Home Forum Political Economy Questions Regarding Mumford’s Theory of the Mega-Machine

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  • #245342

    Good afternoon friends,

    I am reposting a brief email I sent in to James at the editorial email address earlier today:

    Howdy! I was wondering if you may know of any folks that have used the CASP method to take a closer look at Lewis Mumford’s works regarding the mega-machine?

    I’ve become fully enamored with the power theory of value and I’ve seen numerous critiques of the original text that are drawn out by Nitzan and Bichler’s effective reimagination of state theory which could be learned from and incorporated into a new theory of complex societies that is more plastic than Mumford’s mega-machine (see Sean Starrs’ “State and capital”, Joseph Francis’ “Actually Existing States: The Gaping Hole in State Theory”, and Leo Panitch’s “Crisis of Capital, Crisis of Theory”). The authors of these pieces find issue with the theory of the state as simply being “the [momentary, social] state of power” of a given society as they find themselves then without a greater understanding of the shape, structure and function of complex societies -which is what Mumford’s work on the mega-machine is intended for, but falls short of achieving.

    I believe Mumford’s theory, while groundbreaking in its clarity of thought and archaeological insight, is internally contradictory. Briefly: no matter how complex a machine I imagine as a stand-in for Mumford’s societal machine (even up to a complex network of interoperating computers verifying blocks in a block chain) there is no machine that accounts for the structural and physical violence necessary in hierarchically organized societies, no machine could be designed in which individual cogs necessarily destroy other cogs in the machine, or even themselves to serve the proper function of the machine.

    Next, one must imagine that every single cog in this machine is perfectly incapable of creordering themselves. Cogs do not have agency. From Mumford’s Technics and Civilization: “even in the most completely automatic machine, there must intervene somewhere, at the beginning and the end of the process, first in the original design, and finally in the ability to overcome defects and to make repairs, the conscious participation of a human agent.”

    This final admission that the mega-machine requires a conscious, exogenous rational actor is where the theory really splits itself apart, for there simply isn’t a single individual in society that is entirely free from the logic of capitalization, or from the constraints of society: from Nitzan and Bichler’s CASP “To rule [to be the conscious operator of a social machine] means to see the world from a singular viewpoint, to be locked into a unitary logic, to be subservient to your own architecture of power. Dominant capital cannot deviate from the boundaries of this architecture, even if it wants to. Its individual members are forced to accept the very logic they impose on the rest of humanity. And the more effective they are in imposing that logic, the more predictable they themselves become.”

    And so, the mega-machine is a problematic theory of the complex society. I have done some minimal work into reimagining Mumford’s societal machine instead as a social nervous system. Perhaps instead of running away from the problem of free will and consciousness in the search of an “objective thing”, we could face it head on, even make it the foundation of our theorizing?

    Again, if there’s some folks already fixing up the problems I mentioned I would massively appreciate the chance to take a look at that work and put my mind at ease.

    -Thank you all again. As I read through this again I realize I’ve done a rather coarse job of throwing some of the works I’ve gone through recently into the same argumentative basket, while they all present different and varied problems for the mega-machine respectively.

    Much love

    -Dave (he/them)

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    • #245343
      Scot Griffin
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      Have you considered using a biological analogy to the mega-machine instead of using a mechanical analogy? For example, human beings are made up of cells (cogs) that do not have agency but do contain DNA (instructions for creording) that dictate the replication and replacement of cells as they are destroyed. While the human being as a whole is a rational actor who seeks to exert power on the world around him, the human body is essentially an automaton whose operation is largely a mystery to the human mind.

      I have never read Mumford, only Nitzan’s and Bichler’s summary of his work, but perhaps the inspiration for his societal “mega-machine” was its smallest constituent part, the human being itself?  How does a ruler forge a collection of individuals into an extension of herself?

      • #245357
        David Zatorski
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        Dang, thank you all so much for the responses! This is dope! I’m still familiarizing myself with the UI on the site here, so I apologize in advance if my replies are not well organized.

