systems theory

Systems, Functions and Technological Futures

By R.C. Smith

Recently, I explored the idea of a social function operation. It takes from the basic mathematical concept of a function, with its domain and range, and extrapolates, or, in the very least, draws an analogy with social system inputs.

In systems theory, a complex society such as the modern version can be treated as a complex system of interrelated and interdependent parts. Every system has its boundaries. In speaking of modern society as a system, it is no different. A key boundary, one might argue, relates to the global economy. It sets, or defines, restrictions on the output of whatever is inputed into the function. Or, if you will, is defines a certain set of parameters on how newly inputed data or information might be realised. This input can take the form of something like a new scientific concept or technological advancement. Thinking about complex modern society in this way can evoke many interesting thoughts, or help explain many common observations.

Think, for example, of AI, or things like automation. Here we have a clear concept, which, presently, very much represents a new tangible conceptual input. But how we realise, socially, this new technology, considering that technology is mediated to whatever degree in social terms – a large part of this has to do with parameters set with respect to the boundaries of its output.

I’ve studied a lot about AI and even things like automation, from engineering and its science to the varying social philosophies. I can say that, from my current vantage, I see both developments and possible futures as incredibly positive in potential. But the key word is potential. How we realise, in terms of social formation, development and imagination is a completely independent matter from the actual science and finally also technological concept. The science, or, in the case of automation, the brilliance of the original technological and engineering concept, is inputed into the social function – the current system with its parameters and boundaries, biases, influential forces and other such variables. The output? That is precisely what is up for debate.

In my latest book, I argued toward the immense positive and transformative potential, structurally speaking, of things like automation in relation to human health, labour, and overall civilisational development. I argued for it in relation to increasing democratisation as well as in accordance with the core enlightenment and humanist values that underpin almost everything that is positive and shared in the modern age. But things like automation can also be realised in a very different way, which, as some economists and philosophers warn about, should the right direction not be pursued and the right policies not be implemented. I am not speaking of the debates around the “lump of labour“, and whether this is real or fallacy. There appears to be no question that labour markets will be disrupted, news skills and jobs will be required. A modest view is that a complete transformation of human labour is forthcoming. What I am speaking of is how we ought to conceived of this structural transformation, and whether it will fall within an increasingly exploitative, dystopian model of the future with continued trends of economic inequality; social scoring systems that measure, in effect, social worthiness of citizens; mass surveillance; and so on. Or, will such a structural transformation be realised in terms of the increase in democratisation and according to universal humanistic values of egalitarianism, justice and equality (to name a few). If the measure of social progress, from an empirical historical perspective, is based primarily on the alleviation of needless social suffering, according to what future does our present technological potential project?

This is an incredibly intriguing and important question. One need not approach it with political bias or reactionary fervous or existential anxiety. Rather, it is there to be assessed objectively. And the answer, I would be inclined to suggest, is that the future direction of human civilisation remains more ambiguous than lucid, more unclear than concise in historical aim, and more disenfranchised from ideas of progress and economic democracy than grounded in such tangible values. This assessment may be completely wrong. In the way that science represents a form of knowledge that keeps unfolding, consideration of profoundly important philosophical questions, such as those explored here, must also align with a similar epistemology.

But if one were to be inclined to sway toward the side of the cynic, such contemporary examples of a possible corporate dystopian technological future in the form of a simple “vibrational nudge”, would surely represent a quickly cited example. But with every questionable realisation of technology, and of science for that matter, there are also many examples of positive realisations. The enlightenment philosophes realised that the future is not yet determined, which gives substance to the concept that progress and things like democratic transformation are possible – that a science-based society is possible just like the abandonment of prejudices is possible.

And so I return to the idea of the social function operation.


I came across an interesting set of notes in one of my old notebooks. The notes are dated from a time when I was heavily reading and studying systems theory, beginning with the likes of Uri Bronfenbrenner,  Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy and  Niklas Luhmann. What makes the set of notes interesting is that they contain the development of an idea, a methodological concept, however much it may be in its infancy, that I continue to find fascinating. The idea is part of a broader methodological frame within complex, systems analysis: it is the concept of resolving forces. What does this mean?

From my notebook, it is clear that the notion of resolving forces is taken directly from classical physics. Working and studying in physics, it is a practice that I am very familiar with. Whether it makes sense in a social scientific context relating to the study of social phenomena and objects, is completely and entirely up for question. But let’s think about it a little bit, even if only for the purpose of entertaining an idea.

In physics, the concept of resolving forces pertains to how any vector – think of a velocity vector, for example – can be broken into its component parts. In other words, a vector can be resolved into two components at right angles to each other. The purpose for doing this, in very simplistic terms, is how by considering component forces we can quickly find what is called ‘the resultant force’. A very common and simple mathematical description is as follows.

In considering the diagram above, F is some force. The magnitude of the force, F, is illustrated with components X and Y. From this it can be determined that F = Xi + Y j. Notice we also have a right-angled triangle. Thus,

Y = F sin θ and X = F cos θ.
∴ F = F cos θi + F sin θj.
Also F = √X2 + Y2

But what if we take this idea – the concept of resolving forces – and think of how it might be (if at all) applied in the context of the study of social forces within the context of the social function operation?

