Marx on Capital, Machinery, Universality, Descartes:
From Worship to Instrumentalization of Nature

Thus, just as production founded on capital creates universal industriousness on one side—i.e. surplus labour, value-creating labour—so does it create on the other side a system of general exploitation of the natural and human qualities, a system of general utility, utilizing science itself just as much as all the physical and mental qualities, while there appears nothing higher in itself, nothing legitimate for itself, outside this circle of social production and exchange. Thus capital creates the bourgeois society, and the universal appropriation of nature as well as of the social bond itself by the members of society. Hence the great civilizing influence of capital; its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry. For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production. In accord with this tendency, capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship, as well as all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life. It is destructive towards all of this, and constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, the all-sided development of production, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces.

— Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Notebook IV (1857-8)

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This portion of value which is added by the machinery, decreases both absolutely and relatively, when the machinery does away with horses and other animals that are employed as mere moving forces, and not as machines for changing the form of matter. It may here be incidentally observed, that Descartes, in defining animals as mere machines, saw with eyes of the manufacturing period, while to eyes of the middle ages, animals were assistants to man, as they were later to Von Haller in his “Restauration der Staatswissenschaften.” That Descartes, like Bacon, anticipated an alteration in the form of production, and the practical subjugation of Nature by Man, as a result of the altered methods of thought, is plain from his “Discours de la Méthode.” He there says: “Il est possible (by the methods he introduced in philosophy) de parvenir à des connaissances fort utiles à la vie, et qu’au lieu de cette philosophie spéculative qu’on enseigne dans les coles, on en peut trouver une pratique, par laquelle, connaissant la force et les actions du feu, de leau, de lair, des astres, et de tous les autres corps qui nous environnent, aussi distinctement que nous connaissons les divers métiers de nos artisans, nous les pourrions employer en même façon à tous les usages auxquels ils sont propres, et ainsi nous rendre comme maîtres et possesseurs de la nature” and thus “contribuer au perfectionnement de la vie humaine.” [It is possible to attain knowledge very useful in life and, in place of the speculative philosophy taught in the schools, one can find a practical philosophy by which, given that we know the powers and the effectiveness of fire, water, air, the stars, and all the other bodies that surround us, as well and as accurately as we know the various trades of our craftsmen, we shall be able to employ them in the same manner as the latter to all uses to which they are adapted, and thus as it were make ourselves the masters and possessors of nature, and thus contributing to the perfection of human life.] In the preface to Sir Dudley North’s “Discourses upon Trade” (1691) it is stated, that Descartes’ method had begun to free Political Economy from the old fables and superstitious notions of gold, trade, &c. On the whole, however, the early English economists sided with Bacon and Hobbes as their philosophers; while, at a later period, the philosopher [. . .] of Political Economy in England, France, and Italy, was Locke.

— Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One; Chapter Fifteen: Machinery and Modern Industry, footnote 27


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