        Scot, while I recognize the appeal of substituting cells and functional systems for mechanical components and resistant bodies [within an individual], my problem is in fact with the very premise of your supposition. In fact, I must reject entirely the notion that humans conform to Reuleaux’s classic definition of a machine as defined by Mumford in Technics and Human Development p.191 “…as a combination of resistant parts, each specialized in function, operating under human control, to utilize energy and to perform work…” This definition simply does not apply to living organisms, let alone nervous organisms. This dilemma is rather well elucidated with a fun quip from the anthropologist Gregory Bateson: “When I kick a stone, I give energy to the stone, and it moves with that energy. […] When I kick a dog, it responds with energy from its metabolism.” Now, we must ask ourselves, if I were to kick an automaton, how would it respond? Well, simply put, it would respond only and exactly as programmed [necessarily programmed by some prior, conscious human agent according to Reuleaux]. If we are to imagine humans as simplified, programmed automatons they would be allowed only that reflex to my kick which is afforded by their programming, which I simply cannot imagine to be the case.


    • #245344
      Jonathan Nitzan
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      Thank you for the interesting note, David.

      I think you present the metaphor of the megamachine too literally and perhaps too rigidly.

      Shimshon and I understand the megamachine not as a one-to-one description of actual society, but as the way that the ruling class tries to structure society. The difference between the two views is important because the rulers are never totally successful in their impositions. And they are not totally successful because the very impositions of the megamachine create conflict and elicit resistance and struggle. This is the dialectical basis for Ulf Martin’s notion of the ‘autocatalytic sprawl’:

      ‘The Autocatalytic Sprawl of Pseudorational Mastery’

      Now, although the ruling class is never totally successful in its impositions, it is certainly successful to some extent. In this context, I think that your point that we cannot observe social cogs harming and killing other social cogs is not well-founded. Capitalism, for example, conditions people to see themselves as stand-alone ‘individuals’ and encourages them, quite effectively, to undercut and sabotage each other, presumably for their own ‘survival’. Capitalism also enables and often drives its subjects to kill other subjects — mostly indirectly, but also directly through organized crime and armed conflict.

      Similarly, the fact that the rulers are locked into and conditioned by the logic of the megamachine — for example, the ritual of differential capitalization — doesn’t prevent them from taking plenty of initiative within that logic. And in a complex setting, these multiple initiatives generate multiple conflicts and lead to unpredictable developments. Also, the fact that the impositions of the megamachine are inherently incomplete is another important source of novelty.


    • #245345
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      Hi David,

      Great to see that you registered and joined the forum. Please continue to ask questions like this.

      I have not read Mumford in a while, but I have read two of his major works (Technics and Civilization, The Myth of the Machine vols. 1 and 2). In my mind, I categorize Mumford as a writer who distills ideas and arguments according to their dominant forms. In his analysis of the mega-machine a dominant characteristic is social coordination, which I think privileges images of everybody working together (in unequal societies and in the interest of power). The details are certainly much messier than this, but Mumford’s style tends to emphasize the ideologies that fuel this dominant characteristic.

    • #245347
      Blair Fix
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      Hi David,

      I have always interpreted Munford’s idea of the ‘mega-machine’ as a metaphor, not to be taken too literally. That said, I agree with Scott that if you do want to take it literally, then you should interpret the word ‘machine’ in a biological sense.

      All living things are essentially robots — bits of matter that have become animated. None of the fundamental constituents (molecules and atoms) have any agency. Nonetheless, through the miracle of complexity, matter somehow organizes into forms that at least appear (to us) to have agency.

      What may interest you is something called a ‘major evolutionary transition’. This happens when a whole new level of natural selection emerges. Life started as replicating molecules, that then organized into larger proteins (RNA), that then organized into prokaryotic cells, that then merged into eukaryotic cells, that then organized into multicellular organisms, that then grouped into eusocial animals …

      At least in the context of human evolution, the emergence of civilization counts as a major evolutionary transition. We went from being a social primate to being ‘ultrasocial’.

