One of the key successes of the Enlightenment was to shift the social consciousness from believing the omniscience of God to the omniscience of man. Today society has been cast under the spell of democracy in that it believes that when the people majority believes something to be correct, then it is correct.
The only thing that can challenge the beliefs of the majority is science. Science stands apart from the whims of the majority – independent and oracular. Its emphasis on empiricism and appeals to rationality confer science and scientists the position of the high priests on Mount Olympus.
Economics has tried to define itself as science since the late 18th century. Early economists such as Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and David Ricardo viewed economics through the lens of politics. But their theories conveyed the notion that economics follows defined rules that can be quantified.
By the end of the 18th century, there was a dramatic shift in intellectual thought. Metaphysics slowly lost its importance. Positivism, a philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof, influenced sociologists and economists alike. The so-called marginal revolution from the 1860s took the abstract concept of an individual’s utility, and determined that it could be measured. Leon Walras and William Jevons work turned economics from abstraction to quantification, and over the course of the next century, universities became obsessed with teaching economics as a science rather than political thought.
Intellectual shifts were being reflected in the real world where there was a belief that nature could be controlled. Indeed, what differentiates agrarian societies to industrial societies is the former understood they were at the mercy of nature. The industrial revolution flipped that idea completely: nature was now at the mercy of man, and if nature could be controlled, then it could be measured, carved up, and allocated.
Consequently, the 19th century saw an explosion in ingenuity and productivity as nature began to feel the impact of man’s thirst for resources. When once there was little production, now man could produce abundantly from little. But to achieve such a feat, man constructed machines to produce more. But those machines needed to be managed by an employee.
Thus, what followed was the employee was defined by how much he contributed to the production. Production can easily be quantified, though the monies earned. Consequently, the employee could be defined as to how much he contributed to the production. The more he contributed, the more valuable. The less he contributed, the less valuable. But now he had become a unit.
And the Capitalist exploited this condition.
19th century capitalism has put a premium on those that have the ability to produce more, and this can only be measured by the amount of money brought in. If an organisation is earning high profits, it is the CEO that is praised and deserves the elevated salaries. The employee is merely a unit in the equation. Indeed, accountancy rules view profits as that which is left after costs, including employee salaries, are paid out.
But this perception of profits is grossly problematic, only justifiable if one assumes employees are a cost and not an investor into the whole enterprise. Nevertheless, by making an employee a unit, it dehumanises them. This was a key problem of 19th century capitalism: it could only function successfully by making an employee a cog in the machine, to work according to the dictates of a manager.
This point is explored by Caitlin Rosenthal in a recent book “Accounting for Slavery”. Rosenthal finds that American plantation owners of the 19th entury built sophisticated organizational structures, practicing scientific management that turned their power over enslaved people into a productivity advantage. For the success of their endeavour, the capitalist plantation owner viewed their slaves as units.
This changed in the 20th century with the rise of the trade unions pushing and succeeding in humanizing employees. But as Rosenthal argues, the vestiges of management practices of the 19th century find itself in management practices of the modern day company. We do not class it as slavery as most contracted employees have legal rights and at least paid. But they are still viewed as units.
What does this ultimately mean for today’s society? As the world progresses towards adopting Artificial Intelligence, there is a real fear that a human employee will not be required to produce. This might fulfil John Maynard Keynes hope that people will dedicate more time to aesthetic pleasures such as art, philosophy, horticulture, etc. This is possible. At the same time, two centuries of the slow abstraction of the human as a unit, the allocation of capital to the few and marginalisation of metaphysics could lead to a more mechanised, dystopian future. With the human consciousness untethered from metaphysical concerns, all that will seem real is that which is rational, which aesthetics is simply not.
It is not clear which will transpire.