The Decline of Science, The Decline of Capitalism


Can another Einstein exist in this era?  A better question  is whether  the spirit of his  research program could emerge again in our current predicament. By his research program, I mean the activity that grasped through a few thought experiments and heuristics fundamental principles that not only revolutionized physics but our whole ontology in general. Through a combination of imagination and mathematical prowess,  such as imagining himself riding a lightning bolt, and then translating this imagination into the language of geometry, he revolutionized our most fundamental intuitions of space and time.

Fast forward a hundred years later, where physics has become increasingly specialized and fractal-like,  with theoretical physics atomized across many sub-disciplines. Given this complex landscape, there is simply not enough bandwidth to  engage the informational complexity of all relevant fields in order to grasp at something both holistic and fundamental. Instead, scientific knowledge is atomized among various disciplines.  Yet, although this division of labor and increased informational complexity has a legitimate logic, as many fields  truly become more specialized and complex in a useful, authentic sense – this complexity has decreasing marginal returns. We can see this effect in some of the paper mills of theoretical physics, with theory after theory that may only have tenuous links with the facts of the world.  At some point, the complexity and literature grew exponentially, engulfing empirical confirmation.

One of the most striking example of the diminishing returns of complexity is the lack of revolutionary shifts in theoretical physics. The  last major physics revolutions, quantum mechanics and relativity, happened roughly a hundred years ago. This is in spite of the huge increase in the number of scientists and disciplines throughout the last century. There is no shortage of models and theories, yet the creation of novel predictions and empirical confirmation is slowing down, as evidenced by the inability of expensive particle physics experiments to confirm any of the new particles conjectured by the last generation of theoretical physicists.   In other words, to use Lakatos’ ideas, theoretical physicists is degenerating, because there is an exponential increase in informational complexity without much empirical content backing it. In short, all the new and expensive scientists, computers, theories (e.g. supersymmetry, string theory) and cryptic fields are generating diminishing returns in knowledge.

However, not only academic sciences are degenerating. In this stage of capitalism, the degenerative research program is universal. This universal research program includes all relevant fields of human inquiry and knowledge. Therefore, this degeneration not only exists in the apex of academia, but it dwells in any institution meant for problem solving.  We find a decrease in productivity across many industries and the economy as a whole, which signals diminishing returns in complexity. In all these parts of society there is an increase of expensive complexity that yields diminishing returns.  Since all these institutions are problem-solving,  and use some sort of method/episteme, we can say that their theories of the world are degenerative, in analogy to the Lakatosian concept of degenerative research program. In spite of their bloat in specialists, the marginal returns in the “knowledge” necessary for production decreases.

Perhaps the most incredible aspect of this decline is the existence of experts in almost wholly degenerative methods.  As degenerative methods exponentially increase in volume – methods that don’t have much empirical backing, the informational complexity needs more specialists to manage it, and these  experts are almost specialized entirely on these decaying methods. Economists and string theorists are the quintessential examples of degenerative professionals.

This degeneration of the universal research program, and with it, the creation of a degenerative caste of professionals  has not come unnoticed by the population. This decline has probably fueled part of the anti-intellectual and anti-technocratic wave that brought Trump to power. For example,   people often complain about the increased inaccessibility of academic literature, with its overproduction of obscure jargon. Another example is the knee-jerk hatred for administrators, managers, and other technocratic professionals that are seen as doing increasingly abstracted work that may not connect with what is happening at the ground. For instance, a common target of criticism  for this phenomenon is the admin bloat that festers at universities.

This abstract process of the degenerative research program is linked to the health of capitalism, in a two way feedback loop, given that it is through problem solving that capitalism develops technological and economic growth.  Perhaps we can understand the health of capitalism better by referring to the ideas of the anthropologist Joseph Tainter. Tainter argues that societies are fundamentally problem solving machines, and that they add complexity in the form of institutions, specialists, bureaucrats, and information in order to increase their capacity to solve problems in the short term. For example, early irrigation systems in Mesopotamian civilizations, crucial for agriculture and therefore survival, created  their own layer of specialists to manage these systems.

