technology as fetish marx, latour, and the cultural foundations of capitalism.pdf

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  • Theory, Culture & Society

    2014, Vol. 31(4) 119140

    ! The Author(s) 2013Reprints and permissions:

    DOI: 10.1177/0263276413488960


    Technology as Fetish:Marx, Latour, and theCultural Foundationsof Capitalism

    Alf HornborgLund University


    This article discusses how the way in which post-Enlightenment humans tend to

    relate to material objects is a fundamental aspect of modern capitalism. The difficul-

    ties that conventional academic disciplines have in grasping the societal and political

    aspect of technology stem from the predominant Cartesian paradigm that distin-

    guishes the domain of material objects from that of social relations of exchange. This

    Cartesian paradigm has constrained the Marxian analysis of capital accumulation from

    extending the concept of fetishism to the domain of technology. Both Marxian and

    mainstream thought represent technological objects as empowered by their intrinsic

    properties, which derive from human ingenuity and tend to progress over time. To

    transcend this paradigm will be possible only through the kind of post-Cartesian

    perspective on material artefacts that has been championed by Bruno Latour.

    However, Latours own neglect of technological systems as social strategies of

    exploitation reflects his lack of concern with global inequalities.


    capitalism, Cartesian objectivism, fetishism, Latour, Marx, technology


    This article discusses how the specic way in which post-Enlightenmenthumans tend to relate to material objects is a fundamental aspect ofmodern capitalism. On one hand, it argues that the rationale of mostnew technologies since the Industrial Revolution has been to appropriateand redistribute (human) time and (natural) space embodied labourand embodied land in the world-system. The concept of time-spaceappropriation thus oers a way to dene and even quantify asymmetric

    Corresponding author:

    Alf Hornborg, Lund University.


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  • global ows of resources that are fundamental to the accumulation ofphysical capital. On the other hand, it argues that the diculties thatconventional academic disciplines have in grasping this societal and pol-itical aspect of technology stem from the predominant Cartesian para-digm that distinguishes the domain of material objects from that of socialrelations of exchange. This Cartesian paradigm has constrained theMarxian analysis of capital accumulation from extending the conceptof fetishism to the domain of technology. Instead, Marxian discourse isgenerally aligned with mainstream thought in representing technologicalobjects as empowered by their intrinsic properties, which derive fromhuman ingenuity and tend to progress over time. The historical andcontemporary mystication of the exploitative aspects of many moderntechnologies thus ultimately implicates their cultural dimension.

    Technological progress emerges as a cultural concept reecting thehistorical experience of privileged sectors of world society. Paradoxically,the modern (Cartesian) aspiration to achieve power over objects (andobjectied Nature) has generated an unprecedented human submissionto objects. I shall argue that the Marxian concept of fetishism remainssupremely useful as a way of understanding the political economy ofhuman-object relations, but that its (crucial) extension to a reconceptua-lization of modern technological systems will be possible only throughthe kind of post-Cartesian perspective on material artefacts that has beenchampioned by Bruno Latour. It appears, on the other hand, thatLatours own inability to recognize technological systems as social stra-tegies of exploitation, while obviously not due to epistemological con-straints, reects his lack of concern with global inequalities of economy,technology, and environment.1

    The article thus aims to reconnect the discourse on fetishism, themain thrust of which has become largely restricted to exploring per-sonal phenomenologies of aesthetic or sensuous experience (cf. Apterand Pietz, 1993; Spyer, 1998; Mitchell, 2005), to a general critique ofglobal capitalist relations. The ambition here is not to attempt to reviewthe voluminous discourses on fetishism, animism, epistemology, magic,materiality, technology, or consumption, but to bring together a fewessential insights from these various topics to suggest new ways ofilluminating some cultural dimensions of modernity and capitalism.More specically, the goal is to combine some relevant perspectivesfrom cultural anthropology with perspectives from political economy,world-system analysis, and ecological economics in order to defamil-iarize (Marcus and Fischer, 1986) our everyday understanding of tech-nology. Intended primarily as a theoretical contribution, the discussiononly occasionally touches on empirical anthropological reference-points, ranging from early British textile factories and the Ludditemovement to indigenous Amazonian animism and ancientAndean ritual.

    120 Theory, Culture & Society 31(4)

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  • Expanding the Marxian Concept of Fetishism

    Karl Marx (1867: 1645) famously observed that relations betweenpeople in capitalist society assume the form of relations between things:

    [T]he relationships between the producers . . . take on the form of asocial relation between the products of labour. . . . It is nothing butthe denite social relation between men themselves which assumeshere, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. Inorder, therefore, to nd an analogy we must take ight into themisty realm of religion. There the products of the human brainappear as autonomous gures endowed with a life of their own,which enter into relations both with each other and with thehuman race. So it is in the world of commodities with the productsof mens hands.

    The fetishism of money and commodities thus obscures the social foun-dation of these objects, as a result of the alienating split between peopleand the products of their labour. It simultaneously animates such things,by attributing to them autonomous value, productivity, or growth. Todeconstruct fetishized human-object relations such as these, in order toreveal underlying social asymmetries, can be a powerfully subversive ana-lytical strategy. It helps us to understand phenomena as diverse as thepervasive desire for consumer goods and the violence of physical sabotage(iconoclasm). Ultimately, it provides a radically alternative perspective onthe economic, political, and environmental inequalities of global society.

    In order to seriously challenge those global inequalities, we wouldhave to open our eyes to the social relations underlying modern technol-ogies. Modern technological objects (here referred to as machines2) arebasically also inanimate things attributed with autonomous productivityor even agency, obscuring their own foundation in asymmetric globalrelations of exchange. Over the past 20 years I have been arguing that theMarxian concept of fetishism can be extended from our understanding ofmoney and commodities to explain how we tend to be deluded bymodern technologies (Hornborg, 1992, 2001a, 2001b, 2009, 2011). Allthree categories of objects (money, commodities, and machines) arefetishes in the sense that they mystify unequal relations of exchange bybeing attributed autonomous agency or productivity. The mainstreaminterpretation of modern technology, however, is that it is an index ofhuman progress over time, even as a gift to humanity from the wealthiernations of the world. This view of technology qualies as a world viewin Kearneys (1984) sense. As it is fundamental even to a Marxian per-spective, it poses a peculiar contradiction to social science drawing onMarxs analysis of capital: How can capital, once it assumes the form oftechnology, become exempt from political critique?3

    Hornborg 121

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  • An alternative and more critical interpretation is that modern technol-ogy is largely an index of accumulation, rather than ingenuity in itself,and that its capacity to locally save time and space occurs at the expenseof (human) time and (natural) space lost elsewhere in the world. This canbe illustrated by calculations showing that the Industrial Revolution inEngland was founded on time-space appropriation, a concept whichcombines the Marxian focus on the unequal exchange of embodiedlabour with more recent ecological concerns with the unequal exchangeof embodied land (Hornborg, 2006a). In selling 1000 worth of cottontextiles on the world market in 1850, and purchasing cotton bre for thesame amount, a British factory owner was able to exchange the productof a smaller number of hours of British labour for that of a largernumber of hours of less expensive (mostly slave) labour in overseascotton plantations. In terms of space, the same market transactionimplied the appropriation of the annual yield of almost 60 hectares ofinexpensive agricultural land overseas in exchange for the space occupiedby a British textile factory. This incentive to increase appropriation byexpanding production was the global context of the steam engine, andthe economic rationale underlying the shift to fossil fuels. It locally savedtime and space, but at the expense of human time and natural spaceelsewhere in the world-system.

    The rationale of mechanization is inextricably intertwined with globaldierences in the prices of