Capitalist technology: ‘by, for and of’ money

by Anitra Nelson
for the Blackwood Group, 22 July 2001


The development of the term ‘human capital’ is a potent symbol of the capture of the imaginations of the soft left by market forces and liberal minds. This development can be understood in part by reference to the failure of communist experiments in Eastern Europe and China to deliver workable politico-economic models of social democracy allowing the full expression of human capacities. I do not want to retrace it, but my analysis of that history (Nelson 2001) underlies the task at hand, a radical critique of Giddens (1998), outspoken exponent of the Third Way path to human liberation. Giddens (1998:47-8) refers to human capital without much of the self reflexivity that his social theory highlights as characterising modern society. In fact for many on the left capitalist technology still represents the handmaiden of a civilised society and the linking of ‘human’ and ‘capital’ appears reasonable, especially in as much as it appears to refer to labour as the essence of market value. However the term reminds me that we currently live under a socially and environmentally unjust system that limits human will and potential.


I aim to outline how the development of capitalist technologies are interrelated not only with low levels of political participation and human cultural expression but also environmental inefficiencies. This analysis of capitalist technologies focuses on the monetary logic imposed on productive activities in a society that produces for market exchange. The technologies that the capitalist system encourages, integrates and develops must enhance profitability, by definition. The thesis is that specific characteristics of capitalist technologies that flow from the constraints of monetary evaluations and exchange necessarily limit a fuller development of human capacities, including political decision making, as well as contribute to environmental degradation.


Capital in its most abstract form is money, money of the class that rules capitalism. This money, via investment, oils the wheels of capitalist production that provides the means of subsistence for the entire population. Competition within the class via the forces of production, comprising of human and non-human nature, involves technologies organising human and non-human matter. Again at the most abstract level this competition is fought in the form of and measured by money. ‘Advanced’ technologies evolve as a means of economising on labour and the materials needed for production. At the same time capitalists explore and exploit the qualities and quantities of natural resources available for human consumption; new technologies often offer possibilities of artificially creating and recreating ‘nature’.

Dominant streams of both liberal and marxian thought have viewed capitalist technology as efficient and inventive production providing humanity relief from subsistence duties to allow the full development of human expression in the arts, physical achievements and politics. Capitalist technologies were enthusiastically adopted by the ruling state elites in national experiments with state communism or (better) state capitalism. Capitalist technologies are viewed broadly on the left and right as saving time as well as money.


In non-capitalist societies time is a variable quality linked to natural rhythms, like human life spans, biological cycles and seasonal changes. In contrast Dohrn-van Rossum (1992: 11) supports Mumford in singling out the mechanical clock as more essential to the industrial revolution than the steam engine:

He [Mumford] counterposes the new time, and conception of time, produced by the mechanical clock, to a lost organic time that was a sequence of elementary human experiences and events caused by man...a process of alienation from nature.

This clock time-consciousness was a direct result of and/or resulted in capitalist accounting methods and the specific kind of time discipline exerted on wage labour. Therefore Dohrn-van Rossum (1992: 13) suggests that ‘the measurement of time stands as a symbol for a whole cluster of processes of modernization and rationalization’.

This peculiarly capitalist notion of clock-time associated with money limits capitalist societies to specific kinds of technological advances. Such advances have been linked with deskilling labour and rising unemployment, that equate to impoverishing human capacities and highlight the extent to which decision making in capitalism is controlled less by managers and financiers than by the god money. Technological advances may use suspect materials, like uranium, and discoveries, in areas like genetical engineering, open vast possibilities for different forms of human development but citizens in capitalist societies have little influence on what new technologies are adopted and for what means and ends. The standard of profitability dominates.


‘Economics,’ writes Minsky (in Kindleberger and Laffargue (eds), 1982, 19), ‘is a strange discipline in which present, past, and future coexist in time.’ This sense of time is supported by the abstraction of clock time, that tends to be linear and one-dimensional. This concept of time is culturally limited and contrasts with ecological, ‘Eastern’ and traditional notions of time that are both more tied to natural rhythms and more complex. Most significantly a capitalist conception of time contextualises discussions of efficiency that involve competition between various forms of technology. Capitalist efficiences conflict with notions of efficiency based on ecological principles of economy; the so-called progress of capitalism is based on the application of technological advances of a very particular kind and on a narrow form of social organisation.

