Learning the Future: Bogdanov, Neurath, and Scientific Socialism

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By Edmund Berger

Socialism has had a sort of poor track record as of late when it comes to science and technology. From Stalin’s violent repression of Mendelian genetics (and privileging of the pseudo-science of Trofim Lysenko) to the modern contemporary contingencies of anarcho-primitivists, it’s often easy to see what is ostensibly an ideology of advancement oscillating itself between confirmations of the worst despotisms of the dominant, capitalist order, and regressive attitudes towards the raw materials of possible emancipation. The paranoia of computers, simulation, and modelling that blossomed in the 1960s and has persisted until recently recalls, uncomfortably, the anti-scientism of climate change deniers. Where it does embrace technoscience, it adopts them as adjacent to, but not directly bound up within, the emancipatory project. Radical experiments in leftist technoscience, be it Chile’s CyberSyn or the Soviet Union’s own attempts at some form of cybernetic socialism during the Khrushchev years, have fallen by the wayside and are obscured from view. Critical theory continually returns to Situationist discourse, but always seems to focus on those elements that foreshadow insurrectionary anarchism and communization theory. It ignores the constructive side of the ‘construction of situations’ equation – the side on which we can find Constant Niewunhuy’s New Babylon, or Asger Jorn’s celebration of automation.

This is what I think is the greatest strength of Nick Srnicek and Alex William’s Inventing the Future – the reinstallation of technoscience as something intrinsic to a radical, left wing program. Automation, synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, and the planning of complex economic systems all find their application of the largely imaginal[1] horizon of a post-work world. Far from their inevitable brutal application under capitalist control, they offer a vision of technoscience as emerging from long-term state investment (where it emerges from in our current world, anyways) under the direction of democratic control by the population. Alongside this, breaking beyond capitalism requires the repurposing of existing technologies and infrastructures, to unmoor the class structures and exploitative mechanisms designed within their application. Building on Spinoza, the two suggest that “we know not what a sociotechnical body can do. Who among us fully recognizes what untapped potentials await discovery in the technologies that have already been developed? What sorts of postcapitalist communities could be built upon the material we already have?”[2]

Such a program – of developing new technologies through democratic mechanisms, and the repurposing of existing technologies – implies the generation of a sociotechnical literacy (to borrow a term from Arran James). How can a population be brought up to the level of being able to have substantial input into this sort of dynamic reformation? In a time when anti-scientism has yet to wane, how can the working class – and the surplus populations – learn of complexity, modeling systems, and the way that these technics and techniques exist in reciprocal feedback with the ebbs and flows of the population? True, outlets for learning of these things exists, but they remain shunted off in the university (itself repurposed long ago as training grounds for the petite bourgeoisie) or behind exorbitant paywalls. These privatizations of knowledge and knowledge production find their match in cultural attitudes and mores that tell the working class that these forms of knowledge are irrelevant to their daily situations – unless, of course, there is a perceived threat to their pocketbooks. To build a sociotechnical literacy, essential to a future-oriented hegemonic project, thus requires the building of an educational infrastructure that will help people to navigate the cutting edges of technoscience, while also speaking to them on a cultural level.

Importantly, just such a thing was proposed by socialists long ago, in a tendency that was quickly obscured by the hegemony of Leninism in the Soviet Union, the rise of fascism in Europe, and the American postwar sociotechnical hegemony. I would like to offer a cursory sketch of its history.

From Marx to Mach  

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How is it that we know the external world, and how do we articulate our knowledge of it in the arrays of paradigms and systems that we bundle under that singular world, “science”? For Kant, knowledge could be determined through synthetic a priori, that is, statements can be known to be true before experience can verify them. This was the trail to transcendental idealism – what we call “consciousness” is the result of the intermingling of sensory stimulation and actions of the mind. The mind gives form, shape, and structure to “our conscious experience that sensory stimulation does not provide.”[3] The world is out there, but the mind plays a fundamental role in articulating that world in ways that we can comprehend it.

It was Ernst Mach who challenged several of these key assumptions. If the principle of a priori was the mean to make knowledge possible, he asked, how is the a priori itself possible? The answer, Mach reasoned was not to be found inside philosophical contemplation, or in the relations going on within the mind itself. This was the positive task of science, to discern the functioning of the world in a way that a foundation can be built in order to build up future forms of knowledge and knowledge production. That which the a priori was aligned – theory – was unmoored from its ontological foundation, and treated as little more than an instrument through which the functioning of the world could be discerned. What mattered more than theory was the understanding of knowledge, scientific or otherwise, as sensation itself. Experience of sensation provides the “pure data” through which we can know. As such, the task of the scientist was to provide “economical description(s) of observable phenomena”; in a challenge to Kantian philosophy, knowledge pivoted on the “adapting [of] thoughts to facts and to each other.”[4]

In order for such a task to be carried out, scientific knowledge could no longer be isolated away from one another in differing fields. “It is the object of science to replace, or save experiences, by the reproduction and anticipation of facts in thought. Memory is handier than experience, and often answers the same purpose,” Mach wrote in Memory and Science.[5] In order to provide an ‘economical’ platform for knowledge, a memory system had to be crafted that brought together disparate fields. In other words, a unification of science had to be fostered. This would become the overriding intention of the Vienna Circle that flourished in Austria in various forms from the early 1900s to the 1930s, bringing together numerous and notable natural scientists, mathematicians and philosophers. Vienna, however, was not the only place that Mach’s influence would reverberate.

