Science, Capital and Apocalypse

Albert Durer woodcut

Midnight Notes on Newton, thermodynamics, class struggle and the refusal of work. Published November 1980.

Submitted by Fozzie on June 14, 2023

The litany of natural stuffs — petroleum, natural gas, uranium, coal, wood, water, sunlight — apprehension about their limits, joy in their abundance, scepticism about their benefits, pass for the bulk of “analyses” of the “energy crisis” that “we” face. Whereas in the ’50s and ’60s Nature was “under control” and the robots (e.g. Hal in 2001) were rebelling, now it appears that Mother Nature is turning a new face: instead of the obedient, invisible and infinitely malleable material of social development, the terrestrial abode seems stingy and treacherously seductive. For the energy crisis is usually traced to two problems:

(a) the “limited” or “finite” amount of fossil and uranium fuels in the earth;

(b) the increasingly “surprising” discovery of interactions between the use of these fuels and their
biological and social effects.

Although the analysts place different emphases on these two “problems”, their “solutions” usually
address both. Indeed, the “great energy debate” (at least what passes for it) is a confrontation between the anti-limitationists, who are anxious about the rapidly approaching abyss of zerooilcoalnaturalgasuranium and are ready to introduce any “way out”, however untried, and the collective interactionists, who argue that the “balance” or “fabric” of Nature is so intricate and fragile (to mix metaphors) that any of the schemes of the anti-limitationists would drive Mother Nature into a schizophrenic breakdown.

From this debate one would presume that these are momentous times. They are, but not in the way that is being implied. On the one side, the anti-limitationists cringe in terror at the prospect of a “day the earth stood still” repeated so often that “civilization” (sometimes with the proviso “as we know it”) collapses into an age of social anarchy — starvation, rape, murder and cannibilism. (“What’s new,” we might ask...) On the other side, stand the equally apocalyptic interactionist envisioning of huge floods let loose by the CO2 “hot house” effect or the end of all biological life due to the depletion of the ozone layer causing a tidal wave of high-energy radiation to penetrate the chromosome linkings and breakdown the proteins, or a festering mutant jungle released by the radioactive wastes of nuclear reactors. Conclusion: either social anarchy or natural anarchy, “take your choice” we’re told. But must we choose? Are these our alternatives?

This debate with its apocalyptic overtones indicates a crucial crisis for capital and its attempt to carry through a major reorganization in the accumulation process to overcome it. The Apocalypse is no accident; whenever the ongoing model of exploitation becomes untenable capital has intimations of mortality qua the world’s end. Every period of capitalist development has had its apocalypses. Here I’m not referring to the micro-apocalypse of death: everybody dies and even if everybody dies at the same time (I mean everybody) what’s the problem? The earth becomes a cleared tape and why should the angels grieve?

I am talking about those functional apocalypses that mark every major change in capitalist development and thought. For the Apocalypse approached at other times in the history of capital, when (as in the last decade) the class struggle reached a level that jeopardized capital’s command.

In the seventeenth century, a pervasive premonition of apocalypse was voiced by the “philosophers”, “astronomers” and “anatomists” (i.e., capital’s planners) in the face of the revolutionary upheavals of the newly-forming proletariat that was being introduced to the capitalist discipline of work. In this phase questions of inertia,1 time and order were paramount. The working class seemed full of inertia, lacking inner control mechanisms and manageable only by external forces. Capital’s concern with its apocalyptic potentialities can be seen reflected in Newton’s theory of the solar system: the planets revolve around the sun, but their revolutions continually deviate from the equilibrium path because of the random, irregular gravitational impulses they communicate to each other. Ptolemy’s crystal suddenly looked like a mob that with this-and-that, slowly, imperceptively, became unruly, though it was nominally dominated by the gravitational field of the sun. The deviations accumulated to a point when some planets would spin off into the stellar depths while the others would dive into the sun’s inferno. Hence Newton’s argument for the necessity of God’s existence, whose function in the universe was to prevent this catastrophe by periodically returning the planets to their equilibrium orbits via a true miracle. The solar system was the “Big Watch” and God was not only the watchmaker but also the watch repairer, otherwise the mechanism, through its blind obedience to the laws of inertia, would snap and break however finely wrought. God must intervene to create orderly time from chaotic mixtures of inertia and attraction. Given the universal identification of God with the state in the seventeenth century, it is not hard to decipher Newton’s prescription for the state policy visa vis the apocalypse portended by its “wandering stars”, the proletariat. (A prescription Newton embodied in his job as the inquisitor and torturer of counterfeiters for the Royal Mint).

