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The Science of the Future

McKenzie Wark13 May 2015

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To compliment the publication of my book Molecular Red, I put together The Molecular Red Reader, a free pdf of some previously untranslated or hard to get texts that might help provide some context for Anglophone readers.
  Download the Molecular Red Reader here.

It includes some texts by Alexander Bogdanov, a remarkable and largely forgotten Marxist thinker. He is largely out of print in English, although some materual can be found here. David Rowley very kindly let me have part of his forthcoming translation of Bogdanov's Philosophy of Living Experience, due out next year from the Historical Materialism book series. Here is Bogdanov's vision of what a post-capitalist organization of knowledge might be like:

The Science of the Future

Alexander Bogdanov, translated by David Rowley

Any organisation is organised precisely to the extent that it is integrated and holistic. This is the necessary condition for viability. This is also true of cognition, once we recognise that cognition represents the organisation of experience. Therefore cognition always tends toward unity, toward monism. In the history of humanity, there have been various means by which this monistic tendency has been accomplished.

The first worldviews were, as we know, religious. They appeared and became dominant in the era when the division of labour in society was still weak. Because of this, these worldviews did not involve any significant degree of specialisation, and they were distinguished by their simplicity and wholeness. All the material of experience was aggregated around a chain of authorities in the form of their precepts or revelations. The methods of these worldviews were undifferentiated and essentially boiled down to authoritarian causality. In developed religions, a unified structure was achieved through the centralisation of authority in the form of a supreme deity.

In a social system based on exchange, the broad and increasingly deepening division of labour resulted in the fragmentation of social experience and the specialisation of knowledge. The technological sciences directly corresponded to various branches of production – for example, agronomy to farming and various fields of technology and applied mechanics to various realms of industry. ‘Abstract’ sciences – mathematics and the natural and social sciences – were applied, it is true, in many fields simultaneously. Mathematics, for example, was employed in all fields. Astronomy – to the extent that it was used to measure time and to determine location and direction – was also employed in all fields. Zoology was employed in fishing, hunting, and cattle breeding, and also in agriculture to the extent that it is necessary to study animals that are harmful or useful for agriculture. And so on. But each of these general sciences itself became a particular specialty, elaborating its own particular technology and sharply separating itself from other scientific specialties and even more from technological specialties. It is precisely in our times that the most perfect type of specialist has appeared – a person with narrow one-sided experience, routine methods, and a complete lack of understanding of nature and life as a whole.

Specialisation is a necessary stage in the development of labour and cognition. Thanks to specialisation, a continually growing quantity of material builds up in each sphere of experience, and methods achieve a previously inconceivable perfection and refinement. Narrowing the field of work for separate individuals, specialisation permits a much better and more complete mastery of these fields. But, like any adaptation in life, specialisation also contains elements that resist adaptation. As specialisation develops, its limitations are revealed ever more sharply. In our times, the need to overcome specialisation has already become obvious, and, moreover, the path toward overcoming it has already become apparent.

Specialisation stands in contradiction to the tendency toward the unity of knowledge. It breaks up experience into pieces so that each is organised independently. As a result, two hugely important negative phenomena characteristic of contemporary science come about: an excessive accumulation of material and heterogeneous methods of cognition.

The accumulation of material in each special science is now so great that it can be mastered only after many years of study. For people of average abilities, sometimes even an entire lifetime is not enough. It is very rare that scientists are able to work in two or three specialties. More often they are completely closed off, each in their own field, and outside that field they become the most maladapted, limited people.

This insularity and limitedness sustains, consolidates, and intensifies the divergence of scientific methods. Every specialty works out its own separate methods in isolation – otherwise it would not be able to stand apart. As time goes on, it develops its methods in a one-sided way, moving ever further away from the methods and points of view that are developed by other fields. This is useful for continuous improvement in minor details, but it severely hinders any progress in the bases and the principles of a given science. Furthermore, an extreme conservatism of specialisation arises – ‘the philistinism of specialisation’, in the expression of Mach – a kind of professional obtuseness, which is why the greatest discoveries of past centuries usually encountered the most resistance from official representatives of that same branch of knowledge. There are as many examples to cite as one would like. One need only recall the disdainful indifference with which learned physicists reacted to the brilliant idea of Robert Meyer when he first formulated the idea of the conservation of energy or the bitter struggle that had to be waged in the last century to support the theory of evolution of animal and plant forms. Subsequently, after a discovery is finally adopted by the mass of specialists, they, of course, successfully apply it further and improve it in particular details, without abandoning their fundamental conservatism in the least, displaying it anew at the next revolution in science.

