A Falling Rate of Intelligence?

The law of the falling rate of intelligence is decreasingly comprehensible, but in studying intelligence one can at least hope not to perpetuate its fall.

A Falling Rate of Intelligence?

The law of the falling rate of intelligence is even more elusive than the law of the falling rate of profit. For unlike the falling rate of profit its effect undermines its conceptualization. Not exempt from itself, the law of the falling rate of intelligence is decreasingly comprehensible. It is a tendency that can only be emphatically grasped in advance—when it is not yet fully visible; later it is experienced and witnessed but cannot be understood. Marx himself commented often that the decline of political economy as a science, a phenomenon he dated around 1830, was a social development traceable to the elevation of the bourgeoisie to political power. The victorious bourgeoisie renounced “genuine scientific research.” “It was thenceforth no longer a question, whether this theorem or that was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient…” However, these comments were not worked into a theory. Now it may be too late; the law of the falling rate of intelligence has taken its toll. Yet as with the falling rate of profit, this is a tendency, not an iron law; counter-tendencies are not only possible, but probable. For this reason a discussion of the falling rate of intelligence can at least hope to be not simply more evidence of its fall.

Before examining the falling rate of intelligence it is necessary to recall the essentials of the rate of profit. The rate of profit is determined directly by the rate of surplus value and inversely by the organic composition of capital. Both the rate of surplus value and the organic composition increase during the course of capitalism. This suggests that the direction of the rate of profit is indeterminate. However, increases in the rate of surplus value are limited by natural and historical boundaries—which cannot be discussed here. Over time these increases cannot offset the increase in the organic composition, which becomes the decisive factor driving down the rate of profit.

The organic composition of capital is defined by both the technical and value components of the total capital: the ratio of machinery to living labor, and constant to variable capital. In the history of capitalism the first term increases; this is the definition of productivity; or, machinery and constant capital replace living labor and variable capital. Living labor relatively contracts. Both the rate of surplus value and the organic composition increase because the latter—in developed capitalism—is a condition for the former; surplus value is increased by increasing constant capital and machinery. Inasmuch as the rate of profit is calculated not simply on the basis of surplus value extracted, but must include expenditures to increase the rate of surplus value, as these increase, the profit rate falls. The critical relation here: the profit rate falls as the relative amount of living labor contracts, as the organic composition rises.

This is a piece of economic logic which is more than economic; it is simultaneously social, political, and human. The labor process of capitalism is its life process. The organic composition of capital is a social relation; it informs not only immediate work conditions, but the reproduction of society. “When we consider bourgeois society in the long view and as a whole,” wrote Marx, “then the final result of the process of social production always appears as the society itself, i.e., the human being itself in its social relations… The direct production process itself here appears only as a moment.” In the “long view and as a whole” the organic composition can be considered as Marx once called it, the relation of “active and passive components”—the relation of living and dead labor. Or, it refers to the composition of society: the relative weight of human subjectivity and alien objectivity. In the course of capitalism the increasing organic composition of society yields the increasing decomposition of human subjectivity.

The domination of passive components—dead, congealed labor—infuses the social relations out of which the individual is constituted. The organic composition issues into what Adorno has called the “organic composition of man,” that is, men and women. “The organic composition of man is growing.” Decisive for intelligence is that the relative proportions of passivity and activity edge towards the absolute domination of passivity. Classifying and blind receptivity replace “the spontaneity of the comprehending understanding that is inseparable from the idea of critical reason.” This passivity, an alienation unique to capitalism, derives from the “penurious subjectivity” of living labor which is severed from the means of life. Evidently there is activity, but activity cast in a passive form; or activity that is not self-determined but prescribed and subordinated.

The falling rate of intelligence is an expression of the increasing organic composition of man, or the relative dwindling of spontaneous living subjectivity. The organic composition of man refers to a process of human and social petrification. Social petrification does not involve the dislodgement of living substances by minerals dissolved in water, but by the commodity form dissolved in the invisible social relations. This is a process that keeps pace with the organic composition of capital. At a certain point the size and cost of the apparatus necessary to extract increasing amounts of surplus value offset the amount of surplus value extracted; at this point, living labor has contracted beyond profitability. Intelligence as a social category is subjected to the same forces; it declines as living labor and subjectivity relatively shrink. This surfaces as “the eclipse of reason in bourgeois thought in the age of monopoly capital.

