Daniel De Leon editorial : Social Character of Machinery


Social Character of Machinery
by Daniel De Leon
reprinted from The People, Sept. 9, 1894

The only manner in which man can act upon nature is by motion.

In this respect, John Stuart Mill observed: "Man moves a seed into the ground; he moves an axe through a tree; he moves a spark to fuel; he moves water into a boiler over a fire; the properties of matter do the rest." In other words, "This one operation of putting things into fit places for being acted upon by each other, by their own internal forces, is all that man does, or can do, with matter."

This is a statement of fundamental import, and John Stuart Mill so highly valued it that he claimed the credit for having first made it. Yet, with the usual shortsightedness of political economists, bounded in their views by their narrow middle-class environment, he utterly fails to draw from it the only possible conclusion, viz., the social character of machinery, and the stupendous wrong done to man, a social being, by private ownership of the mechanical organs of motion.

Confined to the use of his own physical power, man is one of the most helpless animals. In proportion to his size and requirements, he is unquestionably very weak and slow.

But the superiority of his organism consists precisely in the aptitude of his brain, and the fitness of his hands, for the contrivance and use of mechanical devices, though which he may take from nature, by artifice, these forces in which he is naturally wanting. Every such contrivance is to him like a new organ by which his power of motion is increased.

But the point is soon reached in the development of the artificial organs, where a single individual cannot produce or use them. Beyond the most primitive of hunting, fishing, and cultivating implements, every tool, not to speak of the more complex machine, requires, in its making, or in its handling, or in the purpose for which it is handled, the cooperation of several individuals.

In other words, all the benefit of machinery lies in its social, cooperative use.

Give a man all the knowledge and machinery of this age, and place him on the richest land, in a country isolated from the rest of the world. Of what benefit will that be to him, as compared with the welfare which he can obtain from his fellows, in exchange for what he can produce with an infinitesimal part of that knowledge and of that machinery?

Mark, furthermore, that every tool, like every form or product of knowledge, is, in fact, a social growth, requiring the cooperation of successive generations.

Show me a machine today whose patentee can claim freedom of indebtedness to some predecessors. From Archimedes to Watts; nay, from the first savage who made use of a stone axe, to the most eminent of modern inventors, the social chain of observation, discovery and cooperation is unbroken.

From the comparative physical impotency of man in his natural state, and from his inability to invent, make and use, unaided by his fellows, all the tools he needs to multiply his powers of motion, in the degree required for his safety and welfare, comes the social state, in which the tool is necessarily a social organ; social in its origin, social in its growth, social in its purpose, social in its incorporation of natural forces which of right belong to all; set in motion by human muscles, for the good of the social body, under the direction of the social will.

Hence the tendency of society itself to develop into a constantly higher organism as the differentiation, power, and socialization of tools becomes more complete; while the social will, enlightened by a better knowledge of the requirements of the body in all its parts, becomes less uncertain, less undecided, less erratic, and, therefore, less arbitrary or tyrannical.

More evidence might be adduced to show the social character of machinery. Upon what proceeds we may, however, safely rest the following generalization:

Each man has an equal social right to multiply his powers of motion by all the social factors of civilization. Private property in any of these factors is inconsistent with this fundamental right; it must, obviously prove a source of economic despotism and industrial slavery.