If we examine more closely how these revolutions occurred and what they involved, we find that they usually involved the destruction precisely of the boundaries between specialties. Some technique, method, or point of view that had already been applied in one field of science or production was transferred to another and transformed it. Thus, the law of the conservation of energy was actually the idea of the indestructibility of existence that had long ago been introduced into chemistry by Lavoisier and was already known in philosophy by the ancients, but only in the 1840s was it applied to the phenomena and forces studied by physics. And Lavoisier arrived at the law of the eternal existence of matter because he was the first to use the method of accurate weighing in his research in chemistry – a method of which had long been used in physics. And the technique had been borrowed by physics from the technology of mining and the jewellery trade, where strict determination of specific gravity of minerals, metals, and alloys is important. Darwin reformed biology by introducing the principle of the struggle for existence which he took from the economic doctrine of Malthus. Marx applied the dialectic – formerly only a philosophical method – to the social sciences. The greatest successes in physiology have been due to methods of physics and chemistry, and contemporary psychology depends to the same extent on the methods of physiology.

This all speaks clearly to us of the possibility – and even the necessity – of drawing together and unifying the various scientific methods and thereby overcoming specialisation. But as long as specialisation still rules, the unity of science is impossible, and social experience remains fragmented and unorganised as a whole. It is from this state of affairs that the need for philosophy arises.

Philosophy is nothing other than precisely the striving to organise what has been divided and broken up by the force of specialisation. This is the meaning and significance of philosophy; this is why it is historically necessary. But this is also the basic contradiction of all philosophy – the tragedy that is characteristic of it and inseparable from it.

In human practice, social experience is, in reality, atomised. Is it possible for a philosophical construction to combine, to connect what reality has disunited? It is objectively impossible to achieve this; the task becomes objectively achievable only when reality changes, when practice ceases to be broken up and disconnected and when specialisation is overcome by life itself. No power of thought is able to gather and organise into a living whole the pieces of a body that has been torn apart. Philosophy cannot work miracles, and to resolve the tasks placed before it with the means available would indeed be a miracle.

Does this mean that philosophy is fruitless and impotent? Not at all. Philosophy cannot resolve its task as a whole because society and its experience are not organised as a whole. But, all the same, exchange society is not an absolutely anarchical system, and the division of labour does not signify the disintegration of the social whole into completely separate individual units. Specialisation does prevail over the opposite tendency, and the struggle between enterprises and groups does prevail over the connection between them, but communication nevertheless occurs. Specialties are not so restricted that there is no contact between them. Collective organisation of experience is being created.If this were not the case, there could be no talk of society – the very word would lose its meaning.

Let us take, for example, the handicraft system at the end of the Middle Ages, characterised by extremely sharp specialisation. Each craft was organised separately and independently of others – even now, the word ‘guild’ is a synonym for ‘specialty’. However, it was not accidental that guilds supported each other in the struggle with the old aristocratic patricians of trade. It was not accidental that they acquired an extremely similar internal structure; it was not accidental that they developed approximately the same moral norms. A practical community of interests and experience obviously existed. And, actually, no matter how dissimilar the technologies of the various handicrafts were, they still had much in common in their on-going manual techniques, in the simplicity of their tools, in the small scale of their production, and in quite a number of relationships among producers that arose from these factors. This commonality found expression in similar methods of thought, of faith, of political views, etc.