Admittedly, my notes are rather rushed and therefore vague. But the phrase is to ‘treat a complex social force’ in a similar way. It is not so much political science as it is simply mathematics, inspired, I supposed, by a bit of social philosophy, looking at the structure of a certain historical development and its component forces so as to better understand, in systems terms, some form of a negative feedback loop or perhaps some form of adaption (or whatever).

systems theory
Image by Dr. James J. Kirk:

To use an example, let’s think of a popular topic in much of contemporary social science, sociology and social philosophy: neoliberalism. It seems like almost every other book to emerge from contemporary social sciences contains a critique of neoliberalism. But, in the time when I found interest in understanding the issues for researchers in relation to this term, two things consistently struck me: 1) neoliberalism is almost unanimously considered as a negative and 2), very rarely did the research look into what its frame or structuring of policies might also do well or what positive policies it might also offer. Relating to 1) and  2), rarely did I find research on what drives neoliberalism, why it developed as a social philosophy or political ideology as a historical formation of contemporary organised society outside of the purely biased views that it is an absolutely negative development. For example, why did neoliberalism emerge and what did it offer to people that might have been received as positive? What is neoliberalism responding to, not just economically, but also in terms of a wider response among social actors. Not everyone among the public body is against neoliberal policies. Or some people may support certain particular policy interventions while being critical of others. This issues, or the study of such phenomena, are often much more complex and nuanced that ‘good versus bad’ narratives. In what ways did it impact society, the economic and its many interrelated and interdependent parts that people perceived in a positive way? Balancing the negative and the positive allows one to arrive at a more honest and comprehensive picture. If, as many researchers argue, neoliberalism is a negative socioeconomic and political force, what are its positives that people accept and why? Likewise, what do people find negative? Or, what are the negative consequences?

What I am signalling is an objective analysis from every possible conceivable angle when it comes to the study of this particular social phenomenon. What does the economics say? Psychology? Sociology? Anthropology? Geography? In other words, what does a systems analysis reveal that considers all of the interrelated and interdependent dynamic parts?

What if we were to take this approach to something like automation? The socioeconomic, political and cultural development of automation would surely be found to have several or more component forces. In considering the social function operation, the science and technological concept is inputed into the social function. (We’re assuming here that the science and technological concept are primarily free of bias). Within this social function – the current system with its parameters and boundaries, biases, influential forces and other such variables – we have the domain that is the complete set of possible values of the independent variable(s). There are different social values, economic values, philosophical values, and so on. Included here are also many component forces. Many researchers claim that economic bias is one such component force. It is complex mess. But then we also have the range the function, which, simply put, is the complete set of all possible resulting values or, in this case, possible resulting socioeconoic, cultural and historical realisations.

If we can break down a social force, or potential development, in to its many components, perhaps that offers a more clear (and non-biased) empirical supplement to a general systems view of the complex economics, behavior, psychology, engineering, and even epistemology of the future possibilities of something like automation. If it is to be realised in a negative way, why would this be the case? What forces are acting on the object, or, in this case, the technological potential of automation? What values dominated in the social function operation, what does a systems analysis reveal in terms of the broader trends of present historical development? Like, the same things could be asked with respect to its positive realisation – I would assume, positive and negative are themselves defined according to a set of normative philosophical and empirical criteria. For example, the increase in equality would be considered positive. The reduction of needless social suffering, war and violence would be considered positive. The lack of democratisation, or, the contrary of democratisation, would be considered negative.

systems theory

These, of course, are just rough if not vague ideas scribbled in an old notebook. But, in the very least, I think it is interesting to think logically and rationally in these ways.

When we look at a social phenomenon objectively from all possible and conceivable angles, then it is possible, I think, where we might reach a point where we can begin to resolve forces (in a manner of speaking) so as to better understand the nuances of a particular phenomenon and its net force: what drives it? Why did it develop in this historical moment? What are its antagonisms? How does it influence subjects, such as policies, administration of governance, regional and geographic affairs, or even culturally? Who does it benefit most? What are its biases and how does this affect the mesosystem functions? Is it a matter of homestasis and thus can it be determined that it is a product of negative feedback loops, or is it a positive, rational and constructive intervention? There are many, many questions that can and should be raised.

But most importantly, perhaps something can be taken from the mathematical and physical scientific tool of resolving forces in order to conceive of a unique social scientific methodological approach for the study of resultant social forces, functions, systems and their constituent parts?

Carl Sagan once wrote in The Demon-Haunted World, “Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge… It can tell us when we’re being lied to. It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes.” In a similar way to Bertrand Russel, who I discussed in my last book, and who once remarked, “without science, democracy is impossible,” Sagan expands in his unique way: “Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it’s like democracy. Science by itself cannot advocate courses of human action, but it can certainly illuminate the possible consequences of alternative courses of action”. Democracy is not perspective. I believe physicist Brian Cox is one of his books that it is best of all possible evils, which is similar to Winston Churchill’s great quote.