In the Newtonian period capital’s main task is the regularization of time as a precondition for lengthening the working day. Medieval production time was circular and the pacing of work and “rest” fixed by “eternal” seasonal and diurnal dichotomies. Summer and days could not be stretched, winter and nights could not be shrunk at will. Newton and his fellow “century of genius” planners had to create a non-terrestrial work-time, that would be the same in winter and summer, in the night as in the day, on earth as it is in heaven. Without this transformation of time, lengthening the working day would be impossible to imagine, much less impose “with fire and blood”.

By contrast, the “revolutions” and organizational forms thrown up by the working class in the first half of the nineteenth century spelled the end of a period where profits could be created by stretching the working day to its limit. Capital had to “revolutionize” the technical and social conditions of production to turn the proletarian revolt against work into an intensively productive working day. Absolute time was no more of the essence, productive intensity was. Capital could no more complain that the working class was inert, unmotivated or tending to rest. The class was on the move, scheming, energetic, volatile. If the work-house prison sealed from “the elements” was the first laboratory of work, the working class was clearly blowing out the sides of the container and destroying the experiment. The problem was no more how to confine workers as long as possible but how their energy and revolutionary heat could be transfered into work. Not surprisingly Thermodynamics, “the study of energy, primarily with regard to heat and work”, becomes the science after 1848.

Thermodynamics begins with Sadi Carnot’s attempt to determine the possibilities and limits of creating productive work out of heat and energy when in confining it, it explodes. His leading idea is that if a mass is exploding you should give it a way out so organized that it will push a piston and thus do work for you. Carnot’s analysis focused upon an idealized version of Manchester’s “demonic” steam engine and attempted to determine under what conditions the expansion/compression cycle of a gas would give a maximum amount of work. Carnot’s cycle, thus, became a representation of the cycle of class struggle that was taking shape in the nineteenth centry, putting the working class’ wage demand at the center of the “business cycle”.

Carnot’s laws of thermodynamics grew out of his memoir and led, as Ariadne’s threads, out of the “crisis labrynthe.” For Physics is not only “about” Nature and applied “just” to technology, its essential function is to provide models of capitalist development, i.e., models for the organization of work. The ultimate nature for capital is human nature while the crucial element of technology is work. The First Law of Thermodynamics, e.g., did not simply recognize that though energy has many forms (not just “mechanical”), each can be transformed into the other without loss. Its consequences impinged on capital’s conception of labor power. A more general view of energy was imperative if the technical and social conditions of production were to be “revolutionized”, for the old mode of production assumed a fixed limit on the forms of energy that could generate work. This new Law taught capital a generality and" flexibility in its productive arrangements that it did not even experiment with in the First Industrial Revolution.

Like Darwin’s discovery, Gustav Mayer’s first enunciation of the law of the conservation of energy occurred in a typical nineteenth century way: on an imperial voyage to the tropics:

A sailor fell ill of some lung disease. Mayer bled him, observed that venous blood was a brighter red in the tropics, much closer to arterial, and concluded that metabolism drew less oxygen from the blood in hot climates because maintenence of body temperature required less heat.2

In Mayer’s perspective the sailor’s body was the mediator of manifold forms of force that are “indestructible, variable, imponderable”. Though the forms of force and energy would change their transformations they conserved the basic quantity of production, energy. The concept of energy is thus defined on such a level of generality and abstractness that an enterprising spirit would see the possibility of producing work from novel, untoward sources.