The historical life of exchange society proceeded dialectically, in the genuine meaning of this term; the separation of social human beings and the gathering together of those same human beings – presenting two opposing tendencies – took place simultaneously. In the beginning, fragmentation predominated, inhibiting the process of aggregation so much that it completely masked it, making it invisible to ordinary, imprecise observation. Subsequently, aggregation gained momentum and little by little prevailed over fragmentation. It was not long before the relationship between aggregation and fragmentation was completely reversed.

This means that philosophy can organise general social experience to the extent that experience is in reality tied together and united by life itself. Within these confines, the unifying models of philosophy will be objective; outside these confines, they will inevitably be arbitrary and will have significance only for particular groups or schools and sometimes even for only an individual. For example, in all modern philosophy – down to and including German classical idealism – there is an underlying individualistic point of view; the separate human individual is taken to be the centre of activity, the subject of cognition and moral duty. This is an objective philosophical generalisation regarding those eras and regarding the developing bourgeois-capitalistic system. It is accepted by everyone, both in life and in theory, as something that is self-evident. On the contrary, any doctrine of monads or atomism, theories of ‘things-in-themselves’, or the principle of the creative ‘I’ which ‘posits not-I’, belong to the realm of the debatable and the unreliable. All of these doctrines are individual attempts or, at most, group attempts that are incapable of grasping and organising social experience as a whole. They are incapable of attaining the power of objectivity; they are products of limited experience that appear as universal truths only to their creators and their creators’ disciples. But, as with all sorts of organised endeavours, even goals only partly achieved provide material for further unifying work.

The saddest fate that can befall philosophy is when the power of specialisation completely predominates and creates a kind of guild philosopher – ‘a philistine of a specialty’. This is a completely perverse outcome, one of the most absurd results of the atomisation of humanity. Philosophy exists precisely in order to organise the disparate parts of experience into one whole, to establish the interconnectedness which was destroyed by the division of labour and by the professional narrowness that it produced. And now philosophy itself becomes just such an isolated part, a particular branch in the division of labour with its own professional narrowness – and what narrowness! The result is an individual with a study and a library who can, of course, organise only what that individual possesses, which is, to be precise, the experience of their study and their library – an infinitely small and very unimportant portion of the gigantic amount of material which genuine philosophy must deal with. Each of these individuals reads a hundred or a thousand philosophical books that are taken from outside of the reality which gave birth to them and from outside of the interests, forces, and social struggles that are reflected in them – the preserved, cold corpses of experience lived by other people. These corpses are dissected, scholastically investigated, and cut up into small pieces, all the while assuming that the highest wisdom consists in the best method of splitting a hair into four parts. Afterwards they take the bits and pieces and stitch them together into a new book which, naturally, also possesses all the characteristics of a corpse, except for one – that a corpse was at one time a living body. Such is the philosophy of true specialists, or of the majority of them, and especially of those who work in university departments of philosophy. Other than in their use of terminology, they have nothing in common with philosophy as a social-historical phenomenon and as a social form of worldview. They provoked Feuerbach’s sarcastic comment that the first indication of a genuine philosopher is not being a professor of philosophy.

As for the great masters of philosophy, they usually had an encyclopaedic grasp of the knowledge of their times, and many of them, in addition to that, were people of practical life and struggle. It is understandable that such people were able to attempt to organise experience as a whole – if not with complete objective success then at least with some benefit for the development of human thought. But the further specialisation has gone, with its accumulation of material and diversity of methods, the more difficult it has become for individuals, no matter how brilliant, to acquire an encyclopaedic knowledge of their times. Ultimately, philosophy – not as the knowledge of guild specialists but as the actual generalisation of social experience – would simply have been impossible if the new forces of life had not caused a turnabout in its development.

The starting point of this turnabout lies in labour practice – machine production, to be precise.

Machine production arose out of manufacturing, which took the specialisation of labour to its limit. Manufacturing broke work down into such small, elementary operations, that workers who carried them out were reduced to the roles of living machines. But then, since it is not difficult to build a machine to execute a series of simple movements, this made it possible to transfer separate parts of work to real, inanimate machines. And when this was accomplished, it turned out that specialisation was transferred from people to machines.