In some ways, I subscribe from a historical perspective that what makes democracy to superior to the alternatives is that it fundamentally exists in tension. This tension is the product of structurally different groups each pulling in their own direction.  In fact, it has long been a hypothesis of mine that we can view the whole of democratic society in this way – it evokes the image of a tensor, but the basic idea is that there are multiple forces pulling in multiple directions. Perhaps it could even be said that democracy operates according to a system of tensions, with groups pulling as they respond to their own complaints, needs or critical assessments. The difficultly is identifying some normative critical criteria according to which the legitimate and illegitimate force of complaint might be judged. Racist, reactionary forces exist contrary to democratic, egalitarian and humanistic values – basic enlightenment values – and thus they should be judged accordingly with respect to their lack of egalitarian content (should the idea of progress remain historically important).

We could apply the same approach to the different variations on the realisation of technologies.

Where things get incredibly convoluted is when one begins to consider the sheer magnitude of bias and the input of unrelenting bias into a democratic system that ought, for the purposes of its structural healthy, be predicated on rational, evidence-based and scientific deliberations. And perhaps this is where everything comes to a head: what we have now is a very human problem.

Thus, I close with the following thought: discerning the legitimate and illegitimate requires a clear sense of objectivity as well as an unbiased normative frame of critique. It is not political analysis, I have come to learn. It simple builds from the idea of knowledge and the project of learning – like in the natural sciences, which are about the open study of nature, the social sciences should be the open study of social phenomena.

And I guess the question is, can a model be constructed that helps us accurately analyse a system of fundamental forces? What might this reveal in terms of the broad study of micro and macrosystems? How might this also influence the study of history and our understanding anthropology?

Perhaps it is another misguided attempt at translating at a mathematical and physical concept into the area of study of social phenomena. To be sure, more rigorous treatment is required. But, at least to my mind, it raises an interesting line of thinking on how one might think of breaking down social forces and future potentialities in a systematic way.


[Originally published by Heathwood Press – 27 November, 2015]

R.C. Smith, Andrew Feenberg

In this interview I’ll be talking with Andrew Feenberg. Andrew currently holds the Canada Research Chair in the Philosophy of Technology in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. Having studied philosophy under Herbert Marcuse at the University of California, San Diego, Andrew’s accomplishments in critical theory, especially in the area of philosophy of technology, speak for themselves. He has authored several key texts, including The Critical Theory of Technology (1991; republished in 2002 as Transforming Technology: A Critical Theory Revisited),Alternative Modernity: The Technical Turn in Philosophy and Social Theory (1995), andQuestioning Technology (1999). In 2014 Andrew published The Philosophy of Praxis, a review of which can be found here. You can also listen to Andrew discuss a range of issues, from Lukács’ theory of reification to contemporary social movements, by visiting this link.

Philosophy_of_Praxis_-_300dpi-4e1be764358aa9ac4fd839144b2fef0cR.C. Smith (RCS): Hi Andrew – It’s a pleasure to connect with you and talk critical theory, technology and the existing expanse of capitalist crises. (Perhaps we’ll also slip-in some discussion on contemporary movements and emancipatory politics?). I remember reading your work back when I first started my Frankfurt School studies. It strikes me how much there is still to be said about your overall contribution (to date) to the advance of critical theory. Your recent book The Philosophy of Praxis (2014), which is a revised version of an earlier text, Lukács, Marx and the Sources of Critical Theory (1981), is a wonderful testament to the sort of contribution I am talking about. In this work you essentially trace the history of critical theory as “praxis” – or, in another way, as the study and development of social-political practice. In the process, you sketch out several important arguments, illuminate one of the central problems of history, and demonstrate the continuing relevance of critical theory in relation to contemporary emancipatory struggle. It really is a fantastic accomplishment.

Given your primary academic focus is critical theory of technology, it is no surprise that a critique of technology is, in many ways, at the heart of your analysis in this book. For the unfamiliar reader, can you introduce the work and some of its key arguments? Why is it important, moving forward, to see technology as a social relation? And what’s the significance of the critique you draw with regards to the reification of science and technology?

Andrew Feenberg (AF): There is a long tradition of political theory in which technology is simply ignored. Politics is reduced to groups of people expressing their opinions. Philosophers don’t concern themselves very much with how the groups came to be and how the expression of opinion is made known to others. But these are not trivial questions.

In societies like ours many types of groups form around technologies, workers around machines and factories, medical personnel and patients around medical technologies and hospitals, students and teachers around educational technologies and schools, and so on. Even such categories as cities and neighborhoods make no sense out of the context of the communication and transportation technologies that bring their members into contact. We no longer live in a world of unmediated human relations, if we ever did.

As for the expression of opinion, it astonishes me that philosophers go on talking about politics without examining the role of the mass media. How can anyone take seriously discussions of democracy that ignore the single biggest elephant in the room, namely Donald Trump? Surely philosophers too get robo-calls and watch the news. The role of the media is now absolutely fundamental.