However complexity is expensive, as it adds more energy/resources usage per capita. Furthermore, the problem solving ability of institutions diminishes in returns as more expensive complexity is added. At some point, complex societies end up having a very expensive layer of managers, specialists, and bureaucrats that are unable to deliver in problem solving anymore.  Soon, because the complexity is not making society more productive anymore, the economic base, such as agricultural output, cannot grow as fast as the expensive complexity, making society collapse. This collapse resets complexity by producing simpler societies. Tainter argues that this was the fate of many ancient empires and civilizations, such as the Romans, Olmecs, and Mayans. So Tainter here is arguing for a theory of decline of the mode of production, where modes of production are “cyclical” and have an ascendant and descendant stage. Using this picture, we can begin  to identify a stage of capitalism in decline.

This decline of capitalism has plenty of empirical evidence.  “Bourgeois” think-tanks like the Brookings Institute argue that productivity has declined since the 1970s. Marxist economists like Michael Roberts assert that the empirical data shows that the rate of profit has fallen since the late 1940s in the US.  Not to mention the recent Great Recession of 2008. However this economic and material decline is linked to the degenerative research program, as the expensive complexity of degenerative institutions expands faster than the economic base (e.g. GDP). For example, the exponential grow of administrators in healthcare and university at the expense of physicians and professors is symptomatic of this degeneration.

The degeneration of the universal research program  has two important consequences. First, that a large part of authority figures that base their expertise on credentials are illegitimate. The reason is that if they are part of a degenerative caste of professionals (politicians, economists, etc.)  so they cannot claim authority on relevant knowledge because their whole method is corrupted. This implies that socialists should not feel intimidated by the credentials and resumé of the technocrats closer to power. As mentioned before, right wing populists such as Trump understand partially this phenomenon, which has unleashed his reactionary electorate against the “limousine liberals” and “deep-statists” in Washington D.C. It’s time for us socialists to understand that particular truth, and not be afraid to counter the supposed realism and expertise of the neoliberal center.  The second consequence is that our methods of inquiry, such as science or philosophy, has  stalled. Instead, the feed-back loop of complexity creates more degenerative specialists that are experts in an informational complexity that has tenuous connection with the facts of the world. Whole PhDs are made in degenerative methods – for example, scientists specializing in some particular theoretical framework in physics that has not been validated empirically.

What is the socialist approach to the degeneration of the research program? Although one cannot say that socialists will not suffer from similar problems, given that informational complexity will always required when dealing with our complex civilization, Capitalism has particularly perverse incentives for degenerative research programs.   For example, the way the degenerative research program survives is through gate-keeping that safeguards the division of labor by well paid and powerful professionals. An obvious example is current professional economics, which largely requires an absorption of sophisticated graduate level math in order to enter the profession, even if those mathematical models are largely degenerative. In the political landscape at large, the State is conformed by career politicians and technocrats, who safeguard their positions through undemocratic gate-keeping in the form of elite networking and resumé padding.  The rationale for this gate-keeping is that these rent-keepers accrue power and wealth  through the protection of their degenerative research programs. Furthermore capitalism accelerates the fracturing of division of labor as it pursues short-term productivity at all costs, even when this complexity in the long term becomes expensive and a liability. 

The socialist cure to the degeneration of the research program could consist of two main ingredients. First, that institutions that command vast control over society and its resources should democratize and rotate their functionaries and “researchers”.  For example in the case of the State, a socialist approach would eliminate the existence of career politicians by putting stringent term limits and making many functionaries, such as judges, accountable to democratic will. Since there are diminishing returns in knowledge through specialization and informational complexity, a broad public education (up to the university bachelor level) could guarantee a sufficiently educated body of citizens so that they can partake in the day to day affairs of the State.  Instead of  a caste of degenerative professionals controlling the State, an educated body of worker-citizens could run the day to day affairs of the State through a combination of sortition, democracy, and stringent term limits.