      Enter Mumford’s ‘megamachine’. The emergence of civilization went hand in hand with the concentration of power. Humans, for the first time, organized in large-scale hierarchies. If you want to frame this transition in terms of evolutionary theory, then it’s just part of a longer story. With every major transition, units that were previously ‘autonomous’ became cogs in the emergent larger ‘machine’. But in a strict scientific sense, it’s still ‘machines all the way down’. There is no unit where you can distinguish between ‘living’ matter and ‘dead’ matter. It’s all just matter.

      One last point. You write that you are interested in state theory. I am not an expert on the literature at all … mostly because I find it impossible to understand. My impression (and others can correct me) is that much of state theory seems to a dive into the bowels of Marxist theory with little connection to science (i.e. empirical evidence).

      The problem, in my view, starts with the word ‘state’ itself. Most lay people have no idea what it means. But if you use the word ‘government’, they suddenly understand. I may be wrong, but I can’t see how the ‘state’ is any different than ‘government’. It’s just one form of organized power. D.T. Cochrane has been tweeting about this lately, so perhaps he can add more.

      • #245359
        David Zatorski
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        Blair, thank you so much for the response. Firstly I must reject for the same reasons as stated in my reply to Scot, the notion that any organism may be functionally defined as machine-like.

        The problem you approach next is one of classical importance in anthropology- the question it seems Mumford was attempting to answer with the first volume of The Myth of the Mega-machine –is there a paradigmatic difference ‘tween a simple society and a “state” [or as I’d prefer to define it, a complex society]? Mumford would argue yes, and your biological analogy of a “major evolutionary transition” is certainly a more nuanced adaptation of his original hypothesis. I do agree with your analysis here wholeheartedly, yet your reinterpretation of Mumford seems only to point back at the problem of agency here in the act of evolution, where change is affected in individual organisms ultimately by random mutation in the genome, yet the analogy of the machine requires some degree of exogenous agency. The fundamental constituent of evolution in the genome is random mutation, whereas any machine must “evolve” via deliberate intervention: from Mumford’s Technics and Civilization p.10 “…even in the most completely automatic machine, there must intervene somewhere, at the beginning and the end of the process, first in the original design, and finally in the ability to overcome defects and to make repairs, the conscious participation of a human agent.”

        You’re absolutely right in that I find any attempts at defining the “state” prior to Jonathan and Shimshon’s recognition of the “state of power” to be just odd pedantic attempts at rearranging our understanding of government. With this in mind, I prefer to imagine the theory of the mega-machine to be rather a theory of the organization and function of a complex society, which I’ve found a far more productive definition for in Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies: p.37 “Complex societies are problem-solving organizations, in which more parts, different kinds of parts, more social differentiation, more inequality, and more kinds of centralization and control emerge as circumstances require.”


    • #245360
      Jonathan Nitzan
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      Complex societies are problem-solving organizations

      The ‘problem solving’ engine takes a positive view: complexity is created because humans try to solve problems created by earlier complexity, attempts that in turn lead to more complexity, hence more problem solving, therefore more complexity, etc.

      The negative view, which we much prefer, is described by Ulf Martin’s autocatalytic sprawl: social complexity is created when rulers impose their power, leading to resistance, which in turn leads to more imposition of power, more resistance, further imposition of power, etc. (see ‘Growing Through Sabotage’).

      Both processes result in growing complexity, but for opposite reasons.

      • #245363
        Scot Griffin
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        “Complexity” is an interesting word.

        For me, when it comes to human beings and their social constructs, complexity is fractal in nature and driven primarily by the number of human beings involved, not by the mode of power.  More people necessarily result in more conflicts, which result in the creation of hierarchies that seek to limit the number and nature of those conflicts in order to continue scaling the social construct (adding more people).

        Some modes of powers are more scalable than others, though, and capitalism seems purpose-built to scale where other modes of power have inherent and unavoidable limits imposed by the passage of time and the expansion of space (the geography over which the construct is spread), each of which increases the likelihood that a social construct will become “out of true” and collapse on itself.  Plato’s Phoenician tale (aka noble lie) in Republic sought to circumvent these limitations.

