Technology: The nuclear DNA of social evolution

First published in August 2022.

I would like to propose a sociology which mimics both physics and biology in its emphasis on the molecular code of relational life. Everything is connected to everything else in the web of reality, but certain elements ‘code’ for other elements, like how a recipe ‘codes’ for the food that is then cooked, prepared, and consumed. The last sociologist to attempt this kind of theory is Michel Foucault, who proposed a ‘microphysics of power’ founded on ‘technologies of the self’, and ‘technologies of power’, such as the disciplinary techniques of the prison and wider mass society. Foucault’s vision includes a ‘genealogy’ or history of ideas which I wish to emulate, but also emancipate from its post-structuralist shackles. Foucault deconstructs old dogmas with new methods of intellectual warfare, without constructing an edifice in the theoretical confusion that ensued his all-out offensive on the established nexus of knowledge and power. Let me propose a theory that constructs a structural theory of social reality, based both on Foucault’s deconstruction and the old dogmas he attempted to challenge, while moving beyond both moves in order to rediscover the nuclear DNA of social evolution: technology.

A version of the Cockcroft-Walton generator, a mechanism which split the atom.

By technology, I mean the material means to transform non-human nature to meet human needs. Technology thus interfaces between non-conscious and conscious faces of reality. Technology fuses ‘skill’ (techne) and ‘knowledge’ (logos). Technology is knowledge/power (Foucault’s pouvoir/savoir). Examples include the plough, the sword, and the book (to use examples from Ernest Gellner’s theory, influenced by classical sociologists Marx and Weber). Foucault challenged the old separation between ‘material’ and ‘ideal’ faces of social reality, proposing a genuinely ‘social’ theory that echoed Classical Greek philosophy in its scope and breadth, albeit lacking in its clean-cut philosophical precision. Let me amend this lacuna.

Technology codes for sociology in the manner that DNA codes for the characteristics of cells and the organisms which they constitute, and in the manner the nucleus of an atom constitutes the bedrock of physical matter. The deconstruction of the structure of DNA and the nuclei of atoms have revealed the innermost secrets of our reality; what philosopher David Hume termed the ‘secret powers’ of our world. Science has uncovered the mystery of philosophy, only to find further mysteries in its wake in the strange quantum world of subatomic particles. The passage from the Newtonian to the quantum worlds, nonetheless, passes through the pivotal moment of nuclear fission, as theorised by Rutherford at Manchester University and practised by Walton and Cockcroft at University of Cambridge in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Since then, science has never been the same. The practical implications of the discovery of the components of micro-biology and micro-physics are all around us, leading to commercial ventures in nano-technology to address our hidden nemeses in the natural world, which seems much more chaotic than the ‘natural law’ theorists of old maintained. Sociology has never passed through this stage — or, perhaps, it has, but without actively being aware of it. The social sciences have been enmeshed in a quantum chaos, which seems to imitate the natural sciences, but which has its own inner dynamics. But we need to return to the sources of this chaos in order to remedy it. We must develop our own account of the nuclear DNA of social life, and how it codes for the institutions around us.

In Darwin’s theory of evolution, competition under conditions of natural scarcity selects for those characteristics of organisms which are best adapted to their environment. The later discovery of DNA, rooted in Mendel and Miescher’s insights which passed Darwin by in his time, has led to the revision of Darwin’s theory along Dawkins’s Selfish Gene hypothesis: that ‘genes’ are the molecular code for organisms’ external characteristics, and that these cellular components of life are akin to the strategic, self-interested actors of the Hobbesian world of sovereign states. Earlier in the decade of The Selfish Gene, intellectual historian J. G. A. Pocock published The Machiavellian Moment, which found the influence of proto-Hobbesian ‘realist’ Machiavelli to be immense on the trans-Atlantic intellectual climate of the early modern period, right up to the discovery of the science of political economy in the emerging commercial society of the eighteenth century. This ‘neo-Machiavellian political economy’ was simultaneous with the birth of biology in the late eighteenth century in the account of Michel Foucault, and accompanied the completion of the development of the core ‘bio-political’ institution of the modern world: the sovereign state. With the sovereign state’s completion came the innovation of capitalism, as the state anchored the trading order that went hand-in-hand with massive technological development through the nineteenth century.

But this trading order fell apart in the twentieth century, as trade gave way to war. Economists are now revisiting early twentieth-century theories of imperialism, which hypothesised a link between the radical redistribution of wealth effected by trade on the old feudal order and the anxieties and concerns of the various classes and states of the new capitalist world. War among these new states, including states which tried to reject domestic capitalism altogether, engulfed the world for almost a century. Now ‘global capitalism’ is triumphant, and we are left with the utopianism of Silicon Valley tech giants, on the one hand, and the resilient realities of great power politics, on the other, which remain prone to ‘tragedy’, as noted by political scientist John Mearsheimer.