The second ingredient consists of downsizing much of the complexity by focusing on the reduction of the work-day through economic planning. Since one of the main tenets of socialism is to reduce the work-day so that society is instead ruled by the imperatives of free time as opposed to the compulsion of toil, this would require the elimination of  industries that do not satisfy social need (finance, real estate, some of the service sector, some aspects of academia) in order to create a leaner, more minimal state.  Once the work-day is reduced to only what is necessary for the self-reproduction of society, there will be free time for people to partake in whichever research program of their choosing. Doing so may give rise to alternate research programs that don’t require the mastering of immense informational complexity to partake in. Perhaps the next scientific revolution can only arise by making science more democratic and free. This vision contrasts to the elitist science that exists today, which is at the mercy of   hyper-specialized professionals that are unable to have a holistic, bird’s eye view of the field, and therefore, are unable to grasp the fundamental laws of reality.

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On Hegel and the Intelligibility of the Human World

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I’ve been studying Hegel lately because I find a value in his idea that history has an objective structure and is intelligible.  He argued that History is rational, and therefore its chain of causes and effects can be understood by Reason. I deeply believe in the intelligibility of history and the human world at large, as I advocate for the human world to be  administered in a planned and democratic way, which requires the possibility of scientific understanding. In contrast, many contemporary thinkers are extremely skeptical about the intelligibility of the human world. For example, many economists proclaimed that socialist planning is flawed because the supply and demand of goods cannot be rationally made intelligible to planners. We see similar arguments from the Left in the form of post-structuralist attacks against the  “master narratives” that seek to unearth the rational structure of the human world. For example, contemporary criticisms of the Enlightenment sometimes argue that the same reason used to understand the world is used to dominate human beings, because Reason starts to see humans as stacks of labor power to be manipulated for some instrumental end.

However in my opinion, to deny the intelligibility of the human world,  or to deny that this intelligibility can ever be used for emancipation, is to deny the possibility of politics, for political actors must have a theory of where history is marching, in other words,  “in what direction does the wind blows”. Political agents need to ground themselves in a world-theory so they can suggest a political program that would either change the direction of history to another preferred  course, or enhance the direction that it is undertaking right now. The IMF, Breton-Woods, the Iraq War, the current austerity onslaught, etc. have or had an army of politicians, intellectuals, and technocrats wielding scientific reason, trying to grasp where the current of history flows, and developing policy in line with their world-theory.  In lieu of our “enemies” (capitalist state, empire) using a scientific understanding of history in order to destroy the world, I will attempt to instrumentalize my reading of Hegel in order to make a case of a socialist intelligibility of the human world, that has the purpose of freeing humanity through the use of socialist planning. I am however, not trained in philosophy, so my reading of Hegel may not be entirely accurate – yet accuracy isn’t really my goal as much as using him as an inspiration for making my case.

Hegel and many  thinkers in the 19th century were optimistic about uncovering the laws of motion that drive history, and thus the evolution of the human world.  Hegel thought that history was intellectually intelligible in so far that it is can be rationally understood as marching in a certain rational direction, that is, towards freedom even if the human beings that make this history are often driven by irrational desires.  For example, Hegel thought the French Revolution, following the evolutionary path of history, brought about the progress of freedom in spite of its actors being driven by desires that may have concretely nothing to do with freedom (e.g. glory, self-interest, revenge, etc.).  To Hegel, the French Revolution was a logically necessary event that follows accordance to a determined motion of history towards freedom. In parallel, Marx, who “turned Hegel on its head” thought that the human world could be understood as functions of the underlying economic structure (e.g. capitalism or feudalism) and its  class composition. Furthermore Marx argued that the working class, due to its objective socio-economic position as the producer of the world’s wealth, could bring about socialism.

