without such ideological conflict there would be no radical social change. Nonetheless, Marx insists that when one understands society and history properly, one sees that the battle of ideas is not the original and sole cause of historical change, but rather is constrained in its operation by techno-economic organisation of society—although it must be stressed that according to Marx the process of social revolution could never complete itself without the battle of ideas and action on behalf of ideas. (This is the reason why Marx sees the need for a revolutionary political party and for revolutionary political activity.)

In general, Marx believes that the cultural institutions in which ideas and ideals are forged and debated are conditioned by the economic property relations. Thus, in any society you can expect to find ideas which legitimate the existing economic order as the one ordained by God, Reason or whatever the preferred source of legitimacy might be. And when a society finds itself in a state of transition, you will find ideas congenial to the up and coming social order locked in combat with ideas congenial to the old. This is what Marx means when he speaks of the “legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophical, in short ideological forms in which humans became aware of this conflict and fight it out.” (p.390, Preface) But these “ideological forms” are not the causal origins of social change; according to Marx, a non-ideological, ‘scientific’ understanding of history locates these origins in the generation and resolution of conflicts between existing property relations and a productive apparatus which has outgrown them. Expansion of this productive apparatus through technological innovation first calls forth new property relations and then, as it extends and progresses, sets these new relations in conflict with the old. As we have seen, certain kinds of property relation correspond to certain kinds of class society, e.g., slave society, feudal society and capitalist society. The conflict between old and new property relations which drives human history will thus be a class struggle. Thus it is that Marx and Engels could begin the Communist Manifesto with their famous claim that all history hitherto has been the history of class struggle.

Now Marx goes on to use his account of society and social change to make a few predictions about the future course and fate of modern capitalist society. According to Marx, the productive apparatus will continue to expand. At the same time the logic of capitalist property relations will lead the system itself into increasingly severe “boom-and-bust” cycles and reduce the working classes to poverty.10 This process of impoverishment will lead the working class to rise up in revolt and establish a socialist society in which all own, hence control, the means of production. Because in a socialist society all will be workers, socialist society will differ from all previous forms of human society in that everyone will stand in the same relation to the means of production. Consequently, socialist society will give everyone an equal say in the running of the productive process upon which all society is built. It will thus overcome exploitation of one human by another and there will be no antagonisms intrinsic to the process of production itself (see p.390, Preface). In short, there will be no inbuilt antagonism between some who profit from, and some who are disadvantaged by, the existing relations of production.

Thus, there will be no need for the state to play the role which according to Marx it has thus far always played, namely, the role of protecting the currently dominant property relations from those who are disadvantaged by them. Thus, under socialism, the state will find that it could re-conceive and even eventually gradually scale down such institutions as the police force, the penal system and the military. For these have always been used to protect the existing system either against outright social revolt or against the subtle kind of protest underlying certain kinds of criminal activity, for example, in the black ghettoes of America. Indeed, Engels spoke of how the state, as an organ for meting out punishments and disciplining malcontents, would gradually “wither away”. Once the state has “withered away”, socialist society will have transformed itself into a truly communist one, that is, into a society which operates according to the principle “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

I have only mentioned this latter part of Marx’s theory for the sake of completeness. For in the present context this aspect of Marxism is not important. Obviously, with regard to this aspect one can only say that things have not worked out as Marx thought they would. What is of interest for us here is Marx’s theory of the mechanism of social change itself and in particular, the relation between technology, capitalist property relations and the market which underlies it. Marx’s theory is in fact a subtle combination of two kinds of deterministic theories of society, namely, technological and economic determinism.

Technological determinism is the idea that a society’s technology determines its social, political and economic structures, while these latter do not fundamentally determine its technology. Thus, when people only had very limited technologies for ploughing and tilling the soil, e.g., hoes or ox-driven ploughs, their society could only be a simple agrarian one. But when the water-mill was invented in the late Middle Ages, people were able to form larger villages with more complex political and economic structures. But they could not have had very large cities or highly centralised social and political systems. This had to wait until the introduction of the steam engine. Only with the steam engine did really large cities and large-scale industrial society become possible. Indeed, the steam engine changed human life in a hitherto unprecedented way. Its widespread use meant that people had to work away from home in factories, the family had to adjust to its members being away from home for long periods, children had to be educated in new ways and so on.

Economic determinism, on the other hand, is the idea that economic factors determine the boundaries and forms of implementation for social, political and even technological systems. That is, the kind of economic system a society has will set the background conditions which constrain what social and political structures and even technologies it implements and how. Thus, if a society is organised along capitalist lines, it will have a legal and political system in which the right to private property and protection of property will be central tenets. Similarly, if a society has, say, plenty of cheap manual labour but not much cheap metal, then these economic considerations will most likely determine that its technology is labour intensive with a low level of mechanisation. If, on the other hand, labour costs are high in a certain society, then it will tend to opt for higher levels of mechanisation. In general, economic considerations will determine which of the range of technologies science offers us is actually implemented.