Work with machines brings together various forms of labour, and the further technology develops, the more fully and thoroughly those forms of labour are brought together. No matter how different the goods that are produced, the producers have much in common in the content of their labour experience. The same basic relationship to the machine, consistent with the predominant nature of effort, is required of the worker – management of the machine, monitoring its movements, intervention to the extent that it is necessary, and, consequently, attention, discussion, and understanding. Physical action on the machine, which is of the most varied kinds, represents a continually less significant portion of the overall sum of labour experiences. Moreover, to the extent that machines are perfected, that portion continually decreases to the  point where machines are transformed into a type of automatic process, and the mechanical aspect, proper, of the worker’s function completely disappears.

At the lowest levels of machine production there still remains a marked difference between the operating function of a simple worker and the organisational labour of an educated specialist-engineer. As machines become more complex and perfected, this distinction decreases. Automatic mechanisms already require an intellectual preparation of the worker that goes far beyond the boundaries of purely practical skills. Workers must understand the mechanisms they are dealing with, not only in those particulars which are at their fingertips, so to speak, but also in general and as a whole. Technical calculation based on knowledge (perhaps not strictly scientific but nevertheless quite precise knowledge) occupies a continually more important place in their activities, both when they simply manage the whole complicated sum total of a machine’s movements and especially when small irregularities, which occur quite frequently in the operation of machines like these, demand that workers consciously take the initiative and intervene quickly and systematically.

The increasing use of mechanisms that are not only automatic but automatically self-regulating will raise the worker to a still higher level. This type of machine will obviously serve as the foundation of the technology of collectivism. At present, this is only on the horizon. Many machines, beginning with steam engines, already are fitted with regulators that mechanically monitor one or another of their functions and correct any irregularities that arise. When such methods achieve full development and become the norm, and when the main occupation of someone who works on machines is to observe and correlate the given state of affairs reported by the monitoring and recording devices and generally to supervise and direct those regulating devices – and all this with the help of appropriate scientific knowledge – then any qualitative difference between a worker and an engineer will disappear, and all that will remain will be a quantitative difference in preparation and proficiency. In this way, labour will be reduced to a single type. The extremely deep divergence produced in practice by specialisation will be removed, the division of labour will cease to fragment humankind, and there will appear a simple division of effort directed at various objects but essentially of the same kind.

Cognition, expressing and reflecting practice, follows behind the progress of practice, and cognition will also experience the convergence of specialties. The transfer of methods from one field to another, which we have already noted, prepares for the elaboration of general, unifying techniques of cognition. Fields formerly extremely distant from one another will merge together – as, for example, in physics the theory of light merges with the theory of electricity – and, by all appearances, in the near future those theories will combine in a general theory of matter. And right now, all physics and chemistry are in effect only subdivisions of general energetics, and psychology is on the path towards merging with physiology, etc. But all this convergence occurs without any planned pursuit of it; it has not been posed as a task for the development of science, and it continually encounters passive and very often even active resistance from many scientific specialists. And they are essentially incapable of posing this task, not only due to force of habit and professional-guild insularity, but also due to the force of their real interests. For such scientists, specialisation is tied to their privileged position. Specialisation denies the mass of the population from being admitted to their circles, it diminishes competition, and it keeps their salaries at a high level.

By contrast, the working class, which in practice is moving toward the overcoming of specialisation, can and must set the very same task for scientific knowledge. This is a matter of urgent self-interest; it is the precondition for a cultural upsurge to a higher level and for the possibility of becoming the actual master of social life without the tutelage of the departmentalised intelligentsia. This is one of the most important needs of the new proletarian culture that is now being born and is taking shape.

What will this unity of cognitive methods look like that will break through the boundaries between specialties and that will organise social experience holistically, harmoniously, and coherently? Our point of view allows us to make a definite and confident prediction about this.

We have seen that the progress of machine production imparts an ever more fully and clearly expressed organisational character to the activity of the worker. This is fully consistent with the historical tasks of the working class as a whole – organisational tasks of unparalleled breadth and complexity. The resolution of those tasks cannot be haphazard or spontaneous; by necessity it can only be rationally planned and scientific. And this presupposes the unification of all of the organisational experience of humanity in a special general science of organisation. Such a science must be universal in its very essence.