While the infinite multiplicity of energetic forms inspired a tremendous optimism in capital’s search for new work forces. Thermodynamics laces this high with arsenic: the Second Law. An ominous version goes like this; a perpetual motion machine completely transforming the energy of the surroundings into work without any loss is an impossibility. The Second Law however has even darker consequences than deflating capital’s dream of getting work for free (having workers “living on air”). It states that in any work-energy process less and less energy becomes available for work. ENTROPY (the measure of work inavailability) INCREASES. Clausius put it in cosmic form; “The energy of the universe is constant; the entropy of the universe increases to a maximum.”3

The Second Law announced the apocalypse characteristic of a productivity-craving capital: THE HEAT DEATH. Each cycle of work increases the unavailability of energy for work. As the efficiency of the heat engine depends on the distance between heat input and heat output, the Second Law predicts a slow, downhill leveling of heat-energy differences, (on a cosmological scale) until there are no more flows of energy for work. “The world is living on its capital” and all around is the whisper of the impending silence. This image of an undifferentiated, chaotic world had a two-fold echo: in the rhetoricians of mass culture like Henry Adams (“the so called modern world can pervert and degrade the concepts of art and feeling, and that our only chance is to accept the limited number of survivors — the one in a thousand born artists and poets — and to intensify the energy of feeling within that raidant center”4 ), and in the pragmatic thought of Taylor. The Henry Adams’ mourned over the loss of accumulated values that, at best, could only be “saved” in the leveling of social and cultural differences announced by “energy’s dissipation” into a heat death apocalypse, Taylor instead saw the essence of a project: productivity is efficiency. His answer to the second law (if not absolutely, relatively) is not “conservative”, it is a “revolutionary” attempt to create a far more efficient organization of work and to perfect the intermeshing of worker with environment. Taylor attempted in practice what Carnot did in theory: test the limits of an efficient transformation of energy into work. In a typical American fashion, he turned to the man-machine instead of its reflection in the machine-machine. Once again, it seemed that the apocalypse could be averted if Action was taken. This time, however, it was not the action of God qua super-State, but capital’s planning in its own self-conscious, scientific analysis: scientific management.

Newton’s apocalypse and Clausius’ apocalypse do not simply have analogical connections with capital’s crisis in their respective periods. The theories they derive from do not merely have contingent or ideological relations with the contemporary, on-going organization of work. Capitalist crises stem from refusal of work. Thus, in times of crisis new analyses of work, new schemes for overcoming resistances to it become imperative. Physics, in this context, does not have a separate content, but provides definite analyses of work and new plans for its organization. Its “models” may appear abstract but they are directly related to the labor-process.

Newton’s parable of the transformation of working class inertia into work and his appeal to God qua State to restore equilibrium under centripetal and centrifugal pressures is a general methodological scheme. The relation of thermodynamics to work is more explicit. The WORK of thermodynamics and the WORK of capital are no mere homonyms. Capital faces working class resistance to work in continuously new ways as this resistance changes in its power and organization (though it may seem “impotent” and “chaotic”). Capital is concerned with physical work because the labor-process is the transformation of labor-power (energy, inertia) into labor (work). This is the “eternal necessity” of capital and physics provides models for overcoming “resistances” and measuring-rods of levels of crisis. The Apocalypse is an extreme measure of the failure of these models. Capital’s problem in the nineteenth century changes from that of Newton’s time in the same way the resistance of inert machines shifts into the chaotic energy of random micro-particles. Essentially, however, it remains the same: what is the possibility, limit and method of creating useful work (“order”) out of the “almost natural evasion, subversion, resistance and covertness of the working class.