      • #245366
        David Zatorski
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        Jonathan! Without gushing too much I must say its an honor to receive a critique!

        Unfortunately, it seems that Ulf Martin’s work on The Autocatalytic Sprawl of Pseudorational Mastery doesn’t solve the problem of non-linearity in nervous organisms, in fact it avoids it all together. This particular oversight is what has given me issue in their work, as although I very much appreciate and revel in Ulf’s conceptions of autocatalysis and symbolic representations, I find I must reject their supposition as to the “origin” of resistance itself, at least when applied to a society.

        Ulf begins their argument [actually with a presumption about the nature of time that I don’t accept, but I will accept it here for the sake of argument] by positioning an individual actor against noumenal reality, or the “course of events”. By positioning an actor against nature at large, Ulf is able to incorporate the laws of thermodynamics to conclude that a person “normally  [technically this argument should be necessarily] act against resistance…” of course, as for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

        From p.3 “Since the course of events left on its own tends to a different state than what the acting person wants, that person will normally act against resistance. Gestaltungsvermoegen, or power, is the ability to create formations against resistance. This is a very general definition and, when applied to formations in the physical realm, can be translated on-to-one into the physical term power = work per time, work (or energy being so to say, the quantification of the amount of what there is to do divided by the time over which the action is necessary.”

        This section ends with an actor only ever acting against nature, and as such the laws of thermodynamics function fine, but…

        “A society consists of more than one person. Let there be two persons, one person and another person. Given the initial state of affairs, the one person wishes a particular later state of affairs, while the other person would like another later state of affairs. If the two intended later states are different, the two persons are in conflict. The two persons could negotiate or even cooperate. But if they do not and their goals contradict each other, a power struggle ensues.”

        The crux of our problem comes at the end of this last block: “…a power struggle ensues.” This assumption is generated by applying the same laws of thermodynamics, but now instead of acting against some object in space/time, we’re acting against another person. And this does not work. No nervous organisms, let alone humans, react to inputs according to the laws of thermodynamics. Resistance is not implied in human interactions, even in human conflicts.

        Ulf seems to recognize the necessity to include the non-linearity of nervous functionality, and attempts to shunt human subjectivity to the ventral end of the argument, suggesting “The two persons could negotiate or even cooperate…” But this is the only reference to the non-determinability of human interaction, and Ulf never mentions this again. Yet this same non-determinability will haunt us throughout this thought experiment, not only on the front end.

        Again, I must refer to the tongue-in-cheek, but rather elucidating quip that I mentioned in my response to Scot, from Gregory Bateson: “When I kick a stone, I give energy to the stone, and it moves with that energy. […] When I kick a dog, it responds with energy from its metabolism.”

        We only have to extend the logic of this to Ulf’s interaction. If I were in nature and I were to kick a rock, it would respond relative to my input. The transfer of energy here is so certain we could observe the distance the rock traveled, I could bring the rock back again, kick it again and by comparing the distances the rock traveled I could extrapolate the power differentials between my two kicks. Imagine this rock is a person. I kick this person. They do not react. Hmmm… okay… I kick this person again. Now suddenly I’m struck in the face and cursed at. If I were to attempt to apply the laws of thermodynamics to these two reactions it seems I’d be in a rather odd place.


        • #245367
          Jonathan Nitzan
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          Thank you David for another very interesting note.

          I must admit I’m no longer sure about the point of contention. I think we all agree that humans are animate rather than inanimate, and that the laws of physics are insufficient to explain their actions and reactions. I think we further agree that there is no complete determinism in human affairs insofar as humans seem to have at least some ‘free will’ — or at least that is how it appears to us. Consequently, models of human and social interaction are open-ended.

          But the models are not completely open-ended — first, because humans are conditioned by the laws of physics and chemistry as well as by their biology; and, second, because human psyche, beliefs and actions are at least partly shaped by their society. I think we probably agree on these claims as well.

