Hornborg's Power of the Machine


The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment
Alf Hornborg, 2001

“Like all power structures,” Hornborg begins, “the machine will continue to reign only as long as it is not unmasked as a species of power.”  If only it was so easy.  We may realize that the emperor is naked, and he may be embarrassed. But that doesn’t stop him from being the emperor.

This isn't Environmental History, despite the title. It's more a cross between economics and philosophy. And the argument is not backed up by any historical claims or evidence, it's completely theoretical. But Hornborg went on to write and collaborate on books that do call themselves EnvHist, so I thought I'd look at his argument. Turns out, Hornborg’s analysis is built on two big ideas. The first is his definition of power as “a social relation built on an asymmetrical distribution of resources and risks” (1). When I read this, the image that came to my mind was Beowulf. Risks can either be taken or imposed. When you take a risk, you accumulate honor and become a hero. When you impose a risk on someone else, you accumulate power.

The second is the idea that beyond the cultural construction or idea of “the machine,” there are
actual machines. And Hornborg says “the actual machine contradicts our everyday image of it.” Hornborg believes “the foundation of machine technology is not primarily know-how but unequal exchange in the world system, which generates an increasing, global polarization of wealth and impoverishment” (2). We believe machines embody progress and an escape from Malthusian disaster. But they don't feed themselves: “We do not recognize that what ultimately keep our machines running are global terms of trade. The power of the machine is not of the machine, but of the asymmetric structures of exchange of which it is an expression” (3).

The way machines concentrate resources from the periphery into the center while seeming to be making something out of nothing, is by keeping our attention firmly focused on the spinning gears and flashing lights in that center. To prove his point, Hornborg cites the Second Law of Thermodynamics and Ilya Prigogine’s elaboration of it in his theory of Dissipative Structures. Increases in order, which Hornborg calls negative entropy or negentropy, are only possible locally, and are fueled by energy  taken out of the wider environment. “Any local accretion of order,” Hornborg says, “can occur only at the expense of the total sum of order in the universe” (123). In the case of biomass, the energy to create this order is taken from sunlight by photosynthesis. This isn’t a completely efficient process, but it hardly matters on a human scale (so far). Where the entropy law becomes really important, though, is in the creation of what Hornborg calls “technomass” out of non-renewable resources. This is not only a zero-sum game, Hornborg says, but it has distributional implications that are “systematically concealed from view by the hegemonic, economic vocabulary” (3).

“Industrial technology,” Hornborg says, “depends for its existence on not being accessible to everyone.” Industry presupposes cheap energy and “raw material” inputs and high-value outputs. Entropy insures that there isn’t enough to go around. “The idea of distributing [technology] evenly among all the peoples of the world would be as contradictory as trying to keep a beef cow alive while restoring its molecules to all the tufts of grass from which it has sprung” (125).

What are the historical implications of this bleak argument? Well for one thing, once machines and the exchange relationships they represent “assumed the appearance of natural law…the delegation of work from human bodies to machines introduced historically new possibilities for maintaining a discrepancy between exchange value and productive potential, which in other words means encouraging new strategies for underpayment and accumulation” (13). Why? Because while it is relatively easy to recognize the basic justice that an individual owns his own work, it’s harder to say who should own the work of the machines built with (cheap) resources and (cheap) labor bought far from the high-priced central markets.

This was the thing that Marx missed, either because it was harder to see in his time, or because (as Hornborg suggests) he “fetishized” machines and expected them to solve the historic problem of the proletariat (there’s a whole chapter redefining Marx’s theory of fetishism and applying it, but I'll save that for another time). At some point, Hornborg says (I'd say pretty early on), global growth became primarily based on “
underpayment for resources, including raw materials and other forms of energy than labor.” Hornborg replaces Marx’s labor exploitation with resource exploitation as the central factor in capitalist accumulation. This change is a great bridge from a traditional Marxist critique of capitalism, to a “green” critique. Money values may increase and the illusion of global economic growth may temporarily hide the zero-sum nature of the game, but in the long run “what locally appears as an expansion of resources” turns out to be “an asymmetric social transfer implying a [hidden] loss of resources elsewhere” (59).

Another implication is that, historically and “still today, industrial capitalism is very far from the universal condition of humankind, but rather a privileged activity, the existence of which would be unthinkable without various other modes of transferring…resources from peripheral sectors to centers” (60). This should impact discussions of the “market transition” in history just as it affects our understanding of contemporary economic development.

The other major implication, for me, is that locality is key. In nature, systems tend to regulate themselves. “As long as a unit of biomass is directly dependent on its local niche for survival, there will tend to be constraints on overexploitation and a long-term (if oscillating) balance. Industrial growth, however, entails a
supra-local appropriation of negentropy” (123). The concept of mobile, impersonal capital breaks this local ecology, and creates what Hornborg calls “a recursive (positive feedback) relationship between some kind of technological infrastructure and some kind of symbolic capacity to make claims on other people’s resources” (61). When capital can begin to be accumulated far from its source, we’re on our way to a world where “the 225 richest individuals in the world own assets equal to the purchasing power of the 47 poorest percent of the planet’s population.”

But one could also respond to this by saying Hornborg takes the thermodynamic argument too far. It's a compelling metaphor, but it needs some measurement attached to it. Sure, all order is temporary and a battle against entropy. But we have a more benign name for that than the ones Hornborg uses. We call that life.