Capitalism, Magic, and Technology

In his chapter on the “cultural preparation” for the age of the machine in Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford cites, among other phenomenon, capitalism and magic. Here’s the abridged version:

“Thus although capitalism and technics must be clearly distinguished at every stage, one conditioned the other and reacted upon it.”

“It was because of certain traits in private capitalism that the machine — which was a neutral agent — has often seemed, and in fact has sometimes been, a malicious element in society, careless of human life, indifferent to human interests.  The machine has suffered for the sins of capitalism; contrariwise, capitalism has often taken credit for the virtues of the machine.”

“… indeed, the necessity to promote continual changes and improvements, which has been characteristic of capitalism, introduced an element of instability into technics and kept society from assimilating its mechanical improvements and integrating them in an appropriate social pattern.”

“Between fantasy and exact knowledge, between drama and technology, there is an intermediate station: that of magic. It was in magic that the general conquest of the external environment was decisively instituted.”

“In sum, magic turned men’s minds to the external world: it suggested the need of manipulating it: it helped create the tools for successfully achieving this, and it sharpened observation as to the results.”

“As children’s play anticipates crudely adult life, so did magic anticipate modern science and technology …”

“… magic was the bridge that united fantasy with technology: the dream of power with the engines of fulfillment.”

Capitalism, magic, and technology — an odd grouping at first blush, but less so upon further reflection. The common denominator? Human desire — its generation, manipulation, and satisfaction.

Interestingly, this was a confluence of influences (sans capitalism) also eloquently articulated by C. S. Lewis, a scholar of Medieval and Renaissance literature, in The Abolition of Man:

I have described as a `magician’s bargain’ that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power. And I meant what I said. The fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak.

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique ….

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