          With these tentative agreements in mind, the idea of a megamachine cannot be more than a loose metaphor. A society of humans cannot function like a clockwork or a Boston Dynamics army of robots. Even within the confines of physics, chemistry, biology and ideology there is plenty of room for novelty, and human beings have even started to change some of these very confines!

          But when we consider society, power and resistance to power seem everyone. In this context, we might think of social power as the ability to creorder the evolution of society, and of resistance to power as attempts to oppose and prevent it. And one way of creordering society is to try and mechanize it — i.e., make it responsive, predictably, to one’s commands. This is the basic idea of the megamachine. A megamachine is always partial and never omnipotent for the reasons noted above, but its inherent incompleteness doesn’t prevent the ruling class from trying to impose it nonetheless.

          Now, whether ‘mechanization’ in general and the ‘megamachine’ in particular are the most useful descriptions of this process is an open question. Looking at the world around us, I think they are. The mechanical, ‘rational’ worldview is still dominant, and it is accepted by modern rulers everywhere, perhaps more than ever. But I also agree that there could be other, equally useful or even better metaphors. And if you can think of such metaphors and show their robustness, please share your thoughts and findings!




        • #245370
          David Zatorski
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          Jonathan, I feel I oughta mention that my disagreements are always in the interest of fortifying the theory of capital as power, truly I feel it has afforded me an opportunity to invigorate my own dialectical attempts in a way I never before imagined!

          My concern is that both Mumford’s theory of the mega-machine and Ulf Martin’s theory for the origin of social power contain intractable logical problems, so while the capital theory of power remains a remarkable model for the underlying forces “powering” and creordering society, it could be left without any explanation for what this very social power [and capital as a symbolic representation of social power, of course] is “powering”!

          It appears to me that Mumford’s overall mission was to proffer an explanation first for the development of “power societies” and also for the drastic qualitative difference between societies pre- and post- the global dominance of the capitalist mode of power. I am of the opinion that these developments could be better explained with a theory of the social nervous system.

          A nervous system is well defined as follows: a group of interoperating neurons and glial cells that can interpret information from the exterior and interior environments of an organism; collect, organize and selectively store information vis a vis responsive self-reconstruction [synaptic plasticity/creorder]; and finally, direct motor functions to respond to internal and external stimuli (relative to the organism).

          Here, individuals are either neurons, glial cells, or disassociated particles dissolved in interstitial space.

          The development and qualitative difference between  dominant power societies which we see emerging circa approximately 3000 B.C. and egalitarian societies (tribe v. state, clan v. fiefdom etc.) -sometimes referred to as the “great divide” by anthropologists- is imagined by Mumford in Technics and Human Development as the first successful attempt at creating machines, albeit exclusively social machines [a supposition hampered and ultimately refuted by the rigidity of Reuleaux’s definition of a machine, as I’ve mentioned in my prior posts]. I believe the emergence of hierarchically organized power societies is better modeled by the emergence of early nervous systems in nature: when cells first specialized to be able to respond to changes in their local and distant environments via depolarization of the cell membrane (action potential), and began organizing into functional hierarchies and major functional systems to facilitate ever greater economies of information transfer, retention, and organization. All of these processes are mediated by the nerve cells selectively and responsively creordering themselves, their immediate environment, and all adjacent or functionally connected cells (both nervous and glial) through the positive feedback loop of synaptic plasticity.

          The next major qualitative shift in human societal development is explained by Mumford as the final construction of the “true” social machine. This new era is marked by what Mumford imagines to be the successful mechanization of humans and their interactions in society, but as I’ve mentioned before, this is impossible. This final step of fully automating a person is not materially possible and not a logically consistent theoretical assumption in the slightest. This astonishing epochal shift in human development I believe is more analogous to the evolution of the neocortex: finally the social nervous system – specifically the single dominant social nervous system, or the “nervous hegemon”- developed consciousness.

          This theoretical framework offers us an answer for the “why” of increasing complexity in power societies: societal organization is the brain’s attempt at understanding its own consciousness by recreating itself in social space, by forming ideologies the way our brains form thoughts, and ultimately coming to “understand” consciousness by creordering its own super-consciousness within the nervous hegemon.