The essential concept of time within market based societies is rigid one-directional clock time associated with the concepts of money and interest. Dodd (1994: xix) points out that money doesn’t really circulate but is transferred between different people, to be found in different places at different times. Money is credit, a claim to value embodied in marketed commodities. Money is an abstraction, a conventional measure that has little in common with other measures which relate to strictly physical and/or sensual qualities. Money is a ‘pseudo-measure’. Clock time and money form the basis of capitalist pretensions to efficiency. This efficiency is highly abstract and ultimately relates more to the accumulation of wealth by those owning and managing capital than any other goal. Yet we commonly use the term ‘efficiency’ in an all embracing way, as if advanced technologies that save money, and (production) time represents the interests of workers and nature. All in all this constitutes a time warp associated with the monetary dimension.


A simple artificial model relating clock time and capitalist production and involving the abstraction money, suggests that capitalism is the most efficient form of production. In fact, from a broader and more detailed view, capitalism can be judged inefficient in terms of both workers’ time and natural resources. Clearly inefficiences arise as a result of the pressure to reinvest profits and grow both the enterprise and the economy in general, making more money, increasing both GNP and GDP. The ecological principles of reduce, reuse and recycle are contrary, in a universal sense at least, to the dynamics of market social systems that rotate on monetary concepts of growth and profit that function in distinctive ways at micro and macro levels.

The inefficiences of capitalist production can be analysed as the result of pressures at the three levels of the firm, the industry sector and the total economy. In marxian analysis these levels relate to three spheres of capital, the individual capitalist (I), the particular (P) and the ‘general’ or ‘total’ capital (G). There are several reasons related to the price-making process why the full expression of human capacities and socio-political empowerment, as well as technologies which exhibit sound ecological economies, are difficult to develop within the productive organisation of market social systems. They relate to the fact that competition is limited to capitalists within industries while at the general level of capital (G), capital of the class, capital must grow and capitalists have a vested interest in absorbing all the time, energy, qualities and will of human and non-human nature. I suggest that many of the arguments that challenge the flow on effects of advanced capitalist technologies re: human capacities, socio-political empowerment and ecological economy are most easily developed in the marxian G-P-I context.

Contra the soft reforms suggested by Giddens, capitalists are suspicious of investing in human capital for the broadest, G, class reasons. Capitalist technology as time saving is a greatly exaggerated quality and accurate in a narrow context, that of a particular industry (P) rather than characterising the advance of capital in the general (G) which is patently time-demanding. In as much as capitalist employment is seen as a right and human capital applauded, the deficiencies of the capitalist system in ecological and human terms is neglected and arguments for a more sustainable and just society undermined. These are the kinds of issues that I believe Giddens should acknowledge and address.


What are the social and material forms of capitalist technologies that Marx as well as liberal thinkers hailed as characteristic of capitalism? Every individual business and industrial sector takes up opportunities to make the commodities they produce in a cheaper way. Often these opportunities involve technologies that are time saving in terms of the production process and labour involved. However the bottom line is saving money, not necessarily efficiencies in labour, resources or concrete time. Therefore, for instance, it eventuates that there is a profitable trade between countries of high and low labour costs that has no humane nor ecological rationale (Emmanuel). And, in as much as the production process requires less monetary investment, given the push for growth, other outlets must be found. The irony is that the technology adopted by capitalists tends to be more complex and time consuming in terms of its creation and maintenance than traditional and alternative (green) ones, especially when it comes to styles of work (Fordism) and life styles (consumerism), i.e. from the standpoint of G, of general capital. In the process capital appears to be a ‘necessity’ and is increasingly omnipresent.