Capital’s despair is always hypothetical, yet always virtually existent. This is the multiple function of the apocalypse. It serves not only as a parameter for the on-going process of work organization and experimentation, it serves also as a reminder and a threat. A reminder, because capital’s control is contingent, and revolutionary potentialities exist at each instant. A threat, because it attempts to project the destruction of capital as the destruction of the universe (as in the heat death). As long as the “elements” of the working class are attached to the totality, the apocalypse is the extreme point where opposites meet in avoidance. It is capital’s threat, if we go too far, to take us all down with it. If we annoy God too much, if we agitate too much, if we become too unavailable for work, then the “mutual destruction of the classes” is used as a club to bring us back into line. But must the molecule fear if the engine dies?

What of the “energy crisis” and its apocalypses? The first thing to note is that the term “energy crisis” is a misnomer. Energy is conserved and quantitatively immense. There can be no lack of it. The true cause of capital’s crisis in the last decade is work or, more precisely, the struggle against it. The proper name for the crisis then is the "work crisis” or, better, the “work/energy crisis”. For the problem capital faces is not the quantity of work per se, but the ratio of that work to the energy (or labor power) that creates it. Capital is not just a product of work. Capital is the process of work- creation, i.e., the condition for transforming energy into work. Energy has within it a restless activity, an unpredictable microscopic elusiveness, antagonistic, indifferent as well as productive of the work capital so desperately needs. Though the eternal cycle of capitalist reality is the transformation of energies into work, its problem is that unless certain quantitative levels are reached, the relationship expressed in the work/ energy ratio collapses. If entropy increases, if the availability of the working class for work decreases, then the apocalypse threatens.

The forms the apocalypse takes in this crisis are crucial. They signal both a warning and a specific threat, as the heat death apocalypse inspired Taylorism and the Newtonian centripetal/ centrifugal catastrophies dictated certain features of mercantilist state intervention. What do the anti-limitationists and interactionists allow for decoding the present crisis? The first step in the decoding must lie with “Nature”. It appears that Nature and its stuffs are an independent pole, given and distinct from capital — its “raw” material, as it were. From the exhaustion curves of oil or natural gas it appears that a black hole is absolutely devouring them. But for capital, Nature qua Nature is non-existent. Nature too is a commodity. You never have oil, or natural gas, or even photons that do not take a commodity form. Their commodity reality is what is crucial; even when you talk of the Earth or the solar system you cannot speak of a non- capitalist reality. The energy problem is unequivocally a problem of capital and not of “nature” or “Nature and Man”. OUR problem is to see that capital’s difficulties in planning and accumulating spring from its struggle against the refusal of work (the multi-dimensional subversion of the orderly transformation of energy into work). Thus, according to our decoding, through the noise of the apocalypse, we must see in the oil caverns, in the wisps of natural gas curling in subterranean abysses, something more familiar: the class struggle.

  • 1 The following quotations from R.H. Romer, ENERGY: AN INTRODUCTION TO PHYSICS, (San Francisco, W.H. Freeman and CO., 1976) might be of help:

    “The principle of inertia: an object that is at rest remains at rest unless
    acted upon by a force; an object that is in motion remains in motion,
    moving the same direction with constant speed unless acted upon by a
    force.” (p. 84)

    “The First Law of Thermodynamics states. . . the total energy of a
    system is conserved. Any increase in, say, thermal energy, must be
    attributed to a decrease of equal size in the sum of all other forms of
    energy. Any or all of the various forms of energy may be changing, but-in
    a closed system-always in such a way that the sum of all forms has a
    constant value.” (p. 128)

    “The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in every process
    there is a universal tendency toward increasing disorder, increasing
    entropy, a degradation of energy.” (p. 255)

    “Entropy has often been called Time’s arrow' because w ith its aid we
    can distinguish past and future. If we are given descriptions of two states
    of a closed system, we can tell which state preceded the other in time; the
    state with the smaller entropy, the state with the smaller amount of
    disorder, is the earlier one.”(p. 243)

  • 2 C. Gillespie, THE EDGE OF OBJECTIVITY, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, I960), p. 376
  • 3ibid.
  • 4 Quoted in J.C. Leventon, THE MIND & ART OF HENRY ADAMS, (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1957), p. 377.