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Between 1904 and 1906, Alexander Bogdanov published a three-volume work bearing the title of Emperio-Monism, detailing an attempted synthesis of Marxist theory and Machist philosophy. His first spin on Mach is a reinterpretation of the sensation necessary for the production of knowledge. In a foreshadow of the contemporary field of science and technology studies, Bogdanov understands science as a collective experience, circulating through and transcending the networks of individuals, apparatuses, and social organizations that produce it. This function, in many regards, recalls the now well-known Marxist concept of the “general intellect” found in Grundrisse.[6] Like the general intellect, Bogdanov’s science is a social function; this, in turn, entails a rendering of sensation as a collective, as opposed to an individual, experience. Yet science has no monopoly on knowledge. Bogdanov had a strong interest in folk knowledge, the kind of knowledge produced by the entanglement of labor and nature. This mode of folk knowledge functions very much like what James C. Scott describes as “metis”, a “mode of reasoning most appropriate to complex material and social tasks where the uncertainties are so daunting that we must trust our (experienced) intuition and feel our way.”[7] What is important in this Marxist-Machism is not so much the superiority of folk knowledge or technical knowledge, but the feedback that exists between and the possibilities of new forms arising from a mutual co-production.

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Like any good Marxist, Bogdanov is attentive to the ways in which dominant (particularly capitalist) social organizations ‘flavor’ the way in which science and technology develop, find their articulation, and are deployed within the social field. In Marxist theory, the organization of society takes places through the superstructure, the realm of family, religion, philosophy, science, the institutions of civil society, which is contingent on the dynamics of the base, where one is to find the modes, forces, and relations of production and the economic system that emerges from it. Through this interplay, capitalism gains the expansionist ability to reproduce its relations. Bogdanov, however, finds this dynamic a bit too simplistic, and ultimately too deterministic, to account for the complexity of historical development. His alternative charts a non-linear movement through science, culture, production, and the way that the labor driving this production is organized. To quote Arran Gare, “For Bogdanov economic life is an integral part of social being, and social being is identical to social consciousness; therefore it is knowledge which is the moving force of history and the main line of social progress.”[8]

Reformulating Marx, he argued that social being has two levels, the technical and the organizational. The organization of activity at the technical level generates technical knowledge or technology… As the technical level became more complex, humans came to need organizational forms. This is the realm of ideology, or what has been called in idealist philosophy, the realm of the spirit – concepts, thoughts, norms, all of those things that would be called ideas in the broadest sense of the word. Bogdanov saw no difference between technical and ideological labor… Techniques are the very essence of human social existence and the primary matrix of social relations, but ideology, the entire sphere of social life outside of the technical process, is also a vital force.[9]

As McKenzie Wark writes, Bogdanov’s perspective is a “labor point of view”, perhaps even more so than Marx’s own, in that while he situates the sensation of experience as the baseline for the production of knowledge, which in turn feeds into the organization of society, as a laboring act committed not by the individual, but by the collective of laborers. “…scientists, artists, and philosophers,” like Mach would argue, “are ‘organizers of experience’”,[10] and communicate this experience through the structures of culture. Culture, then, is intricately bound to the ways in which knowledge is produced and articulated, and thus it is through this complex interplay that culture predicates the organization of production – a starkly different portrait than the predication of culture on the organization of production, as the Marxist base-superstructure dynamic would have it. As long as bourgeois culture persisted, experience would be organized in a way that perpetuated capitalist domination. An attempt to strike out against capitalism without first paying heed to the fostering a new culture that would replace that of the bourgeoisie would ultimately be doomed to fail.

Bogdanov would become one of the Lenin’s major rivals in the early days of the Soviet Union, and his reformulation of Marx clearly challenged many of the essential assumptions of the vanguard party, which carried out its actions on the notion that simply reorganizing the superstructure would fundamentally transform the base. It is for this reason that Bogdanov remains relatively unknown, even on the left, having been quite literally written out of history by Lenin. There is no need to recount the rivalry between Bogdanov and Lenin here, and its relation to wider power struggles in the fledgling socialist republic (though I cover some of it in my earlier essay All That is Solid Melts). What is important here are Bogdanov’s two attempts to build platforms for a revolution in organization, through which a new world can be glimpsed through productive education. The first of these is Proletkult, which attempted to provide the workers with the means in which to create their own culture, and the second is tektology, a sort of ‘science of sciences’ (not dissimilar to the Machist gambit of unifying science) that would allow workers to transcend their status as cogs in the capitalist machine and become worker-engineers, and ultimately worker-scientists.