          I am hopeful that this theory could solve the logical inconsistencies that exist in Mumford’s theory of the mega-machine, and of course, I’m really only hoping to bolster the explanatory capacity of the CASP method and I submit to y’all the unrestricted rights to throw out my suppositions as you see fit!

          (Seriously, thank you all so much for the responses, this is truly an honor and a pleasure!!)

        • #245372
          Jonathan Nitzan
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          1. There is no need to swear allegiance to CasP. We are doing open science, with critique as its bloodline (in honour of biology!). And your notes are all thought provoking.

          2. Alternative formulations are welcome (if they weren’t, there would be no CasP theory…)

          3. My main beef with biological body metaphors is that they are not very good in describing internal power struggles, let alone inherent and conscious ones.

          Correct me if I’m wrong, but biologists tend to think of bodies as resonating systems whose purpose is ‘survival’ and whose ‘diseases’ are either externally inflicted or the consequence of malfunction. Human societies are different. On some level, they appear resonating. People go to work every day, they think more or less alike, they fight external enemies, they police against internal crime, etc. But much of this apparent resonance is the consequence of an ongoing struggle, often conscious, between a ruling class that seeks and generally succeeds in imposing its own order and the ruled who resist this order.

          Can this ongoing internal conflict be effectively described with body metaphors? Is the brain in ‘conflict’ with other organs? Do the heart and kidneys ever try to ‘take over’ the brain in order to rule the body in its stead? Are some cells knowingly ‘fighting’  or ‘forced into submission by’ other cells?

          4. And speaking about metaphors:

          I believe the emergence of hierarchically organized power societies is better modeled by the emergence of early nervous systems in nature: when cells first specialized to be able to respond to changes in their local and distant environments via depolarization of the cell membrane (action potential), and began organizing into functional hierarchies and major functional systems to facilitate ever greater economies of information transfer, retention, and organization.

          Notice how your biology relies on social metaphors. The terms ‘hierarchies’, ‘economies’ and ‘information’ are all borrowed from our understanding of society…

    • #245376
      Blair Fix
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      On the ‘body metaphor’, biologist David Sloan Wilson notes how biologists frequently adopt the language of society when they describe components of the body. The immune cells act line ‘police’. Cancer cells are ‘rogues’. Muscle cells ‘cooperate’ … and so on. Here are Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson in Unto Others:

      It is a great irony that the language of human social control — sheriffs, police, parlia­ments, rules that enforce fairness, etc. — has been borrowed to describe the social behavior of genes, without the reciprocal conclusion being drawn that human social groups can be like genomes.

      I find body metaphors useful, but only to a point. The cells of the body, like human individuals, are trying to solve problems of collective action. But the cells of the body have had millions of years of evolution to suppress competition. The idea is that at the dawn of multicellularity, there would have been intense competition between cells. The key step in solving this problem seems to have been the evolution of the germ line, which meant that only a tiny fraction of the organism’s cells were actually involved in reproduction. This meant that competition among non-reproductive cells was essentially irrelevant for reproduction. The effect was to suppress competition between the cells of multicellular animals. No similar mechanism exists in humans.

      That said, you can only take the comparison so far. Cells don’t have brains, and never did.

      • #245381
        Jonathan Nitzan
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        Blair, I saw your post only after posting mine, so just a small comment.

        What Sober and Wilson describe is hardly ironic. It is a well-known pattern throughout history. You yourself use the term ‘competition’, but is there really competition in nature, or are we simply imposing our own concept on it? Could Darwin’s ‘natural selection’ appear before the ‘competitive’ world from which Malthus’ theory of population emerged?

    • #245377
      David Zatorski
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      Jonathan, I should have clarified that from the perspective of the nervous system, the perspective of power, all humans are defined relative to their function within the nervous system. Social nervous systems theory postulates that planet earth is the “body” of all social nervous systems. With this premise in mind, perhaps I might be able to plug some of these holes you’ve poked in my bucket!!