As a matter of fact, all human activity has one thing in common – the processes of organisation. Technological activity organises elements of external nature in society; cognitive and artistic activity organises the social experience of people. Even destructive work is nothing other than the struggle of various organisational forms or tendencies. As we have already noted, war is an organised dialectical process in which each side is related to the other in the same way that people typically relate to the hostile forces of external nature – i.e. they strive to overcome or incapacitate the objects their energy is directed toward, and they consequently also strive to generally organise the surrounding environment in conformity with their interests. Even the activity of someone who violates the law has – from the violator’s point of view – a completely similar meaning. This is all the more true of the technically criminal activity that goes on in the struggle for new, higher forms of social life against the old and obsolete forms.

Even the elemental life of the universe is nothing other than the struggle and development of various types and levels of organisation. In this, human activity is indistinguishable from the activity of the world from which it is crystallised and at the expense of which it continues to grow. A science of methods of organisation must therefore both embrace the methods which nature has worked out and perfect its own forms of organisation. Universal methodology – this is the essence of this science of the future.

Each of the contemporary sciences, technical and abstract, represents a partial organisation of experience within one field or another. It is clear that, as the general science of methods of organisation emerges, all sciences will conform to it. The particular methods of particular fields will be partial applications of the general conclusions of the general science. This will represent the real overcoming of scientific specialisation. The differentiation between the fields of cognition and practice will remain, but this will not mean that those fields will be isolated from one another, that they will develop separately, or that they will continue to diverge. They will be vitally and ever more tightly interconnected, they will continuously exchange techniques, and their points of views will continuously interact. All the sciences will be guided by a universally-wide science – not one that is hypothetical, debatable, and vacillating like philosophy, but a science that is exact and thoroughly empirical.

In this regard, this science will be the direct opposite of philosophy, which is much less empirical than all the particular sciences. Philosophy is necessary now because of the rupture of the various fields of experience, but it is not capable of repairing that rupture. And that is why, not having its own special sphere of experience, it cannot simultaneously and directly rely on the living experience of all the separate fields, since they do not make up one whole but are divided by blanks and gaps that sometimes form impassable chasms for specialised thought. The new universal science, by contrast, will have its own basis in experience just as broad as all practice and cognition taken together; it must take note of and coherently systematise all of the methods and means of organisation which are in fact employed in society, in life, and in nature. The regularity that will be discovered and confirmed will provide universal guidance for the mastery of any aggregation of forces of nature, of any aggregation of the data of experience.

From the most primitive cosmic combination of elements to artistic creativity – which is by all appearances the highest and, so far, the least understood form of organisational activity – everything will then be elucidated, clarified, and harmoniously interconnected by the conclusions of the formally organised experience of the whole of humanity.

But, the reader asks, is such a science possible? Is it possible to generalise and reduce to a unity what would seem to be heterogeneous – the methods by which nature operates in its spontaneous creation of forms of movement and life and the methods by which humanity operates in its diverse forms of labour and thought?

In principle the answer is very simple. History sets tasks, and so far humanity has resolved all the tasks that history has set for it. Humanity continually organises for itself the most alien and the most hostile forces of the universe; it will also be able to organise for itself, in the process of its cognition, the same methods of organisation. No one has ever proven that anything has existed – in the world, in experience, or in human activity – that is essentially inaccessible to organising efforts. The only question and doubt is how much such effort and how much labour energy will be necessary for resolving a task and whether humanity has accumulated sufficient energy to be able to bring the task to a successful conclusion. But we will discover this only in practice.

But in addition to this, there is now already a great deal of concrete evidence which argues in favour of the possibility and the necessity of a universal organisational science. We have in mind those cases when nature or humanity, or both, simultaneously apply the same method in the creation of forms and combinations that are completely independent of one another and sometimes belong to quite different realms of being. One can point to facts of this kind that are truly amazing and are unquestionably not chance coincidences.