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Srnicek and Williams argue that the left must construct a “counter-hegemonic project” capable of contesting neoliberalism, one that “enables marginal and oppressed groups to transform the balance of power in a society and bring about a new common sense.”[11] This was precisely the program that Bogdanov conceived of with Prolekult; in his own words, “the inherent condition of Bolshevism was to ‘create as from now on in the midst of existing society the great proletarian culture, stronger and more structured than the culture of the bourgeois classes in decline and more immeasurably freer and more creative.”[12] Socialism was not some far-off goal to be attained in the future, following the heroic negation of the bourgeoisie’s power over the proletariat. It was emergent, right in the social fields of capitalism itself, and simply needed the ability to extend this emergence into the world. Funded by the People’s Commissariat for Education (led by a key Bogdanov ally, Anatoly Lunacharsky), Proletkult flourished in a network of individuals and institutions across multiple cities, often aligned directly with the leading trade unions. Arts and crafts studios, painting and cinema workshops, theater and cinematography courses sprung up, located primarily in direct proximity to factory shop-floors. The influence of the most cutting-edge and technologically-oriented of the modernist avant-gardes flowed through these hotbeds of “proletarian art”, including futurism and constructivism. Writes McKenzie Wark:

Proletkult was a movement with a mission: to change labor, by merging art and work; to change everyday life, by developing the collaborative life within the city and changing gender roles and norms; and to change affect, to create new structures of feeling, to overcome the emotional friction of organizing the labor that in turn organizes nature around its appetites.[13]

Importantly, Proletkult was to break with the student-teacher dynamic that characterizes the majority of education, cultural or otherwise. Just as James Scott defined metis as a sort of labor-knowledge that developed through cooperation within and against nature, the proletarian culture was to be self-generating from the self-organization of the workers themselves. Platon Kerzhentsev, a Bolshevik party official and Proletkult leader, wrote that the network’s studio systems “break with the principle of authoritarianism and are built on the comradely basis of equality and collective creativity.”[14] Self-organization, the Proletkultists recognized, was contingent on the fostering of physical and mental infrastructures, and the subsequent politics of organizing the environment. A leftist, proletarian hegemony had to be built towards, and was never a given against either the bourgeois hegemony or even that of the Marxist-Leninist party – as the subsequent dismantling of Proletkult, and the later dismantling of the Soviet Union, would show.

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If the proletariat was to become the ‘organizers of experience’, this ambition could not be limited to the production of culture alone. A proletarian culture necessarily entailed a proletarian science, one that like Proletkult could be self-organizing and capable of superseding the scientific knowledge/folk knowledge divide. Such was the goal of tektology, defined by Bogdanov as “a general study of the forms and laws of organization of all elements of nature, of ourselves, practice, and thought.”[15] The debt to Mach is clear: tektology would provide an ‘economical description’ of experience, while also moving towards a unity of science that allowed the translation of insights and practices from one field to the next. As an educational platform, it would ostensibly also serve as the platform for future forms of scientific thought, theory, and practice. It is interesting to note that Bogdanov borrowed the term “tektology” not from the Machist continuum, but from Ernest Haeckel; Haeckel, also one of the leading proponents of Darwinian theories of evolution, had been a major proponent of German Naturphilosophie – the school of thought generally associated with Fichte and Schelling that sought to establish the foundation for the natural sciences through the elucidation of general rules and forms of organization governing nature in its totality. A Machist-Marxist tektology would seek to no longer maintain this effort in the hallowed halls of philosophy, but to instead inscribe in the practice of labor.

“The methods of all sciences are for tektology only modes of organization supplied by experience,” wrote Bogdanov.[16] The organization established by natural processes proceeds all other forms of organization, which form themselves within and against nature itself. Thus, all questions tend towards the question of organization. The concept of the dialectical synthesis has no bearing here; organization was never in the primordial past some harmonious totality, nor will it be in the future – communist or otherwise. Nature naturally disrupts all bids for utopia. If one can experience nature, and thus know it, make it into science, this experience is based on pre-existing organizational platforms (such as the self-organizing proletarian culture emerging from the Proletkult infrastructure). Tektology, therefore, “was meant to be a design practice for organizing organization, conceived under very real conditions of scarcity and disorganization, but under no illusions that a rosy and harmonious future lay ahead.”[17] If proletarian science was to take root, it needed an infrastructure that allowed the navigation of this tumultuous hyperchaos. Bogdanov lays out a variety of key concepts, which for him served as the essential baseline for the general rule sets governing this chaos:[18]

  • Environment – that which is always there, always there and composed of systems
  • Conjunction – the coming-together and overlapping of two systems embedded in this wider nature
  • Boundary – the insulation for a given system that must be “breached” in order for conjunction to take place
  • Linkage – the intermingling and interconnection of elements from different system, taking place in the conjunction’s overlapping zone
  • Ingression – the emergence of a new system or systems from the linkage
  • Disingression – the mutual breakdown of systems in conjunction
  • Equilibrium – the act of boundary stabilization in the event of disingression
  • Crisis – the movement of systems towards a point of disequilibrium
  • Conservative selection – the preservation or destruction of an organizational system in an unchanging environment
  • Progressive selection – “a change in the number of elements in a system that maintains a dynamic equilibrium with a changing environment.”
  • Egression – a system composed of multiple subsystems, usually bound up together under the direction of a primary system
  • Degression – the remnants or leftovers of a system’s actions

As this handful of concepts and brief, truncated definitions, the swerving of systems from stability to instability and back again is central to Bogdanov’s tektology. As a science of systems, the concern of tektology is not only the ability of the workers to higher modes of intellect and organization, but to discern the patterns of self-organization latent in nature at all scales. Even more importantly is the recognition that systems operating on different scales interact with one another, generating new systems or collapsing the old ones in kind. The self-organization of knowledge, labor, and culture, then, is established in the context of a wider swath of self-organizing systems, and remains perpetually embedded within them. Bogdanov’s tektology, in other words, anticipates the whole of second-order cybernetics, systems theory, and complexity theory, albeit in a rather reduced and premature way. The reductionist nature of his approach, however, cannot be dismissed outright, for his is simply an attempt to present what Mach had suggested: the collecting and arrangement of generalized experiences, through which the ability to know can flourish.