      I believe it’s crucial at this point to define what we mean by internal “conflict”, as it incorporates some varied conceptions, I think here we should distinguish between competition, resistance and violence.

      On Internal Competition: When viewed from the perspective of evolutionary development, the nervous system has always been in competition with other organ systems: with the development of ever more complexity, brains have become greedier, requiring ever more inputs of energy and ever more volume relative to the overall volume of the organism (in order to support a larger cerebrum an organism would need more space in the cranium, more vasculature to carry nutrients and oxygen etc.) Today the normal functioning of the human brain utilizes approximately 20% of the bodies energy (while at rest), while accounting for a mere 2% of its biomass. It is singly the most energy hungry organ system in the human body.

      On Internal Resistance: Resistance exists in a literal, physical form as voltage across the cell membrane of every nerve cell. The actively mediated polarization of the cell membrane is the necessary precursor to the transmission of action potentials.

      On Internal Violence: Here I will bifurcate my argument once more, as you asked me to explain both the violence the nervous system enacts on the body, and the violence between cells of the nervous system.

      When viewed relative to the developmental lifespan of a nervous system, we can observe the nervous system doing violence against the planet (the “body” of the social nervous system) in the interest of short-term betterment or pleasure (imagine any opioid addict pushing their next needle, or me, eating a big juicy burger when really I oughta be having a darn salad, here our nervous systems are being duped into self-harm by it’s own expectation of serotonin production!) Even now that our social nervous system is perfectly aware of the long term consequences of extractivism and industrial colonialism, it still has organized itself in the interest of short term reward, to the detriment of the long-term health of the planet and to the long-term health of the nervous system itself.

      And on internal violence between the cells of the nervous system: the phenomena of necrosis and apoptosis offer a fascinating glimpse into the real world of the developing nervous system, where what appears to be an interoperative “resonance” reveals itself now as a veritable quagmire of necessitous violence, homicide, suicide and cannibalism, all enabled and ensured by a grand predestined ritual of mass death.

      From Apoptosis and the Nervous System by P. S. Sastry and Kalluri Subba Rao:

      On apoptosis in the nervous system:

      “… in many parts of the CNS and PNS, roughly half of the neurons undergo an additional stage in which regression leading to death ultimately occurs. This relatively large loss of neurons is a common feature in many types of neurons, occurs in all vertebrates, and appears to have evolved as an adaptive mechanism during the development of the nervous system.”

      On necrosis in the nervous system:

      “…developing neurons also require signals from other neurons that innervate them, some require specific hormones, and perhaps some require signals from neighboring glial cells as well. Thus the survival of neurons depends on a complex interplay of several factors, and any imbalance in these inputs may lead to cell death. The beneficial effect of this mechanism is that although many types of neurons are produced in excess, only a portion of them get sufficient neurotrophic support for their survival, and the rest die facilitating appropriate neuron-target cell innervation.”

    • #245378
      Jonathan Nitzan
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      Thank you for the detailed answer, David. This is all very interesting and inseminating. I remember thirty odd years ago reading and being fascinated by Peter Russell’s work on the ‘global brain’, and I suspect that with easy computing and instant communication this line of argumentation has since exploded.

      But it seems to me that the issues I have raised earlier still linger. Your descriptions of the living body and of the planetary body continue to rely heavily on the way in which we describe our society. In your 650-word post above you have used the terms ‘competition’, ‘conflict’, ‘greed’, ‘violence’, ‘reward’, ‘homicide’, ‘suicide’, ‘survival’ and ‘cannibalism’, and I think many more social terms would have crept up were we to continue.

      My point: we are imposing our own social world on the natural universe around us. And we aren’t the first to do so. Human societies have always conceived the cosmos in this way. But if the natural world is a human-made mirror of our own, using it as a model is a complicating detour (hat tip to Paul Samuelson). Why not simply look at ourselves?

