Capitalistic Era

Alfred Korzybski

The immortal work done by Descartes, Newton and Leibnitz was to discover powerful methods for mathematics-the only fit language for expressing the laws of nature.

Human Engineering will be the science by which the great social problems will be solved. For the first time since the first day of man, humanity will really understand its own nature and status; and will learn to direct scientifically the living and the non-living forces for construction, avoiding unnecessary destruction and waste.

It may seem strange but it is true that the time-binding exponential powers, called humans, do not die-their bodies die but their achievements live forever-a permanent source of power. All of our precious possessions-science, acquired by experience, accumulated wealth in all fields of life-are kinetic and potential use-values created and left by by-gone generations; they are humanity’s treasures produced mainly in the past, and conserved for our use, by that peculiar function or power of man for the binding of time. That the natural trend of life and the progress of the development of this treasury is so often checked, turned from its natural course, or set back, is due to ignorance of human nature, to metaphysical speculation and sophistry. Those who, with or without intention, keep the rate of humanity’s mental advancement down to that of an arithmetic progression are the real enemies of society; for they keep the life-regulating “sciences” and institutions far behind the gallop of life itself. The consequence is periodic social violence-wars and revolutions.

Let us carry the analysis of potential and kinetic use-values a little further. All potential use-values left to us by the dead are temporal and differ in utility. Many potential use-values are found in museums and have very limited value to-day in practical life. On the other hand some roads or waterways built by the ancients have use-value to-day; and an almost endless list of modern potential use-values have or will have use-values for a long time to come, such as buildings, improved lands, railroad tracks, certain machines or tools; the use-value of some such items of material wealth will last for more than one generation. Kinetic use-values are permanent in their character, for, though they may become antiquated, they yet serve as the foundation for the developments that supersede them, and so they continue to live in that to which they lead.

I would draw attention at this point to one of the most important kinetic and potential use-values produced by humanity-the invention of the steam engine. Through this invention, humanity has been able to avail itself, not only of the living fruits of dead men’s toil, but also of the inconceivably vast amounts of solar energy and time bound up in the growth of vegetable life and conserved for use in the form of coal and other fuels of vegetable origin. This invention has revolutionized our life in countless directions. To be brief, I will analyse only the most salient effects. Human Engineering has never existed except in the most embryonic form. In remote antiquity the conception and knowledge of natural law was wholly absent or exceedingly vague. Before the invention of the steam engine, people depended mainly upon human powers-that is, upon “living powers”-the powers of living men, and the living fruits of the labor of the dead. Even then there were manifold complications.

The invention of the steam engine released for human use a new power of tremendous magnitude-the stored-up power of solar energy and ages of time. But we must not fail to note carefully that we to-day are enabled to use this immense new power of bound-up solar energy and time by a human invention, a product of the dead.

The full significance of the last statement requires reflection. The now dead inventor of the steam engine could not have produced his ingenious invention except by using the living powers of other dead men-except by using the material and spiritual or mental wealth created by those who had gone before. In the inventor’s intellectual equipment there was actively present the kinetic use-value of “bound-up-time,” enabling him to discover the laws of heat, water, and steam; and he employed both the potential and kinetic use-values of mechanical instruments, methods of work, and scientific knowledge of his time and generation-use-values of wealth created by the genius and toil of by-gone generations. This invention was not produced, let us say 6000 years ago, because civilization was not then sufficiently advanced: mathematically considered, the production of this great use-value had to await all the accumulated work of six thousand years of human ingenuity and human labor. So, if we choose, the steam engine may be considered a kinetic use-value in which the factor of time is equal to something like 6000 years, or let us say roughly 200 generations.

It is obvious that, in one life time, even a genius of the highest order’ could not, in aboriginal conditions, have invented and built a steam engine, when everything, even iron, was unknown. Of course if the same inventor could have had a life of several thousands of years and could have consecutively followed up all the processes, unhampered by the prejudices of those days, and been able to make all of these inventions by himself, he would represent in himself all the progress of civilization.

By this illustration we see the profound meaning of the words the living powers of the dead; we see the grave importance in human life of the factor TIME; we behold the significance of the time-binding capacity of man. The steam engine is to be seen anew, as in the main the accumulated production of dead-men’s work. The life of one generation is short, and were it not for our human capacity to inherit the material and spiritual fruit of dead men’s toil, to augment it a little in the brief span of our own lives, and to transmit it to posterity, the process of civilization would not be possible and our present estate would be that of aboriginal man. Civilization is a creature, its creator is the time-binding power of man. Animals have it not, because they belong to a lower type or dimension of life.

Sophistry avails nothing here; a child, left in the woods, would be and remain a savage, matching his wits with gorillas. He becomes a civilized man only by the accumulation of, and acquaintance with dead men’s work; for then and only then can he start where the preceding generation left off. This capacity is peculiar to men; the fact can not be repeated too often.

It is untrue to say that A started his life aided exclusively by the achievements of (say) his father, for his father’s achievements depended on the achievements of his immediate predecessors; and so on all the way back through the life of humanity. This fact, of supreme ethical importance, applies to all of us; none of us may speak or act as if the material or spiritual wealth we have were produced by us; for, if we be not stupid, we must see that what we call our wealth, our civilization, everything we use or enjoy, is in the main the product of the labor of men now dead, some of them slaves, some of them “owners” of slaves. The metal spoon or the knife which we use daily is a product of the work of many generations, including those who discovered the metal and the use of it, and the utility of the spoon.

And here arises a most important question: Since the wealth of the world is in the main the free gift of the past-the fruit of the labor of the dead- to whom does it of right belong? The question can not be evaded. Is the existing monopoly of the great inherited treasures produced by dead men’s toil a normal and natural evolution?

Or is it an artificial status imposed by the few upon the many ? Such is the crux of the modern controversy.

Read the full essay taken from Alfred Korzybski‘s Manhood of Humanity (1921)