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Indeed, many have suggested that German translations of Bogdanov’s tektological reflections influenced both Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the father of general of general systems theory, and Norbert Wiener, the leading theorist and proponent of cybernetics in the years following World War 2. While this remains the subject of debate, there are remarkable congruencies between his work and those of these later thinkers. To quote Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi,

Like Bertalanffy, Bogdanov recognized that living systems are open systems that operate far from equilibrium, and he carefully studied their regulation and self-regulation processes. A system for which there is no need of external regulation, because the system regulates itself, is called a “biregulator” in Bogdanov’s language. Using the example of the centrifugal governor of a steam engine to illustrate self-regulation, as the cyberneticists would do several decades later, Bogdanov essentially described the mechanism defined as feedback by Norbert Wiener, which became a central concept of cybernetics.[19]

For the descendants of Bertalanffy and Wiener, such as the complexity theorists working at the Santa Fe Institute, these complex systems become tinged with the attributes of the neoliberal ideology. The ability of systems to self-organize becomes the self-organization of free agents moving and exchanging in the marketplace, swirling about and coalescing into the beautiful swarm of commerce. Tektology stakes itself out against these interpretations far in advance, with Bogdanov having attacked the atomistic worldview as the basis for capitalism’s projection of hyper-individualism radiated from the belief in the self’s absolute agency. While indebted to Mach’s own critique of atomism, tektology, like Proletkult, always maintained itself in the context of collectivity, of generalized experience and intellect encompassing multiple bodies encountering nature together. Everything unfolds under the socialist horizon.

Red Vienna and Beyond

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While constantly brushing up against and transcending the limitations of their ideological configurations at every turn, Bogdanov’s Proletkult and tektology were largely embedded within the Soviet experiment, and reflected the Marxist theories that underpinned the whole endeavor. Similar, yet differing sets of propositions to Bogdanov’s own were emerging more or less simultaneously in quite different setting – in what is now referred to as “Red Vienna”, a prolonged experiment carried out by the ‘Austromarxists’, whose praxis fell somewhere in the borderland between socialism and social democracy. Following the assuming of control over Vienna’s municipal government by the Socialist Party in 1919, an experiment was carried out to generate a socialist system that differed from the top-down authoritarianism of the Bolsheviks. Like Bogdanov, the Austromarxists were skeptical of the idea of a revolutionary break and saw the beginnings of socialism beginning within capitalism. They also shared with their Soviet comrade the idea of cultural playing a fundamental role in bringing about post-capitalism, and went to great lengths to generate the conditions equitable to the emergence of proletarian culture: “prescriptions for an orderly family life and a new definition of women’s role in society; lectures, a vast array of publications, and libraries to stimulate and elevate the mind; associations for the enrichment of artistic taste…”[20] And finally, like Bogdanov, many of the Austromarxists were indebted to Mach, with many of their numbers drawing directly from the Vienna Circle.

A key player in Red Vienna was the polymath Otto Neurath, an economist, political philosopher, and long-time member of the “inner circle” of the Vienna Circle. Often described as a ‘Marxist who read little Marx’, Neuraths propositions were sometimes more radical than the socialists around him. After having directed the Department of War Economy in Austria’s War Ministry during World War I, he became convinced that the economic planning and managerialism that took sway during wartime could serve as the prototype for a socialist society. Neurath did not glorify the conflict, which prioritized arming and feeding the militaries over the needs of the population – but structures and mechanism deployed in the wartime system showed the way “to achieve systematic control of a national economy, down to the smallest bits.”[21] He urged a ‘complete socialization’ as opposed to ‘partial socialization’ – a move that would draw the ire of the pro-market Austrian school, kicking off the infamous socialist calculation debate.[22] Neurath’s complete socialization would rely on a democratically elected and managed central planning committee, whose would carry out the allocation of resources through “in-kind” calculations using input-output tables.[23] While the input-output table at this time was rather primitive (and would later advance through the introduction of algorithmic techniques), it is worth noting that the popularization of the input-output in the Soviet Union can be traced back to planning suggestions made by Bogdanov that analyzed feedback systems between different sectors of the economy.[24]

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Neurath’s socialism was compelled by a vision of the ‘good life’ that entailed the elimination of toil and exploitation; the individual and society was to liberated from the economy, not subjected to it, as both capitalism and Russian Marxist-Leninism both entailed. This good life would be creative and dynamic – and thus would be built upon the foundation of the proliferation of knowledge. But for Neurath, knowledge had no foundation; it could be elucidated neither by metaphysics nor fixed methodology (and in this, Neurath anticipates the ‘scientific anarchism’ of Paul Feyerabend).[25] Like Mach before him, he viewed the goal of science as the assembling together of what can be known in a unified tapestry, so that new forms of knowledge can emerge from within this unity. Unlike Machists like Bogdanov, however, this unity of science was not to be reduced down to generalized sets of rules: it would be woven together by its points of connections, an assemblage that Neurath called “encyclopedism”. In his own words, encyclopedism was an “all-embracing scientific attitude, to regard the mosaic of science consciously as a whole and assist in its completion.”[26] What it did share with Bogdanov’s Proletkult and tektology was that it would communicative and educational, and ultimately would serve as a visual learning aid that allowed anyone to easily understand scientific concepts. Blending his fascination with statistics with the aesthetics of the modernist avant-garde, Neurath devised a visual system that he called “ISOTYPE” (International System of Typographic Picture Education) as the communication platform for complex knowledge.