For example, the higher animals and plants descended from common single-celled ancestors that did not possess sexual difference or reproduce sexually – unless one considers as ‘copulation’ the fusion of a pair of cells that have begun to decompose, after many generations, that were obtained by simple division into two. Sexual difference – this ingenious method of producing new combinations of properties of life – developed independently and in parallel in the two realms of nature. If we compare the organs of sexual reproduction, we find an amazing architectural resemblance of structure in two such vastly different branches of life as the higher mammals and the higher flowering plants. This resemblance is striking to anyone who has studied the anatomy of flowers and even extends to quite a number of details...

The same deep parallelism of structure exists between the seed of a plant and the egg of a bird, for example. In both cases, there is an embryo surrounded by a nutritive layer and then a protective casing; only instead of the animal proteins of the egg, the seed contains plant proteins, and instead of the fat of the yolk, a physiologically similar starchy substance. In addition to this, the distribution of nutritive layers in the seed is approximately the reverse of what is in the egg.

Still more striking is the similarity of the structure of the eye of cephalopod molluscs - octopuses, cuttlefish, etc. – to the eye of the higher vertebrates. The eye is unusually complex; it is an apparatus for organising the visual elements of light and form, consisting of many diverse parts. The common ancestors of molluscs and vertebrates, it goes without saying, did not have eyes and had, at most, pigmented spots for the retention of radiant energy. Nevertheless, the construction of our eyes and the eyes of any octopus are almost identical down to the tiniest detail, except that, once again, the layers of the retina are arranged in reverse order, as if specifically emphasising the historical independence of the production of both apparatuses.

It can also be confidently asserted that the distant common ancestors of humans and ants were not social animals and of course did not possess even an embryonic form of cattle-breeding technology or of slave- owning institutions. Nevertheless, various species of ant have been observed, on the one hand, to breed grass aphids that produce sweet juice in a way that is completely similar to the breeding of dairy cattle by humans and to cultivate edible fungi in a manner similar to agriculture, and, on the other hand, to practice forms of slavery that are highly reminiscent of the military slave-owning system of ancient Sparta. As superficial as our knowledge of the life of social insects might be, these major organisational coincidences have nevertheless been discovered and many others besides.

The lives of human societies that develop independently of each other present an incomparably greater congruence: the same general historical path of development of economic interconnectedness. Thus, the transition from primitive communism to patriarchy and from patriarchy to feudalism took place on different continents without any mutual borrowing of forms.

Finally, let us compare the realm of life with the realm of so-called inorganic or inert nature. Exactly the same model – the rhythm of waves – is endlessly repeated in both realms in the most heterogeneous processes. We find it in the movement of the sea, in the phenomenon of sound, in the radiant energy of light and electricity, and – in astronomy – in the change of relationships of planets to their central sun. But it is also found in the fluctuation of the pulse, the breathing of animals, even in psychical changes of attention. The same model also governs well-organised work and artistic creativity, such as rhythm in music and poetry, and so on without end. The most dissimilar elements known to us, elements that are incommensurable both quantitatively and qualitatively, group themselves according to one type.

It would be naïve and unscientific to consider all these and countless other similar facts to be chance analogies; the theory of probability would unquestionably not allow this. The only possible conclusion is this:

There exist general methods and natural regularities according to which the most varied elements of the universe are organised into complexes.

This proposition provides the basis for the great new science that will take over from philosophy in order to resolve the tasks that are beyond the power of philosophy. With the help of this new science, humanity will be able systematically and comprehensively to organise its creative powers, its life ...

This same science will for the first time create genuine universal formulas. They will not be that absolute universal formula that Laplace dreamed of; they will not be a formula that would embrace the universe in all its complexity but that would itself be as complex as the universe; they will be other, practical formulas that will make possible the systematic mastery of any possible sum of given elements of the world process.

Philosophy is living out its last days. Empiriomonism is already not entirely a philosophy but a transitional form, because it knows where it is going and to what it must give way. The foundation of a universal new science will be laid down in the near future. The blossoming of this science will spring up out of that gigantic, feverish, organisational work which will create a new society and bring the agonising prologue to the history of humanity to its conclusion. That time is not so far off.

Filed under: marxism, molecular-red