The absolute decline of intelligence defines a crisis—for whom and what kind? The contours of this crisis are difficult to foresee. Does the ideology of capitalism presuppose a minimal intelligence without which it is exposed as a lie? Or is the fall of intelligence the structural tendency as well as the solution? As with the falling profit rate there is no preordained breakdown, only that possibility which vies with attempts of restoration. The crisis of the falling rate of intelligence suggests the possibility of the seizure of the means of intelligence, not its necessity. Prior to this crisis point, however, the tendencies of the falling rate of intelligence are visible. For this reason an examination of the fall turns into its “opposite, namely to explain why this fall is not greater and more rapid. There must be some counteracting influences which cross and annul the effect of the general law.

One major counter-tendency is waste production. Louis Boudin in 1907 already stated that “the capitalist system lives and thrives by waste.” Recent estimates place waste production as high as three-fifths of all production. Waste production props up the stagnating economy, though not forever. Inasmuch as waste production is spurred by government deficit spending and falls out of the process of social reproduction “there is a slow but steady depreciation of incomes and debts due to inflation.” Intellectual waste production and intellectual inflation—the depreciation of the critical substance of thought—are the intellectuals’ wares that sustain private accumulation.

Waste production is not simply identical to luxury consumption. Rather in late capitalism it assumes a special form, altering the relationship between use and exchange value. The use value of the commodity—the substratum that carries the exchange value—is liquidated as an obstacle to accumulation. The drive to accumulate overcomes the relatively limited market saturated with commodities that function in some useful manner by eliminating their utility; or reconstituting their use value on a second ‘aesthetic’ level of appearances which bears no relation to their real use value. In this way realization is not hindered by a surfeit of useful commodities; for example, while the market might be restricted by the amount of shaving lotion it can absorb when this is purchased for its useful properties, this restriction is bypassed once the lotion is sold, purchased and consumed for other reasons—its powers of status, attraction, prestige, etc.

Intellectual waste production testifies to the domination of exchange value. The exigencies of accumulation stake out new fields for the production and consumption of waste. Planned obsolescence, once the ribbon on the package, is now the linchpin for the reproduction of society. Only with the logic of exchange value is it ‘cheaper’ to junk tens of millions of glass bottles so as to produce more rather than to reuse them. The ‘no deposit—no return’ bottles are the pattern for intellectual production in the age of monopoly capital. The life of the commodity is shortened so as to lengthen the life of capitalism. Intellectual planned obsolescence annihilates memory and history so as to spur stagnating demand and production. The result is memoryless repetition—a social amnesia. Nowadays everything looks, reads, smells more and more the same because everything is.

That the academic commandment of survival and success exactly parallels the capitalist suggests the inroads of the falling rate of intelligence: ‘publish or perish’ is more than a translation of ‘accumulate or perish.’ It is the language of capitalism as spoken by a new sector, the academic sector. In this sector, as elsewhere, the interruption of accumulation defines a crisis. For the academic the failure to accumulate can mean loss of job, that is, bankruptcy and crisis—financial and otherwise. This has consequences, of course, both for the form and content of intellectual production; it is generally geared to fit the requirements of the big consumers—government, military, industry. Even the trappings of academic thought distant from the immediate needs of monopoly capital take on the features of the commodity. Marxism not excepted, news schools, innovations, advances, breakthroughs, are announced like new brands. Everyone is out to corner a piece of the market. Interlocking directorates, intellectual holding companies and trusts leave tracks in footnotes of gratuitous commendations, dedications and recommendations. The transition from competitive to monopoly capital has brought in its wake intellectual kick-backs, as well as volume sales and cut-rate goods.

Some of these processes have been recorded within the field of sociology. John Helmer has noted that “sociologists produce paper,” calculating that their average productivity is “one journal article every three years or about 7.5 words a day.” “…It is quantity that counts. Indeed, the only way sociologists have been able to measure the quality of their output is to estimate the amount of notice other sociologists give to production by citing individual authors and their papers in their own. It turns out that the number of citations an individual sociologist gets—the measure of his quality—is highly correlative with the size of his output. The more he publishes, the more he is noticed.” “The rate of obsolescence is so fast that for most producers the best way to deal with it is to produce at an even faster rate, rather than to gamble on a masterpiece.” Moreover there is a relation between productivity and economic power—control over foundations, journals, ‘top’ schools, etc. The concentration of economic power in the ‘free’ market of ideas dictates that only the well capitalized can enter the market with a completely new product and expect success. This affects the internal structure of ideas; it has been observed that there seems to be a certain affinity between ‘grand’ theories and big universities.