Technology is at the center of group and opinion formation. Philosophical arguments about politics need to be rethought with this in mind. The obstacle is the notion that technology, like science, is an expression of a non-social, purely rational relation to the objective world. This neutralizes technology and masks its political significance. A philosophy that addresses the real world must begin by criticizing this assumption. Technology is contingent on social forces as much as on scientific knowledge of nature. Society is a technological phenomenon as well as a social one, or rather, there are only social phenomena because technology is there to mediate human relations.

Making these connections is difficult for people who divide the world into “facts” and “values,” “mind” and “matter,” “society” and “nature,” and so on. These are the reified antinomies of classical philosophy, still alive and well in philosophy departments and now become common sense. The overcoming of these antinomies is the program of what I call the “philosophy of praxis.” I have taken a long time to get to the book. Perhaps I should stop here and wait for the next question to say more about it.

(RCS): There’s so much that we could pick-up on here, but let’s go back to your last comment. In relation to your book: how would you describe the potential overcoming of the reification of technology? I ask this not only with the question of politics in mind, but I’m also thinking of a particular quote by Marcuse. He writes in Children of Prometheus (1979) that: “Perhaps technology is a wound that can only be healed by the weapon that caused it: not the destruction of technology but its re-construction for the reconciliation of nature and society.” I’ve always taken this passage and those which surround it as being hopeful of the possibility of technology in relation to – or as a dimension of – an emancipatory politics. In other words, Marcuse strikes the point as you’ve just done: that the deepening of control and administration in techno-capitalist society – the deepening of a certain mode of being and technological rationality, which almost calls to mind the most despairing visions of Adorno’s notion of “totally administered society” – should be at the centre of focus of any engaged critical social philosophy. But Marcuse also leaves us with a sense of hope and possibility – a sense that we might break from this mode of organization. This hope and possibility has a clear political dimension: “the emancipation of subjectivity, of technology” and the impact it might have on “the very conception of technology itself”. How do you see this in relation to your thesis on the reification of technology and, in turn, the possible de-reification of technology? I think you would agree that the problem of technology in contemporary capitalist society relates directly to the problem of politics. What, then, of your notion of the “philosophy of praxis”? How might this relate to contemporary social movements?

(AF): I cannot answer all the questions posed here at once, so let me focus for a moment on the Marcuse quote. What can Marcuse mean by the reconciliation of man and nature? Surely he is not thinking of a return to the ways of our hunter gatherer ancestors. Isn’t any kind of technical action a violence that opposes man to nature?

One interpretation of Marcuse’s statement holds that nature needs human intervention to perfect itself. This strange teleological interpretation finds some support in several quotations Marcuse draws from Adorno. But I think both of these thinkers introduced such ideas as provocations rather than as the basis of a metaphysics. In a world where clear-cutting and mountain top removal are considered fine technologies, why not provoke a bit with the suggestion that nature longs for its perfecting through a gentler approach?

Another interpretation would argue that Marcuse’s reconciliation with nature means simply using less technology, preserving more of nature and destroying less. Certainly, he argued that many needs served by the consumer economy are “false,” which would seem to suggest that he hoped we would consume less in a socialist future. This could be interpreted as an endorsement of voluntary poverty but I don’t think Marcuse would have agreed. He was well aware of the Marxian thesis that technological advance supports the enrichment of needs and the realization of human potential. The problem isn’t the quantitative one of “over-consumption,” but the qualitative one of what to consume and how to organize consumption.

A final more promising suggestion follows from another remark in which Marcuse talks about materializing new “ends” in technology itself. This is a daring and original notion. Marcuse proposed the redesign of the whole technical system inherited from the industrial era in accordance with a conception of the good life he believed to be compatible with the well-being of the natural environment. In 1964 when he made this proposal, his ideas were widely dismissed as impossibly utopian. But today isn’t this exactly what is happening in certain domains such as energy production where technologies are being designed and redesigned to respect the climate? The point of these changes is not to achieve virtuous poverty but to “deliver the goods” in a new less destructive form. Marcuse believe such an approach impossible under capitalism. We now know that at least parts of the program can be realized without a socialist revolution. On the basis of the evidence of the last 50 years, we need to develop this aspect of Marcuse’s argument more concretely and rigorously than he was able to. That will be the revolutionary philosophy of technology he could only hint at.

(RCS): This is really nicely put, Andrew. I quite agree with your assessment regarding what a revolutionary theory of technology could hint at. There are lots of examples in and around energy. I was reading a few months ago about community-led sustainable energy projects in Spain, which certainly fit with our present discussion. Different P2P and Open Source movements also come to mind, particularly those organizing around the idea of a commons-based alternative to capitalism. “Climate friendly” and “sustainability” are commonly used terms in these movements, while non-coercive modes of organization often tend to take direct focus. Usually lots of emphasis on participation, which points back to your earlier comments on media. But one thing that strikes me is how confused more popular discourses on technology have become. Movements might recognize the problem of the reification of technology, for example; but then the response is reactionary – the complete annihilation of technology, as in the extreme example of anarcho-primitivism. On the other hand, other movements seem to recognize the same problem and then naively – or ideologically – issue hope in some abstract belief in the emancipatory potential of technology (i.e., technology has the power to fix contemporary capitalist crises). But isn’t this something you highlight in The Philosophy of Praxis: that capitalist crises are often expressed through the crisis of technology? In a sense, doesn’t the struggle for a coherent vision of post-capitalism directly relate to the struggle to conceive of the materialization of new ends in technology itself?