Clearly, both these kinds of determinism capture certain important truths about human society in general. Nonetheless, neither of them can be true on their own and in any strict sense. For they are easily refuted when one interprets as a strict causal relation the one-way connection they postulate between either technology or economic conditions and the rest of society. If the one-way connection between technology and society is taken very strictly, for example, then technological determinism must maintain that if two different societies have the same kind of technology, then they must have at least roughly identical social, political and possibly even religious institutions. If there is any significant difference, this can only be a temporary affair which further social development will eventually eradicate. But this is surely false; societies with more or less the same technology yet significantly different social institutions are conceivable and indeed have actually existed, e.g., modern European societies and modern Islamic societies like Saudi Arabia. Such a strict technological determinism must also maintain that other factors, e.g., the economic, do not significantly determine the shape of a society’s technology. Yet the falsity of this is shown by the examples used to illustrate economic determinism.

But structurally identical arguments can be launched against economic determinism. If the one-way connection between economic relations and society is taken very strictly, then economic determinism must maintain that if two different societies have the same kind economic relations, then they must have at least roughly identical social, political and possibly even religious institutions. If there is any significant difference, this, too, can only be a temporary affair which further social development will eventually eradicate. But the example of modern European societies and modern Saudi Arabia also shows that this strong claim is false, too. Strict economic determinism must also maintain that other factors, e.g., the technological, political or religious, do not significantly shape economic conditions and relations. And this, too, is false. New technologies alter and expand the range of choices at issue in economic decisions; social, political and religious forces can promote or curb certain kinds of economic development on either a small scale, e.g., the social and political campaign against smoking, which has significantly weakened and restructured the tobacco industry; or on a large scale, e.g., the victory of the Chinese Communists in 1948, which effectively curbed the development of capitalist economic relations in China.

Marx was of course fully aware of these kinds of problem. Nonetheless, he quite plausibly insisted that the mass of technical equipment available to a society and the way this mass of equipment is organised and set in motion, i.e., the society’s economic or property relations, were somehow prior to all other social structures and institutions. In short, a society’s technology and its economic system are somehow intimately connected with one another; moreover, these two things together shape in some sufficiently weak sense the other aspects of society. This conviction is what underlies Marx’s frequent claims that the proper study of society and history must begin with the material conditions under which humans reproduce and maintain their societies. It also illustrates the point I made above, namely, Marx’s theory of society and social change combines a certain kind of technological determinism with a certain kind of economic determinism. In the next set of notes, I will examine this subtle combination a little more and use it to address the problem of why technological change is so endemic to modern society.


  1. See Winner, Autonomous Technology, pp.73-74.

  2. p.158, in Teich, i.e., p.27 A of the Readings.

  3. p.152, in Teich, i.e., p.24 A of the Readings.

  4. Note that where technologically less powerful peoples did eventually start falling over themselves to copy the Europeans, things took off in a big way. Thus, in Japan, after the Meiji restoration in 1868 ended several hundred years of positive resistance to Western ways and technology, Japan became so determined to copy Western technology that 37 years later she was able to defeat a European power, namely, Russia, in modern naval battle.

  5. Of course, precisely in its steel operations BHP has also set out to lift its game technologically.

  6. It no doubt had a lot to do with the period of intense competition between the capitalist and communist countries known as the Cold War. But precisely because this was a competition between two different economic systems, it was not an economic competition, a competition of conflicting market forces, but rather a political, military and indeed technological competition.

  7. The word “mind” translates the German word “Geist”. This is a bad translation; “spirit” would be better.

  8. This is the crucial phrase from a well-known letter written by Engels on January 25th, 1894, to one W.Borgius—see p. 605, Ausgewählte Werke—Marx/Engels, Bd.VI, Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1985.

  9. Indeed, one representative of the old feudal order, the Holy Roman Emperor, found himself embarrassingly in debt to one very powerful representative of this new commercial class, namely, Jakob Fugger.

  10. Although these predictions have turned out to be wrong, the second was certainly a plausible hypothesis at the time. For in his major work, Das Kapital, Marx collected much empirical evidence to show that in the first 100 years of industrialisation, the health and living standard of the lower classes had actually declined. Later Marxists have tried to save Marx from complete empirical refutation by claiming that in a certain sense the impoverishment he predicted has indeed taken place, namely, amongst the peoples of the former European colonies, i.e., of the Third World.