Near the beginning of his outstanding book Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason, David Harvey quotes a very famous passage from Karl Marx’s Capital that describes how the capitalist deployment of technology degrades workers to the level of a machine’s appendage.1 It alienates them from their intellectual potential just as science is incorporated in production, and it deforms the conditions under which they labor, be the payment high or low. Later in the book, Harvey quotes another very insightful passage, in which Marx went beyond the dehumanizing impact of technology as deployed by capital to address its ultimately destructive implications for capitalism itself.
As large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labor time and the amount of labor employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labor time, whose “powerful effectiveness” is itself out of proportion to the direct labor time spent on their production. As Harvey notes, in this context, the capitalist is trapped: there is a limit to how much surplus value (profit) can be extracted from that one worker who is putting the mass of social labor to work. Marx concluded from this that capitalist production will ultimately have to come to an end. Of course, a century and a half later, we know better. Capitalism will never come to an end of its own accord — even if it ends up resembling a dystopia like Blade Runner — until we end it.