(AF): Confusion about technology is a result of the ambiguous status of rationality in the technical domain. Technologies are rational in the sense that they apply the laws of nature. This aspect of technology contributes to progress in some very general sense. We should all be able to approve the discovery of penicillin and electricity, regardless of politics. But at the same time progress is channelled by social forces. Thus penicillin is used in a medical system controlled by business, while electricity is generated by utilities committed to burning fossil fuels. This is the “under-determination” of technology by technical rationality. The other determinations in a capitalist society are largely a function of the requirements of capitalism, both economic and political. Other social determinations flow from national traditions, cultural traits, gender or racial discrimination, and so on.

Two typical confusions result from the complicated nature of technology. On the one hand, critics of technology may reject it as capitalist, or condemn it under some other purely social aspect, ignoring its rational aspect. That can lead to back to nature ideology. But who wants to live without penicillin and electricity? This is a non-starter. On the other hand, boosters and enthusiasts may ignore its capitalist character and promote it as purely rational, the one and only path to progress. That ignores all the alternative paths that are also technically rational and possibly better for human beings and nature.

Critical theory should imagine a path from the existing technology to a different one adapted to the requirements of a socialist society. Marcuse attempted to sketch such a path. His argument remained quite abstract. It is a framework within which one can offer an account of social movements as they concretize the demand for a better society.

The philosophical issue here which I treat in my book The Philosophy of Praxis concerns the status of rationality in the life of modern societies. There has been a lot of talk about “difference” in the identity politics of our time, but the biggest difference of all, the one that is most central to inequality and oppression, is the difference between those in command of technically rational institutions and technologies and the rest of the population.

The old Marxist arguments focused on one of these rational institutions, the market, but today we are aware of others. In fact technical rationality has spread over the whole surface of society. We live in a kind of technocracy, masked by a liberal institutional veil. The philosophers of praxis – Marx, Lukács, and the Frankfurt School – were the first to develop a critical theory of social rationality. Foucault has continued the tradition in new ways.

(RCS): Let’s stick to this line of thought for a moment. I’ve been wanting to ask you about automation, which has been a popular topic of conversation of late thanks to Paul Mason’s new book PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (2015). His argument largely fits within the tradition of Autonomist Marxist thought, contending that automation is spelling the end of capitalism: that automation is leading toward the end of capitalism insofar that capitalism is struggling to adapt. I’ve argued that his thesis lacks normativity, ignoring the capitalist character of technology. I think you would agree that automation has an emancipatory potential – it could be one dimension of a broader revolutionary politics. But in the current social context, it’s difficult to see automation as part of a generally anti-capitalist development – that is, to have explicit association with an anti-capitalist politics and rationale. If anything, it’s generally being used to further exploit, leaving thousands of people behind. One could even argue that automation is currently deepening the scarcity principle on which capitalism relies. It would be unfair to ask you to comment on Mason’s book, if you’ve not read it. Instead, would you mind sharing some thoughts on automation in relation to emancipatory politics?

(AF): Marxists have been trying to revive the law-based notion of revolution derived fromCapital for a long time, but I find all these attempts unconvincing. The political economy of capitalism is simply no guarantor of breakdown and revolution. Look what happened in 2008! Right-wing parties are now stronger than ever, while the left are barely present in the debates of advanced capitalist countries with the notable exception of Greece and perhaps Spain.

All technologies are ambivalent, subject to different paths of development. At any point in a technological trajectory a break can occur and a new path open. This depends on the political and social environment, not on the technology taken in isolation. This is as true of automation as of any other technology.

When we learned that software could record the keystrokes of data entry clerks and secretaries, and count the number of errors, we already knew enough.

Generally, I find the autonomists unrealistic in their hopeful pursuit of evidence we are in a revolutionary period. Adorno once said that, “Only the exaggerations are true.” As between Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and Empire, which exaggeration do you find truer to life?

(RCS): The historical movement has certainly proved more complicated than what Marx and Engels envisioned. I think this was a point you struck in your talk on Lukács’ Theory of Reification and Contemporary Social Movements: that capitalism is proving more than capable of managing its own deep crises.

(AF): There is a deep issue here. The theory of reification goes beyond political economy to show how bureaucracy and technology are implicated in capitalism. At the same time, this generalization of the Marxist critique seems subversive of any form of stable social structure.

Marx and Engels saw the rise of management separate from ownership as just another aspect of the division of labor, compatible with socialism. We know better now after witnessing the debasement of socialism by bureaucracy. Similarly with technology. As Marcuse argues, the unleashing of the productive forces from the restraints imposed by capitalism is insufficient; the design of technology must also be changed to remove its capitalist bias. But now we seem to have no place to stand to use the lever of revolution to move the world. We can’t rely on administration to replace markets, and technical progress is no guarantor of emancipation. At the same time, capitalism has as you say proven more agile than expected. It is reified but flexible within the invariant requirements of reproducing the capitalist system.

