The Rational Critique of Rationality

Andrew Feenberg


Modern societies are rational in a very special sense I will try to explain here. They are not of course rational in the same way in which mathematics or physics is rational. They are still made up of the confused and emotional creatures we are. But something about the structure of these societies is different from premodern societies in a way that resembles rationality as we find it in disciplines such as mathematics or physics. The question is, what is this something? I believe this question is of special importance in societies engaged in rapid modernization, that is, in the attempt to rationalize their economic and social life.

One answer has it that we are more rational than our ancestors because they believed in myths and we believe in science. There is some truth in this but not much. When you consider the bizarre beliefs that are still popular even in the most advanced countries it is clear that little has changed. For example, a majority of Americans believe in angels but this doesn’t prevent them from functioning in an efficient modern way we think of as rational. What is more, people were capable of making discoveries and improving technology long before modern science was developed. Historians have shown that most of what we think of as modern technology did not require science for its invention.

Another and more interesting theory about modernity points out that modern social systems and organizations conform to principles that in some ways resemble our ideas about rationality. Three such principles are constantly at work in modern societies:

1. exchange of equivalents,

2. classification and application of rules,

3. improving efficiency and calculation of results.

Each of these principles looks like something scientific. Calculation is an exchange of equivalents: the two sides of the equals sign are, precisely, equivalent. All scientific work proceeds by classifying objects and treating them uniformly under rules of some sort. And science measures its objects ever more carefully. Social life in our time has come to mirror these scientific procedures.

The first of these principles characterizes the market. Money is exchanged for an equivalent value in goods or labor. The second and third principles are of course present in all societies, but only in modern ones are they implemented by organizations. Traditional societies classify people and apply rules to them but the classifications and rules are handed down in a cultural tradition. In modern societies organizations such as corporations and government agencies construct the classifications and apply the rules. This makes for great flexibility: classifications and rules can changed overnight rather than evolving slowly as culture changes. They can be designed consciously for good reasons instead of merely inherited from the past. Similarly, some individuals in every society attempt to make their activities and techniques more efficient and measure how successful they are at it. But only in ours is this the primary work of organizations and only in ours do we find constant progress in both efficiency and measurement.

Once social life is totally structured by market systems and modern organizations, it begins to make sense to think of it as rational. This seems like a good thing. Rationality in science has a unique property: it organizes agreement through argument rather than violence or bribery. Scientists agree because the force of the stronger arguments compels agreement, not because some have more guns or money than others. For a long time Western social thinkers believed that a rationalized society could be a pacified society that would resemble science not only in form but also in the dynamics of consensus building. But it has not proven so simple to eliminate the element of conflict in social life.

Social criticism of modernity begins at the end of the 18th century when the principles of social rationality begin to be applied to human beings. People appear for the first time as resources to be used efficiently by organizations and markets take precedence over more personal forms of appropriation and exchange. When human beings are viewed economically and technically their other capabilities and needs are ignored. At this point the functionalization of humanity calls forth a romantic critique of the rational attitude toward the world. Romanticism is exemplified in the proud claim of the French 19th century novelist Balzac’s character Vautrin, “I belong to the opposition called life.” The image of life versus mechanism reappears constantly in the critique of social rationality, not just in relation to technology but also markets and bureaucracies.

But romanticism has never succeeded in convincing any large number of people to give up the benefits of modernity. Another and more important tradition of critique of social rationality stems from Marx. Marx was the first to understand the unfair effects of equal exchange. While many of his socialist contemporaries were convinced that, as Proudhon put it, “property is theft,” Marx dismissed such moralizing complaints and analyzed the actual workings of the market. His initial assumptions were based on the principle of equal exchange drawn from contemporary economic theory. According to this theory goods were valued by their labor content and traded for the most part in equivalents. The problem Marx confronted was how to explain the inequalities of capitalist society on the basis of this principle without recourse to implausible notions of merit. It is well known that he explained this state of affairs with his famous theory of surplus value.

What interests us today about this theory is the form of Marx’s argument. He recognizes the coherence of a socially rational society while also uncovering its bias. This bias stems from the design of the system, in the case of capitalism, the control the capitalist exercises over the length of the working day. The method Marx applied to markets he also applied less rigorously to technology in his discussion of mechanization. There he agrees that technological progress is due to advances in human knowledge and control of nature. In the terminology I introduced above progress follows from the third principle of social rationality. And yet, Marx argues, the form taken by progress accords with the needs of capitalism. Invention is guided by the specific problems capitalist experience in controlling the labor force and not merely by the interest of the human species as a whole in better technology.

Technology studies today in the advanced countries of the world more and more resembles this Marxian critique of rationality. The scholars who study technology are for the most part unaware of the importance of Marx’s contribution and do not agree with his critique of capitalism. But unwittingly they are reproducing the very structure of Marx’s argument in many contexts of research. Of course the issues we discuss today in technology studies are not confined to the factory as was Marx’s critique. Technology has spilled over into every area of social life. Medicine, education, sports, entertainment are all highly technologized and technology has widespread effects not just on human beings but also on nature. And in all these areas, as in the factories Marx studied, there are controversies and struggles over how to organize a rational way of life.

The period since World War II is characterized by the emergence of a politics of technology which has gradually refuted the old belief that a more rational society would be able to avoid conflict and reach agreement through consensus. We do not live in the expected technocratic order in which scientists explained to the rest of us the one best way of doing things. Instead, we have seen the rapid proliferation of lawsuits, demonstrations, and political controversies over all sorts of technical questions. Money and power, if not violence in most cases, continue to play a role in decisions about technology. Those who had earlier studied Marx were not surprised since these conflicts merely repeated in new arenas the struggles he analyzed in the 19th century.

Today we no longer expect technical progress to resemble the old image of scientists bending over an experimental apparatus and nodding their heads in agreement. Indeed, we no longer believe that even scientists find agreement so simple. Our model of technical advance increasingly resembles ordinary politics. Diverse interests now contend for influence over the design of technologies just as they have always fought for influence over legislation. Each alternative design of medical technologies, transportation systems, the Internet, educational technology, and so on has its advocates whose way of life or wealth depends on control of technical designs. They argue more or less rationally for their point of view and criticize each other. Technological controversies appear on the front pages of the newspapers daily and we are aware that we have entered a new era in which the rational critique of rationality is becoming the basis of political life.