The Conquest Of Nature: Benjamin’s Theses On The Philosophy Of History XI
The conformism which has been part and parcel of Social Democracy from the beginning attaches not only to its political tactics but to its economic views as well. It is one reason for its later breakdown. Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current. It regarded technological developments as the fall of the stream with which it thought it was moving. From there it was but a step to the illusion that the factory work which was supposed to tend toward technological progress constituted a political achievement. The old Protestant ethics of work was resurrected among German workers in secularized form. The Gotha Program already bears traces of this confusion, defining labor as “the source of all wealth and all culture. Smelling a rat, Marx countered that ” . . . the man who possesses no other property than his labor power” must of necessity become “the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners. . . .” However, the confusion spread, and soon thereafter Josef Dietzgen proclaimed: “The savior of modern times is called work. The . . . improvement . . . of labor constitutes the wealth which is now able to accomplish what no redeemer has ever been able to do.” This vulgar-Marxist conception of the nature of labor bypasses the question of how it products might benefit the workers while still not being at their disposal. It recognizes only the progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society; it already displays the technocratic features later encountered in Fascism. Among these is a conception of nature which differs ominously from the one in the Socialist utopias before the 1848 revolution. The new conception of labor amounts to the exploitation of nature, which with naive complacency is contrasted with the exploitation of the proletariat. Compared with this positivistic conception, Fourier’s fantasies, which have so often been ridiculed, prove to be surprisingly sound. According to Fourier, as a result of efficient cooperative labor, four moons would illuminate the earthly night, the ice would recede form the poles, sea water would no longer taste salty, and beast of prey would do man’s bidding. All this illustrates a kind of labor which, far from exploiting nature, is capable of delivering her of the creations which lie dormant in her womb as potentials. Nature, which, as Dietzgen puts it, “exists gratis,” is a complement to the corrupted conception of labor. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History,” in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, pp.258-259
If there is any thesis of Benjamin’s which we have encountered thus far with which to take serious issue, it is this one. Without commenting on the internal struggles present during the Gotha Conference of 1875 that united the two largest Socialist Parties in Imperial Germany, it is surprising that Benjamin begins this thesis with a criticism of the Social Democrats’s belief that technological improvements were akin to improved working conditions; that these technological improvements were the result of the Social Democrats’s reliance on labor solidarity forcing industry to provide conditions for the improvement and, as the Gotha Statement made clear, the dignity of labor in an industrial society. Yet he ends with what might have seemed fanciful in the 1930’s, and perhaps even a humanizing and taming of nature toward humane ends, but some of which we live with and can only be set at the feet of the very exploitation of nature that Benjamin derides as part and parcel of a vulgar Marxism that he insists does not understand that techne that serves the ruling class does not serve humanity.
Regardless of the ends to which the exploitation of nature are put, one cannot in good conscience applaud a vision of communal labor destroying the night sky, melting the polar ice caps, desalination, or forcing domestication upon wild species. We already live with the results of the end of night in our metropolitan areas. The melting of the polar ice caps continues apace, and we all know that can only bring more human disaster. While desalination in arid areas of the world might certainly serve certain limited human ends, the desalination of the oceans would destroy not only the maritime ecosystem, but could spell disaster for the whole planet. There are already vast swaths of the ocean that are deoxygenated thanks to human technology; desalinating would be even more disastrous. Finally, wild species do not exist to serve human ends; even those species we have domesticated are harmed by their association with human beings.
The view Benjamin expresses here is rooted in the Baconian and Cartesian idea that control of nature equals power. It is as old as the modern era, and has wreaked havoc across our planet, in any and every ecosystem, and is quickly altering the very processes of the climate upon which so much of our present life depends. Evolution by natural selection does not and cannot work fast enough to keep up with the changes we have already experienced, and which will continue to pile up as nation-states diddle around the edges of solutions, leaving the basic structure of natural destruction and exploitation intact. For Francis Bacon and Rene Decartes, the natural world was just a thing, its sole purpose to grant to humanity more and more power as we exploited it for our own ends. Few ideas have been as disastrous as the idea that nature is a void, a surd, void of any integrity in and for itself therefore useful only for human uses and those who have the power define and construct them.
After Creation, all that God had made was handed over to humanity as a charge to keep. We are not the exploiters of the natural world, but merely its stewards because the true Master of Creation has graciously offered us the opportunity to preserve and protect it. Instead, we have raped and pillaged and destroyed and killed off entire species and are on the brink of altering the planetary climate, rendering huge swaths of the planet uninhabitable not only by human beings but any species currently living. To fall in to the technological trap, even one claimed as serving the interests of the oppressed, is to continue the Baconian/Cartesian project of control, power, and destruction. We must rid ourselves of the idea that nature is a thing that exists solely for human use before we render the world incapable of supporting human life. A Christian cannot endorse a program to make the world in our image, for the Bible reminds us that image is corrupted by sin and evil. We must return to view of our place as stewards of God’s good creation; it might already be too late, but still, it is far preferable to the destructive fantasies Benjamin endorses.