Not only were Hegel and Marx optimistic in the intelligibility of the human world, but they found that a liberated society would make use of this intelligibility to make humans free. In the case of Hegel, he thought that the end of history would be realized by a rational State that scaffolds people’s freedom by making them masters of the world they can understand and manipulate in order to realize their liberties/rights. This is why Hegel thought the French Revolution revealed the structure of history, as this event  demanded that the laws of the government become based on reason and serve human freedom. In the case of Marx and his socialist descendants, the fact that the economy is intelligible means that a socialist society could administer it for social need, as opposed to the random, anarchic and crisis ridden chaos of capitalism. The socialist case for the intelligibility of the human world gave rise to very ambitious and totalizing political programs, with calls for the economy to be planned for the sake of social need, and with the working class as the coherent agent for enacting this political program. Sometimes these socialist totalizing narratives are described by some marxists as programmatism,  where programmatism is the phenomenon of coherent socialist parties that have grandiose and ambitious political programs of restructuring the world through the universal agency of the working class.

However,  from the 20th century onwards, much of  intellectual activity was spent in arguing against this intelligibility of the human world, and therefore against the totalizing socialist program. In the economic sphere, Hayek argued that the economy was too complicated and fine-grained to be consciously understood by human actors, therefore making conscious economic planning an impossibility. From the Left, post-structuralist theorists attacked  the idea that there exists underlying, objective structures that steer and scaffold the human world. Philosophers such as Laclau and Lyotard criticized nineteenth century thinkers such as Marx and Hegel for having totalizing narratives of how history marches and the certainty of scientific approaches to the world. In many ways these post-structuralist and marginalist views do reflect a certain aspect of the current political landscape.  The market in the West has considerably liberalized since World War II, expanding the roles price signals in directing the distribution of goods, which seem to echo Hayek’s propositions. In western-liberal democracies, electoral politics is often interpreted as a heterogenous and conflicting space formed of different identities and interest groups, pushing their own agendas without a discernible universal feature that binds them all – which echoes the post-structuralist attack against Marxist and Hegelian appeals to universalism. Furthermore, the decline of Marxism, anarchism, and other radical political movements that posited a coherent revolutionary actor, such as the working class, give even more credence to the post-structuralist insistence on how the social world cannot be made intelligible by totalizing and “scientific” theories.

However these attacks on human-world intelligibility miss a crucial point, which  makes the critique fatally flawed. These attacks only feature as evidence for their arguments  the ideological justifications of the ruling class and the defeat of the programmatic Left. It is true that Hayekian marginalism is used as “proof” that the economic world is not intelligible to the human mind, therefore justifying increasing neoliberalization. Or that the totalizing social movements of the early 20th century with coherent political programs and revolutionary subjects have been almost completely supplanted with heterogenous, big-tent movementism. Yet the ruling classes – those who control the State, still act from the perspective that the human world is intelligible. The State’s actors cannot make political interventions without assuming a theory on how the human world works and having a self-consciousness on their own function of how to “steer” this human world into  a specific set of economic and social objectives. For example, the whole military and intelligence apparatus of the United States studies scientifically the geopolitical order of the modern world in order to apply policy that guarantees the economic and political supremacy of the American Empire. Governments have economic policies that emerge from trying to understand the laws of motion of capitalism and using that understanding to administer the nation-state on a rational basis.

The skeptics of the intelligibility of the human world could protest in different ways to the above assertions. One of the protestation could be that existence of the technocratic state still does not reveal some universally, coherent ruling class. In other words, there is no bourgeoisie, “banksters” or other identified subjects that control the technocratic state for some identifiable reason   – ithe State is simply some autonomous machine with no coherent identifiable trajectory or narrative. Furthermore, a second protestation is inherent in some interpretations of Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment: to make the human world intelligible to science is a method of domination, where human beings can be instrumentalized into stacks of labor power to be manipulated and administered.  Furthermore, according to this criticism of Enlightenment, those particularities that might not be scientifically uncovered in the human world, are forced to violently fit certain universal – for example, the Canadian violence done unto First Nations where they attempted to “anglicize” First Nations violently by abusing and destroying them in Residential Schools.