      Regarding apoptosis, a neat video by my daughter, Elvire: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vmtK-bAC5



    • #245382
      R. Salisbury
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      I read Technics and Civilization quite recently and I thought one of the main points that Mumford was attempting to make was that what we think of as “machines” are actually the exception and not the rule. The form of machine that’s made up of humans and draft animals being ordered through social structure and threats of/actual violence are the classic machine, while the mechanical device made of nonliving, manufactured components is the new, exceptional machine. In fact I remember wishing he had come up with a neologism for the latter and talking about creating one among some anarchist friends who have also read the book. I don’t remember if we ever settled on a term, but it was probably something like “mechanical machine” if we did.

    • #245383
      Blair Fix
      • Topics started: 2
      • Total posts: 26

      … we are imposing our own social world on the natural universe around us. And we aren’t the first to do so. Human societies have always conceived the cosmos in this way.

      I agree that science is often tainted by humans projecting our social order onto the natural world. A century ago, Peter Kropotkin chastized Darwinists for their focus on ‘competition’, and their neglect of symbiosis and cooperation.

      And David Sloan Wilson has commented about how the rise of ‘selfish-gene’ theory, made famous by Richard Dawkins, occurred during the Reagan/Thatcher era when individualism was en vogue.

      That said, I am wary of going too far with this line of thought. Yes, we often project our social order onto the natural world. But we shouldn’t take this as far as the post modernists, and conclude that we can never understand the natural world because everything is clouded by ideology. Despite our tendency to delude ourselves, good science does happen.

      I would actually use Darwin as an example. Darwin was deeply influence about Thomas Malthus’s ideas about population growth and reproduction. Today, Malthus is remembered as being wrong — population has yet to run into Malthusian limits. Still, what Darwin gleaned from Malthus remains correct — that usually a minority of individuals reproduce, and these are the ones that pass on their traits to the next generation. It would be a shame to through away this insight just because it came from Malthus’s dubious prediction (and dubious ethics).

      • #245384
        Jonathan Nitzan
        • Topics started: 10
        • Total posts: 56

        Yes, we often project our social order onto the natural world. But we shouldn’t take this as far as the post modernists, and conclude that we can never understand the natural world because everything is clouded by ideology. Despite our tendency to delude ourselves, good science does happen.

        At a risk of sounding simplistic, I’d say that human thinking requires categories; categories imply ‘likeness’; and metaphors are a major form of likeness: they compare and in some sense unite previously orthogonal domains.

        Metaphors are everywhere in human thinking, and they pervade both organized religion and science.

        One key difference between organized religion and science, is that organized religion worships its own inventions as if they are hetronomously given, while science is painfully aware that its frameworks and theories are its own Protagorean making.

        In the monotheistic religions, God is literally the king of the universe, has to be obeyed by its inventors and their laity via his self-nominated earthy representatives, and remains in his position for millennia (or until the worshippers perish). In science, theories and even worldviews, no matter how entrenched, can succumb to counter evidence in a historical jiffy.

        I think that as long as we remember that our metaphors are own inventions and don’t use them as externally given evidence, we remain scientists. When we start sanctifying our metaphors as heteronomous, we move over to the domain of organized religion.

    • #245392
      David Zatorski
      • Topics started: 1
      • Total posts: 7

      -sorry I haven’t gotten back to y’all yet! I’ve been doing my best to digest all of this!

      Jonathan, your daughter’s video on apoptosis was lovely, and I am definitely saving it for any chance I might get to teach an intro class again!

      Shoot, I realize now that we’re getting into matters of epistemology, that the model of the mega-machine is being used to describe a process of simplifying human interactions over time, with the intent (from the perspective of power) to produce perfectly predictable outcomes (a process I still do not think of as very machine-like, frankly).

      You are absolutely right in that trying to categorize every person and define them based on their functions as some form of cell is far too literal an application, and at that point it seems I’d be playing the same game that Marxists are when they try to invent distinctions between classes.

      My concerns with Ulf’s work remain, and I expect that I’ll have to do some digging there! Perhaps we could sift out some problems by applying their thought experiment for the origin of social power to historical instances of the formation of social power?

      [Of course, this means plenty more reading for me, if I’m to be of any help here!]


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