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In 1923 Neurath founded Vienna’s Siedlungsmuseum, a museum dedicated to housing and city-planning. Such themes were at the center of the Vienna experiment – for the city’s municipal socialists, “the shaping of everyday life (‘Lebengestaltug’) had to precede the shaping of the physical environment (‘Baugestaltung’)”.[27] In collaboration with modernist organizations such as the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), Neurath used the museum to promote experimental forms of town planning that would establish the cultural attitudes necessary to the longevity of the socialist experiment. He also entered into a collaboration with Gerd Arntz, a German modernist designer with ties not only to the Bauhaus school of design, but the Cologne Progressives, a network of militant artists dedicated to fostering a proletarian culture in Germany. Together they devised the ISOTYPE (originally called the “Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics”), a sort of international visual language designed around pictograms that easily communicated statistical data. Neurath and his colleagues at the Siedlungsmuseum were soon compiling hundreds and hundreds of ISOTYPE systems, providing detailed statistical data on everything from employment levels to numbers of labor strikes to car production. The ISOTYPE would provide a glimpse into the totality of the world as organized under economic systems. After the Siedlungsmuseum changed its name in 1934 to the Museum of Society and Economy, Neurath declared that his system would “bring social and economic facts to the masses, raise the self-awareness of the working class, and break down modern capitalism’s fetishization of the ‘object.’”[28]

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Large support for the ISOTYPE system came from Mary van Kleeck and Mary Fleddérus, the leaders of the International Industrial Relations Institute (IRI) that lasted from 1925 to 1947. Van Kleeck had been an earlier women’s rights reformer, with a concentration on labor issues. With financial support from the Russell Sage Foundation (a major force in progressive era politics, and later the benefactor of the burgeoning field of social sciences), van Kleeck had carried out surveys and studies of women’s labor in New York City; she would ultimately be appointed head of the philanthropy’s Industrial Studies Department. This work, in turn, brought her into the orbit of the International Labor Organization (ILO). The relationship was fraught with friction: following its founding in 1919, the ILO had largely excluded reformist movements focusing on gender issues. Joined by Fleddérus, a Dutch activist with an interest in human management (and ties to the Bauhaus school), van Kleeck launched the IRI as an alternative to the ILO. The IRI not only veered to the left where the issues of labor and gender were concerned; van Kleeck and Fleddérus were also ardent defenders of central planning in economics. In an anticipation of later accelerationist perspectives, the IRI argued that the advancement of technology, if handled correctly, could liberate the worker from the constrictions enforced by labor itself. As Fabian Thompsett shows, van Kleeck and Fleddérus’ approaches to both democratic central planning, and the use of technology to wither away unnecessary labor, were influenced in large part by Neurath’s socialist economic philosophy.[29]

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In 1931 Neurath participated in the IRI’s World Social Economic Congress, which brought together delegations from the Soviet Union and elsewhere to address the question of planning in the context of the festering Great Depression. In a presentation titled “The Global Growth in Global Productive Capacity”, he urged the development of “a global economic plan purely in terms of conditions of life and production”[30] – a clear challenge to Stalin’s introduction of hyper-exploitative five-year plans in Soviet Russia. Easy to understand visual aids made to illustrate global economic interdependence were provided by Gerd Antz, driving home the need for some sort of integration of planning systems on a transnational level.

The presentation impressed the IRI, and in her summation of the congress van Kleeck wrote of the need for a “World Research Institute” that would “centralize research” (as opposed to carrying out its own research), which it would then “feedback to business leaders, informing them of the effects of their policies and educating them about economics and scientific management.”[31] The World Research Institute, in other words, would function just like Neurath’s encyclopedism by bringing together information on global production, economic outlooks, and the conditions of various populations in a mosaic that would then easily transmit that information in a concise and understandable way. Indeed, Neurath’s development of encyclopedism (and ISOTYPE, by extension), is completely contextualized in the search for a rational and effective form for planning. In his scientific philosophy, epistemological certainty was an absolute impossibility. This was a challenge staked out in advance to the positions taken up by von Mises and F.A. Hayek, for whom economic actors can rationally approach certainty (though Hayek at least concedes the impossibility of absolute certain) through observing ‘price signals’. By contrast, Neurath found in planning “a technique of approaching problematic situations by examining all possible courses of action and their expected consequences. Then, one would be chosen without presuming it was the best, or only way, to reach the goal in question… it was a technique that enabled and justified action in a world where epistemic uncertainty was unattainable.”[32]

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It’s worth pointing out that techniques such of this do, in fact, play a very prominent role in the world today. Planning is a constant in economic practice, and feedbacks between research, knowledge pools, and action take place through a variety of instruments ranging from statistical aggregation and extrapolation to applications of complexity theory and agent-based modeling systems. The primary difference is that these techniques are not deployed by planners operating under the purview of the state or other institutions, and are not bound by the goal of raising the standards of living across the board. Instead, planning takes place within the confines of corporations and market agents looking to increase their profitability margins over that of other market competitors. Contrary to the insistences of free market theorists, planning does not necessarily contradict the dictates of neoliberalism’s atomist worldview. The “free market” is, as it always has been, a structure that has been subjected to design and redesign many times over. The primary question that we face today is how to organize things in a different manner. Can the technological tools that corporations leverage be put to democratic use?

