The Critique of Science: Von Braun and the Ethics of Techno-Capitalism

Like an empty vessel, an abstract practice floats aimlessly in suspense of its navigator. Once boarded, it acquires a direction, an intention – the first instance of its ethical contamination. The navigator harnesses the vessel’s potential for something, injecting it with purpose, and sets sail. Then, there is the matter of its handling, how it is steered, by what manner and sacrifice it is impelled to motion. This second instance complicates judgements of the first. An ethical intention, it seems, cannot by itself secure an ethical journey. For if the handling of the vessel is conducted unethically then the navigator’s intention will, to some degree, be compromised. Finally, the third instance is its destination, the outcome, complicating matters further. If either or both of the first two instances are unethical and yet it so happens that the outcome is ethical, should the navigator be acquitted? What if both first instances are entirely ethical and the outcome disastrous? Such are the abstract conundrums painstakingly scrutinised by deontologists and consequentialists, the two main branches of modern ethics, who carefully construct beautifully intricate hypothetical thought experiments to support their cases.

More recent thinkers have rejected such abstractions. Instead, they argue that all vessels, all situations and all practices, are always already ethically contaminated. The hypothetical separation between navigator and vessel is too simplistic. Dialectically, practices exist because they are practiced, and such cannot be separated from their practitioners. The critique of science, then, should not be concerned with science as an abstract practice. Instead, it should be fearless in confronting the already ethically contaminated reality of science, its urgent historical present. For understood more broadly, science is more than just a practice, it is a culture – a code of conduct and state of perception affecting every single moment of our tragically celebrated contemporary lives. Its birth and course can be attributed to a vast historical line up of politicians, philosophers, economist, cultural theorists and, ironically less so, some scientists; all of whom have contributed in establishing scientism as a daily 21st century practise commanded by the few and passively absorbed by the many.

The Creator Father, as represented in most popular faiths, is a Hypocrite par excellence. Since the birth of His omnipresence, His timeless Word of love, hope, prosperity and tolerance has been historically trounced and abused by political agendas fuelled by greed, self interest and domination. One can imagine His cringeworthy defence, as though caught cheating: “This isn’t what it looks like, I work in mysterious ways, there’s a bigger plan here that you just aren’t meant to understand.” Indeed, His “mysterious ways” may very well be credited as historically engendering the essence of noble irony – a device that justifies and even legitimizes ethical inconsistencies and broken virtues as part of a bigger noble plan that simultaneously promises to deliver the contrary. The figure of Pater Familias of modern science thus lends itself fittingly to Wernher von Braun.

Von Braun was an accomplished amateur musician with ancestry tracing back to European aristocracy. He could play Beethoven and Bach from memory. After receiving a telescope as a gift from his mother for his Lutheran confirmation he developed a lifelong enthusiasm for astronomy and space. At the age of twelve he caused a major disruption in a crowded street in Berlin by detonating a toy wagon attached to a number of fireworks. His childhood dream was to transport man to the moon and discover new worlds. Instead, in 1937 he joined the National Socialist German Workers Party (number: 5,738,692) and in 1940 he became an officer in the Waffen-SS (number: 185,068). During this time he developed the V-2 rocket that was launched towards London in 1944, which led him to say “The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet.” On joining the National Socialist German Workers Party, he said “My refusal to join the party would have meant that I would have to abandon the work of my life. Therefore, I decided to join. My membership in the party did not involve any political activities…” However, more concentration camp slave labourers were killed building the V-2 rockets than by its use as a weapon. In 1945 von Braun surrendered to and was recruited by the United States Army. False employment records were fabricated in order to expunge his regime affiliations from public record. Between 1950 and 1956, he led the United States Army’s rocket development team, resulting in the Redstone rocket, which was used for the first live nuclear ballistic missile tests. He then developed the Jupiter-C, a modified Redstone rocket, which successfully launched the West’s first satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958, signalling the birth of America’s space program. His dream to help mankind set foot on the Moon became a reality on July 16, 1969. In 1975 he received the National Medal of Science for “his work in making the liquid-fuel rocket a practical launch vehicle and for individual contributions to a series of advanced space vehicles, culminating in the Saturn series that made the Apollo program possible.”

Von Braun holds an air of authority and confidence which radiates with a celestial patriarchal glow. His brawny broad shouldered built, charismatic European accent and bold intellectual composure reinforce his utter Godliness. He was celebrated on the cover of Time Magazine in 1958 as “MISSILEMAN VON BRAUN” and developed the idea of a Space Camp for children, training them in fields of science and space technologies as well as mental development. He also worked at Disney Studios as a technical director for television films about space exploration. It would seem, then, that his intentions were well meaning. Indeed, throughout his life von Braun claimed to have remained committed to the ethical use of technology: “All of man’s scientific and engineering efforts will be in vain unless they are performed and utilized within a framework of ethical standards commensurate with the magnitude of the scope of the technological revolution. The more technology advances, the more fateful will be its impact on humanity.” He held a strong position regarding religion and science, stating that the two are not antagonists, but sisters: “My experiences with science led me to God. They challenge science to prove the existence of God. But must we really light a candle to see the sun?” In fact, he justified handing over his research to the United States Army as a moral choice: “We knew that we had created a new means of warfare, and the question as to what nation, to what victorious nation we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision more than anything else. We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through, and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.”

It seems that von Braun always knew how to present himself and what to say. As such, he worked in masterfully mysterious ways. On the one hand, he was a hard working apolitical visionary pursuing his noble childhood dream. His words were consistently ethically considered and insightful. Yet, on the other hand, his actions and affiliations to the Nazis and United States Army spoke a different truth. His inconsistent ethics and deep rooted noble irony thus make him an appropriate Father to most fields of modern science where his example, though in subtler forms, has become archetypal; and where claiming highly ethical apolitical principles, yet contributing obliviously in secular faith to the advances of ruthless military and economic expansion, has become a norm.