Curiously this second protestation, the one of how rationality is used to scientifically dissect the human world to dominate it, shows the weakness of the whole counter-rational project. The ruling classes do make the human world intelligible for domination, through their technocrats, wonks, and economists.  However the key idea here is that they administer the world in the name of some objective that does not treat social need as its end. The behavior of the State does indeed show that the human world and history are intelligible – it’s just that its intelligibility is instrumentalized in favour of some anti-human end. In reply to the first protestation, about how it is impossible to recognize a universal subject and the end the technocratic state pursues, I will say that the complexity of world capitalism does not imply there are no dominant trends in it that cannot be analyzed. It just happens that systems experiences various tendencies, some in conflict with each other, but that can be still understood from a bird’s eye view and scientifically. For example, one of the key trajectories of the modern capitalist state is the safeguarding the institution of private property and attempting to stimulate capital accumulation (e.g. GDP growth) – this is certainly an intelligible aspect of modern world history.   The existence of conflicting trends within the State that counter the feedback of capital accumulation, such as inefficiencies caused by rent-seekers and corruption, only means that the State (and the human world) are complex systems with counteracting feedback loops, not that these objects cannot be made intelligible by scientific reason in order to understand them and ultimately change them.

The existence of contradicting feedback loops embedded in a complex system is not an argument against the scientific understanding of the human world. One can still try to understand the various emergent properties even if they contradict each other.  For example, a very politicized complex system today is the climate. Although we cannot predict the weather, that is the atmospheric properties in a ten square kilometers patch during a specific day, we can predict the climate, that is the averaged out atmospheric properties of the whole Earth during tens of years. For example, we have very good idea how the average temperature of the Earth evolves.  In the case of the human world, the same heuristic applies – we cannot understand everything that happens at the granular level but we can have ideas about the average properties integrated throughout the whole human world.  Similarly, the climate  system has counteracting feedbacks, for example, clouds may decrease the temperature of the Earth by reflecting solar radiation into outer space, but at the same time heat up the Earth through the greenhouse effect of water vapour.

These contradicting feedbacks does not make the climate system incoherent to science. Similarly, the existence of various subjects with conflicting interests in capitalism does not mean that there cannot be dominant trends, or some sort of universality underlying many of the subjects.  At the end of the day, the basic human needs, such as housing, education, and healthcare are approximately universal.

The fact that the human world is intelligible and this intelligibility is instrumentalized by our enemies, that is the capitalists, the military apparatus, and the technocratic state, in order to exploit and degrade the Earth and its inhabitants for capital accumulation,  means that we should make use of this instrumental reason to counterattack, not just pretend that this Reason is incoherent or that it is a tool that corrupts its user. In fact, there are many examples where instrumental reason is used for “good”, for example, the concerted medical effort of curing certain diseases, which makes the human body intelligible in order to understand it.  At the same time, in a Foucauldian sense, it is true that the clinic can be used for domination but this power dynamic is just one feedback loop amongst other more positive ones, such as emancipating humanity from the structural obstacles of disability and disease. Thus, universal healthcare is proof of the use of instrumental reason for the purpose of human need/emancipation.

The usage of instrumental reason for social need and freedom harkens back to Hegel. The world Hegel promised us at the end-point of history,  that is the world of absolute freedom, is the world where human beings become conscious of the intelligibility of history, and therefore they rationally administer history in order to serve  well-being and freedom. The only problem with Hegel’s perspective is that he thought history marched in a deterministic sense towards freedom. Instead, to make history and the human world intelligible for human needs is a political decision that is not predetermined by the structure of history itself.  Until now, the historical march of the last couple centuries have been for increasing domination of the Earth and its inhabitants for the purpose of capital accumulation. However, in the same way the ruling classes make history intelligible in order to serve profit and private property, there is no necessary reason or law that prevents using the intelligibility of history for social need.  The socialist political program is precisely this – to make the human world transparent to science and reason in order to shape it into a free society that is dominated by human creative will, as opposed to the imperatives of toil and profit.

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