Lukács had a hint of the problem. There is a passage in History and Class Consciousness where he says that social structures ought to be more easily changed by struggle than they are under capitalism. He seems to imply that socialist structures would be mediators between past and future rather than obstacles to change. But what is the difference between this idea of the structure-agency relationship and the adaptive capitalist reification that currently exists? Could it be that reification in some form is an inevitable feature of modern societies?

It seems that Marxism has been focusing on the wrong target. The problem is not just capitalist ownership of the means of production per se, but the autonomy of the administration of social resources, whether it be in the private or the public sector. Capitalism creates obstacles to democratization through the pressures of the market, which reward top-down control, and the power of concentrated wealth to corrupt government, but other obstacles arise in the context of publically owned businesses and agencies. In every case the problem is not just the pressures of the market but also what I call “operational autonomy,” the independence of the administration from the influence and control of subordinates and the surrounding community.

This has been the message of some strands of Marxist theory ever since the Russian Revolution. Don’t forget that the original Bolshevik program called for a Soviet government – that is, a form of council communism. The revival of the idea of councils, called “self-management” in the May Events of 1968 in France, is a striking confirmation of the significance of this line. We need to rethink this lost path today.

(RCS): This brings up an interesting thought. Over the past year I’ve been writing about contemporary social movements and emancipatory politics. I argue that participatory, grassroots horizontal democracy is a vital underpinning for any emancipatory egalitarian project. However, in the present circumstance, an emerging binary is threatening to cement itself – a binary between horizontality and hierarchy, which seems to have a lot of people stuck (I think you’ve commented on this in the past?). Personally, I tend to see this as a false binary – that is, I don’t think it is irreconcilable or even necessary. The dilemma is that in a reified social world, political issues and conceptions of organization present themselves in reified ways. I consider party politics one example of a reified politics. Within the current representative system – that is, democratic capitalism – it seems like the issue is less about imagination and more about a struggle for transformative power. Many progressive, radical movements on the fringes of society express a lot of imagination but lack transformative power. How do we approach this problem? In a representative system it would seem that some form of representation may be required at the beginning: whether in the form of councils, a ‘delegate’ system, through radical party organization, or whatever. Do you have any thoughts on how we might conceptualize this struggle within critical theory? Personally, I’m not against the use of some form of radical party organization, so long that the hierarchy of the party is seen as temporary and normatively responsive to the grassroots.

I ask this because it leads to an interesting idea: that we have to work our way out of capitalism and its reified social relations. One of my ideas plays on Marcuse’s discussion in hisParis Lectures at Vincennes University: namely that a socialist revolution “will take a time of at least 75 to 150 years”. There is a concept that I have spent significant time considering: the concept of revolutionary transition – that emancipatory change is a many-sided, complex social-historical transformation process, if we consider the utter complexity of societal change as an “evolution [that] involves a radical transformation of the needs and aspirations themselves, cultural as well as material; of consciousness and sensibility; of the work process as well as leisure” (Marcuse again). There is also a wonderful quote by Horkheimer along similar lines. Now, to go back to your question about whether reification in some form is an inevitable feature of modern societies, I wonder if this is something that we will need to analyse in accordance with the process of revolutionary transition. Lukács’ theory is an obvious reference point: that socialist structures would be, as you put it, mediators between past and future rather than obstacles to change. The more that society transforms itself according to an egalitarian and emancipatory politics, the more its structures and systems change, and with that perhaps the more new forms and new possibilities will be revealed? Likewise, within this process, perhaps new forms of technology will be conceived; new revolutionary technological designs or redesigns will be experimented with?

The rationale I am drawing here is that I think it will take significant effort to work our way out of capitalism. I personally don’t see communism as an immediate possibility. There is a great quote by David Sherman, who, when writing on Adorno, commented along the lines that we cannot be rid of capitalism’s coercive legacy overnight. It is something that needs to be worked toward, just as the general dereification of tech needs to be worked toward. What final forms and designs will this lead us to, I don’t think any of us can say. But if, in the present, the biggest question is the need for immediate relief from precarious life, then radical reformism has just as much of an important role to play in our first steps out of capitalism as prefigurative movements: socially, politically, organizationally, and even when it comes to technology. These first steps are not the end, in the same way that any new revolutionary redesign of technology today is likely to not be the end. The many policies that could be proposed here and now, the economic alternatives available to us within current market dynamics – Economic Democracy being one of them – are a means, which, in theory, represent the alternation of present systems and structures on behalf of new systems and structures that are less resistant to further, deeper structural change and experimentation (and especially to the increasing autonomy of and prefigurative experimentation by social movements). Could this rationale give meaning to the countless alternative movements within technology today – that they may contribute to the initial steps out of capitalism, to tentatively work toward a greater redesign of technology in the longstanding struggle to remove capitalism’s bias and coercive legacy? I am thinking of peer-to-peer, open source, digital commons movements, renewable tech stuff. What do you think?