Marx’s labour theory of value points to human time and physical energy as the vital factors in the creation of exchange value and price. His theory posits labour as the source of all (economic/market) value. From a philosophical, political and qualitative perspective this is a reasonable point. Also the focus on energy and time in his labour theory of value is more appropriate than conventional theories of value for ecological economists who focus on ecologically sustainable behaviour. I find Marx’s labour theory of value suspect with respect to the ways that Marx teases out the development of and quantitative details between labour -time, value and money. Clearly there is a connection between capitalist time and money: it is a popular dogma that exchange essentially involves or ought only involve the exchange of labour (clock) hours. Time is money and money is time. Capitalist time is crucial when speaking of interest and profits and relevant to capitalist production in a series of ways which all relate to the concepts, functions and social construction of money and capital. But it is still a time warp, one that classic marxism is contained in by dint of adherence to Marx’s labour theory of value that utilises a concept of labour time necessarily associated with capitalist time. (This argument requires further development.)


Productivity can be measured in units of human, chemical and/or mechanical energy, time, money and/or resources. Productivity in terms of time, money and energy aren’t necessarily commensurate and measuring productivity by market values of inputs and outputs is often misleading. For instance work by social anthropologist, Jochim (in Narotsky, 1997: 12-13), suggests that technological developments in agriculture tend to increase rather than diminish energy use.

A specific form of technology denotes a particular combination of energy, resources, instruments of production, human skills and knowledge. The main principle and characterisation of capitalist technology is associated with the social demand that an enterprise is profitable, that inputs in monetary terms are less than the money gained from selling outputs. So, for example, if a certain section of labour, say in a particular region, is prepared to work for exploitative wages (or even as slaves) then there is no incentive for managers to introduce available labour-time saving technologies. Therefore prices don’t necessarily express resource or energy or time efficiencies-which are often incomparable too-but rather better express social struggles between and within sectors of industry, agriculture and the provision of services. Prices seem to relate more directly to such struggles over resources and their use by property owners than to clock time efficiencies. In capitalist production, time is calculated directly with reference to monetary units of account. That abstract prices suggest equivalence and comparability is misleading when it comes to technological efficiency.

The classic text arguing for the introducing appropriate technologies that respect ecological potential and limits is Small is Beautiful (Schumacher 1973) and the practical application of his theory is McBrodie’s Small is Possible. In the last few decades sustainable technology and energy suppliers have attracted much greater interest from producers and consumers but often face price barriers in the market place. The money-time that defines capitalist social consciousness and the ideological discipline of ‘time’ in market social systems runs counter to ecological rationalities in models based on sustainability of resources. Efficencies in money-time consciousness terms are associated with technological ‘advances’ that are distinct from, irrelevant to and/or erode ecologically sustainable behaviour. Therefore the green advances in industry have been restricted mainly to areas where environmental and monetary efficiencies coincide, most particularly in terms of intrasectoral and intersectoral competition (P and I). In a contradiction characteristic of capitalism such efficiences have the potential to diminish the power of capital as a class, G.


Capitalists have no interest in people adopting modest, humble lifestyles so they can devote themselves to artistic endeavours, to develop alternative organisations of community, to broaden political influence and explore different forms of political decision making. The capitalist economy is formed by frameworks of circulating money and structured by credit measured in monetary terms. The character of money expresses the all-encompassing power of capital(ists). Capitalists see their form of social organisation of employing workers to create commodities, especially using seemingly magical technologies, as superior. Over the lifetime of the younger generation in Australia capitalism has encroached into food preparation and delivery, child minding, and expanded in tourism, education and the arts and entertainment.

Commodity production involves producing lifestyles that are often simplified, standardised, and streamlined lifestyles that circulate like fashions. Non-work situations are increasingly organised along the lines of workplaces. The organisation of parliamentary politics mirrors capitalism in as much as it is competitive, budget oriented, and decision making is based on limited choices. The voter is dealt with like a consumer. Technologies imply techniques of living, social processes of production and consumption that determine the quality of peoples lives. Giddens fails to appreciate the necessary links between social organisations that diminish possibilities for human expression and political empowerment and advanced technologies that supposedly save time that might otherwise allow greater personal and political expression in physical and artistic actions.