Given these observations, it’s unsurprisingly then that like Bogdanov, Neurath’s shadow fell across the development of the ‘cyborg sciences’[33] during and after the Second World War. In Neurath’s case, however, the influence was more direct. Prior to the war, Warren Weaver, the head of the Rockefeller Foundation’s natural sciences division (and later benefactor for both Norbert Wiener and Claude Shannon under the auspices of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development’s National Defense Research Committee), had used the philanthropy to help support Neurath and the Vienna Circle’s Unity of Science movement. Following Neurath’s death in 1945, the movement fell into disarray, leading Phillip Frank (a close associate of Neurath then teaching physics and mathematics at Harvard) to seek out increased funding from Weaver to restart the movement in the United States. In 1947, the Rockefeller Foundation provided $9,000 to accomplish these ends,[34] and a new Institute for the Unity of Science was quickly launched.

While Neurath had hoped for an encyclopedism that didn’t subordinate one form of science to another, the outlook of the Institute for the Unity of Science was that all sciences could be interpreted through the prism of “communications engineering and theory”. Political scientist (and Macy Conference participant) Karl Deutsch joined Frank in drawing up a “basic operational dictionary” whose terms are immediately recognizable to anyone who spent time reading cybernetics and information theory: “message”, “information”, “signal”, “noise”, so on and so forth.[35] In 1952, Norbert Wiener and Arturo Rosenblueth inaugurated a “Cybernetics and Communications” working group at the institute, bringing into play the concepts of positive and negative feedback and entropy. The approach that the Institute for the Unity of Science took, then, was more in line with Bogdanov’s tektological distillation of science to generalized rule sets. The key difference, however, was that it was emerging as an explicitly American project, and codified with the directives of Cold War politics. To quote Peter Galison,

The unification these scientists had in mind was a unification through localized sets of common concepts, not through a global metaphysical reductionism. Were the mathematical and technical features of feedback, control, black boxes, flow diagrams, or extensive forms of a game “reducible” to nuclear physics? Hardly. Even posing that question about the kinds of problems facing the Institute seems hopelessly inappropriate. With the kind of power these scientists felt they had at war’s end, fretting about ontological reductionism must have seemed almost beside the point… The Americanization of unity just after World War II was not sited around an isotypic picture language, a physical language, an Aufbau, or an orchestration. It was planted around the new sciences of Los Alamos, the MIT Radiation Laboratory, the stored-program computer of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton; this was to be a science unified in pieces, grounded in common widely applicable concepts, and promising a power beyond dreams.[36]

Learned Complexity

It’s hard to see how hings like Proletkult, tektology, ISOTYPE and encyclopedism, in the forms they were originally articulated, could be directly translated into the world today. Science has moved far beyond that of Mach, Bogdanov, and Neurtah’s times, and politics and economics have reached unprecedented levels of complexity in our unstable, transglobal world. That, however, is besides the point. Srnicek and Williams diagnose one of the primary problems facing the contemporary left is that of the inability to be able to draw up “cognitive maps” of our complex world, that is, “a mental picture of how individual and collective human actions can be situated within the unimaginable vastness of the global economy.”[37] How does one reach out and touch complexity, not only to understand its fluctuations but also how it touches us? And more importantly, how do we begin to manage complexity, not from on-high by technocrats, but through structures subjected to democratic management? Furthermore, how does one begin to foster the cultural conditions necessary for answers to be posed to such questions? By looking back on the experiments and ambitions, however wild they may be, of thinker-tinkerers like Bogdanov and Neurath, we can begin to discern a path to such a space.

To be able to model, much less think through, global complexity requires the ability to comprehend and communicate it. To this end, education is essential, but it unlikely that education strictly in the context of the neoliberal academy would be capable of maintaining such an affair. There is an urgent need for institutions outside of the academy capable of translating complexity into everyday life. “Para-academia” and activist-managed free schools have their uses, but these are often little more than echo-chambers for those already inclined towards these interests. Something like Proletkult, with its desire to leap the gap between education and labor, might have relevance here, particularly given the necessity of generating new cultural formations. Something like tektology or ISOTYPE also has its uses, by bringing together data from disparate aspects of life putting them together in a way that synchronizes the relationships between the self and society, society and economics, economics and production, production and nature, and all the lines that move in between.

Without such a basis, it seems unlikely that any future-oriented politics, populist or otherwise, could be unsustainable. The ongoing skepticism towards climate change, for example, stems from a generalized lack of knowledge that is twofold: on one hand, it is a lack of knowledge of how complex, non-linear world systems operate and the principles that govern them, and on the other hand it is a lack of knowledge of how climate science works and operates. It becomes a distillation of an inability to move outside the civilization/nature dialectic and an equation of modeling systems as ‘artificial’. One can easily learn, of course, how complex systems operate, or how climate science reaches the consensuses that it does, but by and large it remains abundantly technical, and by extension somewhat abstracted from the trials and turmoil of everyday life – no matter how many superstorms ravage the coastlines, populations are displaced, or tornados ravage towns at the end of December. Without closing the gap between the everyday and the complex, events such as these remain for so many mere instances whose causation are uncertain.