In Darwin’s day, one sociologist to read Darwin avidly was Karl Marx, who wrote in the same year of the publication of Origin of Species that the ‘relations of production’ in modern society, comprising the competing trading classes of capital and labour, were driven by the ‘forces of production’, comprising economic technologies of agriculture and industry — and, increasingly, finance. Marx thought that a given class formation survived only insofar as it developed the technologies of the society in question; once the ruling class could no longer develop technology to minimally satisfy the common need, it would be overthrown by the ruled (in Marx’s — and, arguably, our day — working) class to which the old society gave birth, and which would give birth to the new world and its fresh class arrangement.

What Marx critically missed, as I have noted before, is the role of the state and warfare in driving technological development. It is now commonly accepted among political and economic scientists alike that warfare massively incentivises the growth of technology, in part by forcing the state to centralise power in itself and use this power to invest in technology for the purpose of warfighting. As a result, the three decades of the Second World War are known in France as the ‘thirty glorious years’, since they involved massive economic growth in the ‘warfare / welfare’ state, as noted by conservative economic and political historian Niall Ferguson. In the 1980s, however, as ‘hot’ war faded from view, and as the pressures of the ‘Cold’ War seemingly slackened (culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991), western countries embarked on ‘neoliberal’ reforms which, echoing the classical liberalism of the nineteenth century, unleashed market pressures from their regulatory shackles.

Now, trade is freer than it has been since the turn of the nineteenth / twentieth centuries, the ‘Gilded Age’ which created the kind of imbalances, such as the rapid industrialisation of Wilhelmine Germany to ‘catch up’ with Britain’s trading order, that spilt over into open conflict in 1914. The current inflationary instability echoes the early 1920s, which followed its own pandemic (the Spanish Flu, which killed upwards of 100 million people) and geopolitical conflict (the First World War, which killed 10-20 million people). The 2010s in some ways echoed the 1890s, as political theorists at University of Cambridge’s Politics Department have recently argued (including David Runciman and Helen Thompson, whose pioneering research on democracy and its inner logic of elite/popular struggle, combined with tumultuous technology, echoes Rutherford’s insights into the atomic logics of physics), with the rise of populism following technocratically-mismanaged economic crisis.

There is, it seems, a bidirectional relationship between technology and sociology: the social composition of a state conditions the freedom and extent of technological development, which in turn influences and ‘codes’ for the social characteristics of that state. Classes are also formed by the economic conditions of technological society, which is both developed and dragged by the complex forces and relations of market competition. Philosopher Martin Heidegger once argued that technology distracts us from normativity; but as sociologist Michel Foucault later argued, normativity has its own power, which can be transformed into a technology for garnering acceptance to certain techniques of control and discipline. This interpretation of technology is looser than ours, but it is not altogether separate from ours. The combination of technology and sociology results in a Foucaultian technology of power, which fuses material forces and social relations into a complex political whole, where there is both authority and liberty to influence, and be influenced by, the structures under which subjects strive to create a meaningful existence for themselves, in an increasingly meaningless world.

There is, it seems, a price to technology, akin to the price of the discovery of nuclear physics. There are also potential benefits to technology, as shown by nuclear power itself, in the context of man-made climate change where renewable energy seems relatively unproductive. The possibility of electricity-generating nuclear fusion raises the hope of mitigating climate change, although the task of adaptation has already begun. In the realm of geopolitics, U.S.-China conflict proceeds apace, while the social conflicts within states continue to spill over into conflict between them, channelled by a global economy which transmits threats like a conductor transmits electricity. Global overheating of the earth and social systems of our once-wide world seems to be inevitable, and yet the future seems as uncertain and contingent as ever.

Sovereign states and social classes continue to adapt to the pressures of war and trade, and the commercial conflicts to which their confluence gives rise. The return of the sovereign state in the shadow of trade globalisation seems to foreshadow the passage from trade to war, as occurred in the early twentieth century. But the mutually assured destruction of great powers’ nuclear weapons seems to render the possibility of direct conflict among these powerful states less likely. Perhaps one key to our escape from this omnicrisis, a crisis of the whole of our social and physical reality on this precarious planetary system, is to look both to the whole and to the dominant part which codes for the whole: the nuclear DNA of social evolution, in the form of the technology which warring states and trading classes so urgently and desperately seek, in their pursuit of power.

The ‘discovery’ of the innermost workings of this techno-sociological reality may help us garner the practical tools to change politics just as nuclear physicist transformed science, and in turn the whole system of power, in the last century. But as with the last great moment of transformation, we must be aware of the risks of attempting to address our contemporary crisis. Oppenheimer found his own project of weaponised nuclear physics to be ‘death, the destroyer of worlds’. In the eclipse of these worlds by the near-total crisis of the whole of our nearby reality, we must seek instead a project of life, the creator of the whole: in the shadow of the old rises the sun of the new. So, let there be light …

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