(AF): There are quite a few issues here. All human groups at a certain size or facing specific types of tasks and difficulties need leadership to coordinate the actions of their members. No ethical or ideological demand is going to change this. The demand for total equality leads to silliness and paralysis. It can be spotted supporting surreptitious power plays in lots of left groups where the protest against the leaders is a way of dominating the group without taking responsibility for its activities. I am an old new leftist; I know too much about this from bitter experience. This was one of several behaviours that belonged to the “Mao-er than thou” syndrome that wrecked the new left.

This does not mean that leadership is always innocent. Angels are not active on the left. Some degree of egotism and secondary gain will always be associated with leadership, but hey “nobody’s perfect.” The real questions are whether there is fair play in the group, whether the leaders can be replaced by normal democratic means without trauma, whether they listen to justified criticism and are responsive, and most important, whether they actually make a useful contribution through their leadership. I see no reason of principle why this should not be possible. But it requires a political culture in which the scapegoating of leaders is severely repressed. If everyone tolerates it out of respect for the “victims” the group is doomed.

These considerations are also related to the much larger question of the transition to socialism. Leadership at the level of social institutions is in the hands of experts, both technical and organizational. Under capitalism and Soviet style socialism these leaders are protected from most forms of democratic control by strict hierarchies of bureaucratic power and laws. They operate reified systems in which subordinates have little reason to support successful outcomes. This fact – the insuperable problem of control in authoritarian systems – orients the design of administrations and technologies. Technologies, for example, tend to develop in ways that enhance top-down control. The assembly line is the classic example. The end result is a society like ours in which most people are deskilled and dominated at work and often in other social institutions as well.

The transition to socialism would have to democratize the hierarchical structures and gradually transform administrations and technologies to conform to the needs of a democratic public. This process can begin already under capitalism, although it will come up against limits where it conflicts with the power of capital. It must continue under socialism. The nationalization of the means of production is not the solution to this problem although it may solve others. In any case, the process will be gradual. The immediate flattening of all hierarchies in a technologically advanced society can only lead to chaos and the sort of political profiteering that destroyed the Cultural Revolution in China. I have written extensively about this process in my book, Transforming Technology.

(RCS): It’s great to get your thoughts on this, as it is a fascinating and important issue. We probably both agree that the use of hierarchy may be or is necessary when dealing with large scale issues or certain tasks – global mobilization against climate change is one example. I often find that debates concerning hierarchy vs. horizontality get caught up in a world of absolutes, when really what is required is a far more nuanced and complex analysis. The one thing I would say is that complications do seem to arise in the idea of whether hierarchy can actually be democratized (depending, I suppose, on one’s definition of democracy). This line of thought also raises an important question of normativity. But perhaps for many participatory social movements today that’s the point: hierarchical society needs to be, ironically, leveled to whatever degree in order for any actual democratization of hierarchy to exist? In other words, the democratization of hierarchy can exist only within a more actual democratic, participatory and horizontal social landscape.

On a separate albeit related point, there is something I’ve been itching to ask. It was noted in a recent Heathwood Call for Papers that Marcuse saw something of the prefigurative basis of the new social movements in the 60s and early 70s as being important. Much of the political consequences of the Frankfurt School focus on challenging the deeply ingrained rationale of hierarchical, coercive and authoritarian society. I wonder whether you would agree with the opinion that Marcuse understood something of the importance of grassroots emancipatory experimentation and prefigurative development along these lines – that is, the prefigurative experimentation with non-dominant forms of organisation. Today we can observe and analyze movements experiencing all sorts of different struggles and conflicts in their experimentation with alternative forms of organization. You mentioned leadership, for example. I agree that leadership is necessary at times, but what’s interesting today is to see people experimenting with different forms of leadership which aren’t necessarily of typical hierarchical orientation. Some of the developments are fascinating and perhaps even more mature than in the 60s and 70s. This leads me to wonder: despite the failures of the New Left, is it not the case that a radical philosophy of praxis must continue in this spirit – in the spirit of a critique of domination writ large – and challenge in the process any sort of long-term dependence on verticality and leaders (as traditionally conceived)? Would a redesign of the entire technical system not take on a more horizontal orientation?

(AF): I agree that the participatory emphasis on the movements of the sixties was innovative and important. It was a protest against bureaucracy and management in both communist and capitalist forms. That these participatory forms reappear today is evidence that they are inherent potentials of the opposition and not confined to the sixties moment. But keep in mind that while Marcuse praised the democratic spirit of the students, he was critical of anarchistic and anti-intellectual tendencies in the movement. He always believed organization and theory necessary, although not in the form it had taken in the communist movement.

There is another question implied in your remarks. The technical system is not like a political movement because it is based on difficult intellectual achievements inherited from the past and transmitted by education and training. The type of democratic participation appropriate for a political movement is not likely to work in a technological context. Dialogue between experts and citizens is the only conceivable solution. This is not to exclude democratic procedures in the economic institutions and political pressure where it is needed to place concerns on the agenda and alter the framework of discussion. The long term outcome of continual dialogue is likely to be a substantial rise in the level of general technical culture and the replacement of deskilled systems by more interesting and humane processes. Thus we need not believe those who claim that technocracy is the only effective form of organization suited to a technological society.