Another example can be found in relation to the economy. It is doubtful that the general population would rally behind a transition to a planned – or even semi-planned – system that obstructs the perceived functioning of the market. Even as neoliberal falters and teeters on the brink of collapse, it continues unabated – an unfortunate scenario that is carried, in large part, by ongoing public support for ‘free market’ economics. A large part of this problem can be attributed to a multi-decade propaganda campaign rooted in Cold War politics, and another part of it is due to the colloquial image of economics presented in the media and other outlets. The common understanding of how economic systems operate, in other words, corresponds little to the functioning of the ‘real economy’. Displacing these colloquial imaginaries is essential, entailing the process of educating the general population on how the ‘real economy’ operates.  Like climate change and climate science, the economy is a complex system, and thus we run up against the same sets of problems listed above. And again, it compels us to search for the means to communicate and make palpable what appears at first to be a rather abstract idea.

One final thought concerns a more generalized sociotechnical literacy. While Srnicek and Williams do not comment on it at length, it seems clear that a left-wing future would also encompass projects and programs based on at-home or community-based manufacturing, citizen design projects, and open source, P2P, and commons-based approaches to many of the problem facing us. Brian Holmes has called this the “constructive imagination” – “a way to generate grassroots resilience in the face of [neoliberalism’s] organized abandonment.”[38] “On the horizon of this experiment,” he writes, recalling Srnicek and William’s reflections on democratic institutions, “is a new state-form, able to provide multi-scale support networks for productive communities.”[39] There are no guarantees, of course, that this is the necessary outcome of the crisis of the present. While much of the current constructive imagination emerges from discontent at – or from necessity because of – the social and economic limitations of neoliberalism, conditions and infrastructures are necessary for its proliferation. Such a constructive imagination functions like a 21st century equivalent to proletarian culture; by extension, we can see that a 21st century equivalent to Proletkult is necessary. Likewise, there must be generalized increase of knowledge in a host of areas, from machinic technical knowledge to computerized algorithmic knowledge, to accomplish the blossoming of a widespread constructive imagination.

The infrastructures of our world are born in complexity, and remain within the turbulence of countless systems and vectors. Can we use these infrastructures the make something else? And can we learn to glimpse the complexity of the world, to find ways to reconstruct the ability to cognitively map? Without the latter, the former remains uncertain.

[1] The way that I use “imaginal” here is similar to the one developed by Stevphen Shukaitis in Imaginal Machines: Autonomy & Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Life Autonomedia, 2009. In his open-ended construction, the imaginal operates as a sort of horizon for action that unfolds within the space of everyday life, blending the ‘real’ and the fictional. The imaginal is thus extremely similar to the hyperstition invoked by Srnicek and Williams, and can be used interchangeably here. The major difference is that the traditions that Shukaitis invokes in his development of the imaginal would fall on the spectrum of what Snricek and Williams could call “folk politics”. The schizoanalytic thought of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari lays at the root of the imaginal, so it’s interesting that hyperstition can be traced back to these same thinkers by way of Nick Land.

[2] Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work Verso, 2015 pg. 152

[3] B.R. Hergenhahn and Tracy Henley An Introduction to the History of Psychology Wadsworth Publishing, 2013, pg. 438

[4] Violetta Waibel (ed.) Detours: Approaches to Immanuel Kant in Vienna, in Austria, and in Eastern Europe V&R Academic, 2015 pg. 420

[5] Quoted in  Károly Simonyi A Cultural History of Physics CRC Press, 2012 pg. 407

[6] For an elucidation of the general intellect in the context of post-Fordist capitalism, see Gerald Raunig “A Few Fragments on Machines” European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, October, 2005, http://eipcp.net/transversal/1106/raunig/en

[7] James C. Scott Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed Yale University Press, 1999 pg. 327

[8] Arran Gare “Aleksandr Bogdanov: Proletkult and Conservation” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism Vol. 5, No. 2, 1994, pg. 7

[9] Ibid

[10] McKenzie Wark Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene Verso, 2015, pg. 43

[11] Srnicek and Williams Inventing the Future, pg. 133

[12] Quoted in Jutta Scherrer “The Culture Hegemony of the Proletariat: The Origins of Bogdanov’s Vision of Proletarian Culture” Studies in History Vol. 5, No. 2, August, 1989 pg. 201

[13] Wark Molecular Red, pg. 44

[14] Sochor Zenovia Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy Cornell University Press, 1988, pg. 130

[15] Gare “Aleksandr Bogdanov” pg. 14

[16] Quoted in Wark Molecular Red, pg. 50

[17] Ibid, pg. 54

[18] I owe this list and its definitions to Wark Molecular Red, pgs. 54-55, 59

[19] Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision Cambridge University Press, 2014, pg. 85

[20] Helmut Gruber Red Vienna: Experiments in Working Class Culture, 1919-1934 Oxford University Press, 1991, pg. 6