The media and the theory of the media express the same movement of capital; as the rate of intelligence falls, the media quantitatively expands. “Stations and channels derive their profitability, and therefore their value, from the size of their potential audiences.” The relative contraction of human labor in media production corresponds to its routinization; technical ‘know-how’ substitutes for content. It is not without interest that many historians and critics of the media—comics, radio, newspapers, photography—characterize the beginning and early periods as marked by creativity and spontaneity. If this is true, it may be due both to the competitive structure of these industries prior to concentration and centralization, and the low organic composition of man. These change in late capitalism; constant capital displaces living labor and intelligence. Mass reproduction, to reverse a Benjamin formulation, promotes the reproduction of the masses. Both are internally connected, as is recreation and the re-creation of labor power.

It can be hypothesized that the critique and theory of the media has followed this same path; that is, it flowered during earlier stages of the mass media and has tended over time to turn apologetic or to specialize. Enzensberger noted in 1962 that “while radio, cinema, television…are being keenly discussed, each on its own terms, the mind industry taken as a whole, is disregarded.” The theory of mass culture might be a case in point. In a very inadequate and often aristocratic form it assailed the commodification of thought. The theory was bandied around extensively, probably ‘peaking’ in the 1950s. Today it sounds awkward and is in eclipse. This is not because it has been transcended by more adequate theories; rather the reverse. The mass media is no longer experienced as an alien separate commodity, and is now, in one form or another, embraced. The dominion of the mass media has been extended, and everything exists within it. McLuhan’s writings recapitulate this regression. His 1951 Mechanical Bride was a trenchant and radical critique of the media. His later writings are apologetics and celebrations. Or more recently, some of the oldest shibboleths to explain away the irrationality and waste of capitalism—pluralism and consumer choice—have been offered as a new theory to justify the administered diversity of mass culture.

If the mass media itself is perceived differently in developed capitalism, this suggests another, and perhaps decisive, dimension of the organic composition of man: the historical structure and quality of experience. The increasing decomposition of subjectivity is accompanied by the intensifying reification of experience. Experience does not float above and outside society; rather it is a social category subjected to the same forces that constitute capitalism. The falling rate of intelligence is grounded in the increasing homogenization of experience, or what Benjamin called “the increasing atrophy of experience.” Experience decays not simply because it is prepackaged and manufactured, but because its living basis, the individual, hardens. What was denigrated at the beginning of the bourgeois era as secondary qualities—not primary and quantitative—disintegrates at the end. Intelligence falls as experience reifies.

There was no falling rate of profit for the proletariat; it directly affected only the bourgeoisie. Yet the same pressures that made up the law informed the proletariat, e.g., the increasing replacement of variable by constant capital, the rate of exploitation, etc. Can one posit a falling rate of intelligence for a society as a whole, for both a proletariat and a bourgeoisie? Or is the proletariat immune? Inasmuch as the organic composition of man is a social relation not unique to the bourgeoisie, the falling rate of intelligence as a form of consciousness puts into question the nature of class consciousness. What needs examination are the forms of “secondary” exploitation that cannot be measured by surplus value and which affect “the consciousness, wishes, hopes and conceptions” of working men and women.

As with the falling rate of profit both a methodological and substantial issue moves to the fore: to the point the falling rate of profit tendency is “latent”—not expressed because of a counter-tendency—which is the tendency and which is the counter-tendency? The problem of class consciousness and the falling rate of intelligence provoke similar questions. To the point that class consciousness is latent, is there a more powerful tendency towards class unconsciousness? The absence of class consciousness cannot be explained simply by recourse to itself, e.g., false consciousness; it calls for an objective theory. History and Class Consciousness must be set against the history of class unconsciousness.

Russell Jacoby is a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of Social Amnesia: A Critique of Contemporary Psychology (Beacon Press 1975) and The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (Basic Books 1987).