(RCS): Regarding Marcuse’s idea – his earliest sketching out – of a possible revolutionary redesign of the technical system as a whole, have you thought more about this possibility? Do you have any further insights into what this might look like at the start, how movements might begin to conceive of the process of such a fundamental project? Do you see fragments of hope in such contemporary movements as P2P, who seem to be working hard toward the idea of a re-conceptualized technical system?

(AF): My book Transforming Technology has lengthy discussions of the transition to socialism as a technological project. I have tried to understand this issue in terms of the problems of labor organization. The expropriation of intellectual skills by mechanization in the industrial revolution was motivated by control issues as well as concerns with efficiency. A dynamic was set in motion which continues even today in which the deskilling of labor insures control and profits.

Of course we are constantly reminded that the industrial era is over and everyone has become a flexi-worker with high-level skills coddled by the new capitalism, but frankly I think this is pure ideology. Literally billions of people around the world – including most workers in the wealthy nations – are still engaged in jobs where low skill levels correlate with highly authoritarian management.

The problem of the transition is how to exit from such a system, how to use the existing technology to build a different technology that values human beings for their skill and intelligence. This requires release from top-down controls which create the rationale for deskilling in the first place. Peer-to-peer gets around the problem by starting out without management in the usual sense, but most people are in situations where management poses an obstacle to change. Without a socialist movement, this situation will prevail for the indefinite future.

I think this is the key to a general reform of the technological basis of advanced capitalist societies; however, we may need to work toward fundamental change through a long detour by way of other humanly important changes in our relation to the environment, in gender relations, and so on, that are more easily addressed today than the labor process.

(RCS): This leads me to another question I have concerning how any immediate leveling of hierarchy in a technologically advanced society – for example, the complete and sudden removal of the state – would be catastrophic. I quite agree. Two questions: how, if at all, might this relate to your ideas concerning radical philosophy of praxis and Lukács’ theory reification and dereification? Can you even see any possibility or prospects for an egalitarian form of technologically advanced society?

(AF): Lukács’ theory of reification is incomplete. He shows in some detail how reification affects the major institutions of modern capitalism and argues that the proletariat can dereify the society through revolution. But he never really explains how dereification will be carried out in practice. He knows it can dissolve rigidified systems and open them to a collective practice of transformation but that is as far as he goes. What happens next? Won’t a stabilization necessarily follow, and how does that prospect square with the reification/dereification process?

In the passage I mentioned earlier Lukács says that we need to find a way to stabilize institutional structures that does not become a rigid reified obstacle to adaptation to human needs. What this suggests to me is something like a loose form of reification that is less armoured against change than under capitalism and so more easily dereified and modified when necessary. I relate this to the notion of lay/expert dialogue I mentioned earlier. The goal is not total equality, which was never central for Marx and Marxism, but rather the responsiveness of the society to human needs. That does require democratic procedures of some sort throughout the institutions, in each case suited to the nature of the tasks. Equality in that sense is certainly an important goal.

(RCS): In The Philosophy of Praxis you suggest that Marcuse’s ideas (one could argue the first generation Frankfurt School in general) carry the torch of emancipatory social philosophy and hand it on to the present. Your analysis is quite invigorating, and served as a notable reference in Heathwood’s recent CFP which I referenced earlier. I wonder if you would care to share some thoughts on this and on the demands placed on the next generation of young writers and scholars and activists, who seek to return to the first-generation and help carry this torch into the next century.

(AF): I am concerned about the state of critical theory today. I have the impression that various polemics that preoccupied French thinkers in the 1970s and ‘80s have been taken over lock, stock and barrel by young scholars writing in English and projected on to the contemporary intellectual scene. But those polemics were inspired by a context totally different from our own. To oppose phenomenology or dialectics in 1975 had a quite definite meaning in a culture dominated by memories of Being and Nothingness and the French Communist Party, two sins of youth many intellectuals reacted against in this period. For us this has no meaning. It is intellectual sectarianism.

I am also worried by the widespread failure to bring the insights of critical philosophy to bear on the technological issues of our time. Of course there are thinkers who have contributed but they are still a small minority. I have tried to build a bridge but I don’t see many either following or building their own bridge. This is something that has to be addressed soon.

My hope is that young scholars interested in the first generation of the Frankfurt School will find resources there with which to say something new that fits our current situation. For this purpose Marcuse is important. I am puzzled by his eclipse in favor of Adorno and Benjamin. There are important ideas in all these thinkers, and in Horkheimer too, but Marcuse is the only one to actually concern himself extensively with the meaning of the left in contemporary society. Anyone trying to get a left politics out of Adorno should look at Marcuse. He can guide the creative appropriation of the tradition better than any of the others.

(RCS): In closing, is there anything else that you would like to comment on before we conclude our engagement?

I’ll sign off now and hand it over to you. Thanks again for doing this, Andrew.

(AF): Actually, I have probably said too much already so I will close too.