[21] Nancy Cartwright (ed.) Otto Neurath: Philosophy Between Science and Politics Cambridge University Press, 2008

[22] On the socialist calculation debate

[23] Paul Cockshott, Allin Cottrell, and Heinz Dieterich Transition to 21st Century Socialism in the European Union lulu.com, 2010 pg. 33

[24] See A.A. Belykh “A Note on the Origins of Input-Output Analysis and the Contribution of the Early Soviet Economists: Chayanov, Bogdanov, and Kritsman” Soviet Studies, vo1. 41, No. 3, July, 1989, pgs. 426-429

[25] See Paul Feyerabend Against Method Verso, 2011 (reprint ed.) Feyerabend was influenced by Mach as well as by Niels Bohr. There is an interesting genealogy waiting to be constructed here that overlaps significantly with the topics in this essay. As it’s beyond the scope of present concerns, I’ll point the reader to following: on Bohr and Feyerabend, see Paul Feyerabend Realism, Rationalism & the Scientific Method Cambridge University Press, 1981. On the relationship between Bohr and his famous Copenhagen Interpretation with Neurath and the Vienna Circle, see Jan Faye “Niels Bohr and the Vienna Circle” Juha Manninen and Friedrich Stadler The Vienna Circle in the Nordic Countries: Networks and Transformations of Logical Empiricism Spring 2010, pgs. 33-46. For a radicalization of Bohr’s theories see Karen Barad Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning Duke University Press, 2007. And finally, for a treatment of Feyerabend and Barad (among others) as containing the elements necessary for a 21st century tektology, see Wark Molecular Red, pgs. 109-116, 130-141

[26] Otto Neurath “The New Encyclopedia”, in B.F. McGuinness (ed.) Unified Science: The Vienna Circle Monograph D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1987,pg. 136

[27] Nader Vossoughian “Mapping the Modern City: Otto Neurath, the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM), and the Politics of Information Design” Design Issues, 2006, pg. 49

[28] Ibid, pg. 48

[29] Fabian Thompsett “Encyclopedism for Development: From the Unity of Science Movement to Cybernetics” University of East London (dissertation), 2015 http://monoskop.multiplace.org/images/f/f3/Tompsett_Fabian_2015_Encyclopedism_for_Development.pdf, pgs. 35-40

[30] Ibid, pg. 35

[31] Ibid

[32] Sahorta Sarkar (ed.) The Legacy of the Vienna Circle: Modern Reappraisals Routledge, 1996, pg. 167

[33] On cybernetics, game theory, operations research, and systems analysis as “cyborg sciences”, see Philip Mirowski Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science Cambridge University Press, 2002

[34] Peter Galison “The Americanization of Unity” Daedalus, Vol. 127, No. 1, Winter, 1998, pg. 49

[35] Ibid, pg. 53

[36] Ibid, pg. 67

[37] Srnicek and Williams Inventing the Future, pg. 14

[38] Brian Holmes “Towards a New Paradigm? – Live Your Models: Self-orientation and Urban Form on the Way to a “New Spirit” of Postcapitalism” http://threecrises.org/toward-a-new-paradigm/

[39] What Brian Holmes is describing here is the concept of the “partner state”, developed primarily by Michael Bauwens and others affiliated with the P2P Foundation. The partner state is organized around “a cluster of policies and ideas whose fundamental mission is to empower direct social-value creation, and to focus on the protection of the Commons sphere as well as on the promotion of sustainable models of entrepreneurship and participatory politics” See the P2P Foundation wiki: http://p2pfoundation.net/Partner_State

Original post: https://syntheticzero.net/2015/12/28/learning-the-future-bogdanov-neurath-and-scientific-socialism/

3 thoughts on “Learning the Future: Bogdanov, Neurath, and Scientific Socialism

  1. Dear Orsan,

    i don’t understand, why you put this text in this blog. I don’t understand, why some people speak so much about the outside. Around the hot mush.

    Some principles:
    – The base of our life is the nature. The form is material.
    – Every people need that. And therefore, all people have to participate in that.
    – Every people have the potential to unfold her understanding of the law of the nature.

    That this text act on the virtual level, the social structure, is clear for me. This people have to hide the basics. I don’t know, who is Edmund Berger, the autor, How he live. If we know, we will better understand.

    Bogdanov was an apparatschik like nearly all the “theoreticans” in his environment and time. Never you will find a good answer to our questions. He don’t understand, what is knowledge and how we can create it, what is technology, what is science.

    We have to understand, that the academic space is a parasitic space and naturally, they work for her legitimation. It is that, what we know from Karl Marx and Rosa Luxembourg, from Laurence Peter and Niclas Luhman and many others.

    All this writers don’t like to follow the causal chain. But there we have to start. Then we have the base to think about organisational structures, if we think, we need it. But never we start on the endpoint. All organisational structures are a virtual construction, that only exist in our head and only exist as a reference.

    All this nonsense about state, partner-state, democratic state we don’t need. We know, if we look open, what is the state. We know, what is a representative system and we should know, what is democracy. We know the private occupation of common resources, we know the structural design for the elites. But the common is, that all this objects don’t exist. And why we should speak and think about something, what not exist? Like in the church?

    many greetings, willi
    curr.: Asuncion, Paraguay
    willi.uebelherr@gmail.com

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