“The road to hell”, writes Marx, “is paved with good intentions.” (Marx 298) To separate science from the economic formations that support it would be a grave mistake. Technology reveals “the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.” (Marx 493, fn.4) Science and technology are thus composed as part of an ecological totality, what Lefebvre refers to as an ‘ensemble’ or Deleuze as an ‘assemblage’, of moments coevolving in an open, dialectical manner (Harvey 196). Their marriage to industry began in the 18th and 19th centuries, during the industrial revolution, entailing the breaking down of labour processes into mechanised component parts. The consequences were horrific and dehumanizing. As newly discovered machines and inventions grew larger, manufacture developed its foundations for large-scale industry, giving birth to a “mechanical monster…whose body fills whole factories, and whose demonic power, at first hidden by the slow and measured motions of its gigantic members, finally bursts forth in the fast and feverish whirl of its countless working organs.” (Marx 503) Under these conditions, the special skills of each labourer were deprived of all significance, vanishing as an infinitesimal quantity in the face of science, the gigantic natural forces, and the mass of social labour embodied in the system of machinery, which constituted the power of the ‘master’ (Marx 549). An elite superior class of skilled and scientifically educated engineers, who designed the machines, would now reign over the labourers in alliance with the capitalists – a partnership not immensely different from that between religion and the feudal state that preceded it. Capitalism thus discovered a technological basis consistent with its rules of circulation and hoarding. Under this scheme, technological innovation meant better efficiency and thus extra immediate profit for the individual capitalist in competition. Historically, then, it is clearly evident that science and technology were never socio-politically neutral, since they were integral to the social relations, mental conceptions and ways of producing and living that they had been designed and intended to internalise.

Simultaneously, as capitalism technologically matured, its philosophy was refined. The influence of Social Darwinism was fundamental to this. Marx accurately identified that Darwin’s theory and language was directly influenced by and drew metaphors from capitalist ideology (and specifically the writings of economist Thomas Robert Malthus), legitimizing capitalism as “natural” by appealing to theories of competition and survival of the fittest (a term wrongly attributed to Darwin but in fact coined by Herbert Spencer). Natural scientists, he argued, “because they failed to understand their historical moment and were barred by their methodological commitments from integrating human history into their models of the world, frequently ended up with at best partial and at worst serious misinterpretations of the world… [concealing their] historical and political assumptions under a supposedly neutral and objective science.” (Harvey 197) Indeed, in a letter to Engels, Marx wrote “It is remarkable how Darwin recognizes among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labour, competition, opening up the markets, ‘inventions’ and the Malthusian struggle for existence.” (Marx to Engels 128) The case of Wernher von Braun’s noble irony thus extends itself seamlessly from the scientist over to the capitalist, whose ethics of production and consumption are safeguarded by the ambiguity of commodity fetishism and a noble end none other but the self.

Ayn Rand, whose book Atlas Shrugged was published in the 50s, and by the 90s became the second most popular book after the Bible in the United States, devised what she referred to as a new heroic code of morality, that of Objectivism. According to this code, man’s highest moral achievement is the achievement of his own happiness, and each man must live as an end in himself, following his own rational self-interest. The group most inspired by Rand were the entrepreneurs and scientists of Silicon Valley in California, who were working on biotechnology, computers, the internet and networking. Many of them named their companies and even their children afterRand and her novels. They saw themselves as Randian heroes, practising the noble virtues of selfishness. Alongside Rand were economists, philosophers, artists and politicians, who helped establish her code as the benchmark for a free and ethically progressive civilised West. However, herein lies Rand’s noble irony, for her code lends itself untroubled in legitimising oppression and domination. On her position regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, for example, Rand stated the following: “…if you mean whose side should one be on, Israel or the Arabs, I would certainly say Israel because it is the advanced, technological, civilised country amidst a group of almost totally primitive savages who have not changed for years and who are racist and who resent Israel because it is bringing industry, and intelligence, and modern technology…”

In response to this alarming statement, suddenly, one may become suspicious of the ethics of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged hero, John Galt, who invites his audience to change the world by pronouncing the following oath: “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Large-scale technology and science, it seems, have come to embody the unforgiving and resentfully charged capitalist ego, whereby the noble claim that it is all for the ‘betterment of mankind’ is cheaply repeated without any meaning whatsoever in order to justify more corporate greed, more consumption and more exploitation. Perhaps today, at the very epitome and demise of global free market capitalism, we are in the position to judge whether such a code is ethical or not and, in doing so, reject the noble irony of Wernher von Braun and Ayn Rand as examples to live by. For is this monstrous irony, this virus, whereby we are aroused to action only by the fraudulent nobleness of selfishness one that we can bear much longer?

Bibliography

Ayn Rand on Israel and the Middle East, retrieved September 20, 2011, from http://youtu.be/2uHSv1asFvU.

Curtis, A., All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, BBC2, first aired 23 May, 2011, 9pm.

Harvey, D., A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Verso:London, 2010.

Marx, K., Capital: Volume 1, Penguin Books:London, 1990.

Marx to Engels, June 18, 1862, Selected Correspondences, ed. S. W. Ryazanskaya, trans. I. Lasker, Progress:Moscow, 1965.

Rand, A., Atlas Shrugged, Signet:New York, 1996.

Wernher von Braun, retrieved November 22, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wernher_von_Braun.

Wernher von Braun “The Religious Implications of Space Exploration”, retrieved November 22, 2011, from http://youtu.be